by Philip Ferguson
Hundreds of industrial jobs have been taken off workers this month.
A hundred jobs are set to go at Tiwai Point aluminium smelter by November. Southland region EPMU organiser Trevor Hobbs says, “If the smelter closed, the flow on affect would be devastating to Invercargill.” The smelter is owned by global giant Rio Tinto, which is trying to get lower electricity prices from state-owned Meridian power company.
The Tasman mill in Kawerau is also taking away around 100 workers’ jobs. The mill began in the early 1950s and at its height in the late 1970s and early 1980s employed around 2,400 workers; by 1998 this had dropped to 1,200 and by the start of this year it was a mere 280-290. Now it is set to fall to below 200.
In Kawerau itself, unemployment is already almost 14% while 25% of its 6921 inhabitants receive some kind of benefit. Many of the Tasman workers whose jobs are being taken off them live outside the town; the wider eastern Bay of Plenty region is being hit, a region already marked by unemployment and poverty
Elsewhere, Solid Energy has now confirmed the scope of its axe-work on jobs. Spring Creek mine on the West Coast is confirmed as being shut, with 360 jobs being taken away by this state-owned capitalist firm. Coming on top of the Pike River disaster, this is an especially harsh blow for the Coast. At Solid Energy’s Huntly mine in the eastern Waikato, 63 regular jobs and 60 contractor jobs will go and in other Solid Energy divisions 163 jobs will go, double the number it suggested last month.
West Coast miners have been told by Canterbury Employers Chamber of Commerce CEO Peter Townsend not to worry too much because they can leave their homes and communities and come to Christchurch and join in the rebuild!
Solid Energy isn’t the only case of workers’ employment being taken away by what the liberal left refer to as “our assets”. KiwiRail is planning to lay off nearly 160 staff in its infrastructure and engineering division in Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington and Christchurch. A second round of job cuts is expected next March, as “our asset”, like the profit-driven capitalist company it actually is, attempts to cut $200 million from its expenditure over the coming three years.
What has been the response of the unions to these kinds of layoffs?
Wayne Butson, general secretary of the Rail and Maritime Transport Union, has noted that the skills being lost at KiwiRail are not those that can be learned from a short video or being taken out to the track, but skills that are built up over years of work in the industry. He argues that “it beggars belief” that this should be happening when rail is, or could be, such a vital means of transport compared to road use.
In one sense he’s right. It’s incredibly short-sighted to take away such skilled jobs, especially while the state is spending $12 billion on roads. But this is simply how capitalism works. It’s about maximising profit today, not about what is environmentally more sensible or what is more rational long-term in terms of moving goods and people around the country and providing socially useful employment. Since KiwiRail is a capitalist company it is driven by the same market imperatives that privately-owned capitalist companies are.
The response of the EPMU to the Tasman jobs cuts has been to combine nationalistic rhetoric with accepting the need for a chunk of redundancies and merely trying to save a few jobs through the ‘consultation’ process with the bosses. EPMU national secretary Bill Newson has been upset, for instance, that Norske Skog has upgraded one of its mills in Australia with the help of tens of millions of state aid and reckons “It’s time our government showed the same kind of support for kiwi jobs.” He wants National to develop a plan to help the development of the manufacturing sector in New Zealand, a sector which would, of course, continue to be capitalist.
In Invercargill, the EPMU’s response to the job losses at Tiwai Point is to organise a postcard campaign. EPMU director of organising Alan Clarence says the poster campaign is “about saving the smelter and the town [Invercargill], and we want the government to step up, get involved and help broker a deal with Meridi So, again, the answer is to get National to change course and get one capitalist business (Meridian) to lower its prices to another capitalist business (Rio Tinto). Not surprisingly Bill English’s press secretary Joanne Black responded, “the Government will not be intervening in commercial negotiations that occur between two companies.” While the EPMU and much of the left may not understand the realities of the market and the role of state-owned enterprises within that, Bill English and his flunkeys certainly do.
The EPMU also organises the coal miners and is currently “looking at” Solid Energy’s job loss proposal. On the West Coast, however, miners have taken to the streets to protest, with a 1,000-strong worker and community march last week.
A dozen West Coast miners and some EPMU officials stood on the steps of parliament yesterday while Greymouth mayor Tony Kokshoorn presented the workers’ and local communities’ case for government assistance to State-Owned Enterprises minister Tony Ryall and also joined their token protest. But the whole point of state-owned enterprises is, unlike say the old government departments before 1984, to make the maximum profits possible, so Ryall is not likely to intervene to protect jobs.
Moreover, the focus of going cap in hand to the government, which owns these profit-driven companies and both demands and ensures their profitability, is all wrong to the point of slavishness. Don’t plea with the exploiters – fight them.
Believing there is nothing they can do about the situation, however, for years now workers have, like most union leaderships, frequently been prepared to simply roll over when faced with job losses. This has occurred even in situations where the loss of jobs has been devastating for their communities as well as themselves. Sometimes there has been a token protest. At the Ports of Auckland earlier this year there was a more serious fight, and the company – once again a state-owned company (albeit in that case the local state rather than the national state – had to back off. (We ran over 30 pieces on this dispute: see here.)
While many of the workers who are having their jobs taken away are angry, their main feelings seem to be frustration, disappointment and resignation. As long as these emotions prevail, nothing much will change. Unless workers start to realise we don’t have to accept this shite and start to put up some serious resistance, linking this to an alternative view of how the economic and human resources of society might be organised better, the defeats and the demoralisation will continue.
Bill Newson has noted, “Mass redundancies are becoming an all too familiar pattern. . . Unless the government changes course urgently the jobs crisis will only get worse.” But another way of viewing this might be to say “Union’ and workers’ surrender is becoming an all too familiar pattern. Unless the union movement changes course the jobs crisis will only get worse.”
After all these years of dealing with such companies, it seems pointless to complain about them unless you’re prepared to fight the source of the problem – capitalism itself.
But the dominant elements atop the unions simply have no alternative. The ostensibly radical left is too weak numerically and too feeble politically to pose an alternative at even the most propagandistic level. And the working class is largely absent from its own cause.
For anything to change, there will have to emerge, within the working class, a new set of politics, based on opposition to the very system that can’t function without regularly ruining workers’ lives. Out of such a vanguard layer of workers, a serious – ie revolutionary – left can be built and we can start to challenge capitalism and organise for a new society, one based on freedom and material abundance for all.
Further reading: How capitalism works – and doesn’t work