Food giant Coca-Cola Amatil has threatened to close the SPC Ardmona fruit canning company in Victoria, unless the federal government and Victorian government give it $25 million each in assistance.
The company wants to spend $161 million on upgrading and restructuring its manufacturing facilities in Shepparton. If the plant is closed, about 3000 jobs in the Goulburn Valley, and many small orchard farms, would be lost.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has ruled out any federal assistance. He said: "This is a government that will make sure that the restructure that some Australian businesses need ... is led by business," the Sydney Morning Herald reported on January 31.
Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey told the ABC's 7.30 on January 29: "The parent company of SPC Ardmona, Coca-Cola Amatil, which is an Australian company, in the first six months of this year, had a profit of $215 million, and yet there is a request for $50 million of taxpayers' money."
Abbott also blamed the SPC Ardmona workers and their unions for the problems facing the company, pointing to an allegedly "extraordinary" and "way in excess of the award" enterprise bargaining agreement. Abbott said: "There are wet allowances, there are loadings, there are extensive provisions to cash out sick leave, there are extremely generous redundancy provisions," the Sydney Morning Herald reported on January 31.
This has provoked a major row within Coalition ranks. Sharman Stone, the Liberal MP for Murray which includes the Shepparton area, accused Abbott and Hockey of "lying" about union conditions at SPC. Since then, the SPC Ardmona company has made public its union agreement with the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU), which effectively disproves the government's claims.
National Party MPs are also coming under pressure from farmers to soften the neoliberal stance of Abbott and Hockey and their big-business masters in the Business Council of Australia (BCA) and the capitalist media.
The government's hypocrisy on "industry assistance" is underlined by its pre-election pledge of $16 million in subsidies to the multinational Cadbury company operating in Tasmania. More recently it granted $3.5 million to the local seafoods manufacturer Huon Aquaculture for new equipment at its plant near Hobart, announced on February 4.
What is the difference between these cases? Could it be that SPC Ardmona is situated in a safe Liberal-held electorate, while both Cadbury and Huon Aquaculture are in marginal federal and state seats?
The AMWU has condemned the federal government's decision on SPC Ardmona. AMWU national secretary Paul Bastian said on January 30: "It is based on a naive and cruel desire from this government to maintain their ideological purity when it comes to manufacturing support at the expense of thousands of jobs and whole industries. We have seen it with Holden and now we have seen it with SPC Ardmona.
"The government directly and indirectly subsidises mining, agriculture, finance, fisheries and other important Australian industries and yet it is continually cutting investment in manufacturing."
Meanwhile, the Victorian Labor opposition has pledged a $30 million "co-investment" with SPC Ardmona, and called on the state Liberal government to match its commitment. It is unclear what exactly would be involved in this "partnership" with the company. Federal Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten supported this proposal, but offered no genuine alternative for the workers of SPC.
The time has come for workers and the union movement to draw a line in the sand on the future of the manufacturing industry in Australia. No more hand-outs to big companies, which continually demand taxpayer assistance with their restructuring plans, while cutting jobs and attacking union rights and conditions.
The answer to workers' problems will not come through increasing subsidies to private industry, tariffs and quotas on foreign goods or protecting Australian-based capitalist operations.
Instead, we must reject the neoliberal policies of Abbott and the BCA, which use the myth of the international free market to allow industries to close down and thousands of jobs to be lost in affected regions.
We must demand corporations and governments open the books on company operations, bringing to light the secret deals between governments and business and real profits and losses, including profit shifting and tax dodges. Then the workers can see for themselves the reality of private industry scams.
Secondly, we need to reject both calls for more subsidies to private business, and the "sink or swim" neoliberal agenda of the Abbott regime and its BCA backers. Any government support for private industry should, at a minimum, require matching public equity or ownership in the operations of the company concerned.
Thirdly, unions and working people need to raise the call for the nationalisation of companies like SPC Ardmona, which are threatening to close down and throw thousands into unemployment. These industries should be placed under community and workers' control, to ensure that the interests of employees and the people of the area are fully represented.
In the case of SPC Ardmona, the company could be placed under public ownership, with a board of management elected from the Goulburn Valley community, together with strong participation by unions and workers and representation from local fruitgrowers. Profits could be shared between community interests and the public purse.
Such an alternative option to ownership by a corporate giant could be debated, along with the kind of co-operative model being practised in other countries, including in Venezuela, where the socialist government is promoting a widespread co-operative network, particularly in rural and regional areas of the country.
With the Abbott government and its Coalition state counterparts on an all-out offensive against unions and workers' rights, and determined to slash the public sector, with privatisation and business profits the central aim, it is time the union and workers' movement mobilised to defend their interests.
Let's begin to take back the ill-gotten wealth of big business, and put key industries in public hands, under community and worker control.