The role of Labor and the unions in the assault on car industry workers in Australia

By James Cogan
13 December 2013

The Labor Party and the trade unions, which for decades have collaborated with the corporate establishment to slash jobs and undermine working conditions, are blaming the newly formed Liberal-National Party government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott for the decision of General Motors Holden to end its Australian manufacturing operations by the end of 2017. With Ford closing in 2016 and Toyota weighing up shutting as well, tens of thousands of jobs are threatened with destruction.

Yesterday in parliament, Labor leader Bill Shorten, a former union official, moved a censure motion against Abbott for “failing to save Australian workers from job losses.” Paul Bastian, the national secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU), which covers car industry workers, declared that Abbott “has the redundancies of 50,000 workers and their families on his hands.” AMWU vehicle division secretary Dave Smith even broke into tears as he told journalists that “the blame for this lies squarely at the foot of the Abbott government.”

The demagogy against Abbott is orchestrated, staged, cynical and fake. Abbott’s government, in agreeing to the potential destruction of the entire car industry, is simply finishing a decades-long process that was initiated and enforced by the Labor Party and the unions.

In 1984, the Labor government of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating unveiled the “Button car plan,” named after the industry minister of the day, John Button. Its explicit aim was to restructure the nationally regulated and protected Australian car industry and integrate it into the increasingly global production networks of the auto conglomerates. The unions, under their Accord with Labor, endorsed it. They joined with the Labor government in demanding that workers accept cuts to jobs and working conditions in order to become “internationally competitive” against workers in other countries.

The unions actively suppressed opposition in the assembly plants, where there was a long history of militancy. Rank-and-file shop steward committees, which had a degree of independence from the top levels of the unions, were broken up. In a particularly bitter episode, the unions assisted management at Ford’s major plant in Broadmeadows to victimise and sack 20 militant workers in late 1991. Weeks later, the company announced 500 job cuts.

Plant closures soon followed. In November 1991, Toyota shut its plants in Dandenong and Port Melbourne, axed 700 jobs and opened its Altona plant on “greenfield” working conditions, including 12-hour shifts for the first time in the Australian car industry. In 1992, Nissan shut down completely, a decision organised as part of the Button plan. In 1994, the unions organised the “orderly closure” of the Ford plant in Homebush, Sydney, destroying 430 jobs.

By the time Labor lost government in 1996, car workers from different manufacturers were on separate enterprise workplace agreements, which the unions re-negotiated every several years to deliver “productivity” gains for the companies. Union officials were integrated into so-called tripartite committees with corporate executives and government representatives, that planned out the ongoing restructuring of the industry.

Under the conservative government of John Howard, all these relations continued. In 2005, the unions organised 1,400 redundancies at Holden’s Elizabeth plant in Adelaide so the company could end an unprofitable third shift. In 2006, Ford sacked 650 workers from its plants in Broadmeadows and Geelong.

During the Labor governments of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, in which Bill Shorten became a senior minister, restructuring was stepped-up as part of the worldwide moves by the auto conglomerates to make workers pay for the global economic crisis. In 2008, Labor and the unions organised the “orderly closure” of Mitsubishi’s plant in Adelaide and the destruction of over 1,000 jobs. Holden slashed 500 jobs in 2008, 500 more in 2009 and a further 500 this year. Toyota axed 350 jobs in 2012 and is cutting another 100. Ford sacked over 500 in 2009, 440 in 2012 and in May this year announced its complete closure by October 2016 and the destruction of 1,200 jobs.

Paul Bastion and Dave Smith rose seamlessly through the ranks of the trade union apparatus during these years, as the number of jobs in the car industry was slashed from 45,000 to barely 17,000.

Three decades of restructuring has had devastating consequences. The working class suburbs where car production was concentrated, such as Broadmeadows, Geelong and Elizabeth, are wracked with social deprivation, unemployment and poverty. The complete shutdown of the industry will plunge them into the disastrous state that exists in cities and towns in the United States, such as Detroit and Flint, where dozens of plants have been closed and thousands of jobs destroyed.

While the working class has suffered decades of social reversals, the trade union apparatus has benefited from its incorporation as an arm of corporate management. Officials like Bastion and Smith take home comfortable upper-middle class salaries. Through their positions on the boards of multi-billion dollar superannuation (pension) funds, they cultivate relations with business and pave the way for potential post-union careers. While some, like Shorten, become Labor Party members of parliament, there is no lack of former union officials among the ranks of Australia’s corporate executives. Others find lucrative posts in the establishment media or the industrial relations courts.

The various pseudo-left parties in Australia, such as Socialist Alliance and Socialist Alternative, continue to promote the claim that with a more militant or “left wing” leadership, the unions can be transformed into organisations that fight for the defence of workers’ conditions. Such claims blind the working class to the reality that it confronts. With the globalisation of production and the shattering of the ability of national states to regulate the operations of the capitalist market, Labor and the unions abandoned their past perspective of pressuring the ruling class for reforms and concessions.

The essential function of the trade unions is to serve as an industrial police force for the government and the companies, suppressing resistance while promoting the corporatist ideology that is used to justify the endless assault on jobs and working conditions. Workers in the car industry have been repeatedly told that each round of restructuring and downsizing would ensure production was “internationally competitive” and protect what jobs remained. The reality is that the nationalist and big business perspective of the unions—pitting Australian workers against workers in other countries—is a race without a finishing line.

The savaging of workers’ conditions in the United States by the companies, the Obama administration and the United Auto Workers union in 2009, which included cutting wages for new hires in half to $14 per hour, set the benchmark that the auto companies now expect in Canada, Europe, Japan and Australia. Where they face obstacles or delays in achieving it, the investment banks and hedge funds that control the companies instruct them to shut down entire plants and cast workers aside. Nothing can be allowed to stand in the way of generating the specified rate of profit demanded by the utterly parasitic capitalist elite for whose benefit production is organised.

The rhetoric against the Abbott government from the Labor Party and the trade unions is intended to disorient workers and prevent a discussion on the utter bankruptcy of the perspective they have enforced. For all the sound and fury, the AMWU will collaborate with Ford and Holden in the orderly closure and asset stripping of their Australian factories. Like unions everywhere, it is committed to the defence of the capitalist system and it will not challenge the “right” of the owners of industry to destroy productive capacity on which hundreds of thousands of workers livelihoods depend.

Car industry workers need independent organisations, starting with the immediate formation of rank-and-file committees, which will organise a united defence of jobs and reach out to car workers internationally for political and industrial support. Auto workers in Europe, Asia and North America are no less under assault than workers in Australia.

The future of the working class can only be defended on the basis of an anti-capitalist, that is, socialist and internationalist perspective. Workers around the world have a common interest in uniting against the corporations and national governments that demand they compete to be the worst paid and most exploited. The banks, financial institutions and major corporations that dominate over every aspect of economic life must be taken out of private hands, placed under public ownership and organised to raise the living standards of the population on a global scale. This is the program of the Socialist Equality Party.

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