Coles warehouse workers reluctantly return to work

Coles workers rally in December. Photo: Pip Hinman

Under immense pressure from a greedy employer, 350 workers who had been locked out of the Coles Smeaton Grange warehouse in Western Sydney for 12 weeks have returned to work.

Some of the workers have been with Coles for more than 30 years. But they had been locked out by management since November for seeking job security, including the right to transfer to a new automated warehouse, a fair redundancy deal and guarantees against victimisation of union activists.

The United Workers Union (UWU), the main union covering the workers, said on January 22 that its members had accepted an offer by Coles and will go back to work.

It said the new offer includes improvements gained from taking industrial action, including a pay-out of accrued personal leave and other entitlements; a minimum of 50 voluntary redundancies; a greater permanent-to-casual ratio; ensuring Coles employs permanent workers before using labour hire agency workers; and ensuring no disciplinary action is taken against members who took strike action.

However, the UWU also said it did not manage to force Coles to provide workers “with a just transition when they could quite clearly afford to do so”. Coles did not budge from its position on redundancies — 4 weeks’ pay per year of service capped at 80 weeks — which means it refused to recognise the 30 year service of a large portion of its workforce.

A fair redundancy was a key issue motivating union members to take strike action.

“If this country wants to be serious about creating just transitions for workers who face losing their jobs as a result of automation (or from the shift away from fossil fuel industries), we need to find a better way to properly hear and respond to worker voices,” the UWU said.

There has been a mixed reaction from Smeaton Grange workers to the proposed settlement, which is still to be formalised in an all-staff vote.

According to comments posted on the UWU Facebook page, not everyone is happy with the agreement.

“So what was the difference between the first offer that was rejected by the members to the one that was voted up today? one person asked. “Was there anything gained from time on the grass?”

Another said: “Let’s get one thing clear: this was a vote under duress! Every vote the members at Smeaton Grange have had to endure since the lock-out began has been under duress! They haven’t agreed to this because they’re happy with the offer; they have agreed because they have gone 10 weeks with very little to no financial support!

"This is why a fighting fund needs to be created so no company ever gets away with financially starving people to accept their conditions ever again!”

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