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Union calls off strike for further talks on future of Welsh steel

THE UNITE UNION has decided to call off a strike planned for July 8 to allow for further discussions about the future of the UK’s largest steelworks at Port Talbot in Wales. The Pembrokeshire Herald has been informed that this decision comes amid concerns over the potential accelerated closure of the site’s remaining blast furnaces.

Owners Tata had previously warned of the possibility of bringing forward the closure of both remaining blast furnaces, citing safety concerns due to a staff walkout. Unite’s proposed strike had drawn criticism from other unions, who feared it would hasten the shutdown of blast furnace number four, initially scheduled for closure in September.

Both the Community and GMB Unions were hoping to use the time until September to negotiate an extension of the furnace’s operational life, potentially under a new government.

The UK government has pledged a £500m grant to develop a new £1.25bn electric arc furnace. This new furnace, designed to recycle scrap metal, is less energy-intensive but will require significantly fewer staff. The closure of both blast furnaces would result in the loss of 2,800 jobs, whereas extending the life of one furnace could save 2,000 of those jobs until the new electric arc furnace is operational, a process that could take up to three years.

Sources close to the situation told the BBC that Unite had given Tata an excuse to accelerate job losses by planning the strike. However, Unite officials refuted this, claiming their action “had helped focus minds” and resulted in a victory by ensuring further talks after the upcoming election.

In a letter from Tata to the unions, the company had already agreed to further discussions post-election. Alun Davies, national officer for the Community union, commented: “Tata have confirmed that if the strike is called off they are ready to resume discussions on a potential memorandum of understanding. The truth is Tata never walked away from those discussions, and at our last meeting on 22 May all unions agreed to conclude the negotiations and put the outcome to our members. Community would welcome resuming those discussions, but we regret that zero progress has been made since 22 May.”

Officials from other unions criticised Unite, stating that their actions had caused “nothing but chaos” and financial losses for their members. This comment refers to an earlier overtime ban that Unite implemented without consulting other unions.

Union officials admit there is no guarantee Tata will agree to extending the life of the blast furnace beyond its scheduled shutdown in September. However, they express hope that if Labour wins the election, their manifesto commitment to invest £2.5bn in the steel industry could provide a crucial lifeline.

Welcomes discussions: Sam Kurtz (Image: Handout)

Samuel Kurtz MS, Welsh Conservative Shadow Minister for Economy and Energy, commented on the latest developments: “We welcome any discussions that bring both the steelworkers and Tata to the table to iron out how best jobs can be supported in the short term, as an early closure of the blast furnaces will bring additional distress to communities already dealing with enough as it is.”

He further criticised the Welsh Labour government, saying, “The Welsh Labour government have only paid lip service to Tata’s workforce, failing to contribute a penny to the transition board, and UK Labour’s manifesto says nothing on what it would do differently to support Port Talbot’s steelworkers.”

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