Nostalgia on Tuesday: Strike of steel

Thirty nine years ago this month, the UK witnessed the beginning of a national steel strike.

Hadfields East Hecla Works in May 1955

This was the industry’s first national strike in more than 50 years and some 100,000 workers were involved showing unprecedented unity. Before the miners’ dispute of 1984/1985, it was the largest strike in post-war history and the first major industrial conflict of the Thatcher era.

From January 2, 1980, British Steel Corporation plants throughout the country were shut in support of a demand from the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation’s (ISTC) for a 20 per cent pay rise. The union boasted 90,000 members within the 150,000 total of British Steel employees. ISTC members were supported in their demands by the National Union of Blast Furnacemen.

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Before the strike, negotiations between unions and management had taken place in early December 1979. Then, management’s pay offer was only two per cent but was raised a little later to six per cent, with an additional 10 per cent based on local productivity deals.

Police take up a wedge-like position at Hadfields, February 1980.

Whilst at the outset of the dispute it only involved the nationalised sector, workers from the privatised steel works soon joined in. Ugly picket line scenes were seen at Hadfield’s plant in Sheffield where some interesting stances were adopted.

Acquired by the Lonrho group in 1977, Hadfields had been a private limited company since 1888 when Attercliffe-born Robert Hadfield junior became chairman at the age of 30. He discovered Manganese steel in 1882 and took out a patent in 1883/4. In time Hadfield junior also worked on the development of other steel alloys and became a well respected metallurgist.

By the mid-1890s, with business booming, the company bought 38 acres of open land in Tinsley from Earl Fitzwilliam for £16,000. On it they built new works, known as East Hecla Works, which opened in 1897. By the turn of the century there were 2,481 workers on the Hadfield payroll.

Whilst the 1980 steel strike was largely over pay and conditions within the nationalised British Steel Corporation (BSC), private steel plants soon saw mass picketing outside their gates.

Hadfields workers return to work on February 26, 1980.

Deciding to take a stand on all this was larger-than-life Hadfield’s chairman Derek Norton. At the time he was described as a man, a very big man, with a big mission – to make sure his company came out on top. Whether his opponent was a union official, a fellow director, a tax collector or a government minister, his aim was always to get the best for private steel giant Hadfields. On February 5, 1980, Mr Norton in cavalier-style led around 120 Hadfield ISTC pickets, along with his directors, to London, in an attempt turn the steel strike upside down by picketing the ISTC headquarters in Gray’s Inn Road. Hadfields’ ISTC members threatened to call off their strike unless peace moves were speeded up by their union.

The steel men who were ferried to the capital in a convoy of coaches handed their ultimatum to the union. Mr Norton said: ‘We hope our picket is a first for British industry. I think it is a model for industrial relations.’

As they emerged from a meeting with union bosses, John Benton, works representative at the East Hecla Works, said they had told the union that if they had not got round the table in a week then the private sector workers would have a meeting and be asked to vote on a return to work.

In another move Mr Norton offered to donate Hadfield’s profits to the strikers’ hardship fund if they would allow the firm to continue working. He said that if they closed they would be sustaining weekly losses of half a million pounds.

Hadfields workers leaving a redundancy meeting at Hillsborough, April 23, 1981.

On Monday, February 11, Hadfields staff defied jeering pickets and returned to work. On St Valentine’s Day 1980 the situation reached a crescendo and there was a mass protest involving around 1,500 pickets outside the company’s works, aimed at shutting it down. BSC strikers were joined by the miners’ leader Arthur Scargill.

The drama started shortly after 5am where Mr Scargill turned the corner into Vulcan Road at the head of a huge column of pickets boosted by 300 South Yorkshire miners. Police, who had gathered in strength, quickly formed ranks in front of the main gates of the East Hecla Works. For some moments there was chaos as pickets filled Vulcan Road. Violence erupted when two squads of police linked arms and formed themselves into human wedges to drive pickets back on to the pavements. At least five pickets were arrested.

For the next hour there were angry struggles as pickets pushed forward to hurl abuse at workers who turned up at the main gates. Another 13 pickets were arrested but the police, now numbering 600, with another 100 in reserve, slowly took control of the situation.

Ultimately, the mass protest caused Hadfield’s to halt production for a short period, but once more, when they returned to the works, further ugly picket line scenes were witnessed. On March 20, 1980, at least 60 pickets were arrested following incidents.

The national steel strike lasted over three months. A conclusion was reached following the Lever inquiry which recommended a package worth 16 per cent in return for an agreement on working practices and productivity deals.

But, in the aftermath, the steel industry would never be the same again with plant closures and job losses. Hadfield’s East Hecla Works began a phased closure from early 1984. Part of the site is presently covered by the Meadowhall Shopping Centre.