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Radical Roots: Work in Sheffield – Past, Present and Future

Since the Industrial Revolution Sheffield's workers have organised and collectivised on shifting terrain. The city's modern labour movement is fighting for workers in callcentres, shops and warehouses where steel mills and coal mines once stood.

A socially distanced protest asking for NHS nurses to get a 15 pay rise

Better Pay For NHS Nurses rally in 2020.

Tim Dennell
Series sponsored by Barry Amiel & Norman Melburn Trust logo

Whether we want it to or not, work defines us. The sort of labour we do, and the amount of time we spend doing it, go a long way towards shaping the rest of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic and resulting economic recession has already caused huge changes in the nature of work, from a rise in homeworking to the temporary closure of entire industries.

As we are defined by work, so are the places we live. Sheffield was little more than a small town until the Industrial Revolution. It grew as a result of, and was indelibly shaped by, the expansion in steel production and coalmining throughout the 19th century. It has equally been marked by the decline and near destruction of those industries.

Throughout these processes, the city has been the site of a class struggle in which working people have time and again attempted to improve our pay, reduce our hours of work and establish more control over the conditions of life. This long-read article, the first in Now Then's series about Sheffield’s radical roots, looks at the changing nature of work and how working class movements have responded, past and present.

The geography of deindustrialisation

Despite Sheffield’s continuing reputation as the Steel City, manufacturing now accounts for less than 10% of the economy, compared with a public sector accounting for just over 30%. In common with most of the rest of the UK, the remainder is dominated by the private services sector.

The shift from a manufacturing-based to a service-based economy has been accompanied by wage suppression. A 2017 Resolution Foundation report found Sheffield to be the UK’s low pay capital, with wages 10% below the national average and 27% of workers receiving less than the living wage. This state of affairs has been attributed by a subsequent academic study to “a combination of deindustrialisation, financialisation and austerity”.

It seems impossible to imagine how South Yorkshire’s contemporary low wage economy could have come about without the destruction of what preceded it. Deindustrialisation hit the area fast and hard. The crisis in the steel industry in the late 1970s was sharply felt in the Don Valley, with nearly 20,000 jobs lost between 1978 and 1981 alone. By 1988, British Steel’s local workforce had declined in number by 80%.

Periodic rounds of redundancies have continued in the industry ever since. South Yorkshire still produces hundreds of thousands of tonnes of steel annually, but now the workforce numbers in the hundreds, rather than the 100,000 employed in the Don Valley in the mid-20th century. The destruction of the coal mining industry during the same period is a tale familiar to most of us.

These industries have been erased from our geography almost as comprehensively as they have been erased from our economic life. In Sheffield and the surrounding area, thousands of people work in call centres, distribution warehouses and retail hubs that in many cases are built on exactly the same land as the mines and factories that birthed the labour movement of the early 20th century. The Meadowhall shopping centre, for example, stands on the site of the former Hadfields steelworks. In Wath-upon-Dearne, the Capita call centre and Next warehouse share the territory of Manvers Main Colliery, which closed in 1988.

Hadfields Ltd East Hecla Works Machine Shop No 1 bay Meadowhall Sheffield

Hadfields Ltd at East Hecla Works, on the site of what is now Meadowhall shopping centre.

Picture Sheffield

The private sector side of our post-industrial economy is dominated by hospitality, retail and sales. Call centres are ubiquitous across South Yorkshire, whether local companies like Ant Marketing (recruitment strapline: “Join the colony”) or outlets of multinational behemoths like HSBC. Contact centre sales jobs tend to pay low basic wages with the opportunity to earn bonuses by outperforming fellow workers. In retail, ‘youth rates’ are common for workers under 25, and workers in pubs, bars and fast food tend to fare badly, with J D Wetherspoon and McDonalds paying at or slightly above the statutory minimum of £8.72 per hour.

There are, of course, sites where higher waged manufacturing jobs still exist, such as the Advanced Manufacturing Park – located near the site of the infamous Battle of Orgreave during the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike – but the recent threat of 75 redundancies by Rolls Royce here is a reminder that even these jobs may not be secure in a post-Covid economy.

The geography of deindustrialisation is not a coincidence or the result of inevitable natural forces. A class war, spearheaded initially by the Thatcher governments, was waged consciously in order to reshape our local economy. First, the power of organised labour had to be broken by provoking national industrial disputes in steel (1980) and coal (1984-85).

This was followed by the government-directed flow of private capital into South Yorkshire under the guise of regeneration. Public-private initiatives like the Sheffield Development Corporation (1988-1997) played a huge role in the proliferation of retail and distribution across the Don Valley, turning brownfield industrial sites into hubs of the low wage economy. A successor company to UK Coal is now a property developer. Deindustrialisation was accompanied by land and assets that had once been in public hands, at least temporarily by virtue of post-war nationalisation, being shifted onto the balance sheets of private capital.

