August 13 was Day 4 of an indefinite strike and picket by workers at Woolworths’ Melbourne Liquor Distribution Centre (MLDC). The strike began at 4am on August 9 when workers walked off the job in protest at Woolworths’ plans that all new employees would be labour hire casuals.
During the last enterprise bargaining negotiations, Woolworths had agreed not to introduce labour hire. Currently, all employees, including casuals, are directly employed by Woolworths with opportunities for casual workers to apply to become permanent each year.
For the duration of the strike, the picket lines ensured that no trucks were able to enter the site and only three trucks managed to leave the site on the first morning of the strike action.
The strike was starting to hurt Woolworths with some Dan Muphy's and BWS stores running out of supplies and closing their doors. However, it was not hurting enough for a duopoly company like Woolworths to retreat from its plan to introduce labour hire.
One Woolworths supermarket worker told Green Left Weekly that Woolworths was bringing in some alcohol from Sydney and Adelaide.
As news of the Laverton MLDC strike spread, workers in other Woolworths warehouses wanted to take solidarity action. On August 13, the Hume DC afternoon shift workers voted for a four-hour strike and workers at the Barnawartha DC at Wodonga voted for an overtime ban.
After a marathon negotiating session on August 13, National Union of Workers national secretary Tim Kennedy recommended to workers that they accept the labour hire package that had been negotiated, and return to work.
About 70% of workers voted to accept the labour hire package and return to work, but about 30% of workers felt they could force Woolworths to withdraw its labour hire plans if they stayed out.
The return to work was with the knowledge that Woolworths plans to tell workers that if they take other unprotected industrial action in the next six months they will be sacked.
The company told the negotiators it would hire an “independent” investigator to make recommendations to the company about three people on the picket line. The company clearly intends to victimise delegates and the most militant workers. The workers voted that if the investigation results in anyone being sacked they would all walk out.
The labour hire package that was negotiated by the officials included:
• labour hire workers coming on site had to be paid the site rates and they would be covered by the enterprise bargaining agreement;
• preference in employment had to go to permanent workers over labour hire workers;
• labour hire would only be able to be employed in peak periods of the year, such as the months leading up to and after Christmas and Easter (although this amounts to about six months); and
• the NUW and Woolworths would agree on which labour hire company would be used.
However, the workers who voted against a return to work are sceptical that these conditions provide enough protection for workers, especially as other companies that have introduced labour hire with such conditions have progressively reduced the number of permanent workers.
The impressive thing is that the indefinite strike begun by the MLDC workers was the first industrial action taken by these workers since the Laverton shed began operating seven years ago. Woolworths was taken off guard by the strike action because the company didn't think these workers were capable of taking action.
The workers proved that they are capable of taking action, standing strong and inflicting pain on Woolworths for really important issues like job security.