Coles warehouse workers’ strike stays strong after first two days
The indefinite strike by Coles warehouse workers in Somerton, Melbourne, began with a few hundred people on the picket lines from 6am on July 10. At the time of writing, no trucks have been allowed in or out of the site.
Coles outsources the operation of the warehouse to Toll Logistics. Coles and Toll had expected industrial action, but they hadn’t expected that the workers would vote for an indefinite strike.
Coles prepared for the dispute by sending stock to other delivery centres and telling Coles stores to order an extra stock before the strike began. Management brought in about six carloads of scabs at 4am, two hours before the strike started.
Most trucks respected the picket line, although one Toll truck driver attempted to drive through a group of picketers.
All 500 warehouse workers have been sent text messages saying that they are stood down. But later, selected people were sent text messages asking if they would like to return to work.
On the strike’s first day, a group of workers and supporters held a walk-through protest at a Coles supermarket in nearby Broadmeadows. As the protest walked through the supermarket, chanting and handing out flyers asking people to boycott Coles, many shoppers left the supermarket.
Other Coles supermarkets will be targeted with similar protests.
In Queensland and Western Australia, National Union of Workers officials and members have handed out leaflets outside Coles supermarkets, asking people to join the Coles boycott.
Many workers at the picket line told Green Left Weekly that Toll Logistics had manipulated about their previous enterprise bargaining agreement in 2009. The company employed a lot of casual workers for a four-hour shift during the vote on the agreement. But after the vote, the casuals were never seen again. The company has also played different shifts off against the others.
Workers thought the company had agreed to let them have rostered days off in the 2009 agreement, but National Union of Workers delegate Frank Polemicos told GLW the company had agreed only to discuss the issue with workers.
Workers were determined not to fall for the company’s tricks when campaigning for a new enterprise bargaining agreement this year. Union membership at the site has increased from 60% to about 90%, said Polemicos.
Ninety seven per cent of people who took part in a secret ballot voted for to take industrial action. Later, each shift held a mass meeting to vote for an indefinite strike. On each shift, 100% of votes backed an indefinite strike.
Frank Polemicos told GLW he had worked at the warehouse since it opened six years ago. There was already a greenfields agreement in place before any workers started.
He said: “We don’t get public holidays. We have no choice but to work public holidays if we’re rostered on. The only two days we get off are Christmas Day & Good Friday. We want to have the choice of being able to spend public holidays with our families.
“We don’t get rostered days off because [the company says] that would lead to an overlap of shifts. Afternoon shift goes from 2pm to 10pm. Toll pays shift loading from 7pm but gives the meal break for 40 minutes from 7pm to decrease the penalty rate paid.
“The Eastern Creek Delivery Centre in NSW is owned and operated by Coles. It has the same stock, same plan and similar workers but they get better pay and conditions. They get rostered days off and public holidays. They get penalty rates paid on the whole afternoon shift and they get higher pay.”
Another worker told GLW that the afternoon shift is the worst shift. “You can’t start anything, because you have to get to work by 2pm. You get home when everyone is asleep and you wake up when everyone’s gone to work or school. You should get penalty rates for the whole afternoon shift to compensate for that.”
Polemicos said: “There is intimidation and bullying of workers. Managers talk differently to members of minority groups because they don’t speak up.”
Another issue is the “pick rate”, or “engineering standards”, which Polemicos said the company wants to put in the new enterprise agreement. He said each section has a different “pick rate”.
“In the liquor section, the pick rate is 180 items per hour. This is very intense, especially as some items are 18 to 19 kilograms and short people have to lift them above head height.”
A worker from the Pick by Light (PBL) section told GLW that the pick rate there is 220 items an hour. This involves picking from three different heights in front and behind and then packing. It involves picking, twisting, bending and lifting about shoulder height. Toll’s induction process tells workers that they should not lift anything above shoulder height.
These sorts of work practices mean that this Toll site has the highest number of injuries among Coles’ distribution centres.
The striking workers said Toll management carries out a lot of petty harassment of workers. Rhonda said that if a family member dies, you have to bring in a copy of the death notice from the newspaper or the death certificate in order to get bereavement leave to attend the funeral.
She said: “Toll likes to tell you when you can have your annual leave. If you want annual leave at a time of your choosing, you have to bring in your flight tickets to prove that you are going on holidays in order to get them approved.
“Until this [enterprise bargaining agreement], if someone needed to take unpaid leave to go away for any reason, the company would refuse the leave and tell you to resign and reapply for your job when you came back.”
Another worker told GLW that the Somerton Coles distribution centre gets lots of awards from or being the best or one of the best Coles distribution centres. She said: “They only get the awards because of our hard work but they never give anything back to the workers in recognition of the awards.”
Many of the workers have never been on strike before, but are relishing being involved with their workmates in standing up to their boss. They have taken over the road in front of the warehouse, playing footy and improving their ball skills. On the second day, someone brought music to the picket and some of the strikers have been dancing.
Public support will be important in this dispute as the workers are taking on two giant, wealthy companies. They have asked supporters to join them on the picket line at Union Road (just off Somerton Road), Somerton.