Steelworkers have voted in favour of strike action over plans by Tata to end primary steelmaking at Port Talbot. The Unite union said dates for industrial action, which would also impact Tata's downstream steelmaking operations, will be revealed shortly and be intended to cause the maximum disruption.

Indian-owned Tata Steel UK is currently in a consultation period with staff over plans to end heavy steel making at Port Talbot, with the closure of its existing two blast furnaces. The company claims that the business is economically unsustainable and incurring losses of £1m a day.

Instead they plan to turn the huge steel plant, which currently directly employs around 4,000, into an electric arc furnace operation, which would make steel from UK sourced scrap steel. Unions say this would leave the UK as the only major economy globally without the capacity to make its own primary steel - through blast furnaces using iron and coking coal.

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Tata said it would invest more £1.2bn transforming the Port Talbot steelworks into a less labour intensive and carbon emitting electric arc furnace operation, which includes a £500m funding contribution from the UK Government. The move would see the loss of 2,800 jobs. The majority would be felt at Port Talbot, but would also impact Tata's numerous downstream plants which include in Wales those at Trostre Shotton and Llanwern.

Unite said its 1,500 members at Llanwern and Port Talbot voted decisively - while unable at this stage to give a figure on the percentage in favour - for industrial action against the arc furnace plans. It has yet to give notice of dates for strike action, for which it would have to provide Tata with two weeks notice. Other steel unions, the GMB and Community, are also staging strike ballots of its members.

It will be first time in over 40 years that Port Talbot steelworkers have gone on strike. Tata currently employs 8,000 across its UK operations, which also supports thousands more in contractors and jobs the wider supply chain.

Unite said Tata has other choices from a commitment from Labour that it will invest £3bn in UK steel if elected. Unions have called for a phased move to an electric arc furnace operation, as well potential investment in a hydrogen-powered direct reduced iron (DRI) operation at Port Talbot.

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: "This is an historic vote. Not since the 1980s have steel workers voted to strike in this way. This yes vote has happened despite Tata’s threats that if workers took strike action, enhanced redundancy packages would be withdrawn. Unite will be at the forefront of the fight to save steelmaking in Wales. We will support steel by all and every means.

“Other EU countries are transitioning their steel industries while retaining and growing their capacity because they know steel has a bright future – a tenfold increase in demand is predicted in the coming years. In the UK, Tata’s plans and those of the government reflect the short-term thinking of a clapped-out disinterested government marking time to a general election.

“In contrast Labour have done the right thing and committed £3 bnto UK steel following intense discussions with Unite.

“The average age of a Unite Port Talbot worker is 36. Workers and the communities of Port Talbot and Llanwern are looking to the years ahead. They know that with the right choices steelmaking capacity and jobs can be kept and the benefits of growing the industry grasped.

“In the crucial weeks to come, Tata’s workers and Unite will put up picket lines to prevent the company from taking this disastrous path.”

Unite Wales regional secretary Peter Hughes said: “Tata has employed everything from bribes to threats to discourage our members from industrial action. They will not be intimidated into standing by while Tata attempts to carry out an act of devastating industrial vandalism against their jobs and communities, inflicting untold harm on the Welsh economy and the UK’s national interest.

“Our members have their union’s absolute support in striking to stop these cuts – Unite is backing them every step of the way.”

A Tata Steel spokesperson said: "Following the announcement in January of the company's plans to invest £1.25 billion and to restructure the UK business, we started a formal information-sharing and consultation process with our trades union colleagues, which continues in an open, collaborative and constructive fashion.

"On March 22, we put forward a significantly enhanced, comprehensive package of support for employees impacted by the proposed transformation. We are naturally disappointed that while consultation continues, Unite members at Port Talbot and Llanwern have indicated that they would be prepared to take industrial action up to and including strike action if an agreement cannot be reached on a way forward for the business and its employees.

"We have written to Unite twice during the ballot process to notify them of significant irregularities in the ballot process they have undertaken."

They added: "This investment is critical as much of our existing iron and steelmaking operation in Port Talbot is at the end of its life, is unreliable and inefficient, and it was for this reason that we had to cease our coke-making operations on March 20.
"By restructuring our UK operations we will be able to sustain the business as we transition to new electric arc furnace technology.

"We believe we have a very exciting future ahead, providing the high-quality, low-CO2 steels that our customers in the UK and overseas are so desperate for.

"Furthermore, producing steel from scrap that already exists in significant quantities in the UK rather than importing iron ore and coal from across the world will be the foundation for more resilient UK manufacturing supply chains.
"Our ambition remains to move forward at pace with a just transition, and to become the centre of a future green sustainable industrial ecosystem in the UK."

Responding to the result of the strike ballot, Plaid Cymru MSs for South Wales West Luke Fletcher MS and Sioned Williams MS said: "Plaid Cymru stands in complete solidarity with all the workers at this time and we stand ready to support each and every worker who needs it.

“Strike action is the last thing that any worker wants to do, but it becomes necessary when faced with the alternative: the managed decline of a vital industry and a strategic resource by private interests.

“Tata has continually made decisions and intimated towards its intentions for the plant’s future despite its ongoing consultation period with the unions.

“The company’s threats to rescind crucial financial support should redundancies ever occur is especially deplorable and shows the company’s willingness to ride roughshod over worker democracy – the refusal by unions and workers to be intimidated and coerced by this is commendable.

They added: “UK Government support of £500 million for the Port Talbot steelworks falls woefully short of the investment that countries such as France and Germany are investing in decarbonisation, which sits in the billions.

“Plaid Cymru maintains that we must see the same levels of ambition here if we are serious about the future of green, domestic steel production.."