Strike at Woolworths’ liquor warehouse

The following article was first published on Anarchist Affinity’s blog:

Much thanks to them for permission to repost.

MLDC-cropped 2015.08.13

A moment on the picket line, workers from another NUW organised warehouse come down to show support.

Report from Anarchist Affinity members who were supporting the MLDC (Melbourne Liquor Distribution Centre) strike last week.

Workers at Woolworths MLDC launched unprotected (unlawful) strike action in the early hours of Monday morning last week. Workers were responding to broken promises by management; Woolworths management had announced the week before that all new hires at the Laverton site would be through a labour-hire agency despite promises to the contrary made in EBA negotiations less than a year earlier.

The MLDC strike was called for, planned and hastily executed by rank and file union militants at MLDC. The decision to strike occurred to the genuine surprise of NUW union organisers and officials (the NUW is the workers’ union), and this decision was taken by a workforce who had never previously been on strike together.

The MLDC sits at a critical juncture in Woolworths’ supply chain. The strike shut-down liquor and cigarette supplies to Woolworths, BWS and Dan Murphy’s stores across Victoria.

On day four of the strike, industrial action occurred at two other Woolworths’ distribution centres in Hume and Barnawatha. The Hume DC afternoon shift joined the strike and the Barnawatha DC imposed an overtime ban whilst planning to join the strike.

This strike action continued despite the threat of fines and dismissal. It continued in defiance of an order by the Fair Work Commission on Tuesday. When ordered back to work, strikers at MLDC burnt copies of the FWC order and announced they would not return to work until Woolworths agreed “no labour hire and no repercussions [for striking]”.

The power that these workers held in their hands was palpable.

A number of us in Anarchist Affinity are NUW members and delegates (in the market research industry); we headed down to MLDC and joined the picket as part of a larger community support contingent. It was with disgust that from here we watched NUW hierarchy sell the workers at MLDC short.

Why NUW leadership acted in this manner is a matter for debate, it could simply have been timidity in the face of potential fines, or perhaps a fear of an industrial situation escalating outside their control. What is clear is that by late Wednesday NUW leadership had decided to intervene and end the MLDC strike.

The process of undermining the strike began with a mass meeting on Thursday morning. NUW officials advised workers that a federal court injunction was coming that could not be defied. Workers were told that this injunction would result in fines of up to $10,000 and potentially jail time for the strikers. Union leaders claimed only way out was to authorise the leadership to negotiate a deal.

Over the course of Thursday the strike was demobilised on the outside as officials cut a deal with the company inside.

At the final mass meeting held at the picket on Thursday evening, union leadership presented the deal they had cut. They argued there was no alternative and called for workers to endorse it. The militants who had called the strike fought for a continuation, but ultimately lost in a vote split roughly 70-30.

The compromise that was accepted will (in broad terms) see labour-hire on the site during ‘peak periods’, subject to certain restrictions. The most important restriction is that labour-hire workers will be paid site rates and covered by the site EBA.

More concerningly, the union leadership agreed to a deal in which workers will face retribution for striking. All of the strikers will be subjected to ‘counselling’ and a six month written warning for unprotected action.

The union and the company also intend to appoint an ‘independent investigator’ to ‘make recommendations’ about three particular workers for unspecified actions during the strike. The names of these three workers have not been disclosed, but it seems likely that strike organisers will face further retribution.

The MLDC strike was nonetheless amazing. Workers without significant support from their union took militant industrial action for four days, defying one of Australia’s largest retailers and the misnamed Fair Work Commission. For a brief moment they held the profitability of one of Australia’s largest corporations to ransom.

The MLDC strike may have accepted a compromise that in the end conceded labour-hire and disciplinary action for striking workers, but it also showed what is possible. The strike was one small but potent demonstration of the power that still exists on a picket line, and what even a small group of militants can achieve when they organise.

Our solidarity, support and love go out to everyone we met on the picketlines at MLDC.