Country Road workers fashion a victory

United Workers Union (UWU) members at Country Road Group’s (CRG) Truganina warehouse in Melbourne have scored a victory after 12 days of industrial action, a first for that site.

Workers voted to return to work at a mass meeting on the morning of 22 November after extracting the following from the CRG:

  • 13.3 per cent pay rise over four years, backdated to May 2021
  • 20 new permanent positions, taking permanency up to 75 per cent
  • equal site rates for agency causals
  • new union rights and recognition.

The multicultural and majority-female workforce were previously paid just above minimum wage. The new agreement will shrink the pay gap between them and workers in surrounding warehouses.

This victory comes hot on the heels of another UWU win at Toll, which has several nearby warehouses.

Playing victim

CRG attempted to defeat the strike from the get-go, forking out $100,000 for a court injunction to ban a picket across the gates on day two. They continued working the warehouse’s agency casuals as scab labour.

But the strike cut throughput by more than half. Mounting demand from the upcoming Black Friday and Christmas sales put significant pressure on the company.

Managers tried playing victim, complaining to the picketers that negative press coverage had made them look like villains. Various intimidation tactics were also used.

Despite the pandemic, CRG sales increased by 13.5 per cent this year, raking in $155 million in profits.

Lively

When Solidarity visited the picket, strikers reported receiving generous donations of supplies, food and drink from neighbouring warehouses. Many have had similar disputes in the recent past.

Spirits were high and passing cars and trucks honked in support.

The strikers kept up a busy routine, alternating between staffing the picket line and heading into the city to protest and leaflet Country Road stores.

The UWU also organised a protest at Melbourne Fashion Week, where Country Road was a participant on a panel about greenwashing.

UWU National Secretary Tim Kennedy praised the workers’ courage and unity, and blasted the “broken” enterprise bargaining (EB) laws that had confounded the warehouse workers throughout their months-long EB campaign.

“The current enterprise bargaining system has resulted in wage stagnation and insecure work. The current laws are used to restrict workers from effectively bargaining for a fair share of profits and productivity,” said Kennedy.

Thankfully, CRG was caught unprepared and the workers’ robust and creative campaign won them a swift victory.

But as the experience of the recent Smeaton Grange dispute shows, companies can be much more prepared and ruthless.

Australia’s EB laws are indeed broken. Hard pickets and solidarity strikes could have totally shut down the CRG warehouse and broken management even quicker. But that would have meant escalating the dispute and defying the Fair Work Act.

The latest string of union victories should feed into the confidence of the workers’ movement to smash anti-strike laws once and for all.

By Jason Wong

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