The mythical working class

This familiar story of the rise and decline of coal and steel conjures up a set of mental images, at the foreground of which is the outline of a specific worker. This worker is white, male and works with his hands. He is no-nonsense and enjoys a pint of bitter. He has an innate sense of social justice and he is portrayed in popular culture almost exclusively by Sean Bean and Mark Addy.

Through our imagined understanding of our history as an industrial city, we build an image of what the ‘original’, ‘genuine’ working class looked like in the era of the post-war boom (c 1945-1975), a period we associate with secure work, decent wages and high levels of trade union membership. This image tells a powerful story – but it’s not the whole story.

The era of heavy manufacturing as a mass employer in Sheffield was in fact fairly short. Large steel mills only really began appearing in the 1880s and employee numbers began declining soon after the Second World War. Before this period, local manufacturing had been dominated by the so-called light trades –cutlery and toolmaking – that were mainly carried on in small workshops. This sort of work dates back to the late 17th century, initially powered by the waters of the Rivelin and Sheaf.

Men by no means held a monopoly on manual work, although the privileges of the male worker were jealously guarded by their trade unions – that is, until the First World War brought the necessary large-scale employment of women in manufacturing and transport.

Gendered ideas of what was considered acceptable women’s work existed in Sheffield as much as elsewhere in Victorian society. As well as teaching and domestic service, this did include certain areas of manual work. The National Federation of Women Workers first started organising in Sheffield in 1910 following a strike of leather workers, pursuing a vigorous organising campaign in the city’s commercial laundries soon afterwards.

George Bassett and Co Ltd confectionery manufacturers employees out in support of the ambulance workers

Employees of confectionery manufacturers George Bassett and Co out in support of ambulance workers in 1989. Owlerton, Sheffield.

Picture Sheffield

Of course, within the nuclear family women provided most of the social reproductive labour that enabled the male manufacturing workforce to subsist, as well as frequently taking on paid work themselves to supplement the household income. Right the way through the industrial age, the steelworker and coalminer formed only part of a heterogeneous working class population.

Nor was the industrial working class a static, native bloc. From the mid-19th century, the rapid expansion of Sheffield and its trades drew in a migrant workforce, mostly from other parts of England but also including a small Irish population. According to Sidney Pollard in his History of Labour in Sheffield, one trade journal bemoaned these internal migrants as being “as alien to the aboriginal sentiments as was that of the Huns in their descent upon Rome” – a reminder that migrants did not have to be from overseas to face prejudice. Over the next century, migrants from further afield would become integral to Sheffield’s industrial workforce, perhaps most notably the young men who came from Yemen in the 1950s and 1960s to work in the steel factories.

The growth of the industrial working class required the growth of other sectors to provide it with the necessities of life: food production and retail, transport workers to move goods, education workers and local authority workers to keep the city in a liveable state. The construction of the post-war welfare state ensured that, by the 1970s, the local council and health authority were eclipsing British Steel in the league table of Sheffield’s largest employers.

Our imagined industrial worker is not only historically inaccurate – he also damages the contemporary labour movement. If we cling to this narrow and exclusionary view of who constituted the genuine working class in a period that is associated with decent work and high wages, it colours our view of work and the working class today.

On new terrain?

Fortunately, Sheffield’s 21st century labour movement is moving away from this myth and dealing with class relations as they exist concretely in the present. The last few years have seen a proliferation of local worker-led campaigns to improve conditions in the post-industrial economy.

In the wake of the 2017 Resolution Foundation report, Sheffield TUC and the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union launched the Sheffield Needs a Payrise (SNAP) campaign, focusing on organising in low wage sectors like fast food.

“The union movement desperately needs to innovate to remain relevant to low wage workers facing a changing nature of work which is becoming increasingly short-term and casual,” SNAP organiser Rohan Kon says.

“We are building capacity and credibility across traditionally under-unionised workplaces and sectors, training up the next generation of union leaders – mainly young, women, BAME and migrant workers – so that we can see a strong and hopeful future for our movement.”

During the pandemic, SNAP’s worker-led actions have secured unpaid wages from pizza chain Papa John’s, stopped redundancies in Mitchell and Butler pubs, and ensured Wetherspoons workers could access the furlough scheme rather than losing their jobs.

Since 2019, delivery drivers in Sheffield have been organising under the banner of the South Yorkshire Couriers’ Network (SYCN). This union has experienced rapid expansion across an industry largely made up of migrant workers.

