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Thinking Allowed: When the steelworks closed down: How a South Wales town coped

Updated Wednesday 20th April 2011

The closure of a steelworks and the change in jobs on offer can have profound effects on the self-image of the former workers.

Laurie Taylor:
Valerie Walkerdine is research professor in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University and I knew from the programme that her conference paper was about how the inhabitants of a South Wales valley town, which lost its major employer - a steelworks - coped with redundancy and the need to find a new and often very different job at a very reduced salary - steelworkers commanded up to £26,000 a year but the only jobs on offer now were low or semi-skilled bringing in £12-15,000 a year. As soon as we were settled I asked her about how different workers reacted to the closure.

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Valerie Walkerdine:
There were cases where they didn't bother because they felt, especially if they were 50 or over, it wasn't worth it. And so you saw a sense of resignation, of feeling that they'd lost what it meant to be able to mix with other men, they were stuck at home but also there was the effect of a lot of illness, the kind of illnesses that one normally sees on redundancy - heart attacks, chronic stress, breakdowns.

A steelworks in Wales, mothballed and awaiting demolition Creative commons image Icon Robin Drayton under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license
A Welsh steelworks awaiting demolition

And so the men's bodies were really showing the difficulties they had in coping but also the knock-on effect was for - was with the women because since the men were now earning much less the women had to increase their earning, so there was a shift in the relationship for many men and they would earn less, the women would earn more in order not to have to move, in order to stay in this community.

Masculine jobs, feminine jobs

Although in some cases, quite a lot of cases, the women were the main breadwinners, they refused the title and also the women felt that they had to take any kind of work because the men had lost their work. So if masculinity had kept the steelworks going, what femininity had to do now was to keep everything going at all costs. And yet at the same time also keep going a fantasy of a breadwinning masculinity. Very, very tough, both for the men and for the women.

Laurie Taylor:
Could we - would you want to talk about these men as feeling some sense of shame at not being the man, not being the main provider or was that shame to some extent lessened by the fact there were so many other men sharing the predicament?

Valerie Walkerdine:
The fact that everybody lost their jobs did help, yes, however, despite that, I think there was a lot of hidden shame because the way it came out was in their responses to the young unemployed men - so the next generation - who were having to try to get work in low paid service industries - so stacking shelves in the local supermarket, working in industrial cleaning, delivering pizzas, that kind of thing - they were being shamed for actually taking work which was considered feminine, they just felt very demeaned and upset and ridiculed.

This had a knock-on effect for the families and the older generation, so then you could start to see the shame that actually was circulating in the town and the sense of loss that the men who'd kind of held this town together through their mutuality and solidarity could no longer help their sons.

Laurie Taylor:
Fathers generally didn't want to speak to you?

Valerie Walkerdine:
No they didn't, it was too painful to talk about. In the steelworks young men could just find a job, you always knew somebody who worked in the works and they would find you a job. And now these dads and the older generation couldn't stop the kind of juggernaut of globalisation.

Laurie Taylor:
And then you quote Tony, a young man of 24, describing his time as a pizza delivery boy.

Extract from 'Tony':
You've got to wear cream trousers, a red t-shirt, a baseball cap, a bum bag. My stepfather found that - well embarrassing because of what I was wearing and doing like. I offered my brothers a lift home and they all refused to get in the car and said - you look like an idiot - basically - what the hell are you wearing, you look like a fool. My mother did say to me once: "They're all taking the mickey out of your stepfather because of what you are doing so get a proper job."

Valerie Walkerdine:
He said that his dad's friends wouldn't talk to his dad and then his dad wouldn't talk to him. Wearing a demeaning uniform was contrasted with the kind of donkey jacket of the steelworkers.

Pizza delivery Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Lisa F. Young | Dreamstime.com
Women's work? Pizza delivery

Laurie Taylor:
And then we hear again from Tony after he'd moved into a contract cleaning job.

Extract from 'Tony':
Once I was working as a cleaner on the factory floor and I had to walk past with a mop and bucket and female colleagues would start laughing at me. They were saying Mrs Mop and calling me names. Round here it's classed as a woman's job being a cleaner but at the end of the day it was all that was going and I had to bring in money for my family. Three weeks I stuck it out for and I couldn't take no more.

Valerie Walkerdine:
The young man felt very caught because of course he wanted to do the right thing by his dad, who he loved, but he also wanted to get work. There were examples of young men trashing the shelves in the local supermarket if a young guy working in there had stacked them, his mates would go round and trash them in order, in a sense, to dissuade him from doing that kind of work.

Laurie Taylor:
What makes a job feminine? Is it the fact that it is a job that women do, other women do, or is it something about the nature of the job itself?

Valerie Walkerdine:
We did ask one young man what was it that made him able to take this job but not that job. If it's a local supermarket that's not okay but what about a do-it-yourself shop, would that be okay? And it was, not that he could find a job at a do-it-yourself shop but yes, something that involved kind of tools and therefore something with a connotation of physical labour and industrial masculinity.

Often we're told that young men like this are not metaphorically getting on their bikes or they lack aspiration but in fact that wasn't the issue, the issue was much more this sense of being caught and also finding the prospect of doing work that required literacy, in particular, very difficult - the history of masculinity in the area is associated with the hard body and literacy almost seemed to be associated with femininity, you took forms that had to be read, you took them home to the wife.

Does taking entreprenurial opportunities mark you as 'different'?

Laurie Taylor:
Was there a lack of entrepreneurial endeavour among the people?

Valerie Walkerdine:
No, I wouldn't put it that way. I would say that those men who got an opportunity and could see a possibility went for it actually. The union encouraged the men to take up work based on their interests. Somebody retrained as a guitar maker, he did a training in guitar making funded by the union.

So I don't think in a sense there's a lack of entrepreneurialism but there is a history of solidarity and in that history you wouldn't want to stand out or be different or think you were better than anybody else because actually you relied on your mates and everybody else in the town

Laurie Taylor:
So something which had a positive - a really positive function in the past might now in a way be inhibiting some of these people from changing their lives?

Valerie Walkerdine:
When we say it's inhibiting these kinds of practices in the ways of being mutual kept everybody feeling alive, that they actually had some continuity. And so it's very, very hard to give that up, even if the context now demands something different because you risk, especially for older people, to feel terrified. People have got to feel safe enough in order to change.

Now clearly some people did but not everybody did. The way that I think we need to understand this actually is to think about it as a kind of trauma, they're attempting to hold on to a way of being masculine which worked before and which no longer worked.

Laurie Taylor:
In a way it is the residual culture - the working class culture, the masculinist culture of this place which really compounds the difficulties that these people faced.

Valerie Walkerdine:
I think what you end up with if you look that way is to think that these men are kind of dinosaurs that exist in this macho rather sexist culture that's left over. Whereas in fact I think it's much more useful to think about it historically.

It was very hard - men had to hone their bodies and do hard and dangerous work in order to keep the community going, to keep food on the table, to develop strong union practices at a time of chronic insecurity because for 200 years the price of iron and steel went up, the price of iron and steel went down, you never knew that everything would survive and I think we shouldn't therefore underestimate the effect of the complete loss of that and that on a bewildered people who then don't know what on earth they're going to do next.

Extracted from Thinking Allowed, broadcast on BBC Radio 4, April 20th 2011

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