Coles still rattled by Polar Fresh strike one year on

Last year’s strike at the Polar Fresh distribution centre in Melbourne’s west continues to pay dividends ­– for the workers involved, and for those in other warehouses.

Polar Fresh is a third-party contractor that manages the chilled warehouses for Coles along the eastern seaboard. Almost all of the refrigerated products (fresh produce, dairy, meats, etc.) that end up on Victorian and Tasmanian Coles supermarket shelves come through this warehouse.

The three-day strike in late July last year, involving more than 600 members of the National Union of Workers, inflicted serious damage on Coles and its contractor.

In the lead-up to the expiry of their previous enterprise agreement, the mood among workers in the shed had been steadily building towards action. The pace of work is gruelling, the pay is lower than in many other sheds, and many workers were employed insecurely through labour hire companies.

Workers mobilised behind two key demands: a wage of $30 per hour (up from around $27) and increased job security. When it became clear that the company would not concede either, they hit the picket line. For three days, they shut down the warehouse. When the company tried to get product to stores through a network of scab warehouses across Melbourne, the workers shut those down too.

Coles and Polar Fresh prepared for this strike for months, but the first cold storage warehouse strike in living memory hit them hard. Within just a few hours, supermarket shelves across the state emptied as the threads of Coles’ logistics empire approached breaking point. Within 24 hours, the company came back to the table to negotiate, and within three days Polar Fresh workers had a brand new agreement that included one of the highest pay rises in the industry, 50 new full time jobs and guaranteed conversion of agency workers to direct employment.

A year on, the pool of workers in the Polar Fresh shed employed by labour hire companies has shrunk from 170 to about 30 and continues to fall. More than half of the workers now have full time jobs, and most of the rest are either part time or directly employed casuals.

The strike was clearly a significant victory for the workers involved, but its ramifications are also being felt across the industry. Coles is now terminating its contract with Polar Fresh and instead will be directly running its warehouses in QLD, NSW and Victoria.

Soon to be departed Victorian Polar Fresh managers have admitted in meetings with workers that Coles management no longer trust Polar Fresh to manage a consistent supply of fresh produce – its most profitable section – during bargaining periods. For now at least, the collapse of Polar Fresh looks very much like the defeat of Coles’ strategy of undercutting wages and conditions by outsourcing its chilled warehouse operations to a cut price third party labour provider.

In addition, the new Coles (formerly Polar Fresh) warehouse in Queensland is close to finalising a new enterprise agreement. The new agreement will likely include many improvements similar to those won by the Victorian strikers, including a 4 percent pay rise each year and concrete job security guarantees. Connections between workers in the Victorian and Queensland sheds were developed after last year’s strike, and the Queensland workers were clearly emboldened by the action in Victoria. Not willing to risk another blow to their supply network, Coles management made it clear during bargaining that they would countenance significant improvements to wages and conditions in order to avoid industrial action.

How did the workers at Polar Fresh achieve this? They were determined not only to keep all of their conditions, but also to demand new, audacious improvements. They were willing to strike, and willing to do what it took to win, including driving to the other side of the city to shut down scab warehouses.

This orientation stands out in the current picture of industrial struggle in Australia. When union campaigns do break out, they are often defensive, with demands that rarely go beyond maintaining conditions already won. Of course it’s crucial that we hold on to what we’ve won in the past. But if we’re going to break out of the passivity that seems to pervade our movement, we cannot limit our demands within limits acceptable to the bosses. We need to find the issues that are important for workers and be prepared to fight for them.