UPDATE: The United Workers Union has claimed victory in this dispute.
More than 100 workers have begun indefinite strike action at the Toll Yennora distribution centre in Sydney’s west. They join members of the United Workers Union (UWU) at seven other Toll warehouses in Victoria and South Australia, whose workplace agreements are negotiated at the same time. They deserve the support of the whole union movement.
Dozens of picketers were already assembled by 5 am on Monday, the first day of the strike. More and more joined as the sun rose one hour later. On one side of the warehouse, trucks were turned away at the driveway. They blared their horns in support as they passed the second entrance, where other strikers blocked a few scabs attempting to break the picket.
Even for those who have worked at Toll for ten years or more, this was their first time out the gates. “I couldn’t sleep last night I was so excited”, one striker said as he waved a big red union flag. “It’s been a long time coming.”
When asked how she felt being out on strike, another simply raised a clenched fist. Behind her, “Get Up, Stand Up” played on the speaker.
Chris, a UWU organiser, said members at Yennora are fighting “for a real pay rise of 8 percent”. It’s the least they deserve given their disgustingly low wages. Over the past eight years, hourly pay has increased by just $1. Every year without a wage rise above inflation—3 percent in 2021—is another pay cut. “The cost of living is skyrocketing”, Chris said. “We just can’t keep going like this.”
Toll Group makes multi-billion-dollar revenues, and the Yennora warehouse runs its lucrative contract with telecommunications giant Optus. Inside the warehouse, workers and bosses occupy different worlds.
“They took away our barbecues, our Christmas parties”, a striking worker reported. “The hot water doesn’t work upstairs, and there’s no fans inside.”
“No fans for us but nice air-conditioned offices for them”, another added. “If you count how many bosses we got, we don’t need them all.”
And the higher up you go, the wider the wealth gap. The new chief executive, Christine Holgate, is typical of the arrogant luxury of bosses who “can’t afford” pay claims. Less than a year ago, Holgate was forced to resign from the top job at Australia Post for buying senior management a round of Cartier watches reportedly worth $20,000. Toll Group could hardly wait to have her on board.
The worker with the big red flag said they no longer accept the line that the company cannot afford decent wages. “The last enterprise agreement we gave them the benefit of the doubt. This time they’re using the same trick again. It’s like: fool me once, you know?”
Then there is the basic issue of fairness. Yennora is the lowest paid of the warehouses on strike. Information passed around the picket showed them sitting more than $4 an hour behind other sheds. “After seeing that, it makes you want to stand stronger”, a worker noted.
In response to united action, management has played usual dirty tricks: demean and divide. Employees were individually cornered and harassed in the days leading up to the strike. Staff meetings were called to threaten job losses if there was a strike.
“They treat us like animals in there,” a delegate said. “At one of the meetings, the boss called one worker a hyena”, another striker reported.
The company is attempting to divide permanents and casuals, telling the latter they could be let go if they missed work during the strike. One picketer spoke about the insecurity they faced, with many like him stuck in casual work for years. “They treat us like fodder, expendables”, he said. “Sometimes you just waste time at home all day, sitting doing nothing and waiting for a call.”
The union’s demand for permanency for casual workers will help stop the bosses’ race to the bottom. After trying to use them as scab labour, and failing, management cancelled casuals’ shifts on Monday morning: a testament to the unity of the workforce.
“Everybody’s really standing together, a lot of pride and determination”, Chris said. By withdrawing their labour and shutting down the flow of profits to one of Australia’s biggest companies, they are sending a message we can all afford to hear. In the words of one delegate: “If you don’t fight, you’re gonna get nothing”.
Workers are maintaining a picket from 5am each day at Toll Global Logistics, 71 Byron Road, Yennora NSW.