A couple of weeks ago I witnessed the incredible strength of working class people. After just three days on strike, 600 cold storage workers brought the seemingly mighty Coles Supermarkets to its knees.
One of the best things about the strike was how clearly it showed up the sneering middle class conception of the Australian worker. While politicians carve out careers based on the racist barbarities they inflict upon refugees and the scapegoating of migrants, many blame racism and other backward ideas on “bogans” in the suburbs.
Suburbs like Laverton in Melbourne’s west, where hundreds of Polar Fresh workers – men and women drawn from around the world – stood side by side on the picket line. They linked arms, cooked and ate together, sang and talked.
Many women, in particular, stood out as strike leaders. A minority in the workforce, women were disproportionately represented on the picket line. They were at the forefront of debates about tactics and strategy throughout the strike and often were the hardest and most determined to stand up to scabs, who threatened to run over them with trucks.
I had many discussions with women workers who reflected on the impact the strike had on their confidence and their sense of their own power and that of their workmates.
The core of the strikers and the majority of Polar Fresh delegates are from a Maori and Pacific Islander background. These workers carry a proud history of anti-colonial struggle, and some bring experience of industrial battle. Gee, a Maori woman, had been part of a 13-month strike before moving to Australia. I remember her being the last to leave, reluctantly, one of the secondary pickets blocking the entry to a scab warehouse set up by the company.
Many of the Filipino strikers played a crucial role in maintaining the strike camp, setting up an additional kitchen and providing entertainment. These tasks are critical for the success of a picket and keeping morale high. Some of these workers had visited friends and family involved in the Philippine Airlines Employees’ Association strike, in which unionists maintained a protest camp outside Manila’s international airport for two years.
Migrant and women workers are disproportionately affected by pay and job insecurity. The Polar Fresh workers’ action struck a blow against both hazards: winning an average 4.75 percent pay rise each year and a significant increase in full time and permanent positions.
In a period in which many on the left have given up on the class struggle, when the working class is often written off as ignorant and backward, the Polar Fresh strike highlights a tendency we see time and again. In struggle, workers unite. Strikes bring people together as fighters against their own oppression and exploitation. Together, workers can win real victories.
For more discussion on the history of migrant and women workers in struggle, come to Socialist Alternative’s Union Activism and History Conference in Melbourne on 15 October 2016.
- When women workers revolt: the 1986 nurses’ strike
- Migrant workers fight back: Ford Broadmeadows 1973
For more details visit: www.redflag.org.au/unionconf.