Over the past year, Geelong has been hit hard by job cuts at Ford, Alcoa, Target, Holden, Toyota and Avalon Airport, as well as state and federal government departments. Geelong Trades Hall has organised a rally on April 7, calling for more manufacturing jobs in the region.
Geelong Trades Hall Secretary and Socialist Alliance member Tim Gooden spoke to Green Left Weekly’s Nicol Brown about why a broader discussion is needed within unions and the community about alternatives to the market to solve the jobs crisis. Gooden also challenges the myth that high wages are responsible for industry off-shoring and explains the need for workers to directly challenge the power of employers.
What do the job losses mean for Geelong in the long term?
The wealth that is created by the manufacturing sector in Geelong is 10 times bigger than any other industry. The money that is generated locally for the Geelong economy, and for the state, is going to take a big hit.
In the big industries, top production workers and trades people earn about $1500 a week, and spend $1500 a week. After June 30, that means just from the Ford workers and the Alcoa workers alone, it’s starting at 1300 workers times $1500, which is around $2 million a week. A lot of the small to medium enterprises that rely on people coming in the front door — the florist, dry-cleaners, cafes, and ordinary shopping — will notice a sharp downturn. That’s going to be the immediate effect. The longer term effect is going to be whether Geelong can reinvent itself as a better manufacturing centre.
You are organising a rally in protest to these job losses. What else is being done in response to this news?
In addition to the rally — which is really a show of the human face to the statistics and numbers on the front page and to try and get more political leverage in terms of our demands — manufacturing unions have been working for two years now, knowing that some of this is in the pipeline, to try to get governments and bosses to invest in a transition period.
Whether that’s a manufacturing centre, but to deliberately set up a planned intervention to deal with the 5000 workers, to give them training, other job opportunities, to look at new technologies.
Some of that has been happening, under the previous government there was some development around carbon fibre and alternative energies, which is what we’ve been pushing mostly, as well as new materials for sports material production. There are some positives on the horizon, some companies are already starting to move in that direction and start employing. At the moment it’s not fast enough to pick up the losses though.
Unions have been working to try to get those new industries going, and they’ve also been trying to look at and map the demographics of workers to see what we’re dealing with. There are the older workers, 50, 55 and older, who are retiring. There’s the workers between the 30 and 50 who’ve got kids at school and a mortgage, they can’t really up and leave, and then there are the younger workers who have more flexibility. They have less debt and they’re most likely to move and get a job.
We’ve been trying to get a handle on those issues so we can better target our efforts.
Who would the cuts affect most and why would that be?
For more than 30 years now, big industry has been disinvesting in Australia, and reinvesting in manufacturing in other countries — textiles have moved to India, Bangladesh, Indonesia.
Alcoa has gone to China and Vietnam, whereas the car industry has been onshoring back to their own national bases, so Europe and the US. For a long time there has been a disinvestment in Australia.
Governments have been disinvesting in infrastructure, the stuff that created all of those jobs in the first place, all of the subsidies, the tax breaks and the gains in economics, that’s all been getting wound back. That’s the why.
The ones that it’s going to affect most will initially be blue-collar workers, trade and production workers. The next big hit is apprentices, young people coming out of school. Those big industries soaked up hundreds of apprentices every year. Without them there’s a layer of young people who aren’t going in an academic direction. This year, workers are getting laid off, next year it’ll hit the school-leavers.
So it will hit young people very hard then?
Absolutely, the ones that were looking forward to a production job or an apprenticeship have limited options generally speaking. They’re either not going to get a job, or they’re going to get a job on lower wages, which will just make it harder to get ahead.
How can we work to stop this unemployment? Is it something that is up to the government or can the community help with it?
Ideally we could just get rid of capitalism and the free market approach of letting company boards decide our fate rather than us. We could easily manufacture alternative energy, equipment, even an electric car if we thought that was needed. We could put our energies into public transport, people need to get around and they need jobs, what capitalism wants doesn’t always suit us.
We should be telling government and employers that the current system isn’t sustainable, subsidising companies that are ripping off the environment through unsustainable industries like coal isn’t the way of the future. We need combined political campaigns to say what sort of society we want. We need to be able to have that argument, be able to campaign around it, and win concessions off government and bosses.
Unions alone can’t do this — their priorities are to their members and their demands are confined within the capitalist system. We need to have a broader discussion to build movements around particular issues, with the view of saying: “We’ve all got to live here, we’ve all got to have a wage, how are we going to be able to do that if companies are pulling out?”
Governments are saying: “We’re going to cut the social wage, we’re going to cut services and make you pay for everything.” How are we going to pay for everything if we have no jobs? That begs the question “What sort of system are we going to live under?”
A lot of people are claiming this is all the fault of the unions and the workers for demanding high wages and other things. How would you respond to these people?
Bosses have never paid more than they think they can afford. They always scream blue murder, that the sky is going to fall in and that it’s the end of capitalism, but they never pay more than they can afford.
The labour cost for running a whole operation is the least of their problems, it’s down around the 12% mark. Capital always looks for political stability first, low taxes, infrastructure, cheap electricity, and then they look at their labour costs. If labour costs were the only thing they worried about then they would have set up in central Africa a long time ago.
They want well-educated workers and a good education system, they’re the primary things, labour cost is only a part of it. Overheads and taxes, all those things are what they spend most of their time working on. If we decided to halve our wages in Australia I can guarantee you that none of Alcoa, Ford or any other business would reopen. It’s the same as the coffee shop owner who only has a certain number of customers coming in — supply and demand. If all of a sudden their workers are cheaper, those people did not employ new people, they pocketed the extra money.
The only reason you employ someone is if you’re trying to meet a demand. If the demand isn’t there, they won’t employ people, no matter how cheap they are. That argument is a complete fallacy, there’s never been any proof. They try to draw a longbow that the company is leaving and going to another country because the wages are cheaper — that’s not the sole reason why they go. There is always a drive for bosses to keep their costs as low as possible, but labour cost is not the primary issue.
How are unions responding to these job cuts? Are they organising events or doing anything else in response?
Generally speaking it’s fair to say that it’s reactive. A lot of the energy that is going around at the moment is purely about elections, trying to change the next state or federal government. At the end of the day, unless employers are challenged and some real demands are put up and concessions won from the ruling class themselves then the governments are very reluctant to interfere, they will never try to change the system off their own bat because they primarily work for the bosses, not for us.
It hasn’t been what some people expected. There isn’t a political forum for unions to discuss this stuff through. Most of them sit within the Labor Party framework. Like all governments the Labor Party doesn’t have any desire to buck the private system and the free market rules.
[The rally will be held at on April 7 at 12.30pm at Geelong Trades Hall 127, Myers St.]