Australia: Chef Cookers factory struggle sabotaged

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Late last year, the 520 workers at the Chef Cookers (domestic stoves) factory in Brunswick, in Melbourne, Australia, were told that the factory would be closed soon. Only one month before, the union covering these workers had "negotiated" a limitation in provisions for redundancy packages. This right wing union, the Australian Workers' Union, is notorious for its reactionary role. It has long been militantly pro-capitalist and, for at least a century, been a major source of racism and virulent Australian nationalism in the "labour movement". The State Government, currently run by the Australian Labor Party, parades as a sort of Aussie version of Tony Blair's "Third Way". In November last year, in fact, this government invoked draconian Essential Services legislation that the previous Liberal/National Party Coalition Government had not dared use, to help bludgeon power workers to end their wildcat strike (see World Revolution 240). Neither of these forces - neither the AWU nor the State ALP - was therefore able to pose as a militant opponent of the planned factory closure, when it was announced.

This created a potential problem for a ruling class which is all too aware that it is essential to deflect workers' anger at the worsening epidemic of factory closures down harmless dead ends. All was not lost, however: enter the Trotskyists. Public meetings, demonstrations, rallies and petitions condemning the ‘ruthlessness’ of the company have been organised, principally by the International Socialist Organisation (ISO). The ISO has spearheaded a campaign, which it describes as "a broad united front with the Australian Workers Union, local councillors, ALP politicians and concerned residents" (ISO web site). This has made it much easier for the union to wear down workers' resistance to the planned closure.

Anti-working class campaign

This anti-working class campaign has enabled the union and even the Labor State Government to appear as if they are prepared to stand behind the workers who are under the gun. Thus, when AWU State Secretary, Bill Shorten, claims that the workers themselves were responsible for the savaging of their redundancy provisions, the ISO dutifully repeats his arguments on their web site. When the workers need to develop links with other groups of workers, and begin talking to them of a common plan of action, the ISO proposes protest stunts and petitions. When ALP MPs ‘denounce’ the planned closure in the name of Australian nationalism and Victorian parochialism, the ISO reprints the MPs’ sickening appeals word-for-word on its web site. When the AWU proposes that the workers ‘blockade’ the plant if ‘negotiations fail’, the ISO concurs enthusiastically, and proposes that the workers use an even more ‘militant’ means to cut themselves off from other workers in struggle, by extending any blockade to an occupation.

Disagreements between the ISO, on the one hand, and the AWU and the Labor Party on the other, are presented as proof that the ISO are the only force prepared to go all the way for the workers. In fact, this is a convenient - and necessary - division of labour within the left wing of capital. The ISO’s principal role in this campaign is to provide pseudo-militant credentials to the AWU and at least some of the ALP MPs. But, for those workers who see through the lies and subterfuges of the traditional left, the ISO is there to divert them into the safe terrain of the radical left wing of capital. An ISO Socialist Worker article argues: “If Email still refuse to keep the factory open, the Premier, Steve Bracks, should come in and nationalize the factory, keeping it open and returning the profits to the people” - as if state monopolies ever belonged to the working class, and have not always been just another form of capitalism, which have been shedding workers in great numbers in all countries in recent years, just like the private sector corporations. Any worker who follows this, by identifying with nationalised industry, is tying himself, not to the interests of his own class, but to those of the capitalists.

Attacking workers’ consciousness

The ISO’s main slogan in this campaign has been the old Stalinist ‘people before profits’ - a sheer impossibility for capitalism at any time (such an enterprise would not see out a month of trading!), let alone in the middle of capital’s gravest ever economic crisis! In fact, the ISO sharply denies capital’s crisis, spreading the illusion that the closure is planned simply out of pure greed, by a corporation making record profits. By so doing, the leftists are severely attacking workers’ consciousness. After all, if capital is not in a serious crisis which threatens humanity with wars and worse, what need is there for a fight to the finish?

Indeed, the leftists are doing all that they can to restrict the Chef Cookers workers to ineffectual action in one suburb. The leaflets, articles and speeches of the AWU and the leftists alike are replete with references to the need to unite with the so called ‘Brunswick community’. The ISO have a ‘community telephone tree’, you see. What more could you want?

Only the ICC has spoken out against this reactionary nonsense. As the ICC leaflet distributed at the last rally put it, the threatened closure of the factory is “not a struggle by ‘Brunswick workers’ but a part of the struggle of the entire working class against the economic crisis of capitalism”. Chef workers, like all workers facing such attacks, need to understand their struggle in this context in order to see that all those, like the unions or the Labor Party or leftists, who would have them defend ‘their’ national or regional industry are their enemies. Their strength lies only in uniting with other workers.

ICC Leaflet

The stated purpose of today’s rally is to ask Email/Electrolux why it puts ‘profits before people’ and why it ignores ‘demands of the workers, the union and the local community to keep the factory open’. The organisers of this protest campaign include Bill Shorten, State Secretary of the Australian Workers Union, Labor MPs Carlo Carli and Kelvin Thomson, and the International Socialist Organisation (Socialist Worker).

