‘Thirty bucks, no trucks!’ Warehouse workers strike back against Coles

A dramatic three-day strike by hundreds of Melbourne warehouse workers, members of the National Union of Workers, has won important gains.

The standout feature of the strike was the widespread and effective use of mobile pickets. In a rarity for present-day strikes in Australia, the workers refused to sit by while their work was done by scabs or contractors at other locations. In the first two days of the strike, picketing spread from the Polar Fresh shed in Truganina, in Melbourne’s west, to three operations set up by Coles management to work around the strike.

The result was dramatic. Coles’ distribution network, usually powered by these workers’ labour, was already under enormous strain because of the strike. With the mobile pickets shutting down sections of management’s scab network, sections of Coles’ highly profitable supply chain came close to collapse. While the impact was uneven, some supermarkets were out of milk, while at others chilled lines including meat and fresh produce showed huge gaps.

This was the first strike at Polar Fresh, and the first strike in Victoria’s refrigerated supply chain in living memory.

Any visitor to the picket lines could quickly learn about the issues which pushed these workers to walk out the gate. 

One worker told Red Flag about the gruelling pace of work. Workers in the milk section might have to lift and shift 500 milk crates, each weighing up to 18 kilos, before smoko. Workers are expected to hit a target of 1400 crates of produce, or boxes of yogurt and other chilled goods, in a day. A league table of workers’ pick-rates is constantly updated and displayed at the entrance to the lunch room.

Some casuals have been “casual” for years, while many labour hire workers try to survive on insecure and inadequate hours. All this adds to the pressure on the workers. One woman reported that she’d never worked in a place with so many injured workers. Many don’t report their injuries, she said, because of systematic management bullying, especially on afternoon shift.

For all their work under these conditions, so essential to the profits of a series of giant corporations including Costa and Swire (the co-owners of Polar Fresh) and Coles, the workers are paid an hourly rate of $26.91, well below the industry standard.

So there was plenty of feeling on view when 50 picketers shut down the Swire Logistics shed in Clayton on the second day of the strike. The chant of “Thirty bucks, no trucks” was most popular, mixed with “Nothing in, nothing out” and “We see you”, directed at the scabs. A can of pink spray paint, an old bed sheet and some scrap timber became a “beep to support” banner, which was met with plenty of honks of solidarity from passing traffic in the industrial zone of Clayton.

Trucks being turned away prompted the famous football chant of “Nah nah, hey hey, goodbye” as well as a chant of the scoreboard to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”, starting at “One nil, one nil”, and reaching “Twenty nil, twenty nil” before the picketers lost count. When senior management, including Polar Fresh manager David Palmer, came out and attempted to shake workers’ hands, they were met with a frosty reception and the taunting chant of “What do we want? Chicken parma!” It was the workers with the power now, and they were determined to let everyone know it.

The “secondary” pickets were lifted after the company obtained Supreme Court injunctions against the National Union of Workers. But the massive holes blown in Coles’ supply network were impossible to ignore. It became clear that, unless the workers were satisfied, there would be no business (or profits) as usual for one of the biggest corporations in the country.

Meanwhile, the workers were settling in. By the third day, the strike camp outside the Polar Fresh shed in Truganina featured two kitchens enjoying a friendly rivalry – one serving Vietnamese and Filipino food, another with the mainstays of pasta, rice and vegetables. A giant tarp was strung to a locked gate outside the giant, empty distribution centre, sheltering an area with a beat-up old drum kit: a succession of kids learning how to keep time alternated with an ever changing, impromptu line-up belting out soul and rock and classics. Couches appeared around the camp fires across the entrance to the shed. Hundreds of workers drawn from across Melbourne and the rest of Australia, from New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, from across Asia, Africa and the rest of the planet, united to bring key operations of Coles to a standstill.

Faced with this industrial reality (and the simple fact that Supreme Court judges, while skilled at issuing anti-picketing injunctions, are incapable of picking an order or operating a reach forklift), the company gave ground and then gave a little more. By the time of a mass meeting on the Friday evening, the third day of the strike, NUW organisers and delegates presented a deal that was much improved from the start of the strike, light years away from the initial, vicious attacks presented to the workers by management and good enough for the vast majority of workers to accept and feel proud.

It’s not a total win. Pay rises average 4.75 percent a year over the life of the deal, making it one of the better private sector pay deals (the pacesetting construction unions are getting 5 percent in current deals). However, the main claim of the workers, for an immediate pay rise to $30 an hour from the current rate of $27, has not been met – workers reach $30 in two years, hitting $31 per hour near the expiry of the deal, in early 2019. The pay cut imposed on workers in Coles’ supply chain under the vicious anti-union Workchoices laws a decade ago has still not been fully reversed by this deal.

To improve on the deal would have meant continuing the strike and maintaining the pickets, despite injunctions. Threats of financial penalties and injunctions have been used to restrict effective picketing in this country for decades. Overcoming these legal threats is a challenge that remains to be seriously tackled, for Polar Fresh workers and for the rest of the union movement.

In the shorter term there are plenty of other issues confronting Polar Fresh workers, including managing the return to work, and in carrying the solidarity forged on the picket lines onto the floor of the warehouse.

Among the workers who spoke to Red Flag after the vote to accept the deal, there was a deep sense of pride and optimism – both in the wins of the strike (especially the additional protections for labour hire and casuals) and in the new-found strength of the workers.

As one worker, Rudolph, explained: “The main thing that’s going to be different, apart from that we’re going to be getting paid more and there’s going to be less casuals on the floor is that each shift is now ... in a stronger bond over all our shifts and that if we ever have an issue where we have to deal with Polar Fresh ever again – we just have to get together and say, ‘Are we in? We can deal with you a lot stronger’.”

Additional reporting by Kath Larkin, Jasmine Duff and Pat Araya