Coles warehouse workers met two days into an indefinite strike on July 12 and voted unanimously to reject the latest offer from their direct employer Toll Logistics. Hundreds had gathered on a picket line to prevent trucks entering the site.
Striking workers outside the warehouse, which owner Coles outsources to Toll, told Green Left Weekly that the offer wasn’t really “new”, but was only tweaked slightly from the old offer.
It did not address the issues workers say are central to the dispute, including the right to choose whether to work on public holidays, have rostered days off once a month, shift loading for a whole shift, the automatic option of permanent work after six months and a pay rise equal to other Coles warehouses.
National Union of Workers (NUW) delegate Frank Polemicos, who has worked at the warehouse since it opened six years ago, told GLW: “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 and 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.”
Workers also want a new agreement to include basic union rights such as right of entry for union officials so that workers have access to the union on the job. The striking workers said Toll management carry out a lot of petty harassment of workers.
The company refused to accept the legitimacy of the workers’ vote and sent its own ballot papers directly to workers’ homes in the hope of confusing people.
Toll took the NUW to Fair Work Australia on July 13, claiming the union was in breach of good faith bargaining because of the picket line. Fair Work Australia ruled that it was not.
The NUW made a “cross application” against Toll, alleging that putting the agreement out to vote without hearing the feedback from the union then refusing to meet until June 24 was a breach of good faith bargaining.
Fair Work agreed and mandated that a vote should wait 21 days and the company had to meet with the union at least three times in the following 14 days.
That afternoon, Toll secretly went to the Supreme Court and lodged an injunction against the union without serving the NUW with the paperwork or allowing the union time to get legal representation. The Supreme Court denied the injunction and adjourned the case until the next day.
NUW assistant state secretary Gary Maas told the Age on July 13: ‘‘We implore Toll and particularly Coles to come to the bargaining table and start making a genuine effort to resolve this dispute.”
Coles supermarkets are still managing to get stock from Coles distribution centres interstate. Workers at Coles NSW distribution centres in Goulburn and Eastern Creek refused to do work for Victoria. They were stood down, but Fair Work Australia ruled they had to return to work.
This is an example of how Australia’s industrial relations laws are loaded against workers. If other Coles workers around the country were able to go on strike, the dispute would be resolved very quickly. Unions and workers in Australia are very nervous about directly confronting these anti-worker laws.
Coles supermarkets have been hit with solidarity protests in Melbourne, Warnambool, Queensland, Western Australia and Sydney. The protests have called on shoppers to boycott Coles for the duration of the dispute.
As the strike went into its fifth day on July 14, the workers were standing strong. After three years of Toll trying to divide workers, pitting afternoon shift against day shift and day shift against night shift, they are unlikely to fall for the company’s tricks again.
There will be a solidarity concert at the picket line on July 15 from noon, at Union Road, Somerton.
[A bank account has been set up for donations to sustain the workers: account name: NUW Vic Coles Somerton Relief Fund, BSB: 063 074, account number: 10014540. Sign the petition “Coles: Stop exploiting workers at your Somerton warehouse — improve conditions immediately”.]