Unions Should Oppose the Construction of Nuclear Submarines

By Andrew Martin

Andrew Martin is a member of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU). The is an intervention into discussion within that union and beyond about how workers should respond to the AUKUS nuclear submarine announcement.

BRISBANE, Australia (July 27, 2019) The color guard parades the colors during the closing ceremony of the eighth U.S. and Australian exercise Talisman Sabre 2019 held aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice David Glotzbach)

In what led to extraordinary diplomatic repercussions, the Morrison government in September 2021 announced it was entering into a new tripartite “security partnership”, in effect, a military alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US) – AUKUS.

The Morrison government was flagging in the polls and needed a breakthrough. There’s nothing conservatives love more than to beat their chest about national security, and Morrison thought he was onto a winner. Without any forewarning, a $90 billion dollar contract with France – that was forecast to create 5,000 jobs – was cancelled.

The AUKUS pact has, as its primary aim, the advancement of Australia’s military capability and it will help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines. It is an extremely ambitious project. The agreement, which Morrison dubbed “a forever partnership”, also includes cooperation between the three imperialist powers to develop cyber and Artificial Intelligence (AI) military technologies and hypersonic missiles.

This alliance is in addition to the Five Eyes intelligence alliance between the US, England, Canada, Australia, and Aotearoa (NZ), which is an extension of the UK-USA Agreement that dates back to WW2. Australia has become increasingly bound to the interests of US imperialism with greater numbers of troop rotations and shared intelligence gathering.

The alliance is explicitly aimed at containing China. It is not a defensive alliance, but one that seeks to maintain US hegemony. The agreement integrates Australia’s military with any war the US wages in the Pacific region and beyond. It gives it exclusive access to technology that it has not shared with any of its military allies.

The submarines that Australia is to acquire will be long-range submarines which China rightly views as a threat. Although the total cost has yet to be worked out, they will not be cheap. It is estimated that they will cost over $150 billion, but military contracts usually blow out. The Australian government has effectively written blank cheques to both the US and UK that our grandchildren will be paying for.

The submarines will likely fuel an arms race in the Pacific, giving impetus for South Korea and Japan to upgrade their submarine and naval fleet. The aim of the AUKUS submarine fleet is to destroy any nuclear deterrence capability China has by targeting its four nuclear missile launching submarines.

China has never used its submarines as offensive weapons. It is highly unlikely that China’s submarines can traverse the Pacific Ocean undetected by Japanese and US anti-submarine sensor networks. The new AUKUS submarines are, as former prime minister Paul Keating noted, “hunter-seeker” submarines.

China’s land base nuclear weapons facilities would be wiped out in a first-strike scenario, leaving only its submarines as a deterrent. So being able to better target China’s subs, gives the US (and Australia) a stronger position to start a nuclear war.

Australia’s new submarines would patrol the South China Sea, setting the whole world on the knife-edge of nuclear war. Even if they are not nuclear-armed, they will be integrated into any nuclear attack on China and will be used to protect US aircraft carriers that would be used in any invasion of China. They will have the capability to attack any coastal facility in China, and their range could easily extend to North Korea and Russia. Most likely, they would be used for lone-wolf long-distance missions, hunting naval vessels and blockading ports.

There is no reason working-class people should be confident that these submarines won’t be nuclear-armed. Once the threshold of nuclear power has been breached, it’s only one step to acquiring nuclear warheads. Instead of being a partner for peace and cooperation, Australia itself would become a nuclear target.

Thousands of Jobs at Stake

The AMWU quickly responded to the announcement of AUKUS by issuing a media release the following day. The Assistant National Secretary Glen Thompson was attributed with these quotes:

“The futures of thousands of workers’ jobs have been thrown into doubt in a 15-minute press conference in which three world leaders announced that they were killing of[f] a $90bn project with zero detail on what will replace it. […] We need the Morrison Government to come clean on the detail – on how this will create a sovereign industry capability, secure jobs and critically, what will happen with existing workers. […] We also need to know what this means for the plans to build surface ships in Australia and develop a consistent, rolling build to avoid the boom-and-bust cycle of the past.

All we have is an empty promise that the nuclear-powered submarines will be built in Adelaide. Right now, we don’t have that technology – what’s Morrison’s plan to build it and how many secure, reliable and ongoing jobs will it create? […] The Morrison Government ha[s] wasted billions of dollars on the French submarine deal, which will now be abandoned. After nearly a decade in power, the Liberals have failed our naval ship building industry.”

The principal concern of the AMWU is to maintain their membership base. The government-owned Australian Submarine Corporation employs 2,000 people in Adelaide and Perth. The AMWU and other unions associated with shipbuilding have called for the government to manufacture more conventional submarines as an interim measure while Australia waits for the new nuclear submarines, which will be decades away.

