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Socialist Alliance

NEW ZEALAND: Locked-out workers force company back-down

Liam Mitchell

On September 22, Progressive Enterprises distribution centre workers who had been locked out for four weeks by their employer returned to work after the company, a subsidiary of Woolworths Australia, reached a settlement the day before with the unions that cover the 600 workers.

The three-year national agreement realises the workers’ key aim of equal pay across all of Progressive’s distribution centres, as well as a wage rise that would see the lowest paid workers get 19.7% extra over the three years.

The September 22 New Zealand Herald reported that National Distribution Union secretary Laila Harre told journalists the most important point in the settlement was that the workers were able to use their national bargaining power to deliver equal pay for equal work. Andrew Little, national secretary of the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU), which represents 110 of the Progressive’s Christchurch distribution centre employees, said the workers had stood firm in the face of “incredible pressure”.

Progressive management estimated on September 20 that the workers had collectively lost more than NZ$2 million in wages since going on strike in late August.

Progressive distribution centre workers in Auckland, Christchurch and Palmerston North went on strike on August 25 in a dispute over a single collective agreement and a pay rise. They were subsequently locked out on August 28.

The locked-out workers had been demanding a single national collective agreement with wage parity between outlets, an 8% wage rise and inclusion of all existing allowances, including an extra week’s long service leave and a common redundancy agreement.

The company said the lockout would continue until the workers dropped their demand for a national agreement as well as stopping all industrial action. The workers have said they will go back to work when Progressive agrees to negotiate on a national agreement. Progressive had agreed to negotiations on a national agreement in 2005.

The campaign in support of the lockedout workers enjoyed widespread public support. Radio New Zealand reported on September 20 that the campaign had raised $250,000 in donations.

RNZ reported that the country's largest union, the Public Service Association, had “also leant its support, launching an appeal to its 55,000 members for more money”.

The campaign against Progressive also included meat workers covered by the New Zealand Meat Workers Union (NZMWU) at the company’s plant at Southmore, south of Christchurch, as well as NDU members in the supermarkets. Progressive also operates the Woolworths, Foodtown and Countdown supermarkets.

Progressive has been attempting to impose lower conditions on its meatworkers by treating them as supermarket workers. The meatworkers started a four-day strike on September 8, while negotiations for a national agreement for supermarket workers started the previous day.

The NDU, EPMU and NZMWU collectively cover around 98% of distribution centre workers, 80% of Progressive’s meatworkers and 25% of Progressive supermarket workers. Progressive accounts for about 44% of New Zealand’s supermarket sales.

Workers employed by the larger Foodstuffs chain, where union membership and wages are lower than those at the Progressive chain, are also joining in the campaign. Foodstuffs owned supermarket Pak ‘n Save has refused a request from the NDU to negotiate an agreement for workers at its Dunedin store, saying it would review wages internally. The NDU has set up a picket outside the store to give information to customers on the company’s actions.

Issues of wage parity have arisen from Progressive’s restructuring in 2002-03, when its Christchurch and Auckland distribution outlets were closed down and workers rehired on lower wages and worse conditions.

The restructure led to the end of Progressive’s National Collective Agreement. The company’s distribution centre workers in Auckland received around $40 per week less than those at Palmerston North, while Christchurch workers received around $80 per week less.

The new agreement will bring Progressive’s distribution workers in Christchurch and Auckland to within 95% of the Palmerston North wage levels within two years.

Woolworths, the largest retailer in the South Pacific region and Australia’s second largest employer, recently announced a 24% increase in its profits (up by A$1.2 billion) and expects sales to increase by 8-12% in the next year. Woolworths Australia CEO Roger Corbett earns around A$8.5 million per year, taking home as much in one day as a New Zealand checkout operator does in a year.

Progressive’s attempt at sidelining the union campaign has centred around a claim that the proposed agreement would increase their costs by 13%.

Many rallies and other protest actions in support of the lock-out workers had been held across New Zealand. In Christchurch on September 8, 1500 people marched from the Trade Union Centre to the town square. The next day, 200 protesters braved the rain in Auckland, while similar rallies occurred in Napier and Palmerston North.

Picket lines had been set up at each Progressive distribution centre, as well as at supermarkets to disrupt alternative supply channels and at the Southmore meat processing plant. Flying pickets have also been held at logistics companies that are organising to scab on the striking workers.

In Tauranga, south east of Auckland, a community action blockaded a Foodtown store on September 14. Protesters blocked the aisles with laden trolleys containing messages of support for the locked-out workers.

On September 17, 200 protesters rallied outside the Palmerston North distribution centre. A permanent presence had been set up at the site, with tents, a generator, fridge, BBQ and portaloo. A representative from the Postal Workers Union added a letterbox to the campsite, saying that postal workers would deliver messages of solidarity sent directly to the picketers.

Progressive had used Australian-owned logistics company Linfox to do the locked-out workers’ jobs, which is illegal under New Zealand’s Employment Relations Act.

From Green Left Weekly, September 27, 2006.
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