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Reflections From Working In The Car Industry In SA

Written by: Ned K. on 30 October 2020


When I was in my early 20s, I worked in a large car factory in SA for a few years. Previously I had worked in the food processing industry. In both industries in the big workplaces with more than one hundred workers, union membership was close to 100% of all workers. There was also a culture of workers electing their union reps for their departments. Collective action by members over company rejection of log of claims or over company attempts to speed up production lines were common. This was particularly the case in the large car plants like the one I worked in where there were thousands of workers. 

In the car factories there was on-going struggle by workers not only against the multinational car company owners, but also against the union official leadership who played more of a role of controlling workers rather than leading and supporting them in winning their demands.

Luckily for me, the car factory that I worked in had already developed active rank and file organisation which any car worker, not just departmental union reps could join. The company and the union officials were opposed to this level of organisation among workers, fearing that they would lose control of the workers. Workers involved in the rank and file organisation produced and distributed leaflets to let workers know what was going on in all areas of the factory and also exposed collusion between company and union officialdom during major disputes.

These newsletters were popular among migrant workers in the factory. The rank and file organisation in the factory had participants from different cultural backgrounds in the factory, especially those from southern European backgrounds. 

Some of the members of the rank and file organisation were also members of the Party. However they never imposed their view on other members of the rank and file organisation but always supported them and stood with the workers in struggles big and small. 

The company became worried when they could see that the majority of workers in the factory were no longer reluctantly following the recommendations of the union officialdom when disputes arose. More and more, workers looked to the rank and file organisation for leadership. 

Over time, both rank and file organisation members and the majority of car workers supported action over broader industry issues such as nationalisation of the car industry and also broad political issues. With respect to political issues, car workers took strike action when the Whitlam Government was dismissed by Kerr and his US big business masters in 1975. 

During the development of rank and file organisation in this car factory and others like it in SA, Party members who worked in these factories did not reveal their Party membership except to workers who wanted to join the Party. Car workers who joined the Party through working closely with existing Party members understood the need for organisation that could survive in all conditions. The level of organisation and class consciousness of the car workers reached such a level that the car factory multinational owners took one drastic step after another to try and maintain their power over the workers.

They sacked militant union rank and file representatives, spied on workers to find out which workers were involved in rank and file organisation. When this failed to stem the rising tide of worker solidarity and collective actions, the multinationals resorted to mass sackings which included targeting workers they thought were part of the rank and file organisation. The union officialdom was aligned with the ALP politically. They came out in the daily press and supported the multinationals’ targeted sacking of rank and file leaders.

Unfortunately the car factory owners with the collusion of the union officialdom did a pretty thorough job of smashing car workers’ rank and file organisation. One lesson from this for any workplace today in any industry is that like in society generally, workers’ organisation does need to be like an iceberg so that the boss class and their lackeys in parliament or union officialdom can never know the total membership of the workers’ organisation. In the car industry in the 1970s in SA the multinationals showed they were prepared to cast the net wide when layoffs came, in order to maximise their chances of getting rid of any suspected Party members and progressive rank and file workers.

My experience of working in the car industry in the 1970s showed me that the Party’s ideas about the need for the workers to become the ruling class of a socialist Australia were true. That experience also showed that a special type of organisation was needed to win for workers. It had to be strong enough to withstand all the tactics of the bosses to divide the workers. The nature of the class society in which we lived then and still live in today requires a workers’ leading organisation which has membership deep among the workplaces and workers’ communities. 

The big factories with thousands of workers in them were fertile ground for development of working class leaders. These workplaces have largely gone now due to how capitalism has developed in Australia. However, the workplaces of today are in some ways places including workers of diverse backgrounds who have experienced harsh conditions and tremendous struggles before their arrival in Australia. They are now participating in workers struggles in their new home and taking leading roles in these struggles, whether they are farm workers, hospital workers or mine workers. The future is bright for the working class in Australia 



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