Environment | Michael Green

Articles

A death in the family

It’s over at Alcoa.  The last shipment of alumina unloaded from the pier, the fires extinguished in the furnace, and smelting pots shut down. No more jobs for life.

STEVE Beasley stands on the long factory line, with the crane controls at his waist. Hanging before him is the crucible, which looks like a huge steel teapot, with a long, downward spout for siphoning the molten metal.

He manoeuvres the crucible forward so its spout extends into the smelting cell, where – with the help of extraordinary amounts of electricity – alumina is turned into aluminium, at 950˚C.

He’s been doing this for years, but something is different this time. The smelting cell – known as a “pot” – has already been switched off. There are 368 pots at Alcoa’s Point Henry smelter; this month, the operators have gradually shut them down.

At lunchtime, Beasley sits with his shift partner Wayne Palmer in the canteen. On one wall is a pinboard decorated with photos from the site’s 51 years. On the other, is a jobs board.

“There’s life after Alcoa,” Beasley says, over a plate of chips and gravy.

“It’s time to get it over with,” Palmer says.

Tomorrow, it’s over – nearly six months after the plant’s closure was announced in February. Today, the workers flick the switch on the last functioning pots, and siphon whatever metal they can get. The aluminium rolling mill, adjacent to the smelter, will close by the end of the year. Altogether, 800 people will lose well-paid jobs.

It is the latest of the mass-manufacturing job losses to hit the town, but Point Henry’s demise resonates beyond its economic impact. The Alcoa plant, with its iconic water tower, has been a constant presence in Geelong, visible to the east across a narrow stretch of Corio Bay. From father afield, too, it was a symbol of Australia’s post-war industrial optimism.

Warren Sharp has worked for Alcoa for 24 years. For the last three “eventful” years, he’s been the smelter manager at Point Henry. He is in charge until 7 pm tonight, after which the years-long decommissioning process will begin.

The closure announcement in February was no surprise, Sharp says, but it was still a shock – in the same way as the death of someone with a terminal illness can be. The years since the global financial crisis have been trying: the combination of a low aluminium price, a high Australian dollar, and old technology has proven lethal.

Alcoa’s newest smelter, in Saudi Arabia, is four times larger than Point Henry and much more automated. The company’s Portland smelter, opened in 1986, will continue to operate.

“We’ve pushed our technology as hard as we can,” says Darrel Linke, the manager of the electrode division. Linke started at Point Henry in January 1979 as a graduate electronic engineer. “We’ve always had good people here. We find a way of doing things.”

They know how to run the plant. But shutting it down safely, while continuing production, has been another challenge altogether. “It’s been a good distraction for us, that’s the truth of it,” Sharp admits.

For the last couple of months, each week has marked another melancholy milestone: the last shipment of alumina unloaded from the pier, the last anode made, the fires extinguished in the furnace, and ever more smelting pots shut down.

Both Sharp and Linke have observed the bittersweet truth that as the end nears, their admiration for their colleagues continues to rise. The challenge of working together has grown, as has their sense of mutual satisfaction from a job well done.

“The teamwork is tremendous,” Linke says. “I reflect on that. It’s going to be the hardest thing for me to say goodbye.” He has no job to go to next.

This week, as each crew has finished their final shift, they’ve gathered in the canteen to mark the moment and receive a commemorative booklet tracing through the site’s half-century history.

Alcoa of Australia was founded by mining engineer and businessman Lindesay Clark. He convinced the American parent company to invest; and, crucially, persuaded the Australian government to protect the industry with import restrictions. The new venture would mine and refine bauxite in Western Australia, and smelt, roll and fabricate aluminium in Victoria.

The smelter at Point Henry poured its first hot metal in April 1963. In ‘White Gold’, a company history published in 1997, Geoffrey Blainey wrote that the Americans cancelled a gala opening ceremony, which was to be conducted by Prime Minister Robert Menzies, for fear of industrial espionage by Japanese experts who’d been invited. They instructed that no official guests – not even the Menzies – were to set foot inside the buildings.

The modernist photographer Wolfgang Sievers photographed the Point Henry site in its first year of operations. He returned several times in the next two decades, and as always, sought to portray the dignity of work and his faith in a notion of progress that united men and machines.

Linke recalls that when he started, 35 years ago, he was proud to join an industry that extended beyond primary production, and brought jobs and money into the country. “To me it felt good to do that, as opposed to being a miner. Having that whole supply chain, right to the end,” he says.

“It feels a little bit like we’re regressing. It’s sad – paring back the vision that the founders of Alcoa of Australia had.”

His pride in the company is not unusual. It is common to the managers, workers, receptionists and even unionists. Ben Davis, the Victorian secretary of the Australian Workers Union, says the smelter has a good relationship with its employees and the whole region. “Alcoa has been so much a part of the social and economic fabric of Geelong since it opened,” he says.

(The shop floor has been tense at times, however. In 1973, the workers staged the ultimate provocation: a strike on VFL grand final day.)

The average length of employment as an “Alcoan” at Point Henry is 18 years. But now, those jobs are gone. In retrospect, Wolfgang Sievers’ photos evoke a belief in progress that has long since eroded. As photographic historian Helen Ennis has written, his images “express no doubts about the future”.

