“The Passion of the Steel Worker”

It’s a phrase that’s been banded around in the last few years whenever steel is in the news, or when top management wants to broadcast an image to the outside world. It’s also one I want to take issue with, since I haven’t seen all that much of this “passion” from first-hand experience. For starters though I have to confess that passion on its own, even if it really is there, doesn’t count for everything, not if you’re not properly organised and doing things the clever way. It’s not much good to be passionate but totally wrong in your approach.

However, one experience in particular stands out that makes me doubt whether this passion that everyone talks so much about is really there. It was in the early days of Phil Dryden’s reign as Managing Director for Strip Products UK when he launched the “Journey”. This came from his observation as an outsider that we in South Wales had let our standards slip, and that from now we should do things properly by not accepting a so-so performance as good enough.

I went to two Journey days in which the project was being launched, the first one for the Technical team in the Liberty Stadium, and the second one in the Hilton hotel near the Coldra for the Cold Rolling & Coating part of Llanwern. The difference in atmosphere between the two was like day and night. Whereas in the first one everyone was fired up, in the second one many people were sitting with their arms crossed, as if to rebuff the latest management initiative.

Especially in the break-out sessions, one of the shift people, looking like he was (officially or unofficially) the ring leader, made as his first statement “well, if they think we’re going to go along with that, they’ve got another thing coming”. The thinking behind the Journey was that 90% of the population would go along with it, and that the 10% bad eggs would either have to adapt or get thrown out. My impression was that amongst the crew members there was a far larger proportion of people who resisted the change to the status quo, and it was not just a few people on the fringes, but a substantial number of influential ring leaders who did the resisting.

Since then I’ve seen it many times in different guises. Some businesses are accused of having a glass ceiling, but in my view we are dealing with a glass floor here. Management initiatives are being carried through with the help of a dedicated set of middle managers, but somehow it never changes what really happens at shop floor level. That’s why the machinery that kicks in to bamboozle visitors and customers during presentations and plant visits has to do all the running, and in a way they create Potemkin villages along the royal route which may be good to keep customers and the top brass happy, but which gives a totally false impression of where the passion really lies.

Nowhere was this attitude more engrained than in Port Talbot. Other parts of the South Wales business like Ebbw Vale, Tredegar, Pontardulais or Llanwern could be shut or cut back in size, but surely Port Talbot as the lynch pin of it all would be the last one standing ? Even a year before Tata Steel announced its plans to divest itself of the UK side of the business there were still people on shift who maintained that we were making a profit (we hadn’t since 2008), that our steel quality was second to none (not so, and definitely not consistent enough) and that the messages of doom coming from above were only scaremongering tactics to squeeze concessions out of the workforce.

Well, the house of cards has finally come tumbling down, but it’s never the fault of all those good and honest workers, is it ? After all, weren’t they “passionate” ?


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