THIRTY-FIVE years ago this week a Hartlepool man was leading the country’s first national steel strike for over 50 years.
ANDREW LEVETT dusts off a Mail profile of union leader Bill Sirs.
“When I was a lad, pineapple chunks marked the difference between poverty and posh in our street.
“A holiday had the rarity value of a present-day steel order from Korea.”
The words were from Hartlepool-born general secretary of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (ISTC) Bill Sirs and were followed, said the Mail’s profile in January 1980, by roars of laughter from him.
He was the fifth of 10 children to parents dogged by poverty and became a “little capitalist” at the age of 11, delivering newspapers in the morning and, after school, 13 dozen copies each afternoon of the Northern Daily Mail, as the Mail was known back then.
He was paid six shillings (30p) each week, which he would pass on to his mother, but each of the two newsagents would also give him 6d (2.5p) to “keep for himself”.
“Of course, my education was going for a burton,” he recalled in 1980. “I’d arrive at school too whacked to work, then doze off until the evening.”
According to Sirs: “I was a slum kid, a very happy child, yes, but still from the slums. You never quite catch up.”
He continued: “Quite frankly, I have a capitalist’s life forced on me. I’m chauffeur driven, I get invited to the best places, but I’m still unskilled in the social graces.”
After leaving school at 14, employment in Hartlepool came in patches - a spell as an errand boy, then the dole, a labourer, then more unemployment.
Then, after a spell taking nuts off boilers for the old London and North Eastern Railway, he got a job as a steelman, and joined the union “just because I was asked to”.
But he rose to power in ISTC - partly, he said, “by learning to express myself a little more poshly” - and became general secretary in 1975.
“This is the first dispute since 1926 - you can’t say we’re the rabble rousers of British industry.”
In fact, Sirs described himself as a moderate, said Margaret Thatcher was “a nice enough woman”, and was praised by one management negotiator as “a good bloke and a gentleman”.
The steel plants reopened in April 1980 after the Lever inquiry recommended a package worth 16 per cent in return for an agreement on working practices and productivity deals.
Sirs remained head of the ISTC until 1985. The previous year the ISTC had controversially resisted calls to shut down the steel industry in support of striking miners.
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