'Nothing in, nothing out' at Woolworths picket

11 August 2015
Steph Price

In the early hours of the morning on the second day of their strike, a fluoro pack huddles for a quick meeting. The man holding the megaphone in the middle is straining to speak, his voice is hoarse from talking in huddles like this one – held regularly at each gate of the warehouse being picketed. Everyone leans in to hear him. “We are owed our jobs.” He pauses. “We are owed our livelihoods.”

When another worker takes a turn on the megaphone he asks, “Are we going to stay out here until we win?” Someone behind responds, “This isn’t about ‘are we going to’ – we have to”.

Workers at the Woolworths Melbourne Liquor Distribution Centre (MLDC) in Laverton have been on strike since 4:30am on Monday 10 August. They have two demands. No labour hire at the distribution centre and no repercussions for striking.

“For them this is a negotiation thing”, says Jeff (not his real name), “for us there is no negotiation, we don’t want labour hire in MLDC”.

He explains the background: “When we negotiated our last EBA the company originally had claims for agency casuals. We clearly voted against it and they dropped the claim. They said ‘there will be no agency casuals in this shed’. But last week they announced that they want labour hire workers. The manager is saying that he’s going to take them in on 24 August.”

The workers and their union, the National Union of Workers, finalised an enterprise agreement with Woolworths less than 12 months ago. They say the company has now reneged on the deal. “Liars”, is a word often heard on the picketline. “As far as we were concerned [labour hire] was not going to be an issue for the next three years”, says Christian (not his real name). “We all had the understanding, we had an agreement and they broke it”, he says.

More than 500 work at the distribution centre which has opened seven years ago. The MLDC is the principal distributer of alcohol and cigarettes to Woolworths Liquor Group stores, including Dan Murphy’s and BWS in Victoria. Workers here have never struck before.

“Trucks leave here and head out across the country”, says Christian, explaining how important the shed is in the Woolworths supply chain. “We’ve got liquor in there you’ve never even heard of.”

The MLDC is currently one of only a few distribution warehouses in the country without a significant proportion of workers employed casually through a labour hire agency. When news of management’s proposal broke, workers responded quickly, knowing it was an attack on their jobs.

“They don’t want us to be united”, says Brett (not his real name). “I think they want to introduce more divisions and more competition so people feel less secure in their positions. They believe that that’s going to be better for productivity and better for themselves.”

“We got stickers last week to wear on our uniform, to show that we did not want labour hire coming in”, Carol (not her real name) explains. “It was a silent protest to begin with. Everyone had it. Where ever you were walking you could see these bright pink stickers. Management could see it. We could see it. And they didn’t like it.”

The point, according to Carol, was to show that there was opposition across the workplace, which is split over three different shifts. “People were starting to get worried about their jobs”, she says. But management refused to talk.

At a mass meeting on 9 August, a majority voted to strike until the company dropped its plans. They did not ask the Fair Work Commission for permission. They set up pickets and shut down the distribution centre. Under Australia’s restrictive strike laws, their action is “unprotected”.

Since it started, most have joined the strike. Estimates are that between 20 and 30 are working inside the shed. No trucks are entering or leaving. “When people see all their mates standing up, very few have crossed the picketline”, says one of the strikers.

“Management is now saying that they want to talk to us but they’re saying they’ll start talking after we release the trucks, but we don’t want to release the trucks at this moment”, says Jeff. “Everyone is solid, everyone will stick together.”

These workers know that their fight matters. “This is purely and simply for job security”, says Anthony. “Families have a right to an income so that they can put food on their tables; put their kids in school, to live.”

When word reaches the picket that the Fair Work Commission has ordered them back to work no one is surprised. “It’s the response we expected the Commission to reach”, says Brett. “I don’t think that it’s going to move people to go back inside. We’ve been out here two days already and it’s too late to turn our back now.”

Also speaking after the Commission’s ruling Catalina (not her real name) says: “We are a big number of workers in here, so we’ve already got the power now. We’re not going to go back, we can’t, because then they will do whatever they want. We just want security in our workplace, for the future, for our families – nothing less.”

Supporters are welcome at the picket 24 hours a day – Interchange Drive, Laverton.

[Jasmine Duff contributed to this report]

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