A New Zealand subsidiary of Australian retailing giant Woolworths responded to a 48-hour strike by its employees at distribution centres in Auckland, Palmerston North and Christchurch on August 25 by locking them out.
The sudden lockout followed the suspension of striking workers. The National Distribution Union's (NDU) stoppage was part of a campaign for a nationwide collective agreement with equal pay rates to cover the three distribution centres. Progressive Enterprises, the subsidiary, refuses to negotiate on this issue. Pay rates currently vary between the centres, which supply Countdown, Foodtown and Woolworths supermarkets.
This blatant attempt to destroy a union is being carried out by a company boasting a 24% increase in profits. The CEO of Woolworths Australia takes home A$8.5 million a year, 340 times more than a full-time checkout operator.
In Palmerston North, police escorted scabs in to load trucks. In Christchurch, a striker was hit by a truck that attempted to cross the picket line. NDU organiser Stan Renwick was arrested by police on August 28 in Auckland and charged with obstruction.
The distribution centres have 90% union membership, the supermarkets about 20%. After the first 14 days of the dispute, signs began appearing on supermarket shelves apologising for the absence of goods.
Progressive Enterprises has taken full-page newspaper advertisements accusing the union of holding the company and the New Zealand economy to ransom. The company told the union the workers would remain locked out until they abandoned the claim for a national collective agreement.
The pickets' success in stopping supply trucks' movement has forced the company to freight deliveries directly to its supermarkets rather than through the distribution centres.
According to NDU organiser Stan Renwick, "Woolworths Australia has reneged on an earlier agreement to bring their four Progressive Supply Chain distribution centres into a single national collective agreement with equal pay rates and allowances.
"Workers on each of the sites do identical work storing, picking and dispatching dry supermarket product. They are paid the same base pay rate, but have different allowances and benefits with Palmerston North earning up to $2.50 more than Christchurch and Auckland workers earning $1 more than their South Island co-workers."
Like Australia, New Zealand's supermarket industry is a duopoly of two huge companies, the Foodstuffs group and Progressive Enterprises, with the latter controlling 44% of the market. It was bought by Australia's Woolworths Limited in 2005. Woolworths, excluding Progressive Enterprises, had a A$32 billion turnover in the last financial year.
Supermarket employees are the lowest earning workers in New Zealand. Many are migrants, Pacific Islanders, Maori, young people and women.
The NDU is calling for an international campaign to put pressure on the company and is urging people to send protest messages. More information can be found at <http://www.shelfrespect.org>.