It’s a sea of colour on the picket line: hundreds in yellow vests and red union caps surround the warehouse. Almost a thousand workers normally head through these gates, but for 24 hours on 8 November, nothing comes in or out of the Woolworths distribution centre. Portable speakers play Arabic hip hop over a non-stop stream of supportive honks from commuters and truckies. “It’s awesome”, Moana says. “Everyone’s here, sticking together, all working as a team.”
The strikers block the entry of scabs, catch up with mates from other shifts and savour the occasional breeze. In the industrial zones of western Sydney, 30 degrees feels like 40. “I’m supposed to be working another job today, but I took the day off so I could be here”, Jianwu says. “It feels good, seeing all these members, feeling united and strong. We’re doing something right.”
The National Union of Workers is negotiating a new contract, and the 800-strong workforce want a big pay rise. “We want 16 percent for the first year, 6 percent for the second and third”, Jasmine says. “Company at this stage only wants 4, 3.75 and 3.5 [percent].” She has worked here for more than 20 years. It’s a refreshingly strong demand when wages have been stagnating for half a decade. “The cost of living in Sydney is so high”, Mitchell says. “I’m earning about $20,000 less than the average wage.”
Chris, an organiser for the NUW, has come up from Melbourne to “show these guys how we do it down there”. He says 16 percent is about getting pay equality across Woolworths sheds. “The company has given them these fucking low ball offers, telling them they got no money. Sites in Melbourne earn $7-8 more an hour. They’re trying to bridge that gap – they do the exact same work.”
Workers – almost all union members – also want better treatment for casuals. According to Roqui, a young full timer, most of the workforce is now employed through dodgy labour hire firms. “They’re working six days a week”, he says. “They work hard for a month, but take one day off and then get punished for it. They’ve got families too.”
Picking – the job done inside the warehouse – is hard work. Here at Minchinbury distribution centre, it means moving heavy boxes onto conveyor belts, stacking them onto pallets and shipping them out to stores. Everything that ends up on Woolworths’ shelves goes through places like this. Management pushes people beyond their physical limits. “How do you think I got this?”, Chris says, pointing with his right arm to his left, which is in a sling. Others complain that, coming back after recovering from serious injuries, they’re forced to pick faster than ever to make up for “lost time”. “They’re focused on the products, not on the workers”, Mitchell says. “They only care about the bottom line.”
The need for speed doesn’t stop even for lunchtime. Jasmine, who’s been here since midnight, wants walking time in their breaks. “We got to be able to sit down comfortably and have a decent meal”, she says, pumping her fist at every truck and winning a honk of solidarity. “We have to line up for the canteen. They’ll be serving managers and everything, and once you get your meal, you can’t sit down because you’re out of time.”
There’s a lot of talk about the company’s grubby tactics, which were revealed earlier in the week. Woolworths has been found to have underpaid 6,000 employees by $300 million over the last nine years. “They did it deliberately”, Mitchell says. “If it was a mistake, shouldn’t they have gotten rid of all the management who did it? They check every little thing – but they can’t pay workers correctly.” Jianwu can’t believe the double standard: “They’re making billions a year, but they say they don’t have enough? That’s bullshit”.
For most at Minchinbury, this isn’t the first time outside the gates. The site had a walkout a few years ago, when management sacked union members for having vests that “weren’t done up properly”. They were reinstated and let off with a warning. This strike, however, has been planned for weeks and most don’t expect it to be a one-off. “If anything, it’ll be more than a one-day strike”, Jasmine says. “I’m prepared to stay out for a month”, says Mitchell.
In the little shade left by mid-morning, a circle sits and debates the potential scope of industrial action. One Chinese worker sets the bar high: “Now we gotta do it for the climate – Hong Kong style”. Arguments flow back and forth about how exactly the economy could decarbonise and who would pay for it. Down at the entrance gate, supporters from nearby factories stand in the way of scabs. Harry works at a pharmaceutical warehouse and speaks about his workplace’s potential strike next month. “There’s about 250 of us. We want 4.5 percent and management are only offering half that”, he says. “We only got two entrances too; it’ll be easy work shutting it down. And we’ll have these guys backing us.”
Negotiations with Woolworths resumed on 12 November, but the workers here are more than ready to strike again. “It’s a long haul, but we deserve what we’re trying to achieve”, says Jasmine.
Names have been changed at the interviewees’ request.