'Buy Australian': Can it save jobs?

August 9, 2009

In the year to May, manufacturing employers shed more than 68,000 jobs due to reduced demand emerging from the economic crisis, said the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

In response to declining employment in the sector, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) and the Australian Workers Union (AWU) announced on July 24 the creation of a new alliance to promote Australian manufacturing — A Country That Makes Things — to promote a change in manufacturing policy.

Central to this campaign is a renewed push to encourage buying Australian-made goods. Such campaigns are not new. It poses the question of not only whether such campaigns are effective in saving jobs, but also what impact they have on positioning unions and their members to not only fight to defend jobs, but improve wages and conditions.

In a joint article in the July 24 Australiansupporting the new alliance's formation, AWU national secretary Paul Howes, and AMWU national secretary Dave Oliver said the new approach was an attempt to return to the model of industry strategy developed during the 1983-1996 Accord between unions and the Hawke and Keating Labor governments.

Howes and Oliver said Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's stimulus package could be enhanced in three ways:

* The creation of a comprehensive, "fair go" purchasing and procurement plan, with government infrastructure projects giving priority to Australian-made goods;

* The expansion of the AWU's New Steel Plan "to keep foundries busy supplying nation building projects"; and

* The establishment of a training grants scheme to "minimise further retrenchments and give employees the chance to upgrade their skills instead of being unemployed".

The article acknowledged that these proposals alone were unlikely to be enough to defend manufacturing jobs, and argued it "also required a comprehensive manufacturing policy plan positioned for recovery".

The proposals put forward by A Country That Makes Things, if adopted, would undoubtedly result in some manufacturing companies keeping production in Australia, at least in the short term.

However, because the campaign fundamentally accepts companies' right to pursue greater profits, it is unlikely the proposals could avoid a repeat of, for example, the experience of Pacific Brands.

Following a half-year loss of $150 million (after averaging $110 million profit for the previous three years), in February the company shifted manufacturing facilities offshore, sacking 1850 staff. Management believed it would secure greater profits.

Campaigns to buy Australian manufactured goods, far from positioning workers to defend their jobs, instead disarm workers by promoting the idea that they have common interests with their bosses and encouraging them to see workers in other countries as the threat to their jobs.

Irrespective of the intention of a "Buy Australian" campaign, in reality it promotes the idea that people are not buying Australian goods, or that foreign workers might make the products cheaper. Both of these ideas can quickly lead to racist attitudes, and detract from the point that job losses are a result of bosses' push to increase profits.

The logic of needing to make the company competitive also tends to help promote the idea that workers should make concessions in wages and conditions to make the company competitive (that is, profitable).

If workers are to combat the threat of capital flight — taking production offshore — to drive down wages and conditions, they must, with their unions, build international solidarity with other workers. They must also fight for closed companies and plants to be nationalised and brought under workers' and community control.

Building solidarity with workers in other countries, to support their fight for better wages and conditions, can undermine attempts by employers to pit workers in different countries against each other.

Worker-managed companies, even those that are not now profitable, can shed two key costs: management pay (Pacific Brands' management earned $15 million in salaries and bonuses), and the need to generate income beyond the cost of production, allowing them to be more competitive within the framework of the capitalist market.

[Chris Latham maintains the blog <>.]

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