Super A-Mart dispute spreads beyond the picket line

Issue 
Super A-Mart workers protest outside a Barbeques Galore store, owned by Super A Mart, in Ballarat, on April 1.

The Super A-Mart workers in Somerton have now been locked out of their workplace for three weeks. Management has refused the workers’ demands to raise wage rates to the industry average of $24 an hour, improve health and safety standards, start monthly rostered days off, and allow casual workers to become permanent.

In response to the lockout, the workers, members of the National Union of Workers (NUW), have initiated an indefinite strike and 24-hour picket at the Super A-Mart warehouse complex in Somerton.

The Supreme Court of Victoria has injuncted the union members, as well as supporters, from any action that is deemed to prevent access to goods coming into the warehousing and distribution centre.

However, the NUW-led campaign has not been restricted to the distribution centre in Somerton. A number of Super A-Mart stores, as well as its sister chain, Barbeques Galore, have been targeted by the NUW members and local community activists.

A Super A-Mart store in Campbellfield was targeted by the workers from the distribution centre and NUW members on March 10, when a dozen activists made their way to the back of the store and chanted various aspects of the company’s unfair treatment of the workforce, including “[the workers] haven’t had a pay rise since 2010” and “these workers are part of your community”, before they were escorted from the store by the management who threatened to call the police.

A similar action also took place in a Super A-Mart store in Nunawading on March 16. During both visits, the activists distributed information to the shoppers highlighting Super A-Mart unethical labour practices and discouraged them from shopping in the stores while the dispute is ongoing.

There has also been a sustained effort to encourage companies and organisations to divest from Quadrant Private Equity (PE) – a firm with a 60% controlling stake, and $135 million of investment, in Super A-Mart.

Some of the most prominent organisations with major holdings in Quadrant PE include the University of Melbourne, Victorian Work Safe and MLC. As part of this campaign, the warehousing workers, NUW members and local activists have staged protests at the headquarters of some of these investors.

The management of the University of Melbourne, including Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis, received an unexpected visit on March 13, when the workers, as well as some university staff and students, delivered a range of low-quality household furniture to the entrance of the administration lobby and proceeded to blockade it, while chanting about the unethical practices of Super A-Mart and the need for the University of Melbourne to divest from Quadrant PE.

A similar action took place at the offices of WorkSafe, on March 19, when NUW members staged a protest condemning its unethical investment practices and highlighting the unfair work conditions that Super A-Mart has been subjecting them to. Superannuation fund MLC was also a target of protesters on March 26 in Melbourne.

The locked-out workers of Super A-Mart have also received support and solidarity from NUW members and branches from across Australia. On March 15, local NUW members in Brisbane initiated a solidarity protest at a Super A-Mart store and vowed to continue the campaign, while individual members from Queensland and elsewhere sent solidarity messages and encouragement for their fellow workers to keep fighting.

Support and donations have also come from other trade unions – the Victorian branch of the Maritime Union of Australia members donated $1000. More than $1500 has come from donations during the We Are Union campaign launch. The NUW’s Facebook page said the union has also successfully raised an estimated $5,000 for the workers at its recent conference in Brisbane over the weekend of the 27-th-29th of March.

The workers have also received significant support and solidarity from the local community and Super A-Mart customers. During her interview with 3CR Program “Stick Together”, Alycia Economidis, the NUW organiser for the site, said Super A-Mart across Australia have now begun to question management about the issues raised by the workers in Somerton, with word “spreading like wildfire”.

The dispute itself, as well as the various tactics used by the NUW and the warehousing workers, highlights how important the role of outside support and solidarity plays in not only keeping up the morale of striking workers, but also putting external pressure on organisations with vested financial interests and encouraging organisations to divest from the company’s operations for ethical reasons.

[To support the locked-out workers, donate and sign the petition visit National Union of Workers online.]

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