A local content showdown in WA

Last week unionised workers in WA marched through Perth to the front door of parliament, jeering and taunting some of the state's most powerful businesses and politicians.

Marching through the CBD and up the hill is a long standing tradition for WA unionists, and it's a gesture they don't take lightly.

But since manufacturers started buckling under the weight of the mining boom the protests have become a regular occurrence.

Unions say the state's miners have profited at the expense of other industries, and the CFMEU, MUA, AMWU and others have taken the fight to the industry under the 'jobs for our kids' and 'lets spread it around' campaign.

While last week's rally marched to the same tune as previous protests, the political brackdrop it was set against was much different.

This weekend West Australians will go to the polls to vote for the next Premier, and the power play brought on by the impending election has seen workers, unions, and businesses alike champion their cause with new fervour.


Image: Andrew Duffy

Political fight

Out on the campaign trail in the state's north, WA Premier Colin Barnett was able to let the latest union protest fall by the wayside.

But back in Perth WA Labor was there to capitalise on the gathering, leveraging the support of union heavyweights to help direct votes their way.

Shadow industrial relations MP Fran Logan gave an impassioned speech at the protest, and was eager to blame the Liberal Government for problems in the manufacturing sector.

An ex-tradesman and AMWU organiser, Logan mixed with the crowd far better than leader Mark McGowan had at previous protests, and he was sure to touch on the issue of youth employment, a key concern in the current campaign.

“There are less apprentices in trades now then there were in 2008,” he told the unruly crowd.

But while Logan did his best to score votes for the Labor party, he failed to spark enthusiasm in the  crowd.

And while workers showed broad support for Logan's speech it was the union heavyweights that put on the best performance.


Image: Andrew Duffy

No foreigners

Whether it's blow-ins from the United States or skilled workers from Asia, CFMEU national secretary Dave Noonan told protesters temporary migrants weren't welcome in Australia.

He also hit back at “false and vicious slurs” that claimed the union was racist.

“We had a nation after the second world war where people could come as citizens, move to this country and build a future for themselves and their families. That is the Australia that was built after the second world war,” he said.

“What we've seen is a shift to temporary migration schemes where employers bring people in, exploit them, use them up, and then send them home when they're finished. This is not the Australia that we grew up with and this needs to be challenged.”

Noonan also pointed to the diverse nature of blue collar unions when making his address.

“We are a union or migrants, and the sons and daughters and grandchildren of migrants,” he said.

“We will not let false and vicious slurs from people who care nothing about working people, care nothing about migrant workers, to dissuade us from articulating something that is really important for Australian working people.”


Image: Andrew Duffy

The problem

It's no secret the mining industry, having pushed up the exchange rate, has made life harder for other parts of the economy, particularly manufacturers.

But resource giants choosing foreign companies to complete steel and fabrication work has also been a sore point, and at the rally AMWU GUY rattled off some key facts to make his point.

“Every billion dollars you spend in infrastructure sustains or creates 10,000 jobs,” he said.

“In steel alone every 1,000 tonne of steel creates 62 jobs. The five major LNG projects on the northwest shelf, on their own, would have sustained or created 42,000 jobs in WA and it would have been 10,000 on Wheatstone alone.”

AMWU guy said local firms had won less than eight per cent of the steel and fabrication work for the state's five big LNG projects.

He said the decline meant businesses were shutting down at a time when the economy was booming, and it was a “disgrace” that youth unemployment levelled at 20 to 25 per cent in WA.

While miners should take responsibility for choosing local businesses, AMWUGUY said the blame did not sit with them alone.

He said companies were acting within their legal rights, and politicians needed to legislate to force businesses to source local content.

“It's when times are tough that you expect your government to look out for you, to defend your industries, to defend your jobs,” he said.

“If they don't support local content and they don't support local jobs, they don't deserve a job.”


Image: Andrew Duffy

The other side

While union leaders at the combined CFMEU, AWU, and MUA protest had their rhetoric down-pat, their claims aren't accepted by the business community.

WA commerce minister Simon O'Brien claims up to $30 billion in contracts have been awarded since July 2012, with 75,000 jobs created.

The State Government also says in 2012 small and medium-sized businesses were allocated $2.5 million to assist in upgrades to make them more competitive.

The issue of local content mandates is also divisive, with prominent economists around Australia urging against such measures.

The divergence means the debate is not as clear cut as unions or businesses make out, and whichever way you look at it the challenges facing manufacturers are complex.

Some companies are reaping the rewards of the mining boom and some, through not fault of their own, are not.

Others have fallen on tough times but rather than foul play from the resource sector, a poor track record and lack of ability are to blame for their empty workshops.

With the Liberals dominating the polls it's likely current Premier Colin Barnett will come out on top this weekend, and with his appointment the status-quo is likely to remain.

In the meantime the debate will rage on, the protests will continue, and manufacturers will keep on working, just as they always have.