Protect jobs and the environment

May 31, 2009

When Pivot Fertilizer announced its closure in May, it became the latest in a long, list of Geelong-based manufacturers to close their doors.

Pivot's demise added another 29 jobs to the 1500 full-time jobs already lost in Geelong in the last 18 months. Pivot claimed the economic crisis coupled with the drought had reduced the demand for fertiliser, making the North Geelong plant non-viable.

This followed the textile giant Melba, which went into liquidation one month ago with the loss of 170 jobs. Unlike the Pivot workers, who will be paid an enhanced redundancy package, the Melba workers face losing all of their entitlements.

Of the 10 companies that have opened or expanded in Geelong over the last 18 months, only two are in manufacturing. One was Makocraft, a recreational boat manufacturer that relocated to Geelong, and the other was Modern Olives, which was expanding its olive oil production. With the exception of Victoria's Transport Accident Commission, which relocated to Geelong at the expense of Melbourne workers, the other new companies provide only low-paid retail jobs.

Green Left Weekly spoke to Geelong and Regions Trade and Labour Council secretary Tim Gooden. Gooden is also a member of the Geelong Manufacturing Council as well as the Socialist Alliance.

* * *

What impact is the company closures and the shift away from manufacturing having on Geelong workers?

It's a pretty frightening prospect for blue-collar workers in Geelong. More than 22 companies have closed or had major lay-offs in the last year alone. There is a myth going around that there has been a rise in full-time jobs by 900. I suspect this is the City Council spin doctors trying to talk up the situation.

Even more serious is the fact that some of these companies [that have closed] are the last companies in Australia to produce specialist goods. So this not only means that in future we have to import more goods but we will eventually lose the skill to manufacture some items.

An example of this is the planned closure of the last remaining auto glass factory in Australia owned by CSR. The Furniture and Finishing Trades Union has won a temporary reprieve and is trying desperately to keep the factory open. Some negotiations are taking place but CSR is still intending to off-load the factory. Skills are very hard to get back once they're gone.

But aren't these changes and job losses inevitable given the economic crisis?

The federal government has at least six new special funds totalling $45 billion in response to the downturn in manufacturing and the global financial crisis.

These include the Green Building funds, Climate Ready and Enterprise Connect. The biggest fund is the Nation Building Economic Stimulus Plan worth $42 billion. There is no doubt that throwing this much money at business will eventually create some jobs in the short term.

However, without tying public money to guarantees of job security or paying back the grants with interest, then the government is just wasting taxpayers' money by subsidising profits. Frankly none of these hand outs will provide long-term job security.

It would be better to take important factories into public hands and manufacture products that are needed for the social good. This would ensure that manufacturing jobs are maintained and critical skills expanded and passed onto the next generation.

Unions should use the forum of the Australian Council of Trade Unions congress in the first week of June to discuss real workable solutions for employment and develop a campaign to force government to implement long-term policies rather than the business world's bottom line.

It would be a missed opportunity if the congress doesn't do this and we just continue to concentrate on negotiating better redundancy packages.

The climate crisis threatens life itself. Can we tackle it without more jobs being lost?

It's foolish to think we can drill and burn our way out of the current crisis. We need to move away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible.

The only way out is massive investment in renewable energy and creating green jobs. That way, we can deal with the economic crisis and the climate crisis at the same time.

The capitalist response to the economic crisis is to say we can't afford to deal with climate change right now. At the same time, bosses keep throwing people out of work — people who could be working in industries that could help save the planet.

It's the government who has to make this investment, public investment on a massive scale, because big companies are only interested in short-term profits.

Badly needed jobs can be created in areas like insulating buildings to reduce energy loss. Geelong's car plants, for example, could be converted to making trams, trains and electric cars.

Victoria has some of the world's best conditions for wind power and geothermal power. We could make the shift to renewable energy quickly, if there was the political will. This would be a real stimulus to the economy and a huge job-creator.

We shouldn't accept the loss of any manufacturing jobs. These workers are the ones with the skills to make the transition to a sustainable economy possible.

If we want a safe climate it can only come by quickly replacing jobs in polluting, carbon-intensive industries with green jobs based on renewable technologies.

Our factories need to be retooled, our communities need to rebuilt. A huge part of this will be re-powering Australia with 100% renewable energy. Climate science says we need to do this by 2020 to avoid runaway climate change.

You've said before that "global warming is union business" and that the union movement needs to develop its own policies on climate change. What are some of these policies?

If we are to build a carbon-neutral society, workers will be the ones who do it.

Unions have a responsibility to look after their members' interests. This means unions have to fight for workers' short-term welfare but also their long-term welfare.

If unions aren't telling their members about the threat of climate change, then they aren't doing the right thing by them. It means they are downplaying the urgent threat of climate change. It means they are letting big-business take all the initiatives.

We can see from the sackings going on now that business always looks after business first. People and planet come last. Unions must take the lead and push for people-friendly solutions.

There's pressure on many unions that cover fossil fuel-intensive industries to side with the bosses who want to delay the inevitable. They buy the line that stopping climate change will cost jobs, when it can actually create thousands more green jobs.

The thing is that you can't bargain with climate change. Global warming won't negotiate with anyone. There are no deals we can cut here. So those unions who are toeing a big-business line on climate change aren't just short-sighted, they're suicidal.

The alternative is to make sure anyone working in an industry that we need to phase out, such as the coal industry, is first in line for a green job, or retraining in the industry of their choice, without loss in pay. We can stop climate change, but it will only happen with social justice.

If we want to sustain jobs and communities into the future we have to live within nature's limits. Unions will be a big part of the campaign for a safe climate future.

But the broader climate movement also has to side with unions and workers. They have to support our campaigns to defend workers' rights and jobs. If we start doing this together, we can build an unstoppable movement that won't allow governments or business to sacrifice our planet for their profits.

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