Glen Thompson has called for the government to build six more conventional diesel-electric submarines urgently. The AMWU has collaborated with the Australian Industry and Defence Network to put forward the case to manufacture an updated version of the Collins-class submarine to bridge any manufacturing capability gap. Instead, the government plans to upgrade the six existing Collins class submarines, providing an extra ten years of service.

Since the 1960s, Australia has had a fleet of six submarines. Apart from their combat capabilities, they are useful for gathering intelligence and reconnaissance. But, by the mid-2000s, it became apparent that the existing submarine fleet had limited capabilities and could not fulfil the strategic objectives of the Australian ruling class. Years of indecision led to delays in the rollout of new submarines.

When Tony Abbott came to power, he scotched plans to build submarines in Adelaide, preferring to source them from Japan. But extensive lobbying from defence contractors pressured the Turnbull government to reverse that decision. The French company Naval Group won the contract to build the new submarines through a tendering process that was less than transparent. The costs blew out to $90 billion before the contract was rescinded.

The new contract is for eight nuclear-powered submarines to be provided by both the UK and the US. They will not enter operations until the 2040s, with the final submarines arriving in the 2050s. The AMWU’s concern is that the skills base to build and maintain the submarines will have long since vanished – hence the call for an interim build of conventional submarines.

The AMWU is right to be concerned for the livelihoods of its members, and all those employed in shipbuilding should have the right to be represented by their union. But there is a broader agenda of social justice the union is failing to speak to. The union has publicly raised “concerns” about the new build, but these are only related to jobs. Not one word has been raised in criticism of the use of nuclear power or Australia’s aggressive military stance.

Unions Should Struggle for Peace

The Australian labour movement has a proud history of fighting against war and oppression and standing in solidarity with other workers worldwide. The Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) – the forerunner of the AMWU – was instrumental in fighting against conscription during WW1, preventing tens of thousands more lives being lost on the battlefields of Europe. Prior to the Second World War, Dockworkers imposed a black ban on pig iron being sent to Japan in 1938, knowing that the exports would be made into weaponry directed at China, which Japan partly occupied at the time.

Unions went on the oppose Apartheid in South Africa and the war against Vietnam. They were able to do this because they were guided by basic socialist principles and international solidarity – and they made worker education a priority.

Today, in times of renewed global conflict, workplace organising must have a clear anti-war message.

Like the Builders Labourers Federation achieved in the 1970s, unions today must also build a movement that is concerned with how the products of its labour are used – to make the world better or make it worse, or to destroy it completely in nuclear war. The only way towards peace is to give workers a say in what gets produced and how. They must, of course, be empowered to do so.

The union movement must not simply adapt itself to the existing level of political consciousness and social outlook of the working class, we must work hard to raise worker’s understanding and outlook. The small target, lobbying and focus group approach has led to the union movement’s decline. Trade unions must champion the interests of all workers globally and not singly focus on narrow sectoral interests.

The Absurdity of the Nuclear Industry

Today we must contemplate problems that could make our planet uninhabitable. I hope future generations consider the Australian government’s idea of obtaining nuclear-powered submarines to be completely absurd. I hope they get that chance.

There has been a long and proud history of opposition to the nuclear industry and nuclear weapons in Australia. In the mid to late 1970s, the Movement Against Uranium Mining drew tens of thousands into the streets – 40,000 at the 1978 Hiroshima Day demonstrations. The Waterside Workers Federation – a forerunner to the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) – affirmed total opposition to handling uranium shipments. Wharfies voted 3486 to 0 against shipping uranium.

Eventually, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) were to sell workers out. Even though it was against ALP policy, the Hawke government allowed uranium mining. That was after the mass movement had earlier defeated Malcolm Fraser over the issue. AMWU members were directly involved in the campaign against uranium mining. Workers at the engineering workshops of Evans Deakins Industries (now Downer) and Sergeants ANI banned all work on steel fabrication for the Ranger mine site.

There are no guarantees in handling nuclear waste – and private contractors given that task can’t be trusted. We can see that even small radioactive capsules can fall off the back of a truck and be lost in the desert. The risks posed by acquiring nuclear power are unfathomably greater.

Australia mines uranium because it fits the interests of US imperialism. As has been documented, Hawke had close ties to the US state department even before he was prime minister. The ALP has not changed direction since the Hawke-Keating years. The acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines is a logical consequence of the close military ties Australia has with the US.

The submarines are a direct threat to world peace. Their purchase positions Australia as a hostile country to China and other Global South countries. It comes at a time when ordinary people are facing a cost-of-living crisis. The huge money involved should be diverted to repairing the health system, investing in public schooling and building public housing.

To think that constructing more submarines is the only way to protect the livelihoods of shipbuilders shows a lack of imagination and vision. For more than two decades, the MUA has called on the Australian government to build a domestic merchant fleet of cargo vessels that secures seafarers’ jobs, better protects coastal regions from environmental disasters and boosts Australian manufacturing.

It is time the AMWU joined with the MUA to support that call and put a stop to the purchase of nuclear submarines.

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