After 64 years manufacturing in Australia, and taking billions in government subsidies, General Motors Holden has announced its Australian factories will close in 2017. At least 3000 workers face the sack and up to 45,000 jobs in the auto component industry are at risk.

Shamefully, no one—not the Labor opposition, not The Greens and not the car union leaders in the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU)—is proposing a fight for the Holden workers’ jobs.

But there could be a fight for jobs: if the union leaders gave a lead, a campaign of industrial action could cut off Holden’s profits and exports, and appeal for broader support. Workplace occupations could prevent Holden removing any valuable stock and equipment.

If Holden will not keep the plants running, the company could be nationalised.

Make GM pay

The media has blamed Holden workers and the unions for pricing themselves out of a job. But General Motors’ Australian factories are, in fact, the most productive in the world. Workers have made concession after concession—only for the GM bosses to pocket the money and then cut jobs anyway. The current enterprise agreement, signed in April 2013, locks in a wage freeze, while forcing every worker to work 16 minutes longer each shift for free.

In 2008, at the height of the economic crisis, Holden workers agreed to work half-shifts and take a huge pay cut to keep operations going.

Tony Abbott is offering only $100 million to South Australia and Victoria to retrain sacked Holden workers. It’s a joke.

When Mitsubishi closed in 2008 only a third of its workers ever found full-time work again. Holden workers will be thrown on the scrap heap without a fight to keep the jobs.

In 2012, GM made a global profit of $7.6 billion. They can afford to keep the factories open.

Right wing commentators say that the lesson of Holden’s closure is that Toyota workers must sacrifice wages to keep Toyota manufacturing in Australia.

So far, the unions have resisted Toyota’s demands. But the risk is the officials will give in the same way they gave in at Holden. As the Financial Review revealed, “Many of the things Toyota wants—the shorter Christmas lockdown, fewer sickies, lower rates for new temps and freedom to use them—were agreed to by [the AMWU at] Holden.”

Nationalise Holden

Over the last 12 years Holden’s profits averaged $50 million per year. Australian taxpayers gave the company on average $153 million per year.

This means all the investments in plant and equipment has been bought by taxpayers. Successive governments have handed the car industry $30 billion since 1997—almost $2 billion a year of public money.

Australian workers have already paid for Holden’s Australian factories; they belong to the workers. If Holden won’t guarantee the jobs, we must fight to nationalise Holden—for a take over of its factories under workers’ control.

But the official political response has been split between two poles—the free marketeers who argue that nothing can be done, and the protectionists who argue that the government should have acted to keep Holden here by offering further subsidies.

Abbott’s free market “do nothing” strategy shows his contempt for workers’ jobs. The Coalition government itself is sacking up to 14,500 public servants.

The protectionist argument of the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU) and the Labor Party claims to be about saving jobs. Their approach means subordinating wages, conditions and the right to a job to Holden ability to make profits.

Rather than organise the fight that’s needed, AMWU officials have even painted Holden as the good guys, arguing that Holden’s bosses have been fighting to keep operations in Australia.

Cosying up to the bosses and handing them subsidies hasn’t worked. In March 2012 the Gillard Labor government gave Holden another $215 million, claiming this would keep the company in Australia “for at least the next 10 years”. Within 13 months Holden had announced another 680 job cuts.

It will take an industrial fight against both Holden and Abbott to save the jobs.

Alternate plans?

The day before Holden announced its closure, Holden boss Mike Devereaux told the Productivity Commission that to have to have a future in Australia, Holden needed a “Public Private Partnership” with government.

South Australian Labor Premier, Jay Weatherill, has proposed turning Holden’s Adelaide plant into a government armaments factory as part of the $10 billion “Land 400” project.

Another proposal is to make the Holden factory part of the Port Adelaide defence shipbuilding Techport facility. In other words the Labor government can envisage the government taking over the plant (no doubt compensating Holden) if it is to be part of increasing Australia’s military capability.

Rather than turning potentially useful manufacturing capacity over to the military, the nationalisation of Holden could see it converted—to building large-public transport vehicles, wind turbines and the green technology that we need to tackle climate change.

By Jean Parker

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