Coles supermarket warehouse workers at Smeaton Grange in southwestern Sydney have been protesting over three months beginning from November last year over job security. As Coles facility of warehouse shall move towards automation by 2023, it has been subjected to widespread denial for workers who will soon lose their jobs. The workers have been demanding terms that recognise their long service to the company, which includes better redundancy entitlements and a training payment that can help them transition into new jobs and newer industries. Coles initially declared 12-week lock-out starting from November then followed by an indefinite lockout. The request for strike pay made by the workers of Coles got rejected by the United Workers Union (UWU).
In Australia, an employer is not entitled to pay its employee during the tenure of protest and the trade unions (bargaining representative) cannot ask for pay during any such industrial action.
Hence, it is the liability of the trade unions to pay their strikers at the time of protests. If an employer makes the payment and an employee asks for money then they are all subjected to penalty under ‘The prohibition on the payment of strike pay under the Fair Work Act 2009’.
This is where the concept of Strike pay comes into play. Strike pay is the money paid by the trade union to their strikers during such events as experienced in the case of workers at Coles Supermarket. It helps the strikers in meeting their basic needs while on strike. This is exactly where the support and bargaining power of a trade to support its members at the time of their need comes into picture.
In the above case as per workers, the United Workers Union (UWU) throughout the lockout was not able to provide any financial assistance. By establishing an online appeal for donations, UWU managed to support the workers with some money and food vouchers. Hence, the unanswered question is - why was UWU not able to solve the growing worker woes by supporting them with strike pay.
The numbers and data on funding and resources of UWU, on the contrary, highlights a good chance of being able to provide strike pay to substantially reduce workers' woes. UWU was formed in November 2019 after United Voice and the National Union of Workers (NUW) merged together. According to UWU’s annual report to the federal government’s Registered Organisations Commission, the net gain on assets obtained from amalgamation was $198.5 million. On top of that, the new membership fee of $49.9 million combined with suspension fees of $1.5 million, interest payments of $1.3 million, rental income of $1.15 million, joint ventures and associates totalling $1.2 million and other revenue of $1.5 million kept their valuation high. By the end of the financial year on 30th June 2020, the amalgamated union held assets totalling $300.8 million. This included cash reserves of $94.2 million. However, the UWU insisted that it had no capacity to provide strike pay to workers.
Amidst the protest in Coles and the long tenure lockout, finally the issue was addressed in February 2021.
After voting out the company's offer seven times before union officials and the company finally wore them down, the agreement now seems acceptable, where Coles eventually agreed to an unlimited number of voluntary redundancies so that workers can now leave with a payout and accept a new job offer at any time before the centre closes in 2023.
The union’s role still remains in quandary in the Coles crisis and have been said that there was no serious effort undertaken to organise the strike pay that was needed to sustain workers' condition in the last couple of months.
With such challenges of rising workers' woes, many workers have begun to suggest moving out of trade unions as a result of rising feelings of unjust and bitterness However, leaving will only weaken workers’ organisation at the workplace which can have a long term detrimental effect. This can make it harder to manage such a crisis in future. Moreover, the result seems harder from both employer and workers perspective and organisations too are moving fast towards automation to get away from such crisis situations as seen in Coles. Hence, the case of Coles must become an eye opener for workers to establish strike funds during such unforeseen events and build a more collaborative system of solidarity between the management and the workers group.