Australasian Spartacist No. 222
Union Tops Push Protectionist Poison as Carmakers Pull Plug
Down With Government/Bosses' Jobs Massacre!
For a Class-Struggle Leadership of the Unions! For a Revolutionary Workers Party!
FEBRUARY 11—Yesterday Toyota Australia announced it plans to cease production in 2017. This follows announcements by the Ford Motor Company in May last year, and General Motors Holden (GMH) in December, that they intend to close their Australian operations by 2016 and 2017 respectively. Taking into account supply and related industries, these decisions could threaten in excess of 100,000 jobs. Since the global economic crisis hit more than five years ago, millions of workers worldwide have lost their jobs. Today in Australia more than 5,000 workers every month are being thrown onto the unemployment scrap heap.
Capturing the Liberal/National Coalition government’s utter contempt for workers’ livelihoods, soon after GMH’s announcement the prime minister, Tony Abbott, grotesquely spoke of an employment “re-birth” or “liberation” for Holden employees whose jobs are threatened. The Abbott government seeks to blame the demise of the car industry and rising unemployment on the pay and conditions of unionised workers. In rejecting further government support to the industry the federal treasurer, Joe Hockey, railed that “The government should not be subsidising poor workplace practices” (Australian, 15 January). The government is happy to let previously subsidised companies with unionised workforces fall as one means to gut union power. In an escalating war on workers, Abbott has now announced a new witchhunting royal commission into the unions, with the government claiming “widespread, systemic and ingrained wrongdoing” in the labour movement (see “Hands Off the Unions,” this issue).
For a Class-Struggle Fight in Defence of Jobs
In the face of the current onslaught against jobs in the car industry, the leaders of the manufacturing workers union (AMWU) have not lifted a finger to mobilise their base in a fight to defend workers’ livelihoods. Instead, calling to support “Australian jobs” against foreign competition, these sell-outs once again joined with the vehicle bosses in begging for state subsidies for the industry. Such protectionist, cap-in-hand lobbying of capitalist governments has spelled disaster for car workers while the bosses have continued to rake in profits.
The jobs crisis is a result of the bankruptcy and destructive irrationality of capitalism, under which social production is based on the private ownership of the means of production. The capitalist class, who own the factories, mines, banks and so forth, grow fat from the profits generated by their exploitation of workers, who only have their labour power to sell. The capitalist rulers expect the workers to pay for their greed. Workers need to say: no way, to hell with the jobs slashing! Make the bosses pay! Such a perspective must begin with the understanding that workers cannot get anywhere playing by the bosses’ rules. With their hands on the levers of production, workers must fight back based on their own class interest. Job losses can be fought by militant class-struggle actions such as strikes, secondary boycotts, mass pickets and plant occupations. If the capitalists are unwilling to retain plants and any jobs are cut then workers must put up a hard fight for union-run, paid quality retraining and long-term wage protection at company expense until workers regain employment.
What’s needed is a leadership that uses transitional demands to link the struggle of workers with the need to overthrow the capitalist order. To unmask the exploitation, robbery and fraud of the large industrialists and banks, workers would demand the bosses open their books to committees of workers. Against unemployment, it is necessary to mobilise working-class struggle behind the demand for a shorter work week with no loss in pay in order to spread the available work around. Today, the fight for jobs is equivalent to the fight against the devastation of the proletariat. What is necessary is a massive program of public works, paid at full union wages, to replace the rundown schools, hospitals, roads and public transport systems, and provide decent housing for all. Linking the fight for jobs with the demand for free quality public transport, education, healthcare and childcare would help to galvanise broad sectors of the working class and oppressed layers of women, youth, minorities and others in a determined struggle against the bosses’ attacks. Such demands will not be granted by the capitalist rulers but point to the need for workers revolution. The capitalist state—the cops, courts, prisons and military—exists to defend rapacious capitalist class rule against the workers and oppressed. The precondition for successful class struggle is the political independence of the proletariat from the bosses and their state.
In this country, the main obstacle to a class-struggle perspective is the pro-capitalist ALP parliamentary and trade-union misleaders. Whatever occasional militancy the latter may be moved to (under pressure from their working-class base), the union bureaucrats time and again bow to the bosses’ demands. From its inception the ALP was based on an explicit rejection of class struggle and the adoption of “White Australia” racism. The exclusion of “cheap” Asian labour, high tariffs and protection of domestic capital ownership was the basis of the ALP’s lie that its white working-class base could achieve prosperity by joining with their racist rulers against competitors in the region. This nationalist class-collaborationist program continues to be fostered by the Laborite misleaders today. The perspective of communists is to split the working-class base of the ALP from the Laborite politics of its leadership, centrally through forging a class-struggle leadership of the unions. Such a leadership, linked to an internationalist revolutionary workers party, would fight to lead workers at the head of all the oppressed in the struggle to sweep away capitalism through socialist revolution and establish a planned, collectivised economy under proletarian rule.
