Coles workers accept new agreement after strike

The Toll picket continued until workers accepted a new agreement.

For two weeks “Nothing in, Nothing out” was the mantra on the picket as the trucks were turned away at the Coles warehouse in Somerton, Melbourne.

Angered by the fact that workers for Coles warehouses in other states were receiving better working conditions, even though they were doing the same job, the National Union of Workers (NUW) members at the Coles Somerton warehouse took action.

Coles owns the warehouse, but management is outsourced to Toll Logistics. Workers are paid below industry standards despite both companies making obscene profits.

After three months of farcical EBA negotiations, the workers started an indefinite strike on July 10 to force the company’s hand.

During the picket, the state government kept a huge police presence. During one of the mass meetings, there were 80 police including eight on horseback.

One worker said: “The coppers have an overtime scam going on. No trouble, and Double Bubble … Sweet.”

Picketers endured the bitter cold Melbourne nights and rain to try to win better working conditions.

Site delegate Frank Polemicos told Green Left Weekly that workers returned to work on July 25 with a better work roster, raised shift allowance, wage rises for themselves and agency casuals, and a day in lieu when working public holidays.

The benefits in the agreement for the union movement are a right of entry clause for union officials and delegates being able to perform their duties on company time.

The workers won significant gains on all of the core issues that they were fighting for. But some core demands were not met in full.

They won:
· nine rostered days off for day shift, five for afternoon and night shifts, and shift allowances for afternoon and night shifts,
· site rates of pay for casual workers and conversion to permanent work for casual workers after nine months,
· a fair and voluntary system for working public holidays and the ability to take a day in lieu,
· union rights including right of entry, delegate training days and on site meetings, and
· wage rises to cover cost of living pressures: 3.5%, 3.25%, 3.5% each year.

Some workers told GLW these significant gains will lay the basis for a campaign for greater gains in the next enterprise bargaining agreement in three years.

After the struggle for this EBA, where union organisers weren’t allowed on site and Toll wouldn’t allow mass meetings to be conducted on site, many workers highlighted union rights as a core issue.

Polemicos thanked the community for its strong support, which included firewood, groceries and even a “limited edition” pool table.

NUW organiser Kathryn Hilt said the campaign had raised union membership and, “we have doubled the amount of delegates on site. We have more nominees than delegates positions.”

Members of other unions gave money to help the picketers pay their bills.

Members of the nurse’s union also came to show support after their hard struggle for a new enterprise bargaining agreement early this year. As one nurse put it: “Returning the favour.”

One of the things workers were up against was the federal law outlawing solidarity industrial action. If Coles warehouse workers around the country had gone on strike, this dispute would have been settled quickly.

However, during the strike, several protests took place in Coles supermarkets around the country, organised by supporters. Community supporters also blocked trucks leaving another warehouse that Coles had set up to do the work of the Somerton workers.