Unity Against Disposability
Some workers at the Smeaton Grange warehouse have been with Coles for more than thirty years and want the opportunity to work at the new warehouse. As one locked-out worker explained:
We know the world is going this way with automation . . . but they are putting us out into an economic recession. This is really a fight for our future and trying to retire with some respect. A lot of these guys won’t get another job after this. The new shed is automated, but it still needs people, so why not us? We’ve made Coles a lot of money, and this is how they treat us now?
Coles claims that the demands of the workers are unreasonable. Yet their tactics suggest a vicious, anti-worker agenda.
A lockout is a work stoppage initiated by management intended to bar workers from their own jobs. The use of this tactic is quite rare in Australia’s labor history. One exception was the 2011 dispute involving Qantas, Australia’s leading airline. Qantas CEO Alan Joyce took the unprecedented move of grounding planes and locking domestic workers out amid ongoing industrial action. Within two days, the federal government had intervened to end the lockout.
However, there are signs that lockouts will become more frequent. In the United States, they are already on the rise as strike rates continue to fall. The trend reflects both increasing employer militancy and their indifference to public backlash over how workers are treated. High-profile lockouts have become common in professional sports, production sites, hospitals, and universities.
Australian firms have typically preferred to maintain a public image — however insincere — as worker-friendly and nonhierarchical. However, US-style trends are starting to manifest themselves.
Historically, working at Coles was seen as an attractive and secure job. It was once Australia’s largest private-sector employer: for many people, working life began with a stint stacking the company’s shelves or on a Coles checkout. Now, Coles is trading its brand reputation for greater power over workers and the supply chain.
Long-term Coles workers have noticed a dramatic cultural change in recent years:
Twenty years ago, I came in early and stayed late because I wanted to. I loved working here, we all did. But it’s not like that anymore. Now it’s all about money with them. Coles don’t care about us at all. A lot of people have mental health issues from the stress of the pick rates — and now because of the site closing. I told them I’m really suffering, and they flicked me a card with the EAP (Employee Assistance Program) number, and that’s it.