The car industry unions are happy.
PM Kevin Rudd got plenty of media coverage so he is really happy. The Greens have also welcomed the deal. But there are serious problems with the plan that workers in the car industry cannot afford to ignore because it affects them and their families directly.
If the government is going to spend $6.2 billion of taxpayers’ money, there should be guarantees in place. Jobs should be guaranteed.
A long-term future for manufacturing in Australia should be guaranteed. A move towards a green, sustainable industry should be guaranteed. The car industry bailout does none of these things. The government provides the cash but leaves the decisions about how it gets used to the big car companies alone. The only guarantee the government has given is that this bailout will soften the job losses in the car industry in the long run. Industry minister Kim Carr confirmed this in public. He refused to say more job losses, or even factory closures, will be prevented under the plan. This bailout is not designed to protect workers but to keep the car companies profitable. Despite the bailout, the Rudd government has already given the go-ahead for the companies to sack even more people if they want. The bailout provides no long-term solutions for the car industry in Australia.
Worldwide, the car industry is in a deep crisis. The parent companies of Ford and Holden are demanding the US government spend US$25 billion (about A$36 billion) to rescue them there as well. Many commentators are saying that even this huge amount won’t be enough. There is nothing in Rudd’s bailout plan that will prevent the US owners simply pocketing the $6.2 billion and deciding to scale back their Australian operations. The former head of Mitsubishi Australia, Graham Spurling, has even told the media that he predicts Ford and Holden will do just that.
The point is not that we can take Spurling’s notions as an immediate certainty. It’s that we are dealing with one of the most greedy and socially irresponsible industries around. It will act in its own interests — not in the interests of workers or the environment. For decades, big car companies have avoided making the big structural changes necessary for the industry to survive into the future in a sustainable way. The technology for electric cars is at least 20 years old. But they have not developed it commercially because the retooling and other costs would have impacted on their bottom line in the short term. And this happened despite them being among the biggest recipients of government subsidies for years.
The Rudd government argues that it is dealing with this by making $1.3 billion available to support green car technology. Under the plan the government will provide $1 for every $3 the industry invests. The problem is that this still leaves the future of green vehicles in the hands of a declining industry that is losing money fast. The climate scientists are saying we need to make an urgent move away from burning fossil fuels for energy and transport.
Direct government investment in green and renewable technology is what we really need. We can’t afford to allow the car companies to dictate the pace of green technology development. The temptation is to just support the bailout as a short-term fix and hope for the best. But the union movement also has to look after the long-term interests of its members. This also includes the welfare of the children and grandchildren of its members, who represent the future.
A job-rich, green economy and a safe climate for our children must be central union concerns. There is an alternative for Australian manufacturing that does have a long-term future. It is not an easy road. But the easy road doesn’t exist anymore — not at a time when economic crisis and climate crisis have combined, posing a serious threat.
To begin with, the government should immediately guarantee that not one car industry worker will lose their livelihoods because the billionaires who own the companies have run the industry into the ground. We need manufacturing workers — they are people with the skills and know-how to make the transition to a green economy possible.
At the same time, we unionists should launch a campaign for a sustainable and publicly owned car industry in Australia. We need a public industry in the same way we have public education and public health systems.
[Tim Gooden is secretary of the Geelong and Region Trades and Labour Council and a member of the Socialist Alliance.]
From: Comment & Analysis, Green Left Weekly issue #777 3 December 2008.