Nine-hundred-and-thirty manufacturing workers will soon be out of a job, after management announced the pending closure of the Tonsley Park Mitsubishi car plant in Adelaide's southern suburbs on February 6.
While many of these workers will probably end up in the bowels of Centrelink's harsh "welfare" system and face the accompanying bureaucratic indignities and harsh punishments, Mitsubishi will walk away having pocketed over $200 million dollars in state and federal government handouts since 2001. Mitsubishi claimed that this massive corporate welfare was necessary to keep the plant operating — clearly a false promise. PM Kevin Rudd has ruled out any attempt to recover the bulk of this debt, uninterested in punishing a genuine corporate welfare cheat.
The Mitsubishi workers' fate is shared by other car-plant workers around the world. Globally the automotive industry is in a serious crisis. In the US the industry is in recession. General Motors, the world's largest car maker, announced on February 12 that it is offering redundancies to its 74,000 unionised US workers, after posting a record loss in 2007. Workers hired under new contracts will be paid half the previous wage.
This disaster is not a result of poor productivity or "excessive" wages. The Mitsubishi workers had agreed not to pursue high wage claims and dramatically increased productivity to keep the plant afloat yet still ended up losing their jobs. The story is similar in the US and other countries. The real roots of the crisis lie elsewhere.
For years the world's largest car makers have been producing more and more cars in a bid to maintain record profit levels. This has resulted, unsurprisingly, in an overproduction crisis: there are now more cars available for sale than can be sold at a profit. The layoffs and pay cuts in the industry are a warning of how capital will try to solve its crisis at the expense of its workers' livelihoods.
The social irresponsibility of the automotive industry is a strong argument for a move away from production based on profit. Another point is that the technology already exists to design and mass produce a hybrid vehicle, considerably cheaper and more fuel-efficient than petrol-driven cars. The multinational corporations can't be trusted to make the investment required to transform the industry into an environmentally sustainable one. Instead, the workers with the technical know how to make this transformation are left jobless or desperately underpaid. This suits the industry's corporate bottom lines.
The Socialist Alliance holds that it is preposterous that the government will allow the former Mitsubishi plant to be stripped, divided up and sold off when it could be socially and environmentally useful to keep the plant running under government ownership. The site could be converted into a major producer of hybrid and electric powered cars. The environmental benefits of such a move are obvious. Meanwhile Mitsubishi workers would retain their jobs and their expertise could be put to good use. Australia could become a leading producer and exporter of cars that reduce rather than increase the dangers of climate change.
The costs associated with the nationalisation of the Tonsley Park site should not be a barrier. Even if the plant itself doesn't turn an immediate profit the costs will be offset in the long run by the elimination of costs associated with climate change. Public health costs caused by pollution will decrease, the immense costs of the effects of climate change on Australia's agriculture will reduce and the mass production of hybrid and electric cars will stimulate other areas of the economy. Finally, it should be pointed out that there can be no economy at all on a dead planet.
The Socialist Alliance's solution to the Mitsubishi closure demands that the government takes a clear stand in support of workers' rights and the environment through nationalising the Tonsley Park car plant. The current Rudd Labor government, however, remains beholden to the destructive ideology of the free market. Greater public pressure must be brought on the government to end its pro-corporate political line.
[Based on a resolution adopted by Adelaide Socialist Alliance. Visit <http://www.socialist-alliance.org/southaustralia>.]