Manufacturing in “White Australia” and ALP Union-Busting
Manufacturing developed significantly in Australia when British imports dried up during the carnage of World War I. World War II led to the further development of heavy industry, chemicals and engineering, as Australian imperialism’s demand for war materials and equipment expanded. After World War II, the Australian ruling class reluctantly agreed to U.S. plans to rebuild Japan as an anti-Communist bulwark in exchange for guarantees of U.S. military protection under the ANZUS treaty, whose target first and foremost was the Soviet Union. The rebuilding of Japan fuelled further development of manufacturing in Australia as an adjunct to mining and agriculture exports. Faced with a labour shortage, largely due to stringent immigration restrictions, the post-war Chifley Labor government promoted the slogan “populate or perish.”
Expressing fear of Japan in particular, and the Asian masses in general, under this slogan the government sought to attract white immigrant workers to the country in order to build an industrial base and to serve as cannon fodder for Australian imperialism in future wars. Motivating this scheme, the minister for immigration, arch-racist Arthur Calwell, declared to federal parliament on 2 August 1945: “If Australians have learned one lesson from the Pacific War, it is surely that we cannot continue to hold our island continent for ourselves and our dependants unless we greatly increase our numbers.” When not enough “Aryans” could be persuaded to migrate, others from Northern and later Southern Europe and the Balkans were declared “white enough” to qualify.
By 1957 a new trade relationship with Japan—including supplying much of the coal and iron ore for the steel that made the Toyotas and Nissans that eventually routed their European and U.S. competitors—was key to Australia’s post-war prosperity. During the 1960s economic boom times, Australia was able to carry a highly protected, internationally uncompetitive and outmoded manufacturing industry, not least in vehicle building. This began to change in the 1970s. In 1973, the Whitlam ALP government cut tariffs across the board by 25 percent in part to check high inflation by reducing the cost of imported goods.
A decade later, the Hawke/Keating Labor government came to power promising the bourgeoisie they would modernise the economy by undertaking free market economic reforms while simultaneously keeping a lid on working-class struggle by further shackling the unions to the state. The mechanism for this was the Prices and Incomes Accord, a pact between the government, ACTU tops and bosses. It constricted union power while pushing the lie that workers would benefit by joining with the capitalist rulers in a national agreement to deliver greater productivity (i.e., increase the rate of exploitation of workers). Unions that resisted this corporatist model, such as the Builders Labourers and Pilots Federations, were ruthlessly smashed by the Labor government with the connivance of the ACTU tops.
Recognising that Australian capitalism could not prop up an inefficient government-protected manufacturing industry forever and hope to be internationally competitive, the new Labor government floated the Australian dollar, opened the financial markets to foreign banks in order to attract overseas capital investment, and further reduced tariffs. A feature of the Hawke/Keating government was the “Button car plan,” named after the industry minister, John Button. This scheme gradually withdrew tariffs protecting local vehicle builders, thereby reducing the number of plants and models, while redirecting government assistance to the more competitive export-oriented plants that survived. Many hard-won union conditions were shredded and thousands of jobs were cut. In 1992 Nissan’s Australian operation folded and in 1994 Ford’s Homebush plant in Sydney closed down.
By the early 1990s, national unemployment figures had reached double digits and the Australian economy had slumped to what federal treasurer Paul Keating called “the recession we had to have.” In an ongoing drive to increase productivity, the ALP government then embarked on a renewed union-busting offensive against major, historically militant unions covering miners and wharfies. Thirteen years of Labor government (1983-1996) drastically weakened the trade-union movement and paved the way for the savage anti-union regime of John Howard’s Liberal/National Coalition. Today the Hawke/Keating government is lauded by the capitalist rulers as a model to be emulated by future Labor regimes.
Successive Liberal and Labor governments propped up the remaining vehicle-building industry through subsidies, until now. At the same time, reduced tariffs meant a plethora of new, more fuel-efficient, less expensive overseas cars became available, with imports surpassing sales of locally produced vehicles by the mid-to-late 1990s. While the years-long minerals resources boom has somewhat masked the effects of the world economic crisis, it has sent the Australian dollar soaring, driving up the price of exports and reducing the cost of imports. This has had a further negative impact on manufacturing, especially auto. Today, particularly given Australia’s very small and highly competitive domestic market, Ford, General Motors and Toyota have decided that it is not in their profit-driven interests to continue building vehicles in Australia.
