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Tata may shut Port Talbot plant next week

Tata Steel has announced it may shut down its Port Talbot steel plant earlier than anticipated due to a planned strike by Unite. The company informed workers it had “no alternative” but to cease operations at both blast furnaces. Initially, the plan was to shut one furnace by the end of June and the second by September. However, due to safety concerns arising from the strike, preparations to close both furnaces will commence on July 1, with a full shutdown expected by July 7.

The closure of blast furnace 4 in June would not have led to mass redundancies, unlike the planned shutdown of blast furnace 5 in September. However, accelerating the closure will precipitate both direct and indirect job losses, affecting 1,900 staff at Port Talbot and potentially many more across other Tata sites.

The Indian steel giant claims the Port Talbot site is losing £1 million per day. The plan is to close the blast furnaces and replace them with a greener electric arc furnace. The UK Conservative Government has agreed to a £500 million grant, described as the only way to secure any jobs at the site, although Labour opposes this proposal.

Three unions represent workers at the site: Unite, GMB, and Community. While Unite has called for a strike from July 8, Community and GMB have opted not to schedule industrial action before the general election. Tata has launched legal action against Unite’s ballot.

In a letter to staff, Chief Executive Officer Rajesh Nair wrote, “These would be regrettable actions and would have major implications for our company. Let me assure you that we do not contemplate this step lightly and it is driven above all by our commitment to safe operations. I also understand that this outcome would bring further uncertainty for those directly impacted, but the safety of those who work on our sites will always take priority.”

A Tata Steel spokesman added, “Following the announcement by Unite Union to unilaterally call strike action from 8 July, Tata Steel is unfortunately forced to commence legal action to challenge the validity of Unite’s ballot. If we cannot ensure safe and stable operations during the strike, we will have no choice but to pause or stop heavy end operations at the Port Talbot site.”

Tata Steel urged Unite to withdraw its industrial action and join Community and GMB in considering the company’s proposed memorandum of understanding, which includes generous employee support packages and training. The company remains committed to a £1.25 billion investment in low-CO2 steelmaking, pending a government-backed grant funding agreement.

Unite’s general secretary, Sharon Graham, responded defiantly, stating, “Tata putting out a statement to shut or pause its blast furnaces three months earlier than intended is the latest in a long line of threats that won’t deter us. The Unite campaign is about securing the long-term future of steelmaking in this country for thousands of workers in Port Talbot and South Wales.”

First Minister Vaughan Gething and Welsh Economy Minister Jeremy Miles MS expressed concern in a joint statement, highlighting the anxiety this news will cause for the workforce and the community. They reiterated that the safety of those who work on site is paramount and explained the company’s decision to shut down operations if safe and stable conditions cannot be assured.

Tata Steel has proposed a set of outline derogations from the strike action to explore whether minimum levels of service and support could be maintained. However, as of now, no agreement has been reached with Unite. Preparatory steps to ensure site safety prior to the strike will begin on July 1.

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The situation remains fluid, with Tata Steel continuing to challenge the validity of Unite’s ballot while exploring ways to mitigate the impact on downstream operations.