Voices from the Chemist Warehouse picket line

Workers at Chemist Warehouse distribution centres began an indefinite strike on 12 March. Around 800 workers at two warehouses in Melbourne and 100 workers at the company’s Brisbane warehouse began picketing in the early hours and intend to continue until management concedes to their demands. The workers want higher wages, better conditions and an end to sexual harassment. The background to the dispute is outlined here. Red Flag correspondents report on the dispute.

Kath Larkin, transport union delegate and Victorian Socialists federal election candidate for Cooper:

There aren’t many things that’ll get me out of bed voluntarily at 3am. But workers fighting against dirty bosses, insecure work, poverty wages and sexual harassment is definitely one of them.

I stood with National Union of Workers members on their picket line at the Preston Chemist Warehouse this morning. Their demands are for industry standard wages, an end to sexual harassment and more secure jobs.

I met casual workers forced to wait by the phone for shifts that could (or may not) come at any time, sometimes going weeks without work, never knowing if they will make enough for bills, mortgage repayments, childcare fees or other basic necessities. 

They tell me their shifts have been cut as punishment for standing up for themselves and their workmates. One casual has been here for four years and still hasn’t been given a permanent position – a sympathetic permanent worker tells me that’s common.

One of the brave women who has led the charge against sexual harassment tells me about the female human resources manager who protects the abusers in management (a good reminder that we need fight a class war, not a gender war). I speak to women who complain about being disciplined by the company for complaining about their treatment, and also hear about how the women support each other when someone receives a formal warning because of this.

The managers and their thuggish security guards can’t bear that workers are now standing up for themselves. They try to bully and harass people on the picket line. But the workers are having none of it – in particular the gutsy and defiant delegate Hussain, who came up with the fabulous slogan “NUW – here-to-TROUBLE-You!”

The Victorian Socialists will be visiting the Chemist Warehouse picket lines at 44 Raglan St Preston and 51 Filo drive Somerton to show our solidarity. These comrades are fighting not just for themselves but for the many workers in the northern suburbs subject to similar conditions. All our members and supporters should visit the picket line to show support if they are able in the coming days. Touch one, touch all.

National Union of Workers delegate, Hussain

Ryan Stanton, former NUW delegate:

I got to Chemist Warehouse’s Somerton warehouse at about 5:30am. There are three or four gates on Filo Drive, each of which had 10 or 15 workers picketing when I arrived. 

The mood was excited and edgy. Any time I approached a picket, people nervously linked arms and chanted until they worked out I wasn’t a scab. The picket line seemed solid all morning, with almost no scabs getting through. A rumour circulated that no trucks were coming in until tomorrow, just workers. There were also no trucks inside for us to stop from getting out.

I eventually went around to another entrance. When I got there, we had only a handful of workers, but this was bolstered by a well-placed car until we were reinforced to over 20 within an hour or so. There were four or five women on my picket, and picketers came from a variety of backgrounds: South Asian, Maori, East Asian, Anglo and Mediterranean. 

There was excitement when management tried to cut a chain-link fence to circumvent the picket and get scabs in. So we moved the picket to behind the hole and stopped people who tried to push through. 

There was also a carload of team leaders and scabs who tried to stare us down for half an hour or so, but they eventually left. Managers and security guards loomed around with cameras, filming whatever and whoever they could. 

There was plenty of energy, and lots of yelling at would-be scabs and the managers. 

There were also a few funny moments, including one in which a car load of people roared up the road and screeched to a halt in front of the picket. The picketers jumped up to block the car, until they realised it was a car load of friendly workers just messing around with us. They burst out laughing and joined the picket.

Kaye Broadbent, Brisbane picket:

The Eagle Farm Chemist Warehouse picket in Brisbane’s north-eastern suburbs got going at 4:30am. Around 35 of the 40 permanent full time workers were there to staff the picket, joined by a gaggle of supporters and union officials. In addition to the 40 permanents, 60 casual labour hire workers are employed at the site. Another 30 casuals reportedly have been hired by management to break the strike. 

The warehouse has four gates, which were all picketed. The approach of workers was “nothing in and nothing out”. No deliveries were made.

The workers outlined their many grievances. These include low wages, poor safety, lack of air-conditioning, no extra pay for training new workers, management’s culture of intimidation, poor treatment of casuals, difficulty in converting from casual to full time unless you are a management “favourite”, dismissive attitude of management to agreement negotiations, intensification of work, short breaks and differential pay rates. 

A woman worker described working at Chemist Warehouse as “like being in hell”. She told me her grandchildren routinely ask her “are you off to work in hell today grandma?” Another commented: “The attitude to workers is disgusting. You’re pushed to, and over, your limit every single day”.

There was anger at the huge wealth the company’s owners have amassed while workers endure appalling conditions, one pointing out: “This company has been around for 20 years now. It’s become rich off the back of employees, so it’s about time they started spreading the wealth around”. 

The picket is continuing and supporters are encouraged to visit at 41 Tradecoast Drive, Eagle Farm.