An era ends with death of steelworkers’ leader, Bill Sirs.
The death of Bill Sirs, former head of the steelworkers’ union, ISTC (now Community) is the end of an era. Sirs was born in Hartlepool in 1920 and died aged 95. He came in with the successful era of big industry trade unions amplified by the need for steel and metal industry output in the second world war and then in post-war re-construction.
Sirs rose through the steelworkers trade union movement to become general secetary 1975-1985. He was an example of how trades union was the ladder by which working class men (mainly men) could display talents of persuasion, organization, and leadership which their lack of formal education might otherwise have denied them.
I worked with Bill Sirs in the International Metalworkers Federation after I left the UK to work as an internatonal trade union official in 1979.
It was the last moment in classic industrial trades unionism that over Sirs’ lifetime had brought about the biggest advances in social justice in West Europe and North America seen since the industrial revolution.
Steel making is unlike production line manufacturing . You cannot switch a blast furnace on and off. Steelworkers are the most prudent of industrial workers. Each worker depends on his comrade against the dangers of molten steel suddenly going awry. I once took Peter Mandelson when Trade Secretary to the electric arc furnace melting shop in Rotherham and his eyes gleamed at the awesome heat and light generated by melting scrap metal at 1,000 plus degrees.
But the nature of steelmaking demands caution and care and the excitements of communist ideology held little attraction for steel unions anywhere in the world.
Instead Sirs and his fellow steelworkers were the staunchest supporters of Labour and were generous in financial support. But neither they nor the Labour Party knew how to create enduring social partnership politics based on industrial unionism so that steel, car, aerospace, shipbuilding and all craft unions were united in one working class organization.
Instead a car factory and even a steel plant could have ten or more separate unions. Divided the workers fell prey to global capitalism.
Steel making is also completely internationalised as Sirs discovered when he embarked on the first great strike against Margaret Thatcher in 1980. We found 173 ports in Britain through which iron ore and steel bars could arrive.
The strike was a burst of anger against the first manifestation of globalisation which saw the loss of around million unionised steel jobs to lower cost producers.
It was doomed to failure as are all Canute strikes against the tides of change. Many steelworkers were forced back to work resulting in bitterness that prefigured the coal miners strike four years later.
Suddenly British workers found that their trade union organisation based on craft and sectoral unions like boilermakers and blast furnace men in place of the industrial unionism of Germany or Scandanavia left them exposed to a determined adversary in Mrs Thstcher
Sadly Arthur Scargill like the best of Bourbons learnt nothing and forgot nothing from the 1980 steelworkers strike and led his union over the top to their own defeat
Unsuccessful with his only major UK strike Sirs was strong in his support of the wave of strike movements that transformed politics in countries like Poland, Brazil, and South Africa on the early 1980s.
His union was wealthy thanks to never having organised a major strike before 1980 and he used this money to support international solidarity action . His life reflected the rise and fall of industrial capitalism. It has gone and trade unions today struggle to find purchase and the worker who becomes an MP is all btu extinct.
Sirs had one great achievement to his name when he banned smoking at TUC Congresses. He was a remarkably fit man and enjoyed his pint but enjoyed controlling his body and emotions more. Thanks to him, the era of the smoke-filled rooms of 20th century trade unionism became part of the past.
The young Bill Sirs of today will stay at school and most probably university. His generation achieved that for their children and grandchildren. Now with FTSE chief executives earning 150 times the pay of their employees there is more than ever a need for some counter-weight to the power of capital. In the 20th century steel unions were needed to win the wars and then after 1945 to see off Soviet communism.
Now Chinese communism and fused with capitalism and we do not need to moblise the nation to defeat Kaisers and Hitlers. So have trade unions such as Sirs knew them had their day? An answer please before too long.
Denis MacShane worked for the International Metalworkers Federation 1979-1994 and has written books on international trade unionism