Interview: How Chemist Warehouse workers won

Photo: Sue Bolton

After a 16-day strike, workers at Chemist Warehouse distribution centres declared victory on March 28. Among their biggest gains were an 18.75% wage rise over four years and the conversion of labour hire workers to permanent positions after six months of work.

These are significant wins — and much better than those that workers have been winning recently in times of wage stagnation and high unemployment.

Workers at Chemist Warehouse distribution centres in Somerton and Preston, in Melbourne, and Eagle Farm, in Brisbane, began their indefinite strike on March 12 over three main issues: a wage rise to bring workers up to the industry standard; conversion of casual workers to permanent; and a proper process to investigate and deal with complaints of sexual harassment and bullying.

Green Left Weekly spoke to the National Union of Workers (NUW) lead organiser Matt Toner about the how the Chemist Warehouse workers won.

Toner said that the process started four years ago when all Chemist Warehouse sites were entirely non-union. “The union managed to join enough members so that we could force the company to negotiate an EBA [entreprise bargaining agreement] with the union rather than a non-union EBA, but it wasn’t a great agreement.

“Then we found some key activists on site, and they unionised up to 80-90% of the workers.”

Toner was full of praise for the exceptional delegates and rank-and-file activists who convinced their workmates to join the union, especially as 70-80% of workers were casual labour hire.

Toner said the delegates “didn’t confine themselves to organising permanent workers. They joined casual workers and came up with ways to make casual workers feel safe to join the union.

“Two of the key delegates at Somerton were labour hire workers.

“To come from not having any labour hire members to joining so many labour hire workers was exceptional”.

Toner explained that a lot of the labour hire workers had been working at Chemist Warehouse for six or seven years via multiple labour hire companies. Workers were required to be on standby for a shift and never knew how much money they were going to make in a week.

“Often the company will put you on standby for the following day so you can’t plan doctor’s appointments or anything. Sometimes the shift is cancelled after you have driven over an hour to get to work. Sometimes the shift will be confirmed late at night then you have to get up at 4am to start a shift at 6am the next day,” explained Toner.

One of the workers that GLW spoke to had been driving over an hour to work a single day shift a week.

The labour hire companies train a surplus of people for a job. Toner said that “it’s like the docks were in the early 1900s. As a labour hire worker, you are only told the day before if you are working the next day. You don’t get a roster.”

A lot of the labour hire workers were previously long-time unemployed workers.

The bosses at Chemist Warehouse used labour hire workers to cut costs. Instead of giving overtime to permanent workers, they would bring in extra labour hire workers.

Delegates realised that labour hire workers and permanent workers needed to stick together if they were ever going to get anywhere.

Toner said that an important aspect of the victory was that the delegates decided to raise the expectations of workers. “The workers knew that if they wanted a 3-4% wage rise, they could get that at the bargaining table, but if they wanted more, they had to strike,” said Toner.

Chemist Warehouse workers were earning 25% below the industry standard, with labour hire workers on the minimum wage. Lifting wages to the industry standard was important to the workers — and that meant that they had to take strike action, Toner said.

Toner said that a return of 60% is usually considered a good result in most postal ballots for protected industrial action. At Chemist Warehouse, 80% of workers returned their ballots with 80-90% saying “Yes” to all forms of industrial action.

Delegates organised workplace meetings to endorse industrial action. Because Chemist Warehouse did not allow for paid union meetings, delegates had to figure out the best time to hold meetings at the gate.

Delegates started organising mass meetings before work. Though they started small, they grew and grew, Toner said.

In the end, “workers decided that indefinite strike action would be the best action because that would affect the supply chain.”

Toner said: “The members move one million products a week for Chemist Warehouse stores. If we had just done a four-hour stoppage, or even a 24-hour strike, the company would have just put on a couple of hundred more casual workers to catch up on the missed work. 

“Because the workforce can fluctuate, the company can double the number of casual workers to catch up.

“It was critical to have a larger window where the company has labour withdrawn so that the strike could affect their stores.

“We knew that if we did an indefinite strike, the longer the strike went on, the more support we would get.

“We also knew that if we wanted to have a high expectation about outcome, we had to act bold and militant,” said Toner.

Toner said that “there were very few demands we didn’t win.

“Now, a large number of casuals will become permanent.”

A big issue during the dispute was the numerous allegations of sexual harassment and bullying raised by workers. Some examples included managers asking for sexual favours in return for a worker being offered a shift.

When workers are casual and are not getting much work, they are particularly vulnerable to bullying and sexual harassment. In the past, the company has tried to sack delegates who spoke up on behalf of victims.

The company agreed to training and instruction in dealing with sexual harassment, in collaboration with the NUW, and agreed to a proper complaints process.

Given that “the rules are stacked against workers. Workers have to jump through so many hurdles to take industrial action,” said Toner.

When a union applies for a ballot to take industrial action, the company has 30 days to prepare an alternate strategy, and only then is the union given three clear business days notice of the actual industrial action.

“The process is designed to deter workers from taking industrial action,” said Toner.

In contrast, the bosses only have to give “reasonable notice” of a lockout, which can be a letter given to workers on the day of a lockout.

Toner said that the victory was “phenomenal”. The workers “were literally crying with joy and hugging each other when they heard about it.”

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