Coles: fire this time?

Hard words rang
across the factory floor
Juan heard the sound of hate
bitter words to injure
a shout that sent the signal
for the war to come

– ‘Brisbane Barrio’ by Jumping Fences

Disparity between rich and poor is growing. Offshore wages are catching up with Australian conditions. Political parties of the centre have supported real wages decline and for profit increases. Coles have locked out 350 workers without pay from its Smeaton Grange factory in NSW for three months.

Unions are under the pump during Covid, many losing members left, right and centre. The workers at Coles warehouses are represented by the United Workers Union UWU, itself an amalgamation of United Voice and National Union of Workers. In November 2020, the UWU called rolling stoppages but Coles responded with a three month lock out over Christmas. So lets hear from the workers themselves.

During Covid, Coles set up “pop-up” warehouses in response to demand for online shopping during statewide lockdowns. Coles has replaced unionised permanent staff with non-union labor-hire casual workers. The Union says that “during the pandemic, Coles supermarket sales have soared by 6.9% & earnings have increased by 10.7%.”

Some people on the Left are calling for a UBI to cover these workers. All I can say is be careful what you wish for.

Meanwhile Lauren Kelly, writing for the Jacobin magazine, outlines the guts of the dispute, union busting straight out of the Amazon copybook :

Deliveries are carried out by gig workers rather than by in-house drivers or traditional third-party logistics companies such as Australia Post or Toll. For example, Uber Eats now offers grocery delivery services. Coles’s iconic red trucks, driven by unionized workers, are being replaced by nonunion gig workers in unmarked sedans.

The supermarkets have claimed that traditional supply chains were incapable of handling the increased demand. But some Coles workers weren’t convinced. They argue that it was an anti-union strategy:
“They are wasting millions of dollars on those sheds, just to get around the union.”

“We’ve worked through the bushfires, floods, the pandemic, everything. We were ready … So they set up new sheds to get around us. “

The union demands are:

  • A fair redundancy package that will compensate them for many years of hard work & recognise the difficulty in finding new work due to the pandemic;
  • The right to transfer to the new automated Coles warehouse without loss of wages;
  • Job security for long term casual workers who will otherwise walk away with nothing.
Locked-out Coles workers at Smeaton Grange distribution centre (Credit: WSWS Media)

Meanwhile the World Socialist Website sees unions fighting for a redundancy pay as a sellout:

The union, which has 150,000 members nationally, has already accepted the conditions being offered by Coles at its other distribution centres, including the planned closure of the Goulburn facility. Just like its betrayal of its members at Woolworths in Wyong, the union will resume closed-doors talks with management as soon as it can to work out a suitable deal.

World Socialist Web Site – International Committee of the 4th International (ICFI)

Lauren Kelly from The Jacobin sees the dispute differently:

“The 350 locked-out Coles warehouse workers understand this situation intimately, and they know the stakes are high. By fighting for redundancy pay, they are challenging the dictatorial power of management, exercised via automation.”

Two years ago Tim Kennedy, now national secretary of the UWU, oversaw the closing deal with workers from Eagle Farm, Brisbane and Preston and Somerton in Victoria during the Chemist Warehouse dispute. NUW National Secretary Tim Kennedy said, “at a time of serious wage stagnation, it’s great to see workers in their union collectively bargain for wage increases, secure jobs and respect at work.”

All parties supporting the workers at Chemist Warehouse saw that as a victory. A local grass roots group, unite, gave solid support on the picket lines in Brisbane.

There are a number of consequences flowing from new international trade tariffs and bans imposed by China after the Australian government refused to deal fairly with our powerful northern neighbour. Workers will be at the front end of these changes and the pandemic. Right-wing social democrats like Bob Katter’s KAP have this to say about the dispute.

Who stole Christmas? COLES stole Christmas. These workers in Sydney, and the United Workers Union are calling on Aussies to boycott Coles after they were locked out from their workplace just before Christmas. Their issue? Asking for assurance that they won’t lose their jobs due to automation. The average length of time these blokes have been working for Coles is 20 years !Buy local.

Yet workers organisations have a strong history and with better organisation Coles workers can win.

Solidarity with the Coles workers at Smeaton Grange!

Ian Curr
23 December 2020

One thought on “Coles: fire this time?

Please comment down below