Members of the National Union of Workers (NUW) employed at the Super A-Mart warehouse in Somerton have maintained a presence outside their workplace since being locked out on March 7.
The workers held a one-day strike on February 28 in support of their campaign for an enterprise bargaining agreement, which would be the first ever signed at the warehouse. They called another strike on March 7, but were then locked out indefinitely by the company.
NUW delegate Brad Wyatt told Green Left Weekly there are four main issues — wages, occupational health and safety, union rights, and the need for a dispute-settling procedure in the agreement.
The workers are currently paid $20 an hour, whereas in other warehouses the pay is $24 an hour. The workers have proposed raising the rate to $22 an hour immediately, then increasing it by stages to $24 an hour in the final year of a three year agreement.
There are a number of health and safety issues in the warehouse. Workers are expected to lift loads of up to 100 kilograms onto pallets. Two-person picking teams that previously did this work were cut to a single person. There are no clear guidelines on when a worker is allowed to ask for help with a heavy load. One worker has already injured his back.
Other safety issues include hydraulic fluid from forklifts leaking onto the floor, creating a slippery surface, and workers cutting themselves with Stanley knives. The workers want a health and safety committee to develop policies to deal with such issues. Up to now the company has not agreed.
There has been discrimination against union members in terms of opportunities for higher duties, overtime and disciplinary issues.
The workers want the agreement to include a provision for arbitration by the Fair Work Commission to settle disputes. The company rejects this, wishing to keep the power in its own hands.
NUW organiser Alycia Economidis told GLW that the company has obtained an injunction against anyone blocking the gates of the warehouse. The injunction deems anyone who blocks the gates (not only workers, but also family members and other supporters) to be an “agent” of the NUW.
This injunction is based on a precedent set in a protest against the construction of a McDonalds restaurant in Tecoma. The Tecoma decision is being appealed, but the case has not yet been heard.
Workers and supporters have been taking their message to shops owned by the company (including Barbeques Galore), informing customers about the conditions in the warehouse, and also about fines that were imposed on the company by the ACCC due to false advertising and misleading information given to customers.
Supporters are welcome to visit the workers at 83-89 Freight Drive, Somerton.