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Workers take on another US multinational with mass strike at Alcoa

Danny O.

Around 1,600 workers in Western Australia employed at multiple facilities owned by giant US aluminium manufacturer Alcoa yesterday voted to return to work after taking strike action lasting 52 days. The workers, members of the Australian Workers Union (AWU), took the initial decision to stop work on August 8th after over 18 months of failed negotiations on a new EBA.

The workers are employed at Alcoa’s alumina refineries at Kwinana, Pinjarra, and Wagerup as well as the bauxite mines at Huntley and Willowdale. Bauxite is the primary ore from which alumina is produced, which is then turned into aluminium. 

A major sticking point of the dispute has been the issue of job security and redundancies. In early September, the workers overwhelmingly opted to continue the strike after 80% once again voted down Alcoa’s proposed agreement as management continued to refuse to offer the job security that workers were asking for. The decision to return to work yesterday was reportedly made after Alcoa management succumbed to the pressure of the striking workers and agreed to include the AWU’s proposed wording for clauses relating to job security in the revised EBA.  

Alcoa, making full use of the current oppressive anti-worker laws, retaliated to the decision of the workers to take strike action by applying to the Fair Work Commission (FWC) to simply have the agreement terminated. If Alcoa’s application is successful it will mean devastating cuts of up to 50% in wages and the destruction of conditions that have been fought for and won by workers over the last 30 years, gone at the stroke of a pen. This has become a common tactic for companies in recent years which come up against the resistance of workers who refuse to simply lay down and accept inferior conditions. It’s a devasting weapon in the bosses’ arsenal which essentially forces workers to negotiate while management holds a gun to their heads!

Despite the intimidation and threats of the company, the striking workers have stood strong and resolute in defence of their wages and conditions knowing that their struggle is a fight for the conditions of all Australian workers. 24-hour picket lines were maintained across the multiple facilities during the course of the strike, and rallies were held outside the FWC during the week-long hearing.

Although the workers have voted to return to work, the dispute is far from over. In mid-October, Alcoa will again present a proposed EBA to be voted on. While some concessions may have been gained on job security, it remains to be seen whether the company will present an offer that the workers think is reasonable. Furthermore, the FWC is still yet to hand down its decision on whether to grant Alcoa’s wish to terminate the agreement all together. The stark reality of the FWC as a bosses’ industrial court means a positive outcome for the workers is unlikely. The situation remains uncertain and the workers may be forced to take strike action again before long.     

Multinationals dominate the industry
Following on from ExxonMobil’s attacks on offshore gas workers in Longford, Victoria last year, it comes as no surprise that it is yet another giant US multinational (and member of the Business Council of Australia) attempting to gut the conditions of some of the best organised workers in one of the most important industries in Australia. The workers in Longford have been taking on the might of the US oil and gas supermajor for over 460 days now. 
(For previous Vanguard articles on the Longford dispute see: http://www.cpaml.org/class3.php?id=600 and http://www.cpaml.org/class3.php?id=581 )

Much like how US multinationals ExxonMobil and Chevron control a major share of Australia’s gas resources, Alcoa owns a significant stake in Australia’s sizeable aluminium industry which is highly concentrated in the hands of a tiny number of companies.

Australia is reportedly the single largest producer of bauxite accounting for approximately 30% of world output. There are currently only 5 bauxite mines in Australia – two are owned by Alcoa, two are owned by subsidiaries of British-Australian miner Rio Tinto (Rio Tinto Alcan and Pacific Aluminium), and one by South32.

Australia is also the world’s second largest producer of alumina. Currently 6 alumina refineries are operational here – three are owned by Alcoa, two by Rio Tinto Alcan, and one by South32. 

Australia is also the world’s fifth largest producer of aluminium with 4 smelters operational at present, with the Rio Tinto subsidiaries holding major stakes in three and Alcoa holding a majority stake in one. 

International competitiveness comes at the expense of workers
The alumina and aluminium industry in Australia is geared towards servicing the global market with approximately 80% of products made here destined for export. This means the industry is highly susceptible to the fluctuations of the world market and the intense competition for profits between the giant corporations that dominate it. 

A looming overproduction crisis causing instability in the international aluminium market due to soaring Chinese production levels (China accounts for over 50% of world aluminium production), associated international trade tensions between China and the US, as well as uncertainty around high domestic electricity prices (aluminium production requires massive amounts of electricity) are certain to all be contributing factors behind Alcoa’s attacks as they attempt to maintain their profit rate by increasing the exploitation of the workers who make it.

Alcoa has a recent history of devasting Australian working conditions in recent years as it tries to remain “internationally competitive”. In 2014, Alcoa closed the Point Henry aluminium smelter near Geelong, Victoria as well as rolling mills in Geelong and Western Sydney. In 2015, the coal mine and power station in Anglesea that serviced the Point Henry smelter was also closed. The closures meant the destruction of over 1,000 jobs and came at a time of ongoing closures in the foreign multinational dominated car manufacturing industry, compounding the woes of a key sector of the Australian working class. 

And who can forget the utter act of bastardry committed by Alcoa against the workers aboard the MV Portland in 2016. The ship carried alumina for 27 years from Alcoa’s facilities in WA to its smelter in Portland, Victoria. Workers occupied the ship owned by the US multinational in protest after the company announced its intention to replace the unionised crew and Australian ship with a foreign vessel and cheap foreign labour to sail the same route. The occupation lasted 2 months until Alcoa used hired goons to forcibly remove the crew in the dead of the night, and escort a scab crew on board which immediately sailed the ship towards Singapore for decommission.   

Nationalisation under working class control is the only long-term solution
The CPA (M-L) has long maintained that foreign multinational corporations constitute the decisive core of Australian monopoly capitalism and dominate our economy. The growing number of workers finding themselves in the front line of attacks from multinational corporations like Alcoa and ExxonMobil are gaining a sharp awareness of this domination. 

As the attacks on the working class in Australia continue, the stark reality that the oppressive industrial relations laws and Fair Work Commission are designed to support these big corporations and maintain the exploitative system of capitalism will become more and more apparent to working people around the country.   

In opposition, we advance the position of fighting for a truly independent and socialist Australia led by the working class. This would see the multinationals taken over and run by the working class to meet the needs of Australia’s society and its people, not for the profit of a few corporations and shareholders around the world. Long term, this is the only solution which will allow the interests of working people in this country to be truly protected. While the courageous Alcoa workers in WA might be back at work for now, it won’t be long before the US giant starts its next round of attacks.

 

Workers take on another US multinational with mass strike at Alcoa
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Workers take on another US multinational with mass strike at Alcoa
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