A two week strike by Toll workers in Melbourne’s northern suburb of Somerton ended on July 23. The workers, who are members of the National Union of Workers (NUW), are all employed at a distribution centre that is owned by Coles but where the labour is outsourced to Toll Holdings.
As a result the Somerton workers are paid around $5 an hour less than their counterparts in other Coles warehouses. The workers were demanding pay parity and equal conditions including shift loadings, rostered days off, the right of casuals to be made permanent after 6 months and better rights for union delegates and officials.
By Socialist Party reporters Melbourne
In the end they accepted an offer which included a 10.25% wage rise over 3 years. They will now get a choice about whether to work public holidays and they have won improved rights for union delegates and officials.
The deal also includes nine ‘accrued days off’ for full time day shift workers and five for full time night and afternoon shift workers. They will also get a ‘family allowance payment’ in lieu of shift loadings and casuals will have the right to go permanent after 9 months if positions are available.
Disappointingly this is still far less than what other Coles warehouse workers receive. In many respects it is less than the minimum conditions outlined in the industry Award. The pay rise itself does not address the gap between the Toll workers and other Coles staff. It is also significantly less than the 5% per year originally demanded in order to keep up with the rising cost of living.
The company actually gloated that the pay rise was 0.25% lower than what was on the table last week. That offer was resoundingly rejected by the workers. Toll has said that the total value of the offer had not changed for two weeks. “It remains an effective 4% annual wage rise over 3 years” a spokesperson said.
It seems that instead of forcing the company into submission via industrial pressure the union leaders were more focused on reshuffling the structure of how wages and conditions will be allocated. In effect the NUW leaders have recommended that the workers accept lower wage rises in exchange for some increased conditions.
It didn’t have to end this way. If a proper industrial strategy was in place from the beginning much more could have been won. The workers themselves had shown great resolve staffing the picket for two weeks in the cold and refusing to let anything in or out of the Somerton site. The problem was that Toll and Coles had shifted distribution elsewhere. This allowed them to keep up operations for the most part.
The NUW leaders did not have a strategy to address this problem. This reduced the unions bargaining power and led to demoralisation amongst the workforce as the dispute dragged on. In the end the workers accepted a substandard offer for lack of seeing any other way forward.
While a couple of Coles sites interstate did engage in solidarity action in support of the strike these actions were shut down fairly quickly thanks to the ALP’s ‘Fair Work’ laws. Around a week into the dispute members and delegates were beginning to question the union leaders’ strategy. Many agreed that action needed to be taken to disrupt Coles distribution from other sites. However, the NUW leaders failed to alter their strategy despite this pressure from below.
Two flying pickets were organised by supporters of the strike but to have a real impact on distribution they needed to be organised on a much wider basis and backed up by the broader trade union movement.
On occasion certain groups of workers are not prepared to take a struggle further. This however was not the case at Toll. The workers came out on strike in very good spirits determined to take on these two corporate giants. The problem was that not all avenues of struggle were exhausted before accepting an offer that did not meet their demands.
This is the third major dispute in 18 months where the NUW has missed opportunities to win a better outcome. Clearly there is a need to change the union’s approach to industrial action if the members are going to be able to be in a position to genuinely win in the future.
Members and delegates need to strive to take more ownership of their strikes. Democratically elected strike committees should coordinate disputes. This would give the members more say over strategy and would lead to higher levels of participation as people would feel that they have more of a stake in the decision making process.
Interestingly one lower ranking NUW official told Socialist Party members that they felt like a mushroom during this dispute. “We are kept in the dark and fed bullshit” they said. If that’s how some lower ranking officials were feeling you can understand why the workers began to feel demoralised after two weeks out in the cold.
More generally workers in the NUW and beyond need to fight for a political alternative to the pro-ALP politics that dominate the unions. After all it was the ALP’s ‘Fair Work’ laws that hindered the workers from taking effective legal industrial action during this dispute. While Toll was able to legally organise third party solidarity the workers were not.
Rather than acting as cheerleaders for the pro-big business ALP, unions need to break from that party and fight for laws that allow for the right to strike – including solidarity strikes. Developing a more militant industrial strategy capable of winning will necessarily go hand in hand with building a progressive political alternative to the ALP.
On balance, the Somerton workers showed immense resolve in taking on both Toll and Coles. Their willingness to struggle was definitely a step in the right direction. Without such resolve it is possible that Toll would have tried to hold down their wages and conditions even further. For their stand they should be congratulated. At the same time workers need to learn from this dispute in order to make sure that the same mistakes are not repeated in the future.
For more background on this dispute read ‘Hundreds of Toll workers strike’