With the city of Geelong still reeling from Ford's announcement that by 2010 it will shut down its V6 engine assembly plant and dismiss 600 workers of the company's 2600 Geelong employees, another manufacturer has announced that it is reviewing its operations.
Up to 75 workers employed by Bekaert Geelong face an uncertain month after the Belgium owners of the steel cord factory said on August 1 that they would delay announcing the plant's future until September. The previous week the company had disclosed that it was looking at options ranging from a reduction of operations to total closure.
Commenting on the Ford and Bekaert announcement, Tim Gooden, secretary of Geelong Trades Hall, told Green Left Weekly: "This could just be the tip of the iceberg for Geelong job losses. Rumours abound that other manufacturers are going to shut down too. There is a possibility of another 900 jobs to be lost from different companies reviewing whether they will stay open or not."
Geelong Chamber of Commerce executive director Lawrie Miller told the July 20 Melbourne Age that the flow-on effects of the 600 job losses at Ford could mean 2000 jobs are lost in the Geelong area.
The problems experienced by manufacturing and their impact on the Victoria's second largest city have led to a major community debate about Geelong's future.
Following Ford's engine plant closure announcement on July 18, the Murdoch-owned Geelong Advertiser observed that the "plant's closure has conjured up memories of the terrible fate suffered by the United States city of Flint, Michigan, where 30,000 jobs were lost in General Motors' plant closures in the 1980s. Today Flint is a run-down ghost town with thousands of vacant homes and a quarter of its population living below the poverty line."
Who could forget US film-maker Michael Moore's haunting portrayal of Flint, his hometown, in the 1989 film Roger and Me?
On July 18, federal industry minister Ian Macfarlane announced that the federal and Victorian governments would set up a $24 million investment and innovation fund that would offer grants for projects that allegedly will create new jobs in Geelong.
But there are many in the unions who believe that this money will largely end up in the pockets of local business owners, or create more Mickey Mouse training courses.
"The business community in Geelong is campaigning for smart jobs, new high tech industries and tourism", said Gooden. "They see these industries as the saviours for Geelong. But with so much manufacturing being done in China or elsewhere, the fundamental question not being addressed is what happens to the 50,000-100,000 people in this region who rely on the manufacturing industry?
"The current response of governments is that it is a free market and it's an individual company's right to make decisions in the interests of its shareholders only. The federal Coalition government might roll out cliches and platitudes about 'social responsibility' and 'good corporate citizenship', but if it believes that a company's first commitment is to its shareholders and not its workers, then the government won't give a damn about what really happens to a production worker living in Norlane or Corio.
"Unions and the community should not have to accept corporate decisions made by a few in some boardroom that can affect workers for the rest of their lives. We have a responsibility as workers and taxpayers. We created with our own hands most of the wealth and as taxpayers we funded all of the millions of dollars of subsidies and free infrastructure that benefits industry. We, in fact, have a bigger stake in company and government decisions than the media and their business masters are prepared to give us credit for.
"For this reason unions have always played a critical role in the development of industry policy. Unions in Geelong are very concerned that the future planning has been skewed too far to the high-tech end of the market and not enough consideration or planning has been put into traditional blue-collar trade jobs. Unions are calling on governments to intervene early into company reviews. Given the amount of public monies over the years that have been sunk into industries, we have the right to call for such intervention."
Gooden said that local unionists "want governments to proactively address the situation without turning it into election crap. Whenever companies are making large economic decisions, the government should intervene on behalf of society to guarantee the future of the workers and their families."
Socialist Alliance candidates for the coming federal election — Chris Johnston in Corio and Jeremy Smith, a Geelong resident who will be a Victorian Senate candidate — agree that governments have to take a more pro-worker stance when thousands of jobs are on the line.
Smith called for federal and state governments and Ford to reveal the amount of public money that has been used to prop up Ford's Victorian operations over the years. He said: "We're not calling for more subsidies from the government. That hasn't worked in the past because Ford has just pocketed the money and ignored the future of the workers. Unions have to have some say in the question of alternative industries, jobs and retraining for the workers. It can't just be a deal between the government and the employers."
Johnston, an environment and planning campaigner for most of her life, said: "The Ford plant has been re-tooled many times. During World War II, it made tanks and tugboats. That means that it could be re-tooled again and the workers' jobs secured.
"The land that the engine plant is on should be compulsorily acquired as the government did with land for Citylink. Then the government should re-tool the factory and run it as a government concern. This would be a better use of the $24 million that the federal and state governments are offering as incentives to new industry. Workers don't mind whether they are making fast trains or components for renewable energies, as long as they are guaranteed work."