So, Mittal is closing down a French steel plant.
What a bastard Mittal is, eh?
Now, the exact ins and outs of this I have no idea about. But there is something more than just international capitalism screwing the worker:
Mittal is not shutting the entire site, but the so-called “hot line”, the blast furnaces, where the iron ore is melted to produce steel, and the neighbouring coke plant.
Today the two furnaces, closed “temporarily” last year, are idle. The nearby heating stoves are on hold, emitting wisps of smoke into the grey sky. “It’s a sad sight,” says Maurice Nicotra, 47, surveying the abandoned plant. “It’s dead here now. Mittal told us he would put money into our steel industry, but look where we are.”
We’ve a technological change going on. As well as whatever there is about competition from China and the bastard capitalist.
We simply need fewer blast furnaces than we used to.
As it turns out there’s something akin to a Kuznets Curve in iron production (and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find the same being true for copper and some other metals). In order to build a civilisation you need to produce vast great gobs of iron, the basic ingredient in steel. This requires smelting iron ore in blast furnaces. (There’s also direct reduction, a newish technology, but that’s still marginal). However, you get to a point where you’ve got, if not all the iron and steel you ever need, at least most of it. A stock, circulating through the economy over the decades, rather than requiring that huge flow of virgin material.
Just as an example, while you’re building up the stock of cars from none per person to one per head you need a tonne of steel for each new car that gets put on the road. But when you’ve reached that one car per head level and have been there for 20 years then you need a very much smaller input of virgin steel as you can recycle the old tonne in the old car into the new tonne in the new car.
You do not use blast furnaces to do this: you use electric arc furnaces.
We can get more sophisticated on this: new cars are smaller than old so our scrap old car produces more than one new. There are losses in the conversion possible.
And perhaps most importantly the most difficult steel to make from scrap is automotive steel. For boring technological reasons it has been, until recently, something that could only be made from virgin steel, not recycled. Nucor, the US company, pretty much sorted that out back in, I think, the 90s (might even have been 80s).
Oh, and this plant where the blast furnaces are closing? Makes automotive steel.
As I said up at the top I don’t know the details of this particular case. But there is still this underlying technical point. As a result of technological advance in steel recycling we don’t need blast furnaces to make automotive steel. We do need the rest of the line, the rolling mills and so on, but not the blast furnace. We can now make new cars out of old. Further, we’re a great deal closer (although perhaps not quite at) the stage where we have our necessary stock of iron and steel and can just recycle that, perhaps with small additions of virgin material, rather than continually smelt more iron ore.
What is being closed? Blast furnaces that make automotive steel.
It might still be oppressing the workers, might still be international capital screwing them over. But even in the absence of those factors it’s still going to happen at some point.
Because, you know, the hippies are right: recycling stuff is good.