As General Motors announces the end of the Holden brand, many of the company’s former auto workers remain in precarious employment. By Royce Kurmelovs.

The impact of Holden’s demise

GM Holden interim chairman and managing director Kristian Aquilina (left) and GM international operations senior vice-president Julian Blissett in Melbourne on Monday.
GM Holden interim chairman and managing director Kristian Aquilina (left) and GM international operations senior vice-president Julian Blissett in Melbourne on Monday.
Credit: AAP Image / James Ross

“It was really just another news story to me,” Michael Wetherley says.

The former auto worker spent 14 years at Holden’s Elizabeth plant in South Australia as employee number 785080. On Monday, he had just knocked off a shift at the aged-care facility where he now works casually when he heard the news – the car manufacturer’s parent company, General Motors (GM), had decided to wind up the iconic Holden brand.

The country was shocked; Wetherley shrugged.

As he saw it, executives in some distant boardroom in Detroit already took away his $32-an-hour job years ago – a week before Christmas 2013 – in order to preserve the company’s bottom line. Now they were doing it again with a symbol of Australian identity.

“Honestly,” Wetherley says, “the first thing I thought when I heard the news was, ‘Well, there goes my discount.’

“When we were let go, we were all given these Holden ‘gold cards’ that gave us a lifetime discount when we bought their cars. You had to work there for 10 years to get one.

“When I left, I said we were only buying Holdens from here on out. But I guess the lifetime of the company isn’t our lifetime.”

The decision means Holden will now lay off a further 600 employees, leaving just 200 workers to manage spare parts and servicing for the next 10 years.

Those set to lose their jobs before the year’s end include the widely praised designers and engineers at Holden’s Fishermans Bend facility in Victoria, who were considered integral to maintaining expertise within Australia after the end of local manufacturing in 2017.

They will now join thousands of others who have lost their jobs as the factories of Toyota, Ford and Holden emptied out after the end of the Australian car industry was first declared in late 2013.

While the unemployment rate remained relatively stable on the east coast, some regions have been hit hard.

In Elizabeth, unemployment reached 36.9 per cent in September 2019, a four-percentage-point rise since December 2018 and the highest figure recorded since the factory closure in 2017.

But the real story here isn’t solely unemployment, it’s the increasingly fragile existence faced by many who were employed in Australia’s car industry.

While a survey by the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU) revealed that 80 per cent of those former employees found work after being laid off, most of those jobs are casual, part-time or on contract.

The union’s findings were echoed in a federal government summary report that – despite its efforts to tell a happy story – found 39 per cent of workers directly employed in the car factories were now in some form of precarious work. The figure grew to 49 per cent for those in the supply chain.

A more complete picture was promised with the publication of the full report, which is yet to be released.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the impact is being felt,” says Professor John Spoehr, director of the Australian Industrial Transformation Institute at Flinders University. “What we do know from the stats is that a high number of the workforce who lost their jobs with the closure are in precarious work and they are paid less than they were. That represents a significant impact on the South Australian economy.

“That will continue for some time.”

Spoehr says that explaining GM’s decision to axe Holden requires some context. When GM went bankrupt in 2008 after the global financial crisis and the United States government was forced to bail the company out, there was an expectation the multinational would begin to bring its operations back to the US.

“That’s now intensified under the Trump administration, which is nationalist and protectionist,” Spoehr says. “There’s no doubt either that all the major automotive manufacturers in the US, Asia and Europe are on a countdown to the widespread release of electric vehicles. That has profound consequences for the industry.”

Electric vehicles, Spoehr says, require fewer parts than today’s engines, which will “seriously disrupt” the global supply chain.

“That will force a new round of consolidation,” he says.

The decision to wind up Holden may have been obvious to keen observers of the industry, who have seen sales tank and the Commodore pulled from production last year, but the news still raised the ire of some, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

On Wednesday, Morrison was in Adelaide to cut the ribbon on the nation’s new space agency, which will directly employ 20 people and is promised to create “thousands” of jobs.

The photo opportunity offered a clean break from scenes two days earlier, when the prime minister had vented his frustrations about GM.

“I am angry, like I think many Australians would be,” he said. “Australian taxpayers put millions into this multinational company [but] they let the brand just wither away on their watch.

“And now they’re leaving it behind.”

He added it was “very disappointing that, over many years, more than $2 billion … was directly provided to General Motors for the Holden operations”.

Industry Minister Karen Andrews also spoke out against GM, criticising the company for not consulting the government about the decision.

Darryl Waterman, a former AMWU senior at Holden’s Elizabeth factory who spent 19 years of his life with the company, didn’t think much of the government’s response.

“Why would they be consulted?” he says. “This government are the reason why the company aren’t here to begin with. They have been the most arrogant government GM ever worked with. The subsidies thing was years ago, and then [former treasurer Joe Hockey] told them to get stuffed.”

After leaving the Elizabeth plant, Waterman, now 49, took eight months off before his mortgage repayment forced him to look for work.

And although he doesn’t miss the factory, he does miss the job security.

The Holden Transition Centre, which was set up to help employees find new work, helped him get his heavy vehicle licence and he picked up a casual job driving concrete trucks. He makes good money working up to 10 hours a day, six days a week – except when it rains too heavily or grows too hot to pour concrete. When this happens, his pay cheque might fall to $400 a week.

Unlike in 2013, when as a member of the union he was among the first to find out the Elizabeth plant would close, Waterman learnt of GM’s latest decision on the nightly news.

Like Michael Wetherley, he wasn’t surprised.

“You know, as a union group, we went to the management of Holden when they said manufacturing was closing down and [we] told them they may as well just stop the Holden brand and the Commodore altogether,” Waterman says.

“It’s an Australian car. If it’s not built in Australia, it’s not an Australian car anymore. You’d be better off rebadging as Chevrolet or something. They didn’t want to do that then.”

Events may still bear this out, as GM is said to be considering eventually reintroducing a sub-brand to Australia that would convert selected US models, such as the Chevrolet Camaro, to right-hand drive.

Other questions, however, remain.

With Holden gone, the objects it made and the documents it kept have now taken on the status of historical artefacts. The Holden cars may have been built by an American multinational, but the relationship Australians had to cars such as the Commodore means the brand is bound up in the national identity.

The first Holden car ever built is on display in the National Motor Museum at Birdwood, South Australia, while the last Commodore sits in the Holden Collection at Fishermans Bend.

What will happen to them now is unclear. Both remain the private property of General Motors, along with the complete Holden heritage collection, the Holden car show collection and the Holden company archives.

Under the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986, these objects cannot be removed from Australia – but the catch is that for authorities to invoke the act they first need to be aware these artefacts are being moved out of the country.

A spokesperson for GM told The Saturday Paper in a statement that it was aware of the issue.

“We are absolutely determined to preserve the Holden legacy in this country. An important part of that is our Heritage collection and concept cars. It is a matter we will have more to say on once we have managed the orderly transition of our employees and dealers,” the spokesperson said.

Though the Holden brand may be gone, along with its factories, this is not the end of its legacy. The lives of those who once worked for Holden continue – as do the communities, including the 80,000 people who live in the greater Elizabeth region and once depended on the company’s presence.

It’s these people, says Darryl Waterman, who really matter now.

“I’ve got no love for the company. About as much love as I have for some politicians,” he says. “What mattered to me were the people, the good pay and the expertise we were losing. And the ability. I don’t think the government really understands what we’ve lost.

“You just can’t click your fingers and have it all come back together again.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 22, 2020 as "Car trouble".

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Royce Kurmelovs is an Adelaide-based freelance journalist and author.

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