Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Fourteen years of struggle for Woolies' workers

Vanguard August 2013 p. 2

For the workers at the Woolworths Hume Distribution Centre in the northern Melbourne suburb of Broadmeadows, 2013 presents an opportunity to further improve wages and conditions, with the current Enterprise Agreement set to expire on September 1st.

Through fourteen years of struggle, the Hume Distribution Centre workers, members of the National Union of Workers, enjoy some of the best wages and conditions in the logistics industry across Australia.

In the face of aggressive campaigns by Woolworths at the Brisbane Liquor and Wodonga Regional Distribution Centres to attack penalty rates, workers who are the highest paid across the Woolworths supply chain are set to mount a defence in order to protect current standards and improve our wages and conditions in a campaign titled United for Our Future.

The Broadmeadows Distribution Centre emerged from a Greenfields site in 2003, with the workers winning their first Enterprise Agreement. A major gain resulting from the inaugural agreement was a provision for part time workers winning the right to greater access to weekly hours, thus providing more secure employment, allowing transition into full-time employment and placing a restraint on the ever increasing casualisation issue. First implemented at the Broadmeadows site, this condition has since flowed through the entire Woolworths supply and retail chain.

2005 witnessed the site’s first strike, with the workers mounting a two day period of industrial action, resulting in the company backing down on its attempt to remove directly employed casuals, and place those workers with a third party provider. Permanent workers stood in solidarity, protected their casual comrades, also winning close to one hundred permanent jobs through the life of that agreement.

At the height of Howard’s WorkChoices in 2008, the Broadmeadows workers, fighting off an attack by Woolworths to have the Enterprise Agreement removed, protected all conditions for a further two years.

With the ink barely drying on the balance sheet in 2010 following a $2 billion record profit at the time, and a fourteenth consecutive year of record surplus, Woolworths announced a vicious attack, planning to wash away previously hard fought and won conditions, and ignoring the workers’ quest for a decent wage increase and to maintain job security.

A bitter round of negotiations unfolded and with Woolworths unwilling to negotiate around member’s priorities the 600 strong work force embarked on industrial action, withdrawing their labour for a period of one week.

It was a successful week of mounting protests at the Broadmeadows site, along with Corrigan’s Qube warehouse in which a scab workforce was operating, and Woolworth’s stores. Woolworths Liquor Laverton shed was completely closed for one day.

Returning to work victorious, the NUW members had won, among numerous items, protections around roster changes and the right to a redundancy package upon the site’s closure. A 3.4% wage increase for each year of the agreement was also guaranteed following the company’s vindictive threat that no wage rise would be granted.

Gearing towards another tough battle through the 2013 campaign, delegates recently won an additional forty permanent jobs for casual workers, going some small way in reversing the recent trend in Australia which currently sees 40% of the total workforce placed in insecure casual employment.

Workers at the Broadmeadows warehouse are currently pitched in a battle with Woolworths management in a struggle to have the company recognise agency casual workers as members of the union, recognise their right to representation, and recognise the elected agency casual delegate with full rights. Permanent workers have stood up for their casual comrades, demanding they be treated on the same terms and conditions.

Kicking off the current campaign, a union publication was recently sent to the site’s members, highlighting that the company has recorded no fewer than nine major breaches of the Enterprise Agreement in a mere two year period. The report concluded by stating ‘with four months of the current Enterprise Agreement before the date of expiry, it now appears that Woolworths are attempting to break every clause in the book before re-negotiation’

The National Union of Workers have been prominent in recent times through successful industrial campaigns against Baiada, Coles and Toll Logistics, and the Hume Distributions Centre workers can add to that history through a united struggle against one of the nation’s largest and most profitable corporations.

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