United Workers Union steps up sale at Australian clothing warehouse

The United Workers’ Union (UWU) said this morning that workers at the Country Road Group (CRG) would return to work immediately, ending an 11-day strike.

According to the union, workers voted early this morning to agree to a company agreement (EA) containing a 13.3% four-year wage increase, backdated from the expiration of the last agreement in April.

Strikers chained together to protest outside Country Road store (Photo: Facebook / UWU)

While this offer is slightly better than the 2.7% per year previously offered by the company and twice rejected by workers, it is unlikely to follow the sharp increases in the cost of living. Even the official CPI, which vastly underestimates the impact of rising prices on the working class, is already at 3 percent, with global signs pointing to high inflation in the near future.

Additionally, these warehouse workers are starting with wages that are not only well below the national median hourly wage ($ 36 as of August 2020, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics), but also significantly lower than others in the industry. .

The Level 1 hourly wage at CRG is now just $ 22.52, compared to $ 26.24 at the Hanes warehouse of the neighboring clothing company and $ 30.84 at Just Group. The 13.3% wage increase announced by the UWU leaves CRG workers earning a starting hourly wage of just $ 25.52 by 2025, less than their counterparts earn today.

The new EA provides for the creation of 20 new permanent positions, but still allows a quarter of the workforce to be employed on a casual basis. The union-management agreement does nothing to eradicate the use of casual workers, simply guaranteeing them the same meager wages as those directly employed by the company.

Workers at the CRG clothing warehouse in Melbourne went on an indefinite strike on Thursday, November 11, after a 24-hour shutdown in late August.

As it did during major conflicts this year at Coles Smeaton Grange and General Mills in Sydney, the UWU conducted an isolation campaign, without attempting to mobilize other warehouse workers or larger sections. of the working class.

Instead, the union engaged in a series of publicity stunts, including workers chaining in front of retail stores and engaging in a mock parade meant to expose the company’s involvement in Fashion Week. .

More than 50 workers protested outside the upscale Country Road flagship store in South Yarra on Friday in wet winter conditions. Some workers were joined by their families. Kate, a packer, said: “All I’m looking for is a living wage so that I can support my family.” Another packer, Sue, said, “All I want is an extra dollar [an hour] of a company that has made millions of profits in a COVID year. Sugar, who has worked at CRG for 15 years for online orders, said, “We are all here for one reason: for a living wage, for respect and to support our families and they can’t even give us a dollar.

UWU logistics coordinator Mick Power said: “Workers have reported persistent acts of intimidation. Examples include dictatorial Amazon-style announcements made at staff meetings, communicating with workers at home and outside working hours, pressure on workers to continue working despite legitimate objections by safety issues and one-on-one conversations with workers discouraging union participation.

Speaking at the protest, Power explained that when there were multiple cases of COVID-19 in the warehouse, the company forced workers to continue working despite legitimate fears for their health. He also noted that 70 percent of the predominantly female workforce are casuals. On some days, casual workers, having driven for up to an hour to get to work, were told just five minutes before the start of their shift that it was canceled.

Country Road Group (CRG) unites a number of high-end fashion brands, including Country Road, Witchery, Politix, Mimco and Trenery, with around 600 outlets. In 2016, CRG was acquired by Woolworths Holdings Limited, which employs 7,000 people in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, where it is headquartered. CRG reported a profit of $ 155 million for fiscal 2021, a 55% increase from 2019, while receiving $ 25 million in JobKeeper payments from the treasury.

In 2015, the CRG “Omni Fulfillment Center” was opened to supply both its points of sale and its online shopping customers. The highly automated 21,000 square meter facility is one of many large warehouses in Melbourne’s western suburbs, Truganina. CRG’s website boasts of providing employees with safety boots, employee of the month awards and regular on-site team barbecues. It fails to mention that it also offers some of the lowest wages in the industry.

The 2015 “greenfield” EA negotiated by the union of retail workers, the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA), called for a starting wage of $ 20.43 an hour.

The EA expired in April of this year and, according to the UWU, workers twice voted against a new EA offered by the company that included a 66-cent-per-hour increase.

The UWU mounted a campaign that won over SDA CRG workers last year. The SDA has a reputation for overseeing extremely low retail wages and has a habit of cutting the wages of its members below those of non-union workers.

In 2017, Coles supermarkets admitted that 60% of their workforce would be better off if they received a statutory minimum wage rather than the rates negotiated by the SDA. Similar SDA deals at Woolworths supermarkets and fast food companies McDonalds, Hungry Jacks and KFC have seen workers collect a total of $ 300 million a year below the legal minimum. An estimated 250,000 workers have been affected.

Today’s announcement at CRG makes it clear that workers must not be under any illusions that the UWU, or any other union, is a way forward, or even a lesser evil.

About 400 workers at a Kmart warehouse just three miles from the CRG facility went on indefinite strike on Monday, along with Toll workers in six other hangars in Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales . Despite the proximity and similar issues facing workers, the UWU has done nothing to unify these struggles or mobilize broader support among the tens of thousands of warehouse workers in the western suburbs of Melbourne. The toll strike ended almost as soon as it began, with the UWU reaching a sold-out deal in less than three days.

The unions claim that broader actions are impossible because Australia’s “fair work” laws prohibit secondary boycotts and model negotiations. The reality is that these laws were introduced by union-backed Labor governments and have been systematically enforced by unions since then.

At the Coles warehouse in Smeaton Grange in Sydney, 350 workers were locked out for more than three months, starting in November 2020, after refusing to accept an EA that included the planned closure of their warehouse. Together with management, the UWU repeatedly attempted to pass a deal that workers rejected eleven times and refused to mobilize workers from other warehouses in Coles or elsewhere. Despite its $ 300 million in assets, the union failed to provide any strike pay and workers were starved back to work after a courageous 14-week struggle.

At the McCormick Foods plant in Clayton, 100 workers went on strike for six weeks in early 2021 as the company refused to negotiate a new EA. The UWU came out on top when workers received a 3 percent pay rise, but it came after losing 10 percent in real terms as their wages had not increased in the previous five years. .

After a three-week strike, 80 workers at General Mills in the Sydney suburb of Rooty Hill were sold under a UWU-brokered deal that delivered less than the union’s meager 3% wage demand and n did nothing to resolve the other key issues in the conflict. , job security and generalized insecurity.

In each case, workers have shown their will to act in the face of concerted hostility from their employer and under the conditions of a global pandemic in which workers risk infection every day.

The key factor holding back these workers is the UWU. It is not an aberration. Trade unions function everywhere as an industrial and political police force of companies and governments. They represent an easy bureaucracy whose privileges are directly linked to the suppression by the unions of the class struggle and the imposition of the diktats of the financial elite.

The workers must adopt a strategy that the unions will not adopt. That is to say, a shift towards other workers in warehousing and towards the working class more broadly. It means consciously breaking away from unions and forming grassroots committees in every workplace to organize and lead a real struggle for fair wages and working conditions.

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