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Members of the National Union of Workers (NUW) are continuing the protest at the Coles warehouse at Somerton inMelbourne’s north, despite a Supreme Court order against them. Toll in the meantime has published an open letter explaining its case.
The blockade at the warehouse has shut it down for a week now, with about 100 workers maintaining a picket line.
The ABC reports that members of the Australian Nurses Federation have joined the protest in a show of support.
The court order named the union and 25 individuals, stating they could not prevent trucks or people from entering or leaving the warehouse site for the next two days.
The parties are expected back in the Supreme Court on Wednesday.
The union case
The National Union of Workers says this strike is about “making sure big corporations like Coles cannot simply avoid their responsibility to their workforce through contracting out. The workers are seeking five simple claims that win them equal rights and jobs they can count on:
Even though both Coles and Toll could easily afford to meet these reasonable claims they are fighting hard. As Mark Judkins, Coles worker and NUW member, told The Age yesterday: “They’re fighting an ideological argument.”
Toll has issued a statement to clarify some of the facts surrounding the current industrial dispute between Toll Group and the National Union of Workers (NUW) at the distribution centre Toll runs for Coles in the Melbourne suburb of Somerton.
“The dispute centres on the ongoing enterprise bargaining negotiations between Toll Global Logistics – Customised Solutions, part of Toll group, and the NUW. It also relates to the industrial action occurring as a result of these negotiations, which includes the illegal blockading of the site that’s been occurring as part of a strike at the Somerton site since Tuesday 10 July.
After around two months of enterprise bargaining negotiations between Toll and the NUW, the union and its supporters took protected industrial action and went on strike. Disappointingly, this strike included the illegal blockading of the Somerton site, blocking access for staff and vehicles and effectively shutting down the site since Tuesday 10 July.
The NUW leadership is condoning this unlawful and unsafe blockade. While generally the NUW shares our safety values, in this instance they have made the wrong call.
While we respect the rights of union members to take lawful industrial action, we do not tolerate dangerous and illegal actions by the union and its supporters.
We are primarily concerned for the employees who are being prevented from getting to work by the illegal blockade. No one should be denied access to their own place of work.
Contrary to NUW claims, of the more than 600 employees who work at Somerton, less than half voted to endorse this industrial action.
This is the seventh day our employees have been locked out of work by this illegal blockade. They just want to go to work and earn a living so our priority is to assist them to do that.
Ending the blockade will not mean ending the strike action. Striking is legal, blockading is not. The effect of the blockade is to prevent our employees who wish to work from going to work. This is not fair for them and their families who rely on their wage to get by.
Toll is an employer of choice in the industry. We have the best people working for us, and we pay them industry-best wages to reflect that.
A number of employees have chosen to be represented by the NUW and we respect that decision. The NUW signed off on the conditions of employment in our tender to Coles when we won the work in 2006. That deal was good enough to get NUW endorsement. This deal is even better.
The conditions negotiated at this site have enabled us to attract and retain the same high calibre workers that Toll employs around the country.
The offer we have made to our employees is around 30 per cent above the award rate and includes annual increases of four per cent – significantly more than what the NUW has agreed to at similar sites nearby.
We believe our offer provides a very competitive combination of wages and conditions that reflects our goal of attracting and retaining the best people. The union acknowledges the current agreement is around 30 per cent above the award rate. As a result of our new offer, this gap will increase significantly over the next three year period.
An outstanding issue has been the payment of a shift allowance, which is an additional payment for employees whose working hours cross outside a standard working day. In this case, the union is seeking a shift allowance for the entirety of the 2pm to 10pm shift. Toll’s offer already includes a significant allowance to compensate employees for work outside normal hours.
The key details of Toll’s offer include:
The NUW is seeking to cherry pick terms that appear in a range of other agreements. Enterprise bargaining is about delivering a result that improves conditions and is, at the same time, economically sustainable.
In order to keep attracting and retaining the best people, Toll will continue to balance the needs of the business to remain competitive within the industry.
On Thursday 12 July one quarter of the Somerton workforce attended an NUW- organised vote. Even though they were only entitled to vote on whether to continue protected industrial action at this meeting, the union members rejected our EBA offer. As a proper industrial ballot would require the electoral commission to supervise a vote of all 600 staff and not just a select few union supporters, Toll does not recognise the validity of the union vote. We have committed to conducting a proper staff wide ballot to give employees a chance to have their say as soon as possible.
Bizarrely, the NUW took Toll to industrial umpire Fair Work Australia in protest of an all-staff vote. The union’s refusal to put our offer to the whole workforce, including non-union members, to vote on is a clear demonstration of their lack of confidence in their support base.
Also of concern is the fact that a large number of the people who attended the union meeting and vote were not Toll employees. Clearly the union has shown it is unable or unwilling to conduct a fair vote which further undermines the credibility of their claims.
As a result, Toll will ensure there is a staff-wide vote conducted by the electoral commission as soon as possible to determine what all of our more than 600 employees think of the EBA offer we have put forward, rather than letting a select few union members decide.
Negotiations between Toll and the NUW continue.
On Friday 13 July Toll’s case against the blockade was heard by Fair Work Australia. The Fair Work commissioner decided the union’s illegal blockade is not part of the union’s bargaining strategy and was therefore outside Fair Work’s jurisdiction. The commissioner did recommend, however, that we take the matter to the Supreme Court of Victoria, which we did.
On Saturday 14 July Toll attended the Supreme Court hearing but the union did not, and the case had to be deferred to [Monday]. The union refused to attend [on Monday], too. The union seems desperate to avoid being held responsible for its illegal actions.
Toll was successful in obtaining a Supreme Court order primarily against the leadership of the NUW but also 25 individuals, including some of our employees, who were identified as acting as part of the illegal blockade.
The NUW needs to take ultimate responsibility for the illegal blockade. Toll welcomes [the court] order.
After seven days of being locked out of work by this illegal blockade, we know our employees just want to get back to work.
Our priority now is to take all necessary steps to ensure this happens as quickly as possible but we will not be taking any action that endangers safety. We are relying on the union leadership to ensure all union members and supporters behave appropriately and legally as per today’s Supreme Court order. Then we will work out when best to start accessing the site.”