Heroic fight, but union inaction helps Coles starve Smeaton Grange back to work

The heroic resistance of 350 Coles workers at Smeaton Grange distribution centre has ended in a bitter and unnecessary defeat in week ten of the 12-week lockout imposed by the company.

Workers’ immense courage and determination during the dispute cannot be overstated. They were an inspiration. But the United Workers Union (UWU) leadership singularly failed.

A secret ballot organised by UWU officials secured a 156-96 vote in favour of accepting Coles’ latest offer on Friday. The UWU took to Facebook immediately, saying “members were able to secure a number of wins since taking industrial action”. But the claims are a cover for their own failure.

In reality, the agreement “is still essentially the same deal that we rejected five times” during the dispute, one worker told Solidarity. “The new offer still hasn’t addressed our log of claims, it hasn’t addressed our lost wages, it doesn’t address management bullying workers.”

Another worker explained in a comment on the UWU Facebook post:

“Let’s get one thing clear, this was a vote under duress! Every vote the members at Smeaton Grange have had to endure since the lockout began has been under duress! They haven’t agreed to this because they’re happy with the offer, they have agreed because they have gone ten weeks with very little to no financial support!”

Workers’ central demand was for improved redundancy and an end to Coles’ threats of victimisation. Smeaton is set to shut down due to automation in three years and workers wanted five weeks per year of service capped at 104 weeks. Coles’ offer was an insult; four weeks per year of service capped at 80 weeks.

The UWU leadership played a shameful role in orchestrating a return to work on Coles’ terms.

Just a week earlier, workers voted down the company’s attempt to approve a non-union agreement. The UWU leadership absurdly declared that it was neutral, producing a video that uncritically “explained” what was in the offer, giving encouragement to workers to vote for it.

Then a few days after the agreement was rejected, the leadership proposed that they apply to the Fair Work Commission to terminate the lockout. The dead-end proposal was rejected unanimously at a mass meeting.

The 122-strong meeting then voted for more decisive action against Coles, the establishment of a strike fund and a day of action on 22 January.

“It was a positive meeting, the feeling was that we now had a plan to move forward”, one worker said.

But the officials finally killed the dispute. Instead of building on the momentum of the mass meeting, organising solidarity and building a strike fund, the UWU leaders went behind the backs of delegates and members to ask Coles for another meeting.

Although the “new offer” was little different, union officials rushed it to a secret ballot at 10am the next morning via text message, helping Coles head off the picket planned at its Eastern Creek distribution centre that afternoon.

The clincher was the rewriting of “Clause 9”. The replacement clause stated that no worker would face discipline for “inappropriate behaviour” and picketing prior to the date of the vote. But Coles’ intentions are clear.

Each worker will now receive a letter from Coles asserting, “that some team members engaged in unlawful and inappropriate behaviour”. On the first day back at work they will be forced to undergo “Workplace Behaviour Training.”

This sets the stage for Coles to use provocation, the code of conduct and safety breaches as a pretext for individual sackings as they have done in the past.

No strategy

The defeat is fundamentally a result of union officials’ refusal to back Smeaton Grange to set a new benchmark for job security and redundancy as the industry faces a job-killing move to automation at Coles and Woolies. They refused to organise serious mass pickets, solidarity action or to establish a strike fund capable of supporting 350 workers.

The UWU never took Coles’ 12-week lockout seriously. The only strike fund set up was an online crowdfunding appeal that helped provide three $200 Woolies vouchers for each worker over ten weeks.

The early weeks of the lockout saw token pickets of pop-up sheds doing Smeaton Grange work and the Eastern Creek distribution centre. But the pickets had limited impact because they moved on as soon as police issued directions.

“When they realised Coles were in it for the long haul,” one worker told Solidarity, “they were unwilling to do what was need to get Coles to the bargaining table. They were not willing to spend the funds to allow the membership to be present on the picket line, there was no strategy, nothing to motivate people.”

“They decided it was a fight they couldn’t win.”

The officials wore down members with useless meetings and votes. A Christmas Eve picket of Coles’ Eastern Creek distribution centre was called off to vote on an offer that had already been rejected.

The bosses’ non-union ballot was only defeated by the formation of a rank-and-file group, Concerned Workers of Smeaton Grange. Their Vote No campaign, including a leaflet and video, saw it narrowly rejected.

Coles could have been beaten. The mere threat of mass picketing on 22 January forced Coles to retreat on clause 9. Solidarity was building from UWU workplaces and other unions. Supporters planned to join the Eastern Creek picket on 22 January.

The dispute holds hard lessons. Coles wants its disgusting treatment of Smeaton Grange to be an example to other sheds as they push ahead with automation. While Coles and Woolies have made hundreds of millions out of the pandemic they are now organising to throw workers onto the scrap heap of unemployment.

The result at Smeaton Grange should sound the alarm for all Coles and Woolies warehouse workers to establish strike funds, build active rank and file solidarity between sheds and prepare to fight. The UWU leadership can’t be allowed to drag its feet again.

The new agreement still has to be finalised in a formal ballot, where everyone should still vote no. If there was a No vote for the formal agreement, the campaign against Coles would have to be dramatically stepped up.

Whatever happens Smeaton workers should go back in holding their heads high. There will be another tough fight ahead after a return to work. Strong workplace organisation is going to be needed to stand up to Coles’ plans to intimidate and victimise. Collective solidarity and work stoppages have stopped victimisation at Smeaton Grange before, they will be needed again.

By Adam Adelpour

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