For just under a fortnight, workers at Coles’ warehouse in Somerton have been out on strike as a last resort to ensure they enjoy the same benefits as most other employees in the Coles/Toll network. When the EBA was negotiated three years ago the workers were promised that they would be given the same pay and conditions as other workers in the network but, as it turned out, this was not delivered. After negotiations held over the weekend produced an acceptable offer from Coles/Toll the workers voted to accept the new conditions and end the strike. The campaign saw considerable support from the community and other workers in the network. Workers at the Goulburn warehouse calling a snap strike when they discovered Coles had rerouted supplies to them to bypass the strike at Somerton and members of the community rallied in support to block trucks entering another depot in Altona when Coles tried to break the blockade by resupplying stores.
Amongst the benefits won by the Toll workers were the ability to choose not to work public holidays and for casual workers to be made permanent employees after 9 months. These are actually standard conditions for most workers and part of the absolute minimum conditions you should expect in your workplace.
Wesfarmers, who own Coles, have spent millions of dollars rearranging product distribution and warehouse work, hiring 24/7 security guards, not to mention the teams of marketing, PR and image consultants who have been briefing staff, and getting airtime (like the bulletins on 7 and 9 that were little more than advertisements with a bit of news – as pointed out by Shaun Micallef). Even before the strike began, Coles and Toll management were preparing for a long battle with circulars sent out to shopping centres advising them to stockpile as much as possible so the impact of the strike could be disguised on the shelves. That having been said, there were a number of stores with obvious holes in their shelf stock and at the Coles in Corio the fruit and veg workers had built a veritable monument to Swiss Brown mushrooms by using excess mushroom products to fill huge gaps in the fresh vegetable coolers.
Some readers might be curious as to why Coles would invest so much for so little potential gain, especially given that the conditions the workers were fighting for are standard in their other warehouses. I see two possible explanations: firstly, by trying to break the strike (by transferring national warehouse processing to Goulburn in NSW and launching legal action against the striking workers) Coles could hope for a speedy resolution that would make their efforts less costly overall. Unfortunately for Coles the workers were only seeking standard conditions so the usual line of radicalised unions getting greedy and being unreasonable did not apply. Coles, having built its brand on cheapness (as opposed to freshness, healthiness or diversity of product) could ill afford to have gaps on shelves: as living costs have risen over the last decade and the quality of product has become debatable, availability is one of the few remaining qualities that the supermarkets can hope to capitalise on.
The second reason Coles would put so much into shutting down the strike is to keep the power balance between employer and employees tipped in their favour. By preventing the workers from attaining industry standard rights they have a buffer before the workers try to win rights beyond the standard. Especially so when the workers have to re-win the basic right of union entry to premises: a right that frequently annoys employers as it often leads to unethical and illegal practices being exposed. Also, a strong union presence means workers have a greater knowledge and appreciation of their rights and are less likely, as some of the Toll workers were, to feel guilty about stopping work to claim their union rights.
It is interesting to note that one of the conditions won by the Toll workers was a guaranteed conversion to permanent employment after 9 months as a casual. When I entered the workforce this was an increasingly uncommon right but amongst older workers it was seen as an absolute necessity. The leave loading increase to 25% was a nice sweetener for those who were unwilling or unable to make the conversion from casual to permanent but, as I later found out, it did not compensate for the job security, leave days and severance that permanent employment offered.
A number of Australian unions have been running campaigns to fight the increasing casualisation of jobs for the past few years and the conditions won by the Toll workers are indicative of why these campaigns must be pursued in earnest. As casualisation increases, job security decreases and in an economy where major industries are sloughing off workers this is a major concern for workers. Even if you’re not working in the building and construction industries or retail – the former losing several hundred companies since January 1 this year and the latter shedding 38,500 positions in the year to February 2012 – job security is likely to be at the fore of many workers minds. Not the least those workers at Westpac who were ordered to train their replacements when the company announced it was downsizing. For those who are unaware, the Big 4 banks posted a mid-year profit of some $12bn with the expectation of exceeding last year’s full-term profit of around $25bn.
Increasing casualisation with a lack of union presence makes it a lot easier for employers to force employees – or to offer little other option – to work public holidays and weekends. In those workplaces where employers act illegally or unethically workers are not even paid penalties for their work outside of normal hours – a right established to ensure workers are compensated for the intrusion of work into personal time. There has been a concerted effort from some conservative elements and employers to kill off penalty rates, claiming they are unsustainable and damaging to small businesses. Some wonder that the loudest voices were George Calombaris, the multimillionaire restauranteur and Masterchef judge, and three of the Big 4 banks (Westpac, Commonwealth and ANZ) who quietly withdrew an application to remove all weekend penalty rates for their workers a few months ago. Up until that point they had been arguing that weekends were increasingly becoming normal working hours; a somewhat illogical choice of argument given that the banks in my local area close at 4:30pm on weekdays and are only open for a few hours on Saturday if at all on weekends. And even if they were open from 9 to 5 on weekends, it is the more ethical choice to pay for the penalties out of the company’s profits (as is the usual case) rather than hitting the workers’ wallets as the company posts record breaking profits.