The workers at a Super A-Mart warehousing and distribution centre in Somerton, Victoria, have scored a victory over company management nearly six weeks after they were locked out of their workplace.
The workers have won a 10% wage rise over the next three years, improved redundancy conditions, permanency conversions after six months, an Occupational Health and Safety committee on site, as well as a $750 sign-on bonus.
Their victory was in partly due to the overwhelming success of the “Low Wage Bus Tour”, which left Melbourne on April 9 with the slogan “Raise the Wage”.
The first stop was Albury-Wodonga. The tour participants informed the locals of the unfair treatment of the Super A-Mart workforce and the ramifications for regional cities and employment. They received a warm welcome and many people pledged to not shop in Super A-Mart until the dispute was resolved.
The next stop was Canberra. The bus tour delivered Prime Minister Tony Abbott a “$20 an hour low-wage contract” and ask for his signature, considering how adamant he has been about advocating for lower wages for workers. A protest took place in front of the Parliament House, while several workers tried to enter the building and deliver the contract.
When the tour arrived in Sydney on April 11, more than a hundred National Union of Workers members and supporters, as well as the majority of the locked-out workforce at the Super A-Mart warehouse complex in Somerton, Melbourne, rallied outside the offices of Quadrant Private Equity.
Quadrant PE is the largest investor in Super A-Mart, holding a controlling stake in the business. The protest made clear its demands to raise wages to the award level of $22 an hour, reinstate the locked out workforce and ensure that health and safety provisions are respected.
Tim Lyons, the assistant secretary of Australian Council of Trade Unions, and Charlie Donnelly, the national secretary of the NUW, spoke alongside the locked-out workers.
Confronting the managing director of Quadrant PE, Chris Hadley, the workers offered him the “Low Wage contract”, to which he replied “not interested, mate” before security escorted him indoors.
Donnelly said: “Chris Hadley, being part of the super rich, does not want workers to have any right to a collective agreement, doesn’t want the workers to have proper pay or proper conditions.”
The Sydney protest was the finale of the tour. The efforts made by the unionised workers and their supporters not only resulted in a victory over management, but also raised awareness of a much bigger issue in Australia — building a fightback against the low-wage Australia that Abbott is pushing for with his renewed attacks on the trade union movement.
The Somerton dispute proved to be yet another case of “David and Goliath” – a relatively small group of workers banding together with the support of local community and their trade union against a multi-million dollar business backed by one of the largest private equity firms in the country.
In our present climate of union busting by the conservative government, the Super A-Mart dispute is an important example of what can be achieved when a trade union follows a militant strategy and is backed by the wider community.