On 10 July, hundreds of workers from the Coles Distribution Centre at Somerton in northern Melbourne began an indefinite strike. The workers, who are members of the National Union of Workers (NUW), are fighting for basic conditions like rostered days off, shift loadings, the right to go permanent after six months and for a decent pay rise.
The Distribution Centre is owned by the supermarket giant Coles. They own the warehouse, the racking and the stock at the centre. However, at this site, Coles have outsourced the labour to Australia’s largest transport and logistics company, Toll Holdings.
They have done this to further increase their profits at the expense of the workers’ wages. The Somerton workers are paid $4-$5 an hour less than workers at other Coles warehouses. The workers are correctly fighting for parity with other Coles warehouse workers and have coined the phrase, ‘Equal rights for equal sites!’.
The company and the union have been negotiating a new enterprise bargaining agreement for more than two months. While the company declared a total operating profit of $248 million, they refused to meet the union’s modest demands. Coles made a massive $1.8 billion profit last year! Clearly both companies can afford to pay parity wages.
As part of their campaign, the workers voted to take legal ‘protected’ industrial action. They set up a picket line and have refused to let anything in or out of the warehouse. The company has since taken the union to the Supreme Court arguing that while it is legal for the workers to go on strike, it is not legal to block access to the site.
Predictably the Court has agreed and issued an injunction barring the NUW and twenty six individuals from blocking access to the site or encouraging others to do so. While the union officials have technically adhered with the injunction, the rank and file workers have not waivered and are maintaining the picket despite the poor weather and freezing temperatures.
The picket has put pressure on both Toll and Coles, as it has disrupted their supply chain from the Somerton Distribution Centre. It seems however that both Toll and Coles were well prepared for this strike. They have stated that since the strike began that they have moved stock to at least twelve other Distribution Centres around Melbourne. If Toll and Coles are able to continue distribution from these other sites, the Somerton workers may well be left out in the cold.
Toll are clearly trying to wear down the workers, knowing full well that they are all struggling with the rising cost of living, especially with rent and mortgage stress. With this in mind, there is an urgent need to push the dispute forward and to exercise more pressure on both Toll and Coles.
If this is not done there is a danger that morale can dip and that a section of the workforce can begin to think that the lousy offer that is on the table is the best they will get. The truth is that Coles and Toll are potentially very vulnerable and with the right industrial strategy this dispute can be won in favour of the workers.
At the moment, the NUW leaders seem to be consumed with the legalities surrounding the dispute. While the legalities are important they are not decisive. Strikes are always won at the point of production, or in this case at the point of distribution.
If the point of distribution is shifted, then the industrial strategy needs to follow suit. Coles are clearly using third parties in an attempt to win the dispute. The union movement needs to respond accordingly and organise their own solidarity.
If this dispute is won and equal pay and conditions are achieved, it would strike a blow to Coles’ entire outsourcing strategy. A victory would push back against the ‘race to the bottom’ and be a boost to workers everywhere. This is why the entire trade union movement has a stake in this dispute.
While it is technically illegal for the NUW to target other sites, there is nothing stopping other workers or the ‘community’ from doing so. With this in mind, ‘community assemblies’ should be organised at key sites being used to cover distribution from Somerton.
An example of how this type of action can be successful was shown on the night of 19 July when members of the Socialist Party helped organise a flying picket which targeted the Linfox Coles Distribution Centre at Altona in Melbourne’s west. This is one of the sites where Toll has shifted their work to.
On that occasion, about 40 people blockaded the main gate of the Distribution Centre for nearly two hours. Dozens of trucks were turned back, causing traffic chaos in the street and severely hampering distribution from the site on that night. Perhaps most significantly, a delegation of around 20 metal workers from a nearby construction site joined the picket to offer support.
Again this morning (23 July), a flying picket visited the new Coles Linfox Distribution Centre in Truganina. Around 25 people blocked access to the gates for about three hours, turning back more than a dozen trucks.
While successful, these actions were also modest. What is needed is for the Victorian Trades Hall and other unions to start co-ordinating flying pickets on a wider scale. If small groups of activists can organise significant disruption, imagine what could be achieved with the social weight of the entire trade union movement.
Mobilise unions for mass community assembly
Socialist Party members who have been involved in this dispute have been monitoring operations at other sites. It seems to us that a lot of work is still happening out of the Altona site. If an appropriate offer is not made today, Trades Hall needs to mobilise all their affiliates and call for a mass community assembly at Altona tomorrow. This would have a huge impact on distribution. It would hit Coles where it hurts and give the workers more weight at the bargaining table.
Rather than letting this dispute drag out for nearly two weeks now, flying pickets should have been organised in the first few days once it was apparent that Toll had shifted its work elsewhere. Disappointingly the NUW leaders have, so far, responded at a glacial pace.
The striking workers at the Somerton plant have put in a great effort, so far. They deserve an industrial strategy that matches their resolve. If one had been in place from the beginning, this dispute could have been won much more quickly. It will be incumbent on the workers, and on their supporters in the movement, to fight for a strategy that can impact on Coles’ ability to maintain distribution and win this dispute in the coming days.