Union tents have stood outside Coles’ Smeaton Grange distribution centre in Sydney’s south-west since last November, when the retail giant locked out its workforce rather than negotiate fairer redundancy conditions as the facility approaches closure in 2023. Now, the red marquees have been disassembled after workers agreed to an offer from the company last weekend.

It was the latest in a series of non-union agreements from Coles that offered no real improvements to redundancies but included meagre concessions such as one-off bonuses to get employees to vote them up. Half a dozen such contracts have been rejected by these essential workers, who have remained defiant even after the initial three-month lockout was extended indefinitely.

When the pandemic hit last March, the centre’s workers pulled fourteen- and sixteen-hour days to restock the supermarkets after panic-buying. On the back of their labour, Coles declared that it had banked a record $951 million in quarterly profits: enough to cover the cost of its new mechanised distribution facilities that will put everyone in the existing network out of work by 2024.

The company was determined to force its terms on the workers at Smeaton, who proudly describe themselves as the most militant shed in the network. When their enterprise agreement came up for negotiation in October, Coles made one offer: four weeks’ redundancy per year of service, capped at 80 weeks, available only to those employees still on the books when the facility shut its doors. They refused to negotiate further.

The workers rejected the offer and voted for strike action. After the vote, the United Workers Union waited more than two weeks for a one-day strike approved by the Fair Work Commission. Coles used the advance notice to hunker down for a long fight, sending the centre’s stock and equipment to other parts of the network, and setting up two “pop-up” distribution centres at Smithfield and Prospect.

Some unionists, including Lee*, a veteran of more than 25 years, argued for a change in tactics. “I told them, cancel the strike. Then the company will have to bring everything back. Then after that you walk out!” But by the morning of the planned action, the closest thing to perishables left in the Smeaton Grange distribution centre was long life milk. At that point, Coles declared a three-month lockout.

Despite the running start for the company, morale was high in December. Many unionists expected that Coles wouldn’t be able to operate through the holiday rush without the Smeaton centre. On Facebook, they shared pictures of empty shelves in stores and pallets collapsing and tearing their shrink-wrap, poorly stacked by casuals at the pop-up distribution centres.

It was a long overdue opportunity to fight back. Many stories from the centre sound like those you hear from Amazon warehouses: getting disciplined for returning from lunch 30 seconds late, staff having panic attacks in their cars and turning home rather than clock on one minute after the start of shift, and managers outright refusing toilet breaks. One worker with a chronic gastric condition was asked to turn over their medical records to justify their time in the bathroom.

Once the lockdown began, workers lambasted Coles’ chief operating officer, Matt Swindell. Swindell embraced the role of villain, posting intimidating video messages to unionists. A supporter of the workers remixed one such video to the sound of a badly-played recorder, intercutting Swindell’s bravado with images of collapsing goods and stock shortages.

Coles’ distribution network did not collapse over the holiday period. Over the New Year, the company put out its first non-union offer, which contained a now-infamous “clause nine” that would have allowed it to persecute unionists for activity during the lockout. Shockingly, union leaders declared a “neutral” position on the deal, leaving rank-and-file members and supporters to campaign against it. The offer was voted down: then a follow-up non-union offer was rejected by a mere four votes.

Morale floundered, but Coles’ offers continued to be rejected, often by small margins. In one non-binding union poll, members voted to accept a deal, only to reject the deal when put to a vote by Coles days later. Workers weren’t just stubbornly refusing to lose: many knew that they needed to take the fight to the company. They discussed the prospect of solidarity action from other distribution centres. They pushed for more strike relief payments from the UWU, adorning their cars with signs saying “Strike Fund Now!” at one meeting. Some wanted pickets at the other distribution centres.

John* had taken part in a rain-soaked blockade at Coles’ massive cold-storage facility in Eastern Creek in late December, which had backed up a dozen trucks outside an entrance before dispersing at police request. “We were on the right track with that”, he said later. “I don’t know why we meet up every morning [at the Smeaton Grange centre]. We should be meeting every morning at Eastern Creek and shutting them down over there ... Then we could come back at night!” Workers had the ideas and the energy necessary to win, but no leadership existed that could bring the no-voters together to act decisively, and the impetus would not come from the union officials, who often scolded them for divisiveness when they argued with yes-voters at meetings.

Unwilling to take a step backward yet hamstrung from taking a step forward, the resolve of these workers was finally spent last week. Their new agreement is barely different to Coles’ original offer, but this struggle has welded together a core of determined no-voters. It’s taught them that to win they need active strikes, and they need to be ready to go beyond the union officials. These are not empty lessons: Coles will try and do what it has done at Smeaton at its other distribution centres, and the rest of the warehose distribution industry is following suit. The experience at Smeaton Grange was not a victory, but it has shown that workers have what it takes to beat giants like Coles if they can put these lessons into practice.

* Names have been changed.