While technically self-employed – largely a ruse by which companies can avoid guaranteeing regular work, sick pay and pension contributions – Sheffield’s couriers have developed a strong class consciousness and organised strike actions, for example in defence of a Deliveroo colleague who was unfairly removed from the platform, or “terminated” in the company’s somewhat chilling language. The union is now expanding into other parts of South Yorkshire.

SNAP Sheffield Needs A Pay Rise papa johns protest action

Members of Sheffield Needs A Payrise protesting against unpaid wages by pizza chain Papa John's.

Sheffield Needs A Payrise

In recent years much has been made of the rise of a supposed new class called ‘the precariat’, who is subject to zero hours contracts and extreme job insecurity. The reality is that precarity has always been the default nature of work under capitalism. It’s reined in only by legal restraints, how valued the worker’s skills are, and, perhaps most importantly, collective organisation.

The labour movement has always fared best when it understands this reality and acts on it. The old craft unions in the light trades were largely preoccupied with restricting access to the labour market – opposing the entry of unskilled workers, women and immigrants into their trades. This was eventually their undoing.

In the 1860s, William Broadhead’s union of saw grinders charged members 4s 6d of every pound they earned (about 36%) so that unemployed members could draw a living without being tempted to undercut working members with lower rates. This was unsustainable in the face of technical advances in industry. Rather than attempting to organise non-union workers, the saw grinders targeted them with threats and violent attacks, which became known as the Sheffield Outrages, irreversibly damaging the union’s reputation and power.

The struggle against old craft attitudes in the engineering unions would take many decades, with women, for example, only finally being admitted as full members of the Amalgamated Engineering Union during the Second World War. But the open, expansive organising of the new unions allowed them to establish collective bargaining with large public and private sector employers, curtail the system of subcontracting that persisted in the large steelworks, and establish what we now think of as the decent jobs of the mid 20th century.

Working for what?

The labour movement’s 150-year long struggle for secure, decent jobs points us towards another critical question: what are we working for in the first place? The conditions of modern life make this question about the nature of work even more acute. The reality of the climate crisis means that, unlike at the time of the Industrial Revolution, the downsides of a drive for ever more economic growth are painfully apparent.

There are calls from many quarters for an economy that privileges the wellbeing of humans and planet above profit. Theories like doughnut economics, expounded by economist Kate Raworth, have put environmental sustainability at the centre of discussions about production and work and are already being put into practice. These voices envision a transition away from work that is environmentally destructive and towards work that is socially useful, where the fruits of labour are reinvested into local communities. Few of these proposals, however, envisage the end of the fundamentally exploitative boss-worker relationship.

The majority of workers sell our labour time to employers in exchange for a wage. Since long before the phrase “work-life balance” was coined, workers have sought means of clawing back this time. The practice of observing Saint Monday – simply not turning up to work at the start of the week – persisted in Sheffield’s light trades until well into the 20th century. The advent of heavy steel brought with it the 24-hour factory, with night shifts often lasting 13 or 14 hours. Sheffield was a centre of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers’ campaign for a nine-hour day in the 1890s, and strikes and bargaining for shorter hours were a fixture of early 20th century industrial relations.

Now that the idea of a four-day week is gaining traction in many circles, these historical struggles over working hours should be at the forefront of our minds. In 1908, steelworkers at J H Andrew’s Toledo Works in Neepsend engaged in a months-long strike for the right to “share out the work” during times of economic downturn, thereby achieving both a shorter working week and a reduction in unemployment.

Facing the probability of mass job losses in the post-Covid economy, we should think about our own demands. We cannot bring prosperity to South Yorkshire by resurrecting en masse the industrial jobs of old, and nor should we celebrate the endless creation of what the late David Graeber called “bullshit jobs”. Instead we should advocate for a combination of genuinely socially useful work and a sharing out of work that begins to break the domination of the wage relationship over our lives.

In the coming months, most of those in low waged jobs will return to the same conditions they experienced before the pandemic. The payment-by-delivery system endured by today’s Deliveroo driver would be all too familiar to a ‘pieceworker’ in a 19th-century cutlery workshop. The call centre sales assistant, her shift heavily surveilled and timed to the minute, has far more in common with the labourer at Hadfields fighting for a 48-hour week than we might think.

The chimneys and pit wheels are gone, the industrial terrain is different – but now, as then, it’s the workers’ own collective agency that is the seed of a better future.

Learn more

An associated online event, Radical Roots & How To Bounce Forward: Work & Wellbeing, will take place on Tuesday 13 April at 6pm, featuring Edd Mustill, Autonomy co-director Will Stronge, and Centre for Thriving Places Chief Executive Liz Zeidler.

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