Workers’ employed by Toll at the Coles warehouse in Somerton, Melbourne have shown that militancy wins. After a two-week strike, the workers, covered by the National Union of Workers (NUW), have won improved conditions and a better pay offer.

The pay deal does, however, fall short of their original demand for equal pay with interstate Coles warehouse workers. Coles runs most of its warehouses across the country itself, but has contracted out operations at two of its Melbourne centres to cut costs. Even after the wage rise just won, Somerton workers are still paid about $5 per hour less than workers in the warehouses directly run by Coles interstate.

The win was a direct result of their solid strike and picket that completely shut the warehouse down, preventing any trucks moving in or out of the warehouse. They also stood up to attempts by Toll to have the picket declared illegal, including an order demanding the picket be lifted and the naming of 20 workers in the Supreme Court.

The action showed the power of strike action to hurt major corporations and force them to concede. Both Toll and Coles claimed publicly that the strike was not having much impact on Coles.

But Toll let the truth slip in documents they lodged in court. The company estimated that contingency plans Coles put in place to deal with the strike cost them “a six figure sum on a daily basis”.

Conditions won

Workers have won accrued time RDOs (rostered days off), shift allowances, a voluntary system for working public holidays, the right for casuals to convert to permanent after nine months (currently it’s 12 months) and better rights for union delegates.

The wage deal is a 10.25 per cent wage rise over three years, an improvement on the company’s initial offer of 2.75 per cent to 3 per cent per year, but less than the original 7 per cent per year claim (later dropped to 5 per cent).

The NUW produced some very good material revealing the massive profits of the companies involved. Coles made $1.9 billion in the last financial year and Toll $295 million. Massive salaries were paid to the bosses—the Coles CEO got $15.6 million, while Toll’s boss scored $4.7 million.Toll even managed to sponsor Essendon football club to the tune of $1.5 million at the same time as it claimed that it could not afford to pay the Somerton workers the same as other warehouse workers.

Standing together

Solidarity spoke to one worker who said the improved conditions were good, and that the afternoon shift workers were happiest, but the pay rise “should have been a bit more”. “The picket has been a good experience,” he said, “We all stuck together, even though it was tough for everyone.”

Workers showed a tremendous will to fight. Interstate workers in Goulburn NSW refused to do distribution work that had been shifted to them from Victoria. The Goulburn workers were ordered back to work by Fair Work, but spreading this kind of solidarity action could have seen the Somerton workers win all their demands.

Victorian Nurses defied both Fair Work and Federal Court orders earlier this year, and won against the nasty Victorian Liberal state government.

Somerton workers have struck a blow against Coles’ strategy to cut costs by outsourcing its warehouses. Now the union leaders have to make sure that all Coles’ warehouses (including the outsourced sites) are covered by the one bargaining agreement.

CFMEU members recently successfully staged a national strike at all Lend Lease sites across the country. Developing links between workers at all Coles’ warehouses will be key to taking coordinated action in future to stop Coles’ divide and rule tactics and to winning the fight for equal pay and conditions for all warehouse workers.

Chris Breen

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