By Alex Bainbridge and Jane Beckmann
NEWCASTLE — Newcastle City Council and the steelworks unions organised a public meeting of 150 people in the Town Hall on May 8 to build community support for the campaign to save the BHP steelworks.
Geoff Payne, mover of the motion calling for a national steel strike at last week's mass meeting, spoke from the floor. He said that workers cannot believe that BHP is not making a profit from the Newcastle plant.
"The plant uses BHP iron and BHP coal, transported on BHP ships. BHP has been producing steel for decades and knows the market backwards. Every tonne of steel made gets sold, and the Newcastle steelworks is producing world record levels of steel for that type of configuration."
Payne said that BHP should release the secret McMasters report and open its books from the last five years so that workers can judge for themselves what action should be taken. He also made the point that the unions have the industrial strength necessary to make BHP reverse its decision.
Metalworkers union delegate Robert Thornthwaite said that BHP has betrayed its employees. In the past, when BHP was in crisis, "They asked for our assistance as employees across the board and we gave it", he said. "We kept our promise; they didn't keep theirs."
Barry Boettcher, a former university professor, emphasised that the decision to close would have an enormous impact on the local economy. Citing figures from the Australian Workers Union, he said that the loss to the economy would be the equivalent to $4000 per person in the Hunter Valley.
Resistance member Alex Bainbridge read a resolution that had been passed by the university student rally that day. He said, "We need to fight against economic rationalism by business as well as by government" and that students offered their support to the struggle that would be necessary to beat BHP.
One person said that people had put up with the pollution from BHP for years because they wanted the jobs. Now BHP was going to pull out anyway after many people had died from pollution as well as industrial accidents.
"It's called economic rationalism," she said, "but really it's greed".
Many people spoke about the impact of job losses. It was pointed out that there are hundreds of contractors who work at the steelworks as well as countless others who rely on BHP or its employees for business.
The job losses would take place in a different climate than previously. Telstra is shedding more than 20,000 jobs nationally, and even tertiary industries, such as Newcastle University, which have become the big employers in the region, are "downsizing".
Shadow industry minister Simon Crean emphasised that it was possible to make change. "Make no mistake", he said, "pressure does work".
Instead of putting forward the perspective of building an industrial campaign, Crean claimed that the situation would not have occurred under a Labor government. He claimed the Steel Industry Plan was a solution, without mentioning the massive job losses since then and the enormous subsidy to BHP that was involved. He argued for a similar plan today.
Steelworks manager Bob Kirkby was also invited to speak. He claimed that closing Newcastle steelworks guaranteed the jobs of 20,000 steelworkers in the rest of the country.
AWU leader Maurie Rudd responded by saying that steelworkers in other BHP plants would be supporting Newcastle workers by taking industrial action.
Rudd stated that workers in other centres could take no heart from BHP's decision, and that this was only the first step. BHP was planning to pull out of steel making in Australia altogether. Workers had to campaign to prevent this, he said.
Geoff Payne, who is also steel industry spokesperson for the Democratic Socialist Party, told Green Left that an ongoing national industrial campaign is crucial. "Bob Kirkby told us a week ago: 'One 24-hour strike is not enough to change our decision', and he is right. What we need is a plan for a concerted campaign that can draw in support from other unions and the community.
"Kirkby gave us another lesson tonight. 'It's all about profits', he said. It shouldn't be about profits; it should be about people."
Payne disputed Simon Crean's claim that the closure would never have happened under Keating. "The Steel Industry Plan was not the ALP standing up to BHP — it was rescuing their profits. In essence, the ALP paid them to downsize. If BHP had been nationalised by the Hawke government, as militant unionists were demanding, we would not be in this mess now.
"We can't put our faith in another industry plan to save us now. BHP has been planning to close for years, and the only thing that can stop them now is if we stand up and say no."