Polar Fresh pickets win gains in strike against Coles

After a decisive three day strike, workers at a cold storage warehouse for Coles in Melbourne have won wage rises and more secure jobs.

The 650 workers set up a lively picket at the site in Truganina, West Melbourne, complete with tents, kitchens and music. Contingency sites at Clayton, Laverton and Derrimut, set up by Coles in an effort to circumvent strike action, were also blockaded. These tactics ensured that the supermarket giant felt the pinch quickly, leaving empty shelves at outlets across Victoria and threatening millions in potential profits.

After Coles and Polar Fresh both won Supreme Court injunctions against the “illegal” blockades of the contingency sites, the union lifted them. Meanwhile, the strike enjoyed shows of solidarity from other NUW workplaces as well as other unions including the MUA, CFMEU and NTEU.

Faced with short shifts, uncertain rosters and fluctuating wages, the workers sought a $3 an hour increase, demanding a $30 hourly wage and the conversion of casuals to full-time work. Polar Fresh, their employer, was accused of operating a “model of under-employment”. Workers complained of shifts that could be rearranged at as little as an hour’s notice.

“I can start off a week with four shifts rostered, and then I can end up with one and a half shifts”, Ross Hibble, employed as a labour hire casual at the site, told The Age. “It puts enormous pressure on people like me. I often have to rely on handouts from friends to pay rent and pay bills.”

Earlier in the month, 94 per cent of workers at the centre voted in favour of protected industrial action. On the morning of 27 July, after six months of negotiations between the National Union of Workers (NUW) and Polar Fresh, they walked out on strike.

Polar Fresh yielded on the evening of 29 July. The workers have won average yearly wage increases of 4.75 per cent, reaching $31 an hour not immediately but by 2019, 50 permanent full time and 70 labour hire agency workers converted to direct employment with ongoing conversion rights for labour hire casuals, plus paid breaks, rostered days off and double time for overtime after two hours. Further legal action against the NUW and its members was also dropped.

As one NUW member noted, this strike was a fightback against the casualisation creeping across the workforce today. The lesson is that hitting the bosses hard with militant mass pickets that cut off their profits is the way to win.

By Jason Wong

Magazine

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