Protectionism: Job Losses and Devastation
Pushing nationalist protectionism, as the union bureaucrats do, means joining with the class enemy to help them shore up their profits, profits derived from the labour of working people here and elsewhere. We communists are without exception opposed to protectionism in imperialist countries like Australia. But nor are we partisans of “free trade.” Companies which demand free access to foreign markets do so with the sole purpose of increasing profits. The super-exploitation of cheap labour abroad and privileged access to markets for the distribution of their goods is intrinsic to the workings of the imperialist system. Capitalists go where they will make the greatest profits and they will always try to drive down wages and working conditions.
With the capitalist rulers around the world shredding jobs and seeking to slash wages, they are more than happy to whipsaw workers in one country against workers in another, having them “compete” for who can produce the most for the lowest wages in the worst conditions. The pro-capitalist union tops buy into the bosses’ divide-and-rule schemes by decrying cheap labour abroad while doing precious little to fight against the deep exploitation of labour that abounds in non-union shops “at home.” Instead, these bureaucrats preach that workers must accept sacrifice in the “national interest,” i.e., in the bosses’ interests.
In 2008, when the bosses of the three major U.S. auto giants went to Congress to appeal for a $25 billion bailout, at their side was Ron Gettelfinger, president of the United Auto Workers (UAW). Forsaking his members for the sake of making “our [American] companies competitive,” Gettelfinger bragged that the 2007 UAW contract gave up nearly $10 billion in wages and benefits to the bosses—in addition to giving up $30 billion in retiree medical benefits—and slashed wages for new hires by 50 percent! U.S. government bailouts of the auto bosses were purchased through the destruction of thousands of unionised jobs.
In a similar vein, in 2009, while the then federal ALP government handed out $6.2 billion to the auto bosses, the AMWU union tops made a deal with General Motors Holden management at the Elizabeth factory in Adelaide to drastically cut car production and workers’ pay. This deal, described as a model by the ALP government, scrapped afternoon shifts, cutting penalty pay and working hours for all employees at the plant. Far from ensuring jobs, workers across the entire industry are now threatened with lay-offs.
Outrageously, amidst this ongoing jobs massacre, a core response of the union misleaders has been a racist and divisive campaign for local workers to be employed before overseas “guest” workers. Whipping up vile nationalist poison, this grotesquely blames overseas workers for the unemployment endemic to the irrational capitalist system. It leads to pitting workers here against their class brothers and sisters abroad, the antithesis of international class struggle. In order to galvanise class-struggle unity a campaign must be waged to organise temporary overseas workers into the unions with full union wages, conditions and responsibilities. Championing immigrant rights, such a struggle would oppose all deportations and demand full citizenship rights for all “guest” workers and refugees.
A class-struggle leadership of the unions would seek to imbue working-class struggles with the program of international solidarity and struggle that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels emblazoned on the banner of the Communist movement: “Workers of the World Unite!” Both the powerful national strike of millions of Indonesian workers last November and bloody battles of Cambodian garment workers this January were sparked by workers impelled into action against their pitifully low wages. The Australian government helps to prop up brutal anti-union regimes throughout Asia in order to facilitate the super-exploitation of labour by the Australian imperialists. Thus it is in the direct and immediate interests of workers in this country to come to the defence of workers in the region. Concrete labour actions in solidarity with workers’ struggles internationally would help undercut the race to the bottom and assist in advancing the cause of the labour movement everywhere.
However today the working class is saddled with a misleadership that is loyal to capitalism, willing to give up jobs without a fight, while mobilising their members around chauvinist, class-collaborationist schemes to “make it here” or “buy Australian.” Thus after unsuccessfully lobbying the Abbott government to subsidise the SPC Ardmona fruit processing plant when the bosses threatened to close operations, the AMWU tops resorted to demanding the government “impose anti-dumping duties” on imported canned fruit! Well, if one nationally-based capitalist class can institute protectionist measures against its rivals, so can another. The result is not more jobs or better working conditions but trade war. In this epoch of imperialism, trade wars inevitably lead to shooting wars—interimperialist wars between blocs of the most powerful capitalist countries to secure untrammelled access to markets, raw materials and labour power. There have already been two such world wars at the cost of tens of millions of workers lives, wreaking untold misery on hundreds of millions across the planet.
