Australian unions stage phony protest against GMH shutdown

About 250 people, including trade union officials and staff, attended a rally yesterday that was cynically convened by the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) outside the Liberal Party’s Victorian state headquarters in Melbourne.

The rally was supposedly called to protest against the destruction of thousands of jobs following General Motors Holden’s decision to end production in Australia. In reality, the unions used the demonstration as a platform to offer their services to the Liberal-National Coalition government and employers to police further layoffs and cost-cutting.

Even as the rally was being organised, AMWU leaders announced their intention to negotiate “closure agreements” assisting GM in shutting down its plants in Melbourne and Adelaide by 2017, offering more concessions on wages and conditions while production continues. The union is also seeking to negotiate a similar cost-cutting deal with Toyota, which is threatening to follow GM in terminating its manufacturing operations. The third Australian manufacturer, Ford, has already announced the end of manufacturing operations by 2016.

Far from proposing any fight against GM’s Holden closure, which they have already fully accepted, the unions staged the rally to divert the anger of car industry workers into calls for protectionist measures to “support Aussie jobs,” pitting them against their fellow workers worldwide.

Small groups of workers from Holden, Toyota and auto components plants, such as Bosch, Metalsa and Chassis Brakes, took part. Union officials urged them to collect petitions calling on Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government to restore subsidies to the auto giants. The petition asks the government to “do the right thing for jobs by making an immediate commitment to put back the $500 million in the Automotive Transformation Scheme, and to provide co-investment certainty to our auto sector so car manufacturing operations remain in Australia for the long haul.”

The car subsidies provided by previous Labor and Coalition governments were never to protect the jobs and conditions of workers. Rather, with the assistance of the trade unions, the money was used to push through one restructuring plan after another that led to the shutdown of plants and the destruction of thousands of jobs in a bid to ensure the industry remained “internationally competitive.”

While pleading for more subsidies, the union officials heaped the blame for the closure on the new Coalition government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott. The main chants were: “Boo hiss, Tony Abbott”, “Shame, shame, [Treasurer] Joe Hockey.” This is nothing but a cynical exercise to divert attention from the responsibility of Labor governments, in league with the unions, in orchestrating the destruction of the car industry from the Button Plan in the 1980s onwards. (See: “The role of Labor and the unions in the assault on car industry workers in Australia”)

Addressing the rally, AMWU Victorian state secretary Steve Dargavel solidarised with Holden CEO Mike Devereux, saying the company executive “called it right” in demanding “long term public support.” This sums up the close relations that the AMWU has maintained with GMH for decades. As recently as August, after Holden proposed a $200 a week wage cut, the AMWU pushed through a regressive agreement that achieved the same savings by other means, such as reducing overtime wage rates and break times.

Dargavel called for greater protectionism, telling the rally: “Australia offers far less tariff support to our auto industry than any other trading partner in the world that has a car industry.” There is, however, no basis for fighting to defend jobs and conditions purely within the national arena. All aspects of vehicle production are orchestrated internationally by global giants such as GM and Ford which are currently engaged in a massive global restructuring of their operations.

Dargavel reported messages of concern from peak union bodies in other countries, including the AFL-CIO in the United States. When the economic crisis erupted in 2008, it was the AFL-CIO that worked hand-in-glove with the Obama administration to set new global benchmarks for the exploitation of auto workers, including wages of less than $15 an hour. Now the auto transnationals are restructuring operations in Asia and Europe to achieve even lower costs.

Like their counterparts in the US, the Australian unions are offering their services. At the rally, Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) secretary Dave Oliver urged Toyota to take a “collaborative approach with the AMWU and other unions in increasing efficiency,” as the unions had sought at Holden, not a “confrontational approach which tried to cut costs by the low productivity road of cutting wages and allowances.”

His remarks underscored the anxiety of the unions to work closely with Toyota to impose its demands, utilising a December 12 Federal Court ruling that the company must first ask its workers to scrap the existing enterprise agreement before demanding specific concessions in a new agreement. AMWU vehicle division national secretary Dave Smith earlier told the media: “The court decision gives some breathing space for us to sit down with Toyota and discuss potential flexibilities.”

Smith also spelt out the union’s plan to help GM conduct an “orderly closure.” He said negotiations would begin in 2014 with Holden on a final workplace agreement, which is being referred to as the “closure agreement.” Smith said workers were unlikely to agree to the cost-cutting concessions that the union pushed through in August, because these were conditional on GM staying in Australia beyond 2017.

AMWU South Australian secretary John Camillo, however, insisted that such concessions were still on the table. He said workers might consider them in the next enterprise bargaining agreement if they feared Holden could leave before 2017. Camillo also said his focus would be on securing appropriate redundancy payments for retrenched workers. That is, the union will be hoping to prevent any resistance to the mass layoffs by offering enhanced redundancy payouts.

Likewise, the AMWU web site announced that its delegates in Adelaide would form a joint committee with Holden to “manage change and organise more assistance for distressed members.”

The union movement’s policing of the Ford and GM shutdowns has encouraged components parts manufacturers to waste no time in unveiling their own plans for closures. Two companies have already informed their workers that production will cease at their Adelaide plants in 2017, including Chassis Brakes, owned by KPS Capital, which employs up to 120 people. Japanese components supplier Hirotec also said it anticipated that its plant will close by the end of 2018, abolishing 150 jobs.

This is just the start of what is expected to be the destruction of around 150,000 jobs, in directly auto-related industries alone, if the unions succeed in delivering the “orderly closures” demanded by the corporate and financial elite.