More than 1000 people rallied in Wollongong on September 19 to demand the federal government take action to save jobs at the Port Kembla steelworks.
Bluescope has announced it aims to cut $200 million from its operating budget and intends to sack 500 workers in the short term, with a possibility that thousands more jobs will go in the future.
This is despite BlueScope posting a $134 million profit for the last financial year.
Unions have launched a campaign to save the steelworks and emergency talks have been held between government ministers, unions and Bluescope management.
Secretary of the South Coast Labour Council Arthur Rorris told Green Left Weekly the weekend’s rally has given a big boost to the campaign.
“The rally empowers people to say ‘OK, there are other people who think like us and not just steelworkers’.
“Workers are becoming the price that industry says it’s paying to become competitive. But either way, Bluescope can’t lose. When it says it might shut the steelworks, its share price jumps. Or whether it stays and cuts $200 million — it doesn’t lose.
“When you have a situation like that, it helps to have people out on the street making it very clear that we don’t believe that those decisions can or should be made by one company alone, that this is a decision that should be made by all of the people who are affected.”
A report commissioned by the Australian Workers Union found that 10,000 direct and indirect jobs were at risk in the Illawarra if the steelworks shut completely. This would double the unemployment rate in the region, which is already high at 8.3%.
Rorris is looking not just to save jobs in the short term, but is aiming to protect the Australian steelmaking industry as a whole. The larger issue threatening domestic production is that steel produced more cheaply in China is being dumped on the Australian market.
In this context, Rorris says Bluescope management cannot make the steelworks viable by cutting jobs.
“We have an immediate task which is keeping the steelworks open. If we win that, that in itself is not a victory, our definition of a win is ensuring that we don’t have this conversation again in a year or two years’ time.”
To do this, the campaign is calling for the federal government to mandate the use of Australian steel in federally-funded projects, a practice Rorris says is commonplace overseas.
“The criticism that has been levelled at us is that we’re going backwards and retreating behind tariff laws. But the Australian people have been taken for a ride. It’s international best practice to defend yourself against the dumping of products. In fact, the World Trade Organisation allows you to take emergency safeguards. They were established exactly for that purpose.
“When your industry is at risk and if there’s ‘unfair competition’, even within the free-trade logic, they have the capacity to intervene. So they’re choosing to not even use the measures to defend us against the dumping of steel.
“India, the US, Canada, South Africa and the European Union are all taking these measures. It’s Australia that is taking a ridiculous, ideological, purist line here. They do not want to rock the boat with China at the moment.”
The NSW Greens state conference meeting in August endorsed the proposal to use at least 50% Australian steel in all taxpayer-funded infrastructure projects.
The NSW Teachers Federation Council also supports the idea and, in a public statement of support for the campaign, proposed the steel could be used for “the necessary construction of wind turbines to help achieve renewable energy targets beyond 2020”.
The NSW Greens are also calling for the state government to take up part ownership in the steelworks in return for any financial bailout it receives.
Now Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon said: “That would give the people of NSW a real say in the future of the blast furnace and in ensuring that it is at the forefront of reducing the use of coal and the greenhouse gas emissions it causes.”
Pressure is mounting on the federal government to take action. The Senate passed a motion on September 10 moved by Rhiannon and independent Senators John Madigan, Kim Carr and Nick Xenophon, which noted that “urgent action is needed to ensure that Australia does not lose its steelmaking capacity, in the wake of the global steel industry crisis” and urged the government to develop a public procurement policy.