This Thursday marks 12 weeks locked out for Coles workers at Smeaton Grange in NSW.
After they narrowly rejected Coles’ dodgy agreement last week—voting against it for the sixth time—the company offered a $1000 sign on payment to try to get it over the line.
Union delegates rejected this as an insult. Yet straight after telling members at a mass meeting on Friday that it was an insult, the union officials sent out a survey to members asking if they would accept the deal.
On Monday United Workers Union Director of Logistics, Matt Toner, who has been pulling union strings from Melbourne, flew in to address members.
Tragically, the meeting was just another attempt to delay action, wear down workers and wind up the dispute.
Toner faced an angry meeting. Much of the meeting was taken up by Toner reading out the results of the survey sent out via text over the weekend. Although 53.4 per cent were against the offer (slightly more than voted No to Coles’ previous offer) Toner used the results to demoralise the workers.
Smeaton Grange workers desperately need strike funds to keep fighting. The union has over $1 million in an existing fund, and had over $94 million in cash and equivalents at the end of last financial year.
Members had signs on the cars and held placards demanding the UWU “Release the strike funds now” and “Strike funds = numbers”.
But Toner arrogantly dismissed the demands, telling the meeting, “The only financial assistance we can give you is what we’ve given you”. The most members have received is four $200 Woolies gift cards in the space of three months.
Toner tried to excuse the union’s foot-dragging, and lack of leadership, by claiming he had to represent all members and that the workforce was divided. But a majority of Smeaton Grange workers have voted seven times against Coles’ redundancy deal and are looking for support from the union that is supposed to represent them.
The union’s own survey results showed just 25.3 per cent of those who responded did not want to take part in any more actions against Coles.
The union could release the strike funds, it could back the pickets of Coles Eastern Creek distribution centre, it could organise nation-wide action against Coles—but in practice Toner is supporting Coles, and creating more divisions in the workforce.
If Coles extends the lockout on Thursday, a day of action has been called for Friday, thanks to the pressure of delegates and members.
But the last two major actions at Eastern Creek have been called off by the union holding last minute votes on phony “new offers”. We should expect Coles and the UWU officials to scramble to strike another deal before the lockout ends Thursday. But the ball is in Coles’ court now. They have threatened to announce an extension of the lockout and could easily do this and put another non-union ballot.
The rank-and-file at Smeaton Grange urgently needs to take the reins of the dispute to win solidarity and build action. They have shown enormous determination, even defeating two ballots where the union declared itself “neutral”. If Coles extends the lockout, it will be another opportunity to galvanise the majority who want to fight, and build the action that can beat Coles.
By Adam Adelpour and Ian Rintoul