After GMH announced the planned closure of its plants, the AMWU tops published a grovelling paper calling for a government that “stands up for jobs,” including through “a recommitment to Australian naval shipbuilding” in order to support “our Navy and our manufacturing industry.” Through such wretched Laborite nationalism, these “labour lieutenants of the capitalist class” sap the fighting strength of the proletariat and serve to line workers up behind the predatory interests of racist Australian imperialism abroad. Today, this dovetails with U.S./Australia’s military build-up in the Pacific, which targets the Chinese bureaucratically deformed workers state. As proletarian internationalists, we demand: not one person, not one cent for the Australian imperialist military!
The 1949 Chinese Revolution overthrew capitalist rule, leading to the establishment of a workers state, albeit deformed from inception under the rule of a parasitic, nationalist, bureaucratic caste. This revolution liberated the Chinese masses from the yoke of imperialism and led to the development of a collectivised economy that laid the basis for massive social progress, a historic gain for the international proletariat. Despite inroads of “market reforms,” the core of China’s economy remains collectivised. Because of the dominant weight of state-owned enterprises and banks, China has not fallen into the deep economic crisis that has ravaged most capitalist countries. To the extent that there have been jobs created in Australia in the recent period it has been because the collectivised economy of China has generated a tremendous demand for mineral resources.
The strategic aim of the imperialists is to destroy the Chinese deformed workers state and restore bourgeois rule in order to turn the Chinese mainland into one giant sweatshop for the generation of imperialist profits. The international working class must fight for the unconditional military defence of China against imperialist attack from without and capitalist counterrevolutionary forces from within. At the same time, we Trotskyists call for proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinist misrulers and to establish a regime based on workers democracy and revolutionary internationalism.
For a Planned Socialist Economy Under Workers Rule
Reformist opponents of Marxism such as Socialist Alliance (SA) and Solidarity have responded to the planned closure of GMH with calls to “nationalise Holden.” Along with some militant-sounding verbiage calling for “strong industrial action” and even “occupations,” they dip their hats to the bourgeois Greens, calling for the car plants to be retooled to manufacture renewable energy products. Nowhere in these statements do SA or Solidarity mention capitalism or socialism, let alone the need for proletarian revolution.
Calls for nationalisations, divorced from demands for the overturn of capitalist property relations, amount to recommendations on how to improve the running of the bosses’ profit system. Indeed, SA advise that “If the workers took control of the GMH plants and ran them for the benefit of the community they would be doing our[!] society a great service” (SA statement, 12 December 2013). Demands for nationalisations under capitalism can do nothing to fundamentally counteract the ravages of the boom-bust cycle of the capitalist system that periodically puts entire sections of industry out of business with devastating consequences for the working class. The only solution is the expropriation of capitalist private property through workers revolution and the international socialist construction of society.
Marxists advocate nationalisation without compensation of certain strategic sectors, such as mining. This perspective has nothing in common with social-democratic calls like SA’s for nationalisations to rescue failing capitalist enterprises. As Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky declared:
“We can say to the miner, you wish nationalization. Yes, it is our slogan. It is only the question of conditions. If the national property is too burdened with debts against former owners, your conditions can become worse than now. To base the whole proceedings upon a free agreement between the owners and the state signifies ruin of the workers. Now you must organize your own government in the state and expropriate them.”
—“For a Workers’ and Farmers’ Government,” July 1938 printed in The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (Pathfinder, 1977)
Under a planned economy administered by a workers government, collectivised industry would play a profoundly liberating role. The rational allocation of resources within the framework of an international division of labour would unleash the productive forces, paving the way to a classless society of abundance, free of all exploitation and oppression.
Unlike the servile reformists, Marxists clearly state that there are no simple trade-union or nationally delimited solutions to the jobs onslaught confronting workers today. Capitalist decay and mass unemployment can only be effectively fought by a workers movement led by those committed to the elimination of capitalist wage slavery through socialist revolution. In the current reactionary period, the prospect for successful class struggle may seem remote to many. However, as shown by sporadic outbursts such as the mass picket by construction workers at the Grocon Emporium site in Melbourne in 2012 and the recent struggles of workers in Southeast Asia, the capitalist mode of production propels the working class to do battle against its exploiters.
The anger of workers and the poor must be organised around a revolutionary Marxist program. The multiracial working class needs an internationalist vanguard party that represents its objective and historic interests. The model for such a party is the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky, which led the workers to power in the October 1917 Russian Revolution. The Spartacist League of Australia, as part of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist), is committed to building such a revolutionary Marxist party to lead the proletariat, at the head of all the oppressed, in sweeping away the entire capitalist system of wage slavery, repression and war. If humanity is to have a future, those who labour must rule! For a Workers Republic of Australia, part of a socialist Asia!