Thursday, 5 May 2022

Yes, we did have a car industry

once upon a time. It was quite a while ago now.

As a child I remember occasionally being in the "traffic jam" that occurred at the changeover of shifts at the Holden plant  on the main road from the port into the city. The Senior Cat always tried to avoid those times because it was, back then, very busy. Now I suppose it would be considered part of the normal traffic - except that it is daily traffic, not the car plant.

The car plant there went a very long time ago. The car plants south and north of the city have gone too. I can still remember the local sign used by the deaf to describe that someone worked at one of those places. 

Long before that I can remember my paternal grandfather making suits for the managers in those places. Grandpa would bring home scraps of the real leather they used for the seats. He would cut the scraps into small coin purses, punch holes around the edges and thread them with yet more fine leather strips. They were then given to charities as fund raisers. I know someone who still uses one for her keys.

I wonder what my grandfather would make of the demise of the car industry here. Somehow I doubt it would surprise him. He was always aware of what he called "disgraceful waste" - even the leather scraps were considered to be that. 

Back then union membership was compulsory in the car industry. It was compulsory in a number of other places as well. There was nothing like the Administrative Appeals Tribunal or the Fair Work Commission. You relied on the union for the next pay rise and issues of  unfair dismissal. 

There is no car industry here now. It never really paid its way. It was a drain on the taxpayers for years. Union demands for ever increasing pay and conditions did not help. By the time they were realised what was happening and tried to save it by shedding some of the over blown workforce, bringing in "efficiency measures" and taking a pay cut it was simply too late. Yes, it put thousands of people out of work - some of them very skilled people.

Producing cars is not cheap. Cars are very complex things. They require all sorts of skills. These skills are usually repetitive - so much so that much of it can be done by robots. Was it Fiat that had the almost completely automated factory in Italy? (I may be wrong about that.)

Yesterday someone tried to tell me that it was entirely the fault of the present government's predecessors that the car industry failed here. They tried to claim that the present opposition party could have saved it. The reality is that, even by spending billions, they could not have done that.  Much cheaper cars were being made in other places. 

The same is unfortunately true of other industries here. We lost a lot of wool industry work - scouring, spinning and weaving all went. We had some of the very best in the world but we priced ourselves out of the market.

The present opposition is trying to tell us that we can return to those halcyon days of genuine high levels of employment. We can't of course. To do that people would have to accept genuine pay cuts and a lower standard of living. We are living beyond our means now and attempts to lower expectations are not working. 

Another person listening to the conversation we were having suddenly asked, "I wonder what would happen if everyone took a ten percent pay cut."

I wonder too - would even a five percent cut actually leave us better off? It sounds like a contradiction but it might help.


No comments: