NUW wins Polar Fresh strike

13882680_10153950003558440_3258355033184102033_nThe power of the strike to win demands is demonstrated by this NUW Polar Fresh strike defeating Coles. Yet again the employer use of penal powers – here an injunction from the Victorian Supreme Court against the solidarity “secondary” pickets see also at end – leads to the necessity of a union wide political strategy to achieve the right to strike without any sanctions, no penalties at all. Unionists have the right for protected action to strike during enterprise bargaining, but this is so limited that the so-called labour law says it is unlawful for the unionists to effectively picket, here to stop trucks and mobile pickets to pressure other depots.

Right to strike

Right to strike

See earlier posts on the campaign for the right to strike
e.g. Don Sutherland argues:
“The Australian workers of the twenty first century need a strategy that defeats the penal powers of the twenty first century.

It is all about a deeper meaning of democracy than the very limited form that too many of us are sort of comfortable with these days.

Electing a genuine reforming Labor government backed up by the Greens and genuine pro worker and democratic independents to get rid of these undemocratic industrial laws will make a difference. But this was never on the radar in recent Federal election.”
NUW Polar Fresh
Warehouse strike over but shelves still bare at Coles by Neelima Choahan

Listen to interviews with union organisers and delegates from Radio 3CR

Coles warehouse workers win better pay, conditions Saturday, July 30, 2016
By Denis Rogatyuk, Melbourne
National Union of Workers (NUW) members at Polar Fresh, Coles’ cold storage warehouse in Truganina, in Melbourne’s west, have voted for a new workplace agreement after striking for three days.
The 650 workers went on indefinite strike on July 27 over demands for better job security, reduced casualisation and an improvement in their wages from $27 to $30 an hour. A ballot in support of strike action and upholding the demands for higher wages and better job security was supported by 94% of the NUW members on site on July 7.

National Union of Workers (NUW) members at Polar Fresh, Coles’ cold storage warehouse in Truganina, in Melbourne’s west, have voted for a new workplace agreement after striking for three days.

The 650 workers went on indefinite strike on July 27 over demands for better job security, reduced casualisation and an improvement in their wages from $27 to $30 an hour. A ballot in support of strike action and upholding the demands for higher wages and better job security was supported by 94% of the NUW members on site on July 7.

They won an average of 4.75% wage increase per year, which will see their hourly wage climb to $31 by January 1 2019.
Joe Hill by Mike Alewitz
Members also won 120 new secure jobs — 50 permanent full time and 70 labour hire agency workers converted to direct employment — with ongoing conversion rights for labour hire casual workers. Improved working conditions such as paid breaks, rostered days off and double time for overtime after two hours were also won.

In the early hours of July 27, the workers blocked the entrance to the warehousing facility and would not allow trucks or supplies in or out. For three days they maintained a picket line supported by the NUW, their families, members of the community and other trade unions.

right to strike

right to strike

Coles management won a Supreme Court injunction against the striking workers on July 28, after a legal challenge to their blockade of warehousing operations. But the workers vowed to continue to fight against the company’s policies of job insecurity and underpayment, especially as the company earned more than $1.78 billion in profits in the 2014/15 financial year.

Polar Fresh is one of the main suppliers of cold storage facilities and services to the Coles supermarket chain. The warehouse in Truganina is strategically important as it is a supply and distribution centre of dairy, meat and poultry products to the company’s supermarkets in Victoria and Tasmania. As such, it was not long before photographs of semi-empty shelves in Coles stores around Melbourne began appearing on social media.

Messages and actions of solidarity in support of the striking workers came from NUW worksites and other unions around the country, including the striking Carlton United Breweries workers in Abbotsford.”
WSN  Right To Strike flyler - front page - FINAL
Polar Fresh interview on the build up to the strike with delegate Ryan Laws:

Polar Fresh Report by Jerome Small: A dramatic three-day strike by hundreds of Melbourne warehouse workers, members of the National Union of Workers, has won important gains.

The standout feature of the strike was the widespread and effective use of mobile pickets. In a rarity for present-day strikes in Australia, the workers refused to sit by while their work was done by scabs or contractors at other locations. In the first two days of the strike, picketing spread from the Polar Fresh shed in Truganina, in Melbourne’s west, to three operations set up by Coles management to work around the strike.

The result was dramatic. Coles’ distribution network, usually powered by these workers’ labour, was already under enormous strain because of the strike. With the mobile pickets shutting down sections of management’s scab network, sections of Coles’ highly profitable supply chain came close to collapse. While the impact was uneven, some supermarkets were out of milk, while at others chilled lines including meat and fresh produce showed huge gaps.

This was the first strike at Polar Fresh, and the first strike in Victoria’s refrigerated supply chain in living memory.

Any visitor to the picket lines could quickly learn about the issues which pushed these workers to walk out the gate.

One worker told Red Flag about the gruelling pace of work. Workers in the milk section might have to lift and shift 500 milk crates, each weighing up to 18 kilos, before smoko. Workers are expected to hit a target of 1400 crates of produce, or boxes of yogurt and other chilled goods, in a day. A league table of workers’ pick-rates is constantly updated and displayed at the entrance to the lunch room.

Some casuals have been “casual” for years, while many labour hire workers try to survive on insecure and inadequate hours. All this adds to the pressure on the workers. One woman reported that she’d never worked in a place with so many injured workers. Many don’t report their injuries, she said, because of systematic management bullying, especially on afternoon shift.

For all their work under these conditions, so essential to the profits of a series of giant corporations including Costa and Swire (the co-owners of Polar Fresh) and Coles, the workers are paid an hourly rate of $26.91, well below the industry standard.

So there was plenty of feeling on view when 50 picketers shut down the Swire Logistics shed in Clayton on the second day of the strike. The chant of “Thirty bucks, no trucks” was most popular, mixed with “Nothing in, nothing out” and “We see you”, directed at the scabs. A can of pink spray paint, an old bed sheet and some scrap timber became a “beep to support” banner, which was met with plenty of honks of solidarity from passing traffic in the industrial zone of Clayton.

Trucks being turned away prompted the famous football chant of “Nah nah, hey hey, goodbye” as well as a chant of the scoreboard to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”, starting at “One nil, one nil”, and reaching “Twenty nil, twenty nil” before the picketers lost count. When senior management, including Polar Fresh manager David Palmer, came out and attempted to shake workers’ hands, they were met with a frosty reception and the taunting chant of “What do we want? Chicken parma!” It was the workers with the power now, and they were determined to let everyone know it.

The “secondary” pickets were lifted after the company obtained Supreme Court injunctions against the National Union of Workers. But the massive holes blown in Coles’ supply network were impossible to ignore. It became clear that, unless the workers were satisfied, there would be no business (or profits) as usual for one of the biggest corporations in the country.

Meanwhile, the workers were settling in. By the third day, the strike camp outside the Polar Fresh shed in Truganina featured two kitchens enjoying a friendly rivalry – one serving Vietnamese and Filipino food, another with the mainstays of pasta, rice and vegetables. A giant tarp was strung to a locked gate outside the giant, empty distribution centre, sheltering an area with a beat-up old drum kit: a succession of kids learning how to keep time alternated with an ever changing, impromptu line-up belting out soul and rock and classics. Couches appeared around the camp fires across the entrance to the shed. Hundreds of workers drawn from across Melbourne and the rest of Australia, from New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, from across Asia, Africa and the rest of the planet, united to bring key operations of Coles to a standstill.

Faced with this industrial reality (and the simple fact that Supreme Court judges, while skilled at issuing anti-picketing injunctions, are incapable of picking an order or operating a reach forklift), the company gave ground and then gave a little more. By the time of a mass meeting on the Friday evening, the third day of the strike, NUW organisers and delegates presented a deal that was much improved from the start of the strike, light years away from the initial, vicious attacks presented to the workers by management and good enough for the vast majority of workers to accept and feel proud.

