Meat pies, kangaroos, class struggle and Holden cars

A red V8 SS Holden Commodore rolled off the Elizabeth production line in Adelaide on 20 October – the last of 7,687,675 Holdens produced in Australia since 1948. It marked the end of an era, with Toyota already ceasing local production in September and Ford in 2016.

On the last day, Holden and the union that covered the auto workers, the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union, thanked them for their efforts. It seemed that market forces had played their hand and made the closure inevitable. These were good jobs that had provided for generations of workers, but “consumer tastes” have changed. Nobody wanted to buy these big old dinosaurs.

It is true that smaller four-cylinder cars are more popular today. The reasons for the closure, however, go beyond consumer tastes. For one thing, Holden had been manufacturing small four-cylinder cars since the Sunbird in the 1970s, through to the Cruze in 2016, all of which sold well.

The reasons for Holden’s closure are primarily the neoliberal economic policies of the Australian government and the economic rationalist decisions of the US giant, General Motors. GM calculates that there are greater profits to be made by centralising production in much larger factories with cheaper labour and greater automation. In the end, it showed no loyalty to its workforce.

Throughout its history, Holden has traded shamelessly on Australian nationalism. No other brand in Australia has evoked such a high level of parochial support. Yet Holden is not Australian. It is a wholly owned subsidiary of GM – a southern outpost for the US auto giant. The famous 1970s jingle, “We love football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars” was a straight lift from GM’s “I love baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet”.

GM made huge profits out of Australia and did it with significant government support. Holden had initially started manufacturing cars from GM mechanicals with its own bodies. During WWII its manufacturing capacity increased substantially, because it began making boats, torpedoes, anti-tank guns and aircraft engines. The war pressed home to the capitalist class the need for a local manufacturing industry in order to be competitive and to extend military influence throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

GM was in the right place at the right time. Postwar prime minister Ben Chifley arranged for more than £1 million of bank loans to help establish it in Australia. At the unveiling of the first Holden, he remarked: “I came to an understanding with General Motors Holdens that they would engage in what, for a country of this size, is a very gigantic venture”. This understanding was on terms that the government itself would never enter into car manufacturing or restrict the type of vehicles GMH would make. GM, putting in £1 million, had that investment returned 200 times over in less than 35 years.

This was a time when butter, petrol and tea were strictly rationed. Fridges, telephones and washing machines were largely the preserve of the upper classes. Most of the highway between Brisbane and Sydney was gravel. Holden would provide new jobs, new skills and economic security for thousands of workers arriving from around the world.

“Australia’s own car”, the first Holden, the 48-215, was not cheap. Priced at £742, it cost twice the average annual wage, yet Holden couldn’t make enough of them. Built well, rugged and relatively modern, they sold well. By 1950, Holden was producing 100 cars a day and couldn’t keep up with demand. It was making a 7.4 percent profit, a rate unheard of in auto manufacturing. By 1958, Holden had nearly half of the market and was growing. By 1963, it produced more than 180,000 cars a year, employing 22,664 workers. A Holden was rolling off the production line every 40 seconds.

For GM, manufacturing in Australia made a lot of sense, bringing an expansion of its model range and a more intensive penetration of local and surrounding markets. It reduced freight, insurance and other costs such as tariffs. It dominated locally, and embarked on an ambitious export program. By the mid-’60s, Holden was exporting parts or cars to 61 countries.

This success was the result of ruthless exploitation. Its Fishermen’s Bend factory in Melbourne became known as a “gold-plated sweatshop” – a modern factory where work was controlled by the worst Taylorist methods. Union members did not win the right to hold stop-work meetings until 1958, and the company exercised oversight of the Vehicle Builders Union (VBU) – which later became a division of the AMWU. Union organisers were given very restricted access and could not inspect the factory.

GMH was manufacturing with advanced machinery and materials, but the productivity increases that drove its profit growth in this era were due to factory floor speed-ups, or “the hurry-up”, as they were known by migrant workers. Assembly line speed meant that workers were given only seconds to perform complex tasks. New workers were given little training and expected to perform their duties at the pace of ordinary workers within 24 hours. Nothing stopped production, not even calls of nature. It’s little wonder that the auto industry became a pressure cooker.

With more and more speed-ups, tension spilled over into strikes, puncturing the company’s puffed up egalitarian image. In 1963, following the lead of striking Ford workers in Melbourne, 1,700 workers in Holden’s NSW factories demonstrated with banners that read: “We want time to go to the toilet” and “We want time to drink a cup of tea”. The strike lasted 10 days. It won basic union rights and a tea break.

Encouraged by this action, and by a wave of strikes in the US auto industry, thousands of workers at Fishermen’s Bend struck in October 1964. The dispute was sparked when foundry workers were refused a £4 a week pay rise. Their discontent spread, and a demand for £3 a week more for all workers was raised.

The Victorian Trades Hall Council called a mass meeting at Festival Hall, and 6,000 workers participated. The recommendation of the disputes committee, strongly influenced by metalworkers in the AEU, was to strike until all demands were met. The announcement was met with an explosion of cheers, applause, whistling and embracing – the workers had grasped newly found power.

GMH responded with sackings, inflaming the dispute, which spread to all of its factories. The strike lasted for four weeks, involving hundreds of meetings around the country. Tens of thousands of pounds in strike support funds were raised from across many industries. Assured of the support of the Menzies government, the managing director of Holden, David Hegland, told workers that GMH would “fight to the finish” rather than grant any pay rises. Unions were fined more than £9,500.

The VBU and Australian Council of Trade Unions became overawed with the difficulties of the struggle. Instead of increasing organisation (in NSW they refused even to hold meetings), the union officials covering the majority of labour called for a return to work. In the end, the workers were worn down, and through a secret ballot voted for a return. Most workers, sensing a sell-out, refused to participate in the ballot.

The strike ended in defeat, but it laid the bedrock for all future struggles to improve wages and conditions more generally in the auto industry. The workers refused to accept that their working conditions and low wages were inevitable. If the closure of Holden today had been met with the same spirit of resistance, the workers would have had a much better chance of securing their livelihoods.