In an incredible vote yesterday, United Workers Union (UWU) members at Smeaton Grange Coles distribution centre in NSW have voted—for the sixth time—to reject Coles’ redundancy offer.
It was a narrow vote—just 167-163, but it indicates the sheer determination of the majority of workers not to give in to Coles’ stand-over tactics.
Coles’ offer of four weeks’ pay for each year worked, capped at 80 weeks’ pay for forced redundancies, was first rejected in October last year.
But Coles is desperate to prevent Smeaton Grange setting a new benchmark for job security and redundancy with as many as 3000 other Coles workers facing the axe as Coles rolls out its automation plans across the industry.
The stunning vote came after the UWU held a secret ballot online on Friday 22 January that returned a count of 156 to 96 in favour. But many workers did not get the text message allowing them to vote.
In any case it is now very clear that the majority of Smeaton Grange workers are committed to their original demands—maximum redeployment, training and a cap of 104 weeks’ pay for forced redundancy. They also want voluntary redundancy to be available right through until Smeaton Grange closes, so that workers can take advantage of any alternative job offers before the shed closes. Workers are also angry at Coles’ threats to take disciplinary action against workers involved in protests during the lockout.
Amazingly, Coles was proposing to make all workers attend a “Workplace Behaviour training session” on the first day of any return to work.
No more delays—step up the action
There is now an urgent need to step up the action against Coles.
Tragically, the UWU leadership has dragged its feet throughout the dispute. It even took a “neutral” position when Coles ran a non-union ballot. Astonishingly, when that was defeated, rather than organise a proper strike fund and solidarity action for Smeaton Grange, the UWU leaders approached Coles to urge them to make another offer. Weeks that could have been spent organising action against Coles were lost to unnecessary ballots.
There has always been a majority willing to fight Coles. But instead of backing that majority, the UWU leadership has used the excuse that the workplace is divided to cover up its inaction.
There is an urgent need for a proper UWU strike fund to stop Coles bleeding the workers dry. A UWU strike fund could help galvanise support for Smeaton Grange throughout the union.
Rank-and-file organisation is going to be decisive. The actions of the “Concerned Workers of Smeaton Grange” group in calling for a No vote was crucial to winning majority support in both the non-union ballot and the latest vote to reject Coles’ EBA.
The No vote needs to be turned into action against Coles. Pickets of Coles’ Eastern Creek distribution centre need to be stepped up. Workers have already succeeded in forcing Coles to remove a clause that would have allowed management to victimise workers for “unacceptable” activity during the lockout. That is non-negotiable. There can be no future settlement with Coles that would provide any scope for victimisation of workers for protest action during the dispute.
Solidarity action at other Coles distribution centres, including interstate, can increase the pressure on the company.
The mass meetings of active members at Smeaton Grange need to become the organising centre of the fight against Coles and the union leadership need to be held accountable to the democratic decisions of the mass meetings.
Against tremendous odds, the Smeaton Grange workers have defied Coles’ lockout for 11 weeks. As Morrison gears up to push more anti-union laws through parliament, every unionist needs to get behind the Coles workers.
A win at Smeaton Grange will be a win for us all.
By Ian Rintoul