“Their vision thus seems worlds away from contemporary concerns about the negative impacts of technology, pollution, environmental degradation and climate change,” she writes.

Her observation is especially apt in the case of aluminium, often described as “congealed electricity”. At Point Henry, Alcoa consumed over 7 per cent of the state’s electricity load, or about three times that of Geelong’s households.

In his review on climate policy, Ross Garnaut noted that Australia was among the world’s least efficient aluminium producers, and his modelling suggested that smelting would gradually move offshore.

The company’s brown coal power station at Anglesea is up for sale. It was built especially for the smelter and provided 40 per cent of its electricity.

Now, the power station has become the source of controversy for its 80 workers and for Surf Coast Air Action, a local campaign calling for its closure. The group is concerned about the plant’s sulphur dioxide and other emissions and its bushfire vulnerability. On August 10, it is staging a rally and march to the mine.

Without the carbon price, Anglesea power station has become a viable economic proposition, says Professor Mike Sandiford, director of the Melbourne Energy Institute at University of Melbourne. But if it continues to supply the grid, despite plummeting demand, it will be a significant contributor to what he describes as “a dire emissions outlook”. Our electricity supply is set to become more carbon intensive for the first time in half a decade.

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Every Friday, Rebecca Casson writes an upbeat column in the Geelong Advertiser. Casson is the CEO of the Committee for Geelong, whose members comprise large and small businesses in the town.

“Geelong’s economy is changing, but is manufacturing really dead?” she wrote recently. “According to recent feedback, definitely not! Evolving and innovative? Yes. Exciting? It sure is.”

Casson points to smaller manufacturers, such as Boundary Bend Olives, the Little Creatures Brewery, or high-tech wheel maker Carbon Revolution, and to other growing industries, such as insurance. The National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Transport Accident Commission are both headquartered in the city.

“It is the job of the committee to be positive, but not to put spin on it,” Casson says. “We are realistic, we do know that the city is going through this huge change and we would be foolish to say everything is fine. Everything is not fine.”

“These new jobs might not come immediately, and they might not be in familiar industries. But if people are willing to retrain there are a lot of opportunities.”

On Monday morning, the city’s “job shop” will open its doors for the first time. Located at the Gordon TAFE, in a heritage building near Geelong railway station, the walk-in centre will offer careers counselling and advice on work available in the area.

It is part of Skilling the Bay, an $11 million state-government program managed by Greg Leahy, from the Gordon. He’s tasked with lifting education levels and workforce participation across the region. Geelong’s high school completion rate is well below the state average. Youth unemployment is particularly high.

Young men can no longer follow their fathers to Ford or Alcoa, Leahy says. “Instead they’ll be coming out of school or university and getting a job with a small to medium-sized enterprise in West Geelong or Ocean Grove. The path to those jobs is nowhere near as clear.”

The path for retrenched workers is equally muddy. Leahy acknowledges there “isn’t a perfect fit” between their skills and the region’s growing industries – healthcare, community work and construction.

But the Gordon has been working with Alcoa employees for months. The company has paid for resume writing workshops and short courses, and offered extra funding for training in whatever field employees choose.

“The workers are at different points in the journey: some are resigned to their fate, some are thinking laterally, some are in denial,” Leahy says. “We’re trying to create a family-friendly environment. We don’t want people confronting these issues on their own.”

In the lounge room of their neat, brick home in Geelong’s eastern suburbs, Damian and Bethany Young are explaining their revised plans.

When Damian began at Point Henry in 2000, he thought he had a job for life. But earlier this morning, the couple signed a lease on a shop in East Geelong. They are converting Bethany’s part-time, online kids and homewares store, Ryder Loves Miller – named after their two young sons – into a bricks-and-mortar business.

The city’s main street is pockmarked with empty shops, but the couple believe they’ve identified a niche. “We’re positive,” Bethany says. “We don’t think Geelong is dead at all, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing this.”

For Damian, 39, it’s a wild career change. “I’ve gone from one extreme from another,” he says. “I never imagined myself in retail. I find it a bit daunting, but Bethany reassures me.”

“He is a little institutionalised,” she laughs.

It’s a word that comes up often in conversations with, or about, “Alcoans”. They’ll have to get used to “the real world”, Bethany says: lower wages, fewer sickies and less flexibility for time off with family.

Young, 39, took his redundancy a few weeks early so he could start work on the shop. Even so, he still speaks about Alcoa in the present tense. “I work in the potrooms,” he explains. “It’s hard work. If it wasn’t hot, they wouldn’t pay us the rate they do.”

His workmates are mates – they’ve attended each other’s weddings and kids’ birthdays – but he expects catch-ups will become rare as life moves on. As the former union delegate for his shift, he is worried about their welfare – especially those who’d committed to big mortgages. A few have jobs, but many have been forced to search farther and farther afield.

On his last day, in mid-July, Young was told he could leave early – but he wasn’t ready to go. “I got changed and it didn’t really hit until I was having that last shower. I was like: I don’t want to get out yet. But Bethany was coming to pick me up. “So I left. I shut the locker and walked out the gate.”

For better or worse, he stepped into a new Geelong.

Read this article at The Age online

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