Thousands of warehouse workers prepare for strike

Around 2,000 workers in four Woolworths distribution centres have begun pursuing legally protected industrial action, the National Union of Workers lodging applications with the Fair Work Commission for protected action ballots.

All of the sheds involved have histories of striking for improvements. Workers at the Hume distribution centre in Melbourne’s northern suburbs have built up an impressive enterprise agreement, considered one of the best in the logistics industry, through repeated industrial action. The Melbourne Liquor Distribution Centre in Melbourne’s west was the scene of an unprotected four-day strike two years ago; this action beat back the introduction of labour hire. And workers at the Barnawartha shed, near Albury-Wodonga, have struck during bargaining for their past two enterprise agreements.

By bargaining simultaneously, workers at the four sheds are overcoming some of the worst effects of Australia’s workplace bargaining system, which is designed to split workers up. Workers at Woolworths distribution centres across the country, who do essentially the same work for the same network of supermarkets, are employed under site-specific agreements made by various Woolworths-owned shelf companies (Woolstar, Queensland Property Investments etc.).

Gains won by one section of the workforce are confined to one site under this system. Simultaneous bargaining across multiple sites is one way of cutting against this “divide and rule” strategy. It is commonly practised by the militant construction industry unions, but is all too rare in other industries.

The main claims of the workers vary between the sites, but prominent in the list of demands is a pay rise of $2 per hour each year (about 6 percent for many workers), improved redundancy (Hume is closing in a couple of years, being replaced by a heavily automated new shed) and greater job security. Woolworths is one of Australia’s most profitable companies, with a profit of $1.53 billion in the last financial year.