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It's a corporate crisis: let the corporations pay

By Tim Gooden, Secretary Geelong and Regional Trades and Labour Council

At an Australia Day reception, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said of the economic crisis: ``In these times, employers must do their utmost to protect their workers from dismissal, knowing that these workers will serve them well when times turn good again.''

Tell that to the 1850 workers sacked by Pacific Brands, or the 3300 set to be axed by BHP Billiton or Rio Tinto's 2000 or any of the 23,000 who have been shown the door by corporate Australia since June last year.

Many employers are saying “we are all in the same boat” facing the global economic crisis. But most of the rhetoric from government and big business has been about preparing workers to pay for the crisis.

All the calls have been for wage freezes, shorter working week, cuts to immigration and increases in government subsidies to support industries.

Workers did not create this economic crisis. It's not workers that have been speculating on the futures market. Yet it is workers that spend and create the demand that brings about economic growth.

Unions want to save our members' jobs and ensure they maintain their living standards. The global financial crisis isn’t just clipping the wings of grossly overpaid bank executives and speculators in shonky “financial instruments”. It’s going to hit ordinary working people hard.

Areas where unemployment rates are higher than the national average willbe worst hit. And it won’t be just blue collar workers in traditional manufacturing, like the several hundreds at Ford Geelong. Victoria University in Melbourne’s West recently announced redundancies: 250 staff (19% of teaching and general staff). Meanwhile BHP's decision to close the Ravensworth nickel mine will completely devastate the entire town.

Economic figures show that while productivity increased 79% between 1979 and today, real wages have only increased 12%. Employers took the cream during the boom – now they expect workers to pay for the downturn.

There are a number of things we can do in Geelong. First of all manufacturing employers should be attending the Geelong Manufacturing Council to contribute to workout solutions. There are already good programs and funding to support business transition to more efficient operations and moves to develop sustainable production and the creation of ‘green jobs’. Training and planning for future challenges is critical for long term viability.

We need a single office front that can support all workers and businesses that are going through transition -- a single point that can identify what jobs are coming and going and any skill gaps in those changes in order to make sure the correct training and support programs are in place to meet the needs of workers and businesses.

Unions should also be campaigning for government intervention that is aimed at job-rich spending. The government has a responsibility to spend money to keep people employed and provide services, not to stimulate profits. Neither should the government be looking to cut public sector jobs – that will only make things worse. Long-term investment in public transport infrastructure and the transition to environmentally sustainable production is a must. The Government should focus on real practical changes such as:
  • Giving pensioners and the unemployed a living wage now, at the very least 35% of average weekly earnings.
  • Speed up public spending on sorely needed infrastructure. Invest in rail, renewable energy, and decent public housing, health and education
  • Nationalise the banks and run them in the community interest, beginning with the re-nationalisation of the Commonwealth Bank.
This might seem an “extreme” policy to some, but l the US and British governments have already conducted crisis nationalisations.

Some companies will go broke, indeed some already have. When this happens, a factory closure must be stopped until the unions and the government sees what part of such a plant could be used and retooled to carry out socially useful alternative production Let's hear the union leaderships really demand this approach from governments who say they put "working families first.

The Australian manufacturing base as a whole should be kept running, if necessary by worker/union control to force the Federal government and state governments to take a stand. Big business should be forced to make special payments to help fund the operation.

Finally, let's see the ACTU and our union leaderships fight for industrial legislation that tears up Work Choices. Only decent, enforceable employment laws will prevent workers from further exploitation. The corporations made the current economic mess: working people and their organisations need all the strength they can command to help clean it up.

Tim Gooden - Secretary Geelong and Regional Trades and Labour Council. This commentary was originally published in the Geelong Times

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