By Shane Bentley
NEWCASTLE — This city and steel production go hand in hand. For more than eight decades, BHP has been a major employer and has profoundly influenced the culture of the city.
In 1912, in contravention of its party platform, which supported the establishment of state-owned steel works in Australia, the McGowen Labor government granted 34 acres of land to BHP to establish a steel mill in Newcastle. In addition to the land, the government agreed to dredge and maintain a 500 foot wide and 25 foot deep channel in the harbour and to use the silt from it to fill in the mangroves which covered the surrounding land. So began the company's long history of environmental destruction.
In the 1970s BHP employed more than 10,000 people and trained hundreds of apprentices. The economy of the Hunter and the lives of thousands of people were dependent on this one corporation. Today BHP employs fewer than 3000 people and trains only a handful of apprentices.
In recent months BHP has recorded increasing profits. Contrary to community expectations, however, this has not led to more jobs, nor has it halted sackings.
During May BHP began circulating rumours about further sackings at the Newcastle plant, thereby creating a sense of the inevitable about last week's announcement that 2000 jobs are to go over the next few months.
While BHP management was reassuring workers that the company "has a long-term commitment to Newcastle", plans were under way to invest BHP's profits in new labour saving technology. According to John Prescott, BHP's managing director, the operation "is not as profitable as we would like; the return is a pretty modest return on the capital".
Maurie Rudd, Newcastle secretary of the Australian Workers Union, said that the management had treated workers shabbily and was concerned only with its corporate plan, not the effect on the community. He added that if the present management was unable to do the job, the company should be sold to someone who could.
While Rudd's statements are supported by most of the workers at the plant, the union's role in recent months — which has largely been confined to negotiating better redundancy packages — means that many workers perceive that the union is accepting the job losses as "inevitable."
According to BHP, it is in "everyone's interest that we remain viable". In view of the massive job losses, ongoing pollution of the area and other effects, it's hard to see how this could be the case.