July 10: The logistics company involved in an increasingly bitter strike at Coles’ National Distribution Centre in Melbourne’s north has started standing down workers — and blamed it on the supermarket chain.
Striking workers at Coles’ sprawling distribution centre in Somerton this morning set up a picket line and are refusing to let any trucks enter or leave the warehouse.
Most recently, around 2pm, picketers blocked a LinFox truck from leaving the centre.
Warehouse workers say they will affect sales at Victoria’s Coles supermarkets, but the supermarket chain says there will be minimal disruption to its stores.
This morning there were angry scenes as the crowd of about 250 workers and union officials — chanting “nothing in, nothing out” — stood in front of the warehouse delivery entrance and barred access to Toll Group trucks, forcing them to retreat.
But the picket line was not quick enough to stop Andrea Ryan, the head of human resources for Toll Global Logistics, which also operates as a labour hire company, from entering the warehousing centre.
Ms Ryan, accompanied by security guards, infuriated the strikers by forcing her way through the picket line about 9am.
Among the Coles warehouse centre staff protesting today was Spiros Cechris, who jumped in front of one truck as it approached the main entrance to the Coles’ distribution centre.
‘‘We’re after rostered days off, we’re after shift loadings for afternoon and night shift, we’re after a small pay rise that won’t even bring us close to what other warehouses get. We are after equality,’’ Mr Cechris said this afternoon.
He said Toll employees had blocked access to trucks trying to enter the Somerton warehouse because they had been ‘‘loaded from another place with our work’’.
Toll staffs the warehouse for Coles, and workers at Somerton are pushing for better conditions as part of a new workplace agreement.
Some permanent employees who work at the Somerton warehouse yesterday received letters from Toll, saying they would be stood down until further notice.
The letters, signed by the company’s senior business manager, blamed Coles for the stand downs.
‘‘Our customer [Coles], with the intention to protect their stores and their responsibility to deliver to the community, have re-directed … work to other facilities,’’ the letter said. ‘‘The decision to re-direct work to other facilities has been made by the ciustomer and is not within our control.’’
Coles has been contacted for a response to whether they were aware Toll would stand down staff today.
By around 1pm today there were around 40 police at the Coles warehouse, and steady rain had set in.
In all, the striking staff have stopped five trucks today from either entering or exiting the warehouse.
On an average weekday, between 110 and 130 trucks pick up and drop off at the centre.
The Coles warehouse is one of the largest such sites in the country, and only one of two national distribution centres in the supermarket’s network.
Industrial law academic Professor Andrew Stewart this morning said it was not clear what was protected action when it came to picket lines. ‘‘If it doesn’t count as industrial action, it can’t be protected industrial action,’’ he said. ‘‘There have been different views about whether a picket is or is not [legal] within the Fair Work Act.’’
Under the act, during negotiations for an enterprise agreement, employees can run a ballot to decide whether or not to take industrial action. If a majority of employees agree, they can take authorised industrial action — as in this instance.
And he said the laws around picket lines were rarely tested, as they were now uncommon. ‘‘It’s relatively unusual for there to be a full-blown ‘You can’t go out and you can’t go in’ picket line these days.’’
The National Union of Workers represents the warehouse employees.
State secretary Tim Kennedy said Coles, by outsourcing its major Melbourne warehouse to Toll, was refusing to give employees the same conditions enjoyed by other Coles workers around Australia.
‘‘What we have here at Somerton is a situation where these workers are not treated equally in comparison to other Coles warehouse facilities,’’ he said.
‘‘Our members believe that if a Coles shiftworker in a Coles Warehouse gets paid a shift loading for working an afternoon shift or a night shift, then Toll shiftworkers doing exactly the same work in a Coles warehouse supplying Coles Supermarkets should also be paid a shift loading.’’
But Toll Group spokesman Christopher Whitefield said the company was offering the equivalent of 4 per cent pay rise for workers at the facility, off a much higher base rate than at other warehouses.
And Mr Whitefield said that Mr Kennedy’s union had itself signed off on Toll’s tender to Coles when it won the contract for the distribution centre in 2006.
‘‘That deal was good enough to get NUW endorsement,’’ he said. ‘‘This deal is even better.’’
‘‘More importantly, the conditions negotiated at this site have enabled us to attract and retain the same high calibre workers that Toll employs around the country,’’ Mr Whitefield said.
Toll would ’’continue to balance the needs of the business to remain competitive within the industry’’, Mr Whitefield said.
About 600 staff work at the Somerton warehouse, and their enterprise agreement expired last week.