Shelves at Coles supermarkets were left empty after just a few days of industrial action by workers at the Polar Fresh distribution centre in Melbourne’s west. The dispute was over negotiations for a new Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA), with workers seeking a pay increase and improved job security. After just three days management came to the table with an offer including an average pay rise of 4.75% and 120 new secure jobs, demonstrating that when workers take action they can win.
Polar Fresh is a joint venture between Swire and Costa, two companies with a track record of anti-union management. It came into being as a mechanism to cut the pay and conditions of workers in the Coles supply chain who were already working for Swire.
Earlier this year, Swire sacked a number of truck drivers to replace them with cheaper sub-contractors. Some of the drivers had been with the company for over 40 years. The sackings took place in the context of EBA negotiations. At 4am, as drivers turned up to work, they were informed that they were being made redundant and ordered to leave. In a final slap in the face, as the drivers left the site they saw the sub-contractors parked around the corner, waiting to take over their deliveries.
Costa has engaged in similar anti-worker activities, exploiting the piece rate system to pay berry pickers as little as $8 an hour. Costa also has a history of manoeuvring in the so-called Fair Work Commission to limit union activities on its sites by withdrawing union negotiated agreements only to push through a non-union agreement in its place.
The Polar Fresh joint venture took advantage of the Howard governments’ hated WorkChoices regime in order to achieve a reduction in hourly rates and slash conditions. The establishment of Polar Fresh saw workers take a pay cut in excess of 10%, and while this latest dispute sees them claw some of this ground back, Swire and Costa are still cashing in. 2015 saw Costa report profits of $38 million, while Swire raked in a massive $1.7 billion.
Parallels can be drawn with the Carlton United Breweries (CUB) dispute. In a cynical move to cut production costs ahead of a planned merger, CUB ended the contract covering 55 maintenance workers, then offered them their jobs back with a new contractor on 65% less pay. CUB owners SABMiller are in the final stages of a merger deal with AB InBev. These are the world’s two largest brewing companies.
In the weeks leading up to their termination, the CUB maintenance team were working overtime to clear a backlog of maintenance jobs. It is likely that CUB were stockpiling beer, with the expectation that production would drop after they sacked the maintenance team. In the weeks since the termination of the maintenance workers there has been a protest camp outside the Abbotsford brewery, and a petition and boycott campaign have been organised by the workers’ unions.
The Polar Fresh dispute was resolved after just three days of industrial action. Workers at the site voted to go out on strike, and, when Coles looked to reroute stock through other distribution centres, workers sent out flying pickets to protect the integrity of their action. Despite a court order halting the use of the flying pickets the damage had been done, and Polar Fresh management came to the table. While the offer made was not everything that workers were seeking (e.g. an immediate increase in wages from $27 to $30 per hour), it was a decisive victory none the less.
The disruption to the Coles supply chain took over a week to restore after the dispute had been resolved. Workers should take heart from the action of the Polar Fresh workers, demonstrating clearly to us all what can be achieved when workers organise and take direct action at the point of production.
The Socialist Party stands in solidarity with the workers at Polar Fresh, CUB, and all those under attack from exploitative bosses. In this period of crisis for world capitalism, the bosses will seek every opportunity to slash wages and maximise their profits. We must be ready to stand side by side and fight back.
By David Suter
The following is the text from a leaflet distributed by Socialist Party members at the September 8 rally in solidarity with the CUB 55.
Time to make CUB a bit less ‘comfortable’!
The situation facing the CUB 55 should be of concern to workers right across Australia. If CUB are allowed to get away with slashing wages by 65% it would be a green light to employers everywhere.
It is crucial that the CUB 55 win their jobs back on full pay in order to send a strong message to other rogue bosses who are considering following CUB’s example.
While beer production has taken a hit, the shelves have still not been emptied. This shows that CUB management were prepared for a long dispute.
Management were recently quoted saying: “We feel comfortable about our ability to keep producing [beer] leading into footy finals.” Well, if they are refusing to budge it is time to make them a bit less comfortable!
The boycott campaign, and the huge amounts of money raised for the workers, highlights the widespread support that exists. There is no doubt that many workers understand the importance of this dispute and would be prepared to do even more.
The trade union movement as a whole should aim to tap this goodwill and look at ways to ramp up the pressure on CUB. There is plenty of scope for other workers connected to CUB’s supply chain to take industrial action in support of the 55.
There is no doubt that members of the wider community would also be keen to support action aimed at preventing business-as-usual at the Abbotsford plant.
The protests and boycott campaign have been fantastic but the best way to make CUB feel the pinch is to impede their ability to get beer out of the gate.
We should all stand in solidarity with the CUB 55. Their fight is our fight and it is essential that we win!
-Immediately reinstate the CUB 55 on full pay!
-CUB to directly employ the workers – Cut out the labour hire firms!
-Change the laws – Make dodgy workplace agreements illegal!
-Stop the race to the bottom – Fight wage cuts and contracting out with industrial action!