It’s not a total win. Pay rises average 4.75 percent a year over the life of the deal, making it one of the better private sector pay deals (the pacesetting construction unions are getting 5 percent in current deals). However, the main claim of the workers, for an immediate pay rise to $30 an hour from the current rate of $27, has not been met – workers reach $30 in two years, hitting $31 per hour near the expiry of the deal, in early 2019. The pay cut imposed on workers in Coles’ supply chain under the vicious anti-union Workchoices laws a decade ago has still not been fully reversed by this deal.
To improve on the deal would have meant continuing the strike and maintaining the pickets, despite injunctions. Threats of financial penalties and injunctions have been used to restrict effective picketing in this country for decades. Overcoming these legal threats is a challenge that remains to be seriously tackled, for Polar Fresh workers and for the rest of the union movement.

In the shorter term there are plenty of other issues confronting Polar Fresh workers, including managing the return to work, and in carrying the solidarity forged on the picket lines onto the floor of the warehouse.

Among the workers who spoke to Red Flag after the vote to accept the deal, there was a deep sense of pride and optimism – both in the wins of the strike (especially the additional protections for labour hire and casuals) and in the new-found strength of the workers.

As one worker, Rudolph, explained: “The main thing that’s going to be different, apart from that we’re going to be getting paid more and there’s going to be less casuals on the floor is that each shift is now … in a stronger bond over all our shifts and that if we ever have an issue where we have to deal with Polar Fresh ever again – we just have to get together and say, ‘Are we in? We can deal with you a lot stronger’.”

From Coles: NUW continuing ‘unlawful’ pickets despite order: Coles

WFD: Coles Supermarkets has accused the National Union of Workers (NUW) of engaging in “unlawful conduct” causing “millions of dollars” of damage by allegedly continuing picket lines at its Vic distribution centres despite a Supreme Court injunction.

The Coles Truganina distribution centre, operated by Polar Fresh, closed down Wednesday (July 27) when the majority of its 650 workforce went on an indefinite strike. The NUW told Workforce Daily the workers have been negotiating with Polar Fresh for a new enterprise agreement (EA) for about six months. The workers decided to take protected action to support their claim for a rise in full-time pay rates from $26.91 to $30 per hour as well as a full-time conversion clause for the “hundreds” of “precariously” employed casual labour hire and internal casual staff. A NUW spokesperson said “many” workers are unable to survive with infrequent short shifts.

However, on July 27, on application by Coles, Vic Supreme Court Justice Michael McDonald ordered the NUW and its officials to stop preventing “free access” to Coles distribution centres in Truganina, Laverton and Derrimut until 5pm, August 1. The Laverton and Derrimut sites were part of Coles’ “contingency” plan organised prior to the industrial action at Truganina so it could continue to distribute fresh food. However, Coles says picket lines are still preventing trucks from entering the “contingency” sites placing “millions of dollars” of fresh food “at risk”.

Unlawful picketing threatens customers and other businesses: Coles

A Coles spokesperson (above) told Workforce “the NUW is engaging in unlawful conduct by continuing to block access at contingency sites set up by Coles to distribute food to our stores across Victoria”.

“This is placing millions of dollars of fresh food grown and produced by Victorian farmers at risk of rotting and spoilage,” he said.

“Unlawful picketing threatens to disrupt the distribution of fresh food for customers in Victoria and will harm other businesses unrelated to the negotiations between Polar Fresh and the NUW.”

The NUW said its delegates were meeting Polar Fresh management on Thursday (July 28) to try and resolve the issue.

The NUW and Coles are due to meet again in the Supreme Court this Monday (August 1) at 2:15pm to discuss the application.

Workforce Daily contacted the NUW for a response to Coles’ claims against it but had not responded by press time.

Unions’ right to strike campaign is to repeal all “Fair” Work Act penal powers. We argue for a “firewall” protection for workers in their unions taking industrial action,

i.e., protected action for all or any strikes, full stop.

These ILO principles are accepted by unions, government and most employers and can prevail. Note the scope of this right to strike:
Touch One Touch All
“The right to strike is one of the essential means available to workers and their organisations for the promotion and protection of their economic and social interests. These interests not only have to do with obtaining better working conditions and pursuing collective demands of an occupational nature but also with seeking solutions to economic and social policy questions and to labour problems of any kind which are of direct concern to the workers.”

Earlier NUW lengthy strike dispute: COLES’ WAREHOUSE WORKERS WIN

Win by NUW Historic win for low-paid farm workers at supermarket supplier


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