Coles’ Somerton depot strikers stand firm to reject deal

COLES says a strike that will shut down the supermarket’s major Victorian distribution centre in Somerton for a fourth consecutive day is having minimal impact on its stores.
Nanjing Night Net

Striking warehouse workers at Coles’ Somerton national distribution centre yesterday voted to maintain their picket line, which has blocked access to the supermarket’s trucks since Tuesday.

And the union representing them has implored Coles to negotiate directly with staff, instead of Toll Group, the company Coles outsources labour to at the Somerton centre.

Toll, a logistics and labour-hire company, is negotiating with its employees over a new workplace agreement at Somerton. It made a new offer to staff yesterday but a meeting of more than 200 employees voted against it.

Toll’s offer was set to raise workers’ annual pay increases from about 3.5 per cent to 4 per cent. But it omitted other entitlements previously offered.

About 80 police officers, including eight on horseback, watched as the vote was taken. The gathering remained peaceful.

Toll’s Andrew Ethell said the company supported the workforce’s right to demonstrate but the blockade was illegal and unsafe. He said the offer made to staff was fair and that Toll already paid workers 30 per cent above the award rate. Toll would go to Fair Work Australia this morning to clarify legal issues around the blockade, he said.

Adelaide University industrial law expert Andrew Stewart warned that Toll had a slim chance of removing the picket line by going to Fair Work Australia.

The National Union of Workers’ state secretary Tim Kennedy called on Coles to help resolve the dispute. He said staff employed by Toll at Somerton were on far worse pay and conditions than at other Coles warehouses where the supermarket directly employs staff.

Mark Judkins has worked at Somerton for three years and was on the picket line yesterday. He said he wanted to return to work ”but under conditions we think are fair and reasonable”.

Mr Judkins predicted Toll would try to run trucks through the picket line next week.

”There’s going to be a lot of fireworks,” he said. He said there were 46,000 pallets of alcohol and food sitting in the centre. ”Millions of dollars of stock sitting there, on the back of our claim, and it’s costing them. They’re fighting an ideological argument.”

Coles spokesman Jim Cooper said the company was disappointed the strike was continuing. But he said Coles had contingency processes in place that were minimising impacts on stores and customers.