Tata Steel warns UK furnace shutdown may start earlier than planned

FILE PHOTO: Views of Tata Steel Port Talbot steel production plant in Port Talbot, Wales

LONDON (Reuters) -Tata Steel could take steps to pause or stop some blast furnace operations earlier than planned at its plant in Port Talbot, Wales, while it challenges the legal basis for a strike organised by trade union Unite.

Unite said last week that around 1,500 workers would begin an indefinite strike from July 8 over Tata's plans to close two blast furnaces and cut up to 2,800 jobs.

"Following the announcement by Unite Union to unilaterally call strike action from 8 July, Tata Steel is unfortunately forced to commence legal action to challenge the validity of Unite's ballot," a Tata Steel spokesperson said in a statement.

"In the coming days, if we cannot be certain that we are able to continue to safely and stably operate our assets through the period of strike action, we will not have any choice but to pause or stop heavy end operations - including both blast furnaces - on the Port Talbot site."

The closures were announced in January as part of the Indian company's plan to turn around its loss-making UK business by switching to lower carbon electric arc furnaces, a proposal backed by 500 million pounds ($632 million) of government money.

Responding to the latest Tata statement, Unite General Secretary Sharon Graham said:

"Tata putting out a statement to shut or pause its blast furnaces three months earlier than they intended to is the latest in a long line of threats that won't deter us."

(Reporting by William James; additional reporting by Harshita Meenaktshi in Bengaluru; editing by Chris Reese, Alexander Smith and Sandra Maler)