Coles: the bell TOLLS for thee
‘Nothing in; nothing out.’ That’s the slogan and the aim of over 250 National Union of Workers’ (NUW) members and community supporters at their indefinite picket of the Coles’ distribution centre at Somerton in Melbourne.
And it is working. No trucks have gone into or out of the factory since the strike began on Tuesday morning.
Coles owns the centre but has subcontracted the work to Toll Holdings.
The workers want the same pay as workers at other Coles’ distribution centres. They are paid up to $4 an hour less. Apart from the wage inequity, there are a range of other issues the workers want addressed. According to the NUW their demands are:
- Time for workers to have with their family: the creation of a roster for day shift workers that allows them to take a rostered day off and voluntary public holiday system – so that workers can choose rather than be forced to work public holidays
- Shift loading to be paid for the entirety of a shift to a worker who does afternoon or night shift – not a couple of hours per shift as proposed by the company
- The automatic option for direct and indirect casuals to become permanent employees after 6 months
- Inclusion of basic union rights in the Agreement – such as Right of Entry
- A decent wage increase to catch up to other Coles warehouses
The Somerton warehouse is huge, up to 3 times bigger than the MCG according to some workers there. It services not just Victorian supermarkets but interstate ones too so is vital to Coles’ operations.
Coles tried to anticipate the strike by moving supplies to other distribution centres like Goulburn in New South Wales.
About 80 storemen and packers there on the morning shift would not undermine the Toll strikers and refused to handle deliveries that would normally be distributed by the workers at Somerton.
For their act of solidarity, the NUW says Coles stood the Goulburn workers down. Coles says they walked out and that this was an illegal strike.
Coles also has a huge distribution centre at Eastern Creek which supplies food to all of New South Wales. If the strike were to spread there, Coles would be in diabolical trouble.
To try to stop the strike from spreading, Coles went to the Gillard Labor Government’s industrial umpire, Fair Work Australia. FWA ordered the workers at Goulburn to return to work. They had done so already, and it looks like the afternoon shift turned up and went about its usual work.
Toll Holdings has been describing the picket line at Somerton as ‘illegal’. This is because it works. It has stopped any trucks going in or out.
It is no surprise that the bosses turn to their courts to try to end strikes that might win. It is no surprise that they are doing this under Labor’s industrial relations laws, since Labor is a party committed to managing capitalism and a party which has made strikes illegal except in certain very limited circumstances.
It brings to mind the song with the line ‘When they jail a man for striking it’s a rich man’s country still.’
It certainly is, and Labor’s industrial laws are designed to keep it that way, shovelling more and more of the wealth we workers create to the likes of the Coles’ CEO Ian McLeod, Australia’s most well paid executive on $15.6 million salary a year, (before other entitlements such as share packages and the like are taken into account) and to Coles’ billion dollar profits.
By the way, when McLeod started at Coles in 2008, his base salary was $2 million.
The picket at Somerton is solid. The workers are determined to win after years of being treated like shit, pitted against each other in virtual packing competitions which are or can adversely affect their health.
For example the faster casual packers are given more hours but the amount of boxes they pack is above safe limits. it evidently works something like this. The slower packers are told to leave after 3 or 4 hours, and only paid for that, then the next lot of slower ones are given their marching orders after 6 hours and the really fast ones get 8 hours.
Socialist Alternative explained the consequences of this:
This sort of tactic pits workers against each other. The winners – the fastest workers – get the hours and the cash, but at what cost? Udara, the OH&S rep for the day shift, explained that the rate of injury at the centre was high: “Management expect 137 boxes picked per hour, up from 120 four years ago. None of this is even in the EBA, the company just dictated it. Some of the boxes weigh 17kg. Even if you lift the boxes with the correct form, the pace leads to injury – particularly we have back and shoulder injuries.”
According to Udara, up to 10 percent of the day shift pickers are on modified duties due to injury. Toll officially covers its arse by providing the correct training in OH&S, including safe lifting techniques. But, as many on the picket pointed out, when they are pressured to work at such a pace “correct technique” is either impossible all of the time, or just meaningless because of the general strain created by the repetition.
Both Toll Holdings and Coles are big companies and make a lot of profit. Coles’ profit in the 2010/11 financial year rose 21 percent to $1.16 billion. Its earnings growth in the first half of the 2011/12 financial year was 14.1%. The net profit for the labour supply contractor Toll Holdings was $158 million in the six months to 31 December 2011. Their profit forecast for the year is between $400 and $420 million.
They didn’t get that sort of profit by being generous to their workers, or in the case of Coles, their suppliers as well.
Giving the 600 Toll Holdings workers at Somerton an extra $4 dollars an hour and implementing their other claims won’t exactly break the banks of these two companies with their combined mega profits of about $1.5 billion.
In fact that $4 per hour pay increase could come out of the salary package of the Coles’ CEO alone and he’d still have $12 million left over to play with.
This dispute is important. With enough determination and support the Toll Holdings workers can win and show the rest of the workforce that strong industrial action supported by other workers and the community can win even in the face of the power of big companies and Labor’s rotten industrial laws.
Toll Holdings has put a revised offer to the union. According to the union leadership it doesn’t meet the workers’ demands.
The members will vote on it at 2 pm on Thursday at the picket line.
Victory to the Toll Holdings workers.
To show your support for the striking workers, sign the NUW petition to the Coles’ $15 million dollar man, CEO Ian McLeod.
Shop at other supermarkets until the dispute is settled in favour of the Toll workers.
Socialist Alternative is organising transport to the distribution centre every day at midday and 6pm. Cars will be leaving from Trades Hall, cnr Lygon and Victoria Street Carlton. Call Liz (0405 736265) if you need a lift.
Here is a Channel 7 video of the picket on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.