No-one can doubt the sincerity of ordinary workers involved in this and earlier protests; we do not doubt that these workers simply want to stop the closure of the Chef Cookers factory — and the 520 sackings it will cause. The authors of this leaflet are just as determined to support any workers’ action which will fight against the rising tide of mass sackings. So we also believe that it is absolutely crucial to avoid tactics which have been shown time and again to not only fail, but to lead workers to disaster. We need to all do some hard thinking about how workers can begin to be successful. As workers opposed to all the capitalists’ plans to make the working class pay for the crisis of the bosses’ economic system, we also believe that it is vital to speak frankly about the traps being set for workers in the current campaign.

Chef workers’ situation is a problem for all workers

The first trap is to think that the problem of Chef Cookers’ workers is a problem just for ‘Victorian workers’ or the ‘Brunswick community’. The reality is that capitalism is in the grip of a very serious economic crisis all over the world. Workers are being sacked in every country; this is symptomatic of very serious economic problems for the capitalists’ system — not just a problem in Brunswick! So we need to look for methods of struggle which unite the mass of workers in action, instead of limiting ourselves to protests in one suburb.

Every worker can see that conditions are getting tougher — that is, that the capitalists are trying to make workers pay for this crisis of the bosses’ system. In every country right now, prices are rising, as the real value of our pay drops, social security is cut to the bone, and mass sackings occur. Even under the Federal Government’s dodgy figures, at least 44,000 full-time jobs were lost in December 2000 alone throughout Australia.

The Australian Workers Union and the MPs involved in the Chef Cookers campaign admit that employers are carrying out massive sackings. But the unions and the ALP MPs still claim that a solution can be found within capitalism. While AWU State Secretary Bill Shorten and even the ALP MPs talked vaguely about ‘action’ at the start of their campaign in order to give themselves credibility, they have shown their real intentions more recently. The ALP State Government and the AWU have written to Electrolux, proposing that it allow workers to buy the factory. This would entail workers handing over their pitiful redundancy payments to Electrolux. (Don’t forget that the AWU negotiated a reduction in such payments only one month before the announcement was made to close the factory!) According to the Herald Sun of 7 February, workers would make the factory viable then resell it to Electrolux: “My advisers believe it’s possible to structure a deal that would give Electrolux a healthy injection of cash with no risk”, says Shorten.

In other words, the ‘solution’ is to make Chef workers capitalists. But this could only be viable if the workers acted like capitalists everywhere who are faced with profitability problems. That is, the directors appointed to direct the factory must run it ruthlessly — like any other business— cutting the workforce, and speeding up production. This is the only way it could compete on the international market — as it must, or find itself being outsold by more ruthless international competitors. And there is no guarantee that this strategy would work even for the small group of former Chef employees not sacked by the new ‘worker directors’. This ‘solution’ has been tried in many countries and the end result is always failure as far as jobs preservation is concerned. And, by turning workers into two bob capitalists, it is also guaranteed to divide those facing sacking off from the rest of the working class.

The ‘solution’ being proposed by the union and the Labor Party is really a deadly trap: workers would hand back their redundancy payments, be compelled to act like capitalist bloodsuckers and still probably end up on the street! In the process, they would destroy any possibility of a united fight by themselves against the capitalists’ attacks, in conjunction with other workers.

Workers have only themselves to rely upon

Some others in this campaign say they agree that a buyout is not the solution and that the alternative is action. However, they propose signing petitions and occupying the factory. Petitions (saying ‘please’ to the boss) have never changed anything, but what about occupations? According to the leftists around the paper Socialist Worker, (Bulletin No. 3, in December 2000) an occupation would stop the transfer of machinery “and would be a beacon of resistance for workers across Australia”, allowing “other Email workers” to “build solidarity action”.

Once again, the history of workers’ struggles tells a different story. It is true that some very militant workers have occupied their factories throughout history, but the result is never that these factories become ‘beacons of resistance’ to other workers. The real outcome is that the workers lock-up their struggle inside their individual factories or corporations, cutting themselves off from other workers who could support them if asked to join them in united strike action.

This is not a struggle by ‘Brunswick workers’ as the organisers of this campaign claim. It is a part of the struggle of the entire working class against the economic crisis of capitalism. So it is time that Chef workers took the ‘campaign’ out of the hands of the community committee organised by their false friends the AWU, the Labor Party and Socialist Worker — who have all shown that they work for the capitalists’ interests — so that they can take real united action with other workers who want to fight back against the capitalists’ attacks. The unions, the ALP and the bogus socialists all serve the class enemy. All workers have only themselves to rely upon.

Instead of a so-called people’s campaign by the ‘community of Brunswick’, this means taking the fight out of the back streets of Brunswick, to other workers willing to consider taking fighting action. Instead of protests pleading with the boss to ‘put people before profits’, and to let the workers buy the factory, it is time for Chef workers to take their fight to other workers. Massive delegations can be sent to other workplaces, beginning in the northern suburbs.

A real workers’ campaign can be built on the basis of this bold action. Regular, frequent, general assemblies of all workers involved can decide on appropriate action to draw other workers into the fight. Action can include workers’ demonstrations and industrial action, including strike action. A working class action campaign is the only way that our class can muster its strength as a class, and potentially force the capitalists to retreat.

ICC, 14/2/2001