Supermarket workers take historic ‘superstrike’

October 7, 2023
RAFFWU members rally in Meanjin/Brisbane while the strike is underway.
RAFFWU members rally in Meanjin/Brisbane while the strike is underway. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) members at hundreds of Coles and Woolworths supermarkets took part in a historic nationwide “superstrike” on October 7 as they escalated industrial action for a living wage and better working conditions.

About 1000 workers across the country walked off the job from 10am–12pm after the supermarket giants refused to budge on RAFFWU’s demands for higher wages, safer workplaces and secure jobs. This is the first time supermarket workers have taken nationwide industrial action.

“Woolworths and Coles are yet to make a single offer on a single item a year after bargaining started,” RAFFWU secretary Josh Cullinan told Channel 9. “Workers are so fed up with what’s been going on for a year since they started bargaining in December.”

Meanwhile, Coles and Woolworths have made huge profits during the cost-of-living crisis, $1.1 billion and $1.6 billion respectively. Both companies have used “inflation” as an excuse to jack up prices, while wages have stagnated.

Cullinan said workers had been left with no choice but to go on strike. A second two-hour strike is set to take place on October 10 and workers have pledged to escalate industrial action if the supermarket giants refuse to bargain.

“We know that direct action by workers is the only way to achieve the conditions they deserve,” a RAFFWU statement said. The statement highlighted recent RAFFWU successes at book shops such as Better Read Than Dead and Apple stores.

While the strike was underway, workers and supporters rallied at sites across the country where they held speak-outs and addressed the media. Workers spoke about being unable to afford the groceries they sell because of low wages.

The Meanjin/Brisbane rally was the largest ever gathering of RAFFWU members in Queensland. Workers held banners saying “down-down-down with Coles & Woolies greed” and wore #Superstrike shirts.

Trade unionist and labour historian Jeff Rickertt told the crowd the strike was a “remarkable achievement” and the kind of action needed to rebuild a fighting workers' movement.

Coles worker and RAFFWU delegate Penny Vickers told Green Left that “conditions at Coles and Woolworths have been slowly deteriorating over a number of years”. 

“We’re come together to say enough is enough. It’s time to stand up,” Vickers said. “What you’re seeing is the beginning of a movement to effect change at Coles and Woolworths.”

RAFFWU members told the Gadi/Sydney rally at Belmore Park that “a living wage is something everyone deserves”. Workers highlighted the unfair payment rates for young workers on junior rates: “I’m getting paid 20% less than someone a month older than me, 14–15 year old kids are getting paid a lot less,” one told Vice Australia.

Chants off ""Hey, hey, ho, ho! Junior rates have got to go!" and "What do we want? Fair pay! When do we want it? Now!" rang out in the park. 

Rohan, a young casual worker at Coles, told the media: "We say no to junior rates. Make casual workers permanent if they wish.

"Management is targeting workers taking industrial action, standing down workers who are taking protected action. Yet people are living from pay check to pay check.

"For part-timers, we need guaranteed hours, and a guaranteed income. We call on the Coles-Woolworths duopoly, who are ripping off customers as well as staff, to agree to the RAFFWU claims now," Rohan said.

Honey Christensen, representing RAFFWU, said: "These retail workers are the backbone of Australian society. If all supermarket workers walked out, the country would stop.

Workers at Woolworths had implemented work bans starting on September 22. They came into effect at Coles on October 5. The bans include not packing loose items, not cleaning up bodily fluids or cleaning toilets.

Bans on unloading trucks, heating up bread, training new workers and working without safety matts are being considered. 

In retaliation, Coles took aggressive action against RAFFWU members, including stopping anyone participating in the bans from working, and barring workers wearing #Superstrike shirts from entering the store. 

Cullinan told Junkee this was an “unprecedented attack” on workers. “[It’s] really disappointing and a heartless approach from Coles we don’t even see from some of the most outrageously union and worker attacking companies,” Josh said.

“We’re asking people who are shopping at Coles and Woolworths to stay away from the store during the time we’re striking,” Vickers told GL. She encouraged people to show their support on social media or join the campaign. 

RAFFWU has set up a strike fund to support striking workers. So far, $18,000 have been donated. Donations of $60 or more receive rewards including badges, stickers, shirts and more.

[Donate to the RAFFWU strike fund here.] 

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