Crunch time at Smeaton Grange—Step up the pickets to stop Coles’ bullying bosses

After three weeks locked out, workers at Coles’ Smeaton Grange distribution centre are facing a stark choice. After meeting with the union, the company has refused to offer any further concessions.

In a nasty video distributed to staff, Coles chief operating officer Matthew Swindells bluntly insisted workers had to either accept Coles’ previous offer or the lockout would continue for the full three months until February, “and if need be beyond”.

He even tried to blame the workforce and the union for putting staff members “in a difficult position” saying the lockout—which Coles has itself imposed on its workers—was because of “your decisions and your actions”.

There have been some reports of limited shortages at Coles stores due to the lockout. One worker told Solidarity, “Some of the shelves are empty. They seem to be putting it all into their big stores and their little stores are suffering. They smile on the TV and say everything’s fine but it’s not.”

Swindells insisted that the operation to replace the Smeaton Grange site with two new pop up distribution centres was “working well”. It is clearly working well enough, at least, that Coles feels it does not have to budge. Swindells is confident enough to deny the company is interested in meeting the union, and to refuse to offer any more concessions since the lockout began.

There have been a number of short pickets at the replacement centres so far. But it has been a mistake to allow them to operate most of the time, and to co-operate with police directions to move and allow trucks through.

The only way to step up the pressure on Coles is to stop the centres from operating completely. This means organising mass pickets to shut them down for long periods and prevent Coles getting its stock into stores. This is the only way to cost the company enough money to force a back down.

Toll workers doing work for Coles in Melbourne successfully beat the company in 2012 with a solid picket that completely shut their warehouse down, stopping trucks going in or out.

This was despite the company’s effort to have the picket declared illegal, and a court order from the Supreme Court demanding the picket be lifted that named 20 workers.

Picketing during the strike at Caroma near Smeaton Grange recently saw one worker and a union official arrested. But the workers have now won a pay rise and are all back inside the gate.

If workers and community members stand together against Coles, we can win.

Members from several unions including the MUA, CFMEU, AMWU, NTEU all showed their support by joining a community picket in Prospect last week.

United Workers Union members at Smeaton Grange should also appeal to truck drivers and the Transport Workers Union not to cross picket lines or make deliveries for Coles. And the campaign to encourage a boycott of Coles also needs to be extended.

Workers at Smeaton Grange are fighting for jobs and livelihoods. If Coles wants to use the police against locked out workers, it will only further expose itself as the corporate bully it is.

Redundancy pay

The demand for an increase in redundancy pay remains important, with the Smeaton Grange centre closing in 2023. Swindells says that there “are no plans to terminate people” before this happens. Yet the company is still refusing to extend its offer of redundancy pay capped at 80 weeks to anyone who is terminated early.

And its offer of four weeks’ pay per year’s service remains less than the union demand of five weeks, capped at 104 weeks’ pay.

And it refuses to offer pathways for redeployment at Coles’ new warehouses to guarantee some workers at least an ongoing job when the Smeaton Grange site closes.

Coles has posted record profits during the pandemic, with CEO Steve Cain getting a 29.8 per cent increase in his pay to around $7 million a year. Yet it refuses to extend the same generosity to the workers who made this possible.

Workers have stood strong for three weeks without pay. As one told Solidarity, “we’re holding up well but it’s getting tough. People are running out of money and finding it hard.” But there is still determination to “keep taking it to Coles”.

Coles is taking a hard line and wants to force its workers into submission.

Stepping up the pickets to shut down the replacement centres is necessary to force the company to back down, and guarantee workers win certainty about their futures and don’t go without pay over Christmas.

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