In the shadow of Elisabeth: a history of the battle for Bilston Iron and Steelworks, c. 1967-1980
AbstractIn July 1981, the last sections of the state-owned Bilston steelworks were unceremoniously shut, thus ending two centuries of hot metal production in the Black Country, the onetime workshop of the world. The devastating closure of this profitable facility occurred despite a decade-long grassroots defence campaign spearheaded by local rank and file workers. Using previously unexplored primary source material and oral testimony, this thesis provides a detailed analysis of the battle to save Bilston works. It explores how, in the midst of the 1970s steel crisis, an exceptionally diligent type of worker activist adapted traditional production practices to ensure the survival of the plant. With Bilston’s steelmen maintaining their uniquely profitable record, bungling industry officials conspired to marginalise their plant in order to justify a deeply flawed state-sponsored rationalisation programme. At the heart of this process were the activities of a senior and divisional management team who systematically rationalised the Bilston facility, whilst seeking to cynically undermine shop-floor solidarity. The thesis, therefore, highlights the ways in which management prerogative impacted the lives of steelworkers and their families. The work critically examines the actions of a small band of shop stewards who mobilised into a multi-union local action committee tasked with saving 2,300 jobs. A key focus here is their chosen strategic framework. As experienced activists, they initially recruited a cross-party coalition of political figures to convince sympathetic policymakers to absorb the facility into a medium-term operating plan. With the unfolding crisis prompting a less forgiving political landscape, Bilston’s enterprising shop stewards made a tactical transition, engaging in concerted collective direct action to persuade conservative union leaders to petition decisionmakers on their behalf. The thesis offers a critique of institutional behaviour, revealing how both the state and moderate steel unions undermined Bilston by repeatedly acquiescing to management prerogative. Abandoned by union and Government bureaucrats, the campaign eventually crumbled from within. The research identifies the ways in which ambivalent officials merely sat idly by as management undermined a profitable state concern before insidiously harassing its conscientious employees. The thesis concludes with an account of the legacy of the battle for Bilston works, demonstrating how redundant steelmen, politicised by their experiences, played essential roles in the post-industrial social, cultural and political culture of the town.
PublisherUniversity of Wolverhampton
TypeThesis or dissertation
DescriptionA thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the University of Wolverhampton for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.
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