The lockout at Coles’ Smeaton Grange distribution centre has now lasted over two weeks. The company has threatened it will continue for three months, meaning workers face the prospect of going without pay over Christmas and the New Year. Action to stop Coles’ replacement warehouses has to be stepped up to force them to meet workers’ demands.
The company has established two new pop-up distribution centres to allow it to keep operating during the strike and lockout.
Coles have also covertly shifted merchandise and machinery, including forklifts, out of the Smeaton Grange centre, and rostered on extra casuals at the permanent distribution centres at Goulburn and Eastern Creek.
Workers and community supporters are staging protests at its replacement warehouses and stopping trucks for short periods. Picketing to shut down these replacement centres completely could force a quick end to the dispute. But seriously disrupting Coles’ operations will require large, sustained pickets in defiance of the law to stop trucks entering or leaving.
In 2016 Coles cold storage warehouse workers at Polar Fresh in Melbourne used strong pickets to quickly win their EBA dispute. Mass blockades at “contingency” sheds left Coles shelves empty.
Coles will try to use the police and the law against serious pickets. But if hundreds of workers, unionists and community members stand together, we can win.
Strong pickets can also help inspire further solidarity. United Workers Union (UWU) members at the other permanent Coles distribution centres should organise solidarity action, through overtime bans or go slows.
Workers have already received widespread union and community support, with local businesses and community members donating supplies such as water and food.
Thousands of dollars have been donated. CFMEU and MUA representatives have visited the picket and Smeaton Grange delegates and UWU organisers have addressed their meetings. A group from the NTEU Sydney Uni branch and students have also attended the picket to show support.
Workers are fighting for jobs and livelihoods. Coles has now exposed itself as the corporate bully it is and will be very vulnerable to union and boycott action in the run-up to Christmas.
It is uncertain whether Coles can hold out with the Smeaton Grange centre closed for three months, as it claims. There have already been some reports of empty shelves at Chipping Norton Coles. One worker told Solidarity, “We’re the largest shed in NSW and don’t see how the company can function properly without our 350-odd workforce. They’ve got another two pop up sheds but their other two permanent centres are already at full capacity and struggling to meet demand.”
But the company has clearly prepared for a long lock out. Increased union action can stop Coles starving people back to work.
Workers are fighting for certainty over their futures, with automation in 2023 set to result in the closure of the centre. The demand for an increase in redundancy pay, with five weeks’ pay for each year of service capped at 104 weeks is necessary to make sure everyone has a decent future. There is concern that, without this, the company could terminate people early in order to reduce their redundancy payout.
Pathways for redeployment at Coles’ new warehouses would also guarantee some people an ongoing job, and the demand for a shift in the casual to permanent ratio to guarantee 80 per cent of roles are permanent would maintain jobs until the centre closes.
The outcome of bargaining will set a benchmark for closure arrangements at Coles’ two other distribution centres in NSW that are also closing, as well as those in Queensland.
“We worked throughout the bushfires and through COVID. When people were stockpiling at supermarkets we worked around the clock. We’re just asking for a reasonable redundancy package,” one worker said.
Instead Coles are focused on maximising profits at the expense of their workers. Coles has posted record profits during the pandemic. “For many nearing the end of their working lives, finding another job will be difficult and finding another full-time permanent job could be impossible,” said the UWU’s Matt Toner “Coles has a responsibility to workers that have given so much.”
Coles chief operating officer Matthew Swindells told the ABC that shutting the Smeaton Grange distribution centre was designed, “to protect Christmas…we won’t have our customers’ Christmas lunch held to ransom”.
But one of the locked out workers told Solidarity, “Coles CEO Steve Cain was given a 29.8 per cent increase in his pay, to around $7 million a year, yet our requests for a decent redundancy package are considered unreasonable. We’re determined to keep on fighting until Coles comes up with an acceptable package.”
Stepping up the pickets and solidarity action is the best way to guarantee workers win certainty about their futures and aren’t left without pay over Christmas.