Progressive distribution workers - daring to struggle, daring to win

The Spark 12 September 2006

“We are determined to stay out ’til we win. Christmas is coming up soon, and it might take until then for us to win, so we might get a Christmas holiday for a change” said defiant NDU delegate George Sesolai, at a September 9 rally of locked out Progressive Enterprises distribution workers, and supporters, in Mangere. As this issue of The Spark goes to press, the workers are in their 18th day of struggle.

‘Locked out but won’t shut up’

Workers at Progressive Enterprises Distribution Centers in Auckland, Palmerston North and Christchurch are struggling for a multi-site agreement and for pay parity across the sites, with Auckland workers going for an 8 percent pay increase.

On Friday August 25, at 4am, the workers, belonging to the National Distribution Union (NDU), began strike action against Progressive Enterprises Limited. This corporation consists of Foodtown, Countdown, Woolworths and other smaller retail/supermarket chains. The locked out workers normally run the distribution centers used to deliver goods to these stores. On the following Sunday, after the employer made clear that it would not negotiate, the workers voted to extend strike action. Originally the strike had been planned to last for two days. On Monday, the company then announced a lockout as part of its attempt to pressure workers into accepting company demands. These demands included claw-backs on the conditions that workers had prior to the strike. The locked out workers are digging-in deep to win their demands and to defeat the employer’s attacks on their conditions.

Picketers fighting back against lockout

The workers, as well as friends, family, and supporters, have kept up continuous around-the-clock pickets at the distribution centres. The pickets are lively, and are receiving a lot of support from the public and passing drivers. These pickets are preventing trucks from entering, loading up, and distributing goods. So the strengthening and defence of these pickets is key to the struggle. This blockade of the distribution centres has led Progressive Enterprises to use the warehouses at its Countdown, Foodtown, and Woolworths stores as temporary distribution points.

It is costing the company to use supermarket warehouses as distribution points. According to one NDU employee, the company is paying at least three times more than what it would usually pay for distribution from its normal distribution centres. So even when some shelves at Progressive Enterprises supermarkets look to be full, the company is losing profits every time it fills the shelves. One truck driver, who is supportive of the union and the locked out workers, said that drivers at the firm he works at are having to do 20 times the haulage they would usually need to do for the delivery of one load.

The use of makeshift distribution points is cutting into the company’s profits. To create even more pressure against the company, workers have gone out on flying pickets. They have targeted the temporary distribution points and distribution firms where people are handling goods that would normally be handled at the distribution centers. Dozens of trucks have been turned away at these pickets. Many truck drivers and forklift operators are secret or open union members, are employed by anti-union firms, and have expressed their solidarity by voluntarily ceasing work or stopping deliveries. The people who have attempted to do the work that would normally be done by Progressive Enterprises workers, and the people who have attempted to cross the picket line, while knowing that they are undermining the workers, are scabs. The workers are standing strong on these picket lines, and have turned scabs away by their dozens.

A number of workers, unionists, and supporters, have also been leafleting the public, asking them not to shop at Countdown, Foodtown, or Woolworths. The NDU has not endorsed a boycott of these stores, however, many working people, and others who have a social conscience or trade union consciousness, have turned away from these stores because they are disgusted with the company’s lockout.

Industrial support coming in

Along with picketing the supply lines, another essential objective is to keep gaining industrial support from other workers and their unions, especially from those in the same industry. At one supermarket store that was being used as distribution point, a forklift operator stopped his forklift when a picket team arrived. They asked him to stop loading and he jumped off his forklift, saying “Yeah, I haven’t had a pay rise in years”. This forces the companies to muster their managerial staff together to perform scab labour.

Maritime Union New Zealand (MUNZ) secretary Trevor Hansen has indicated that port workers may become more involved in the dispute. This involvement relates to the movement of containers destined for Progressive Enterprises Limited. It is possible that some of the cargo has not made it to Progressive Enterprises supply lines. MUNZ has also drawn support from the Maritime Union of Australia. It is also possible that unionised meat workers, who supply to Progressive Enterprises stores in Auckland, will go on strike in the near future, within the duration of the distribution lockout.

Importance of solidarity strikes

The current industrial framework, the Employment Relations Act (ERA), passed by a Labour Party-led coalition, outlaws solidarity strikes. Under this repressive law, workers cannot support each other by engaging in solidarity strikes. Workers can only take legal strike action over claims that relate to their own collective agreements. This means that workers in industries relating to the current dispute cannot take legal strike action to support the locked out distribution workers.

In 1951 (see page 7) the locked out waterfront workers were assisted greatly by strike actions that were taken by other sections of the working class, including freezing workers and rail workers across the country. It is week three of this dispute and there has not been a solidarity strike action by any other section of the union movement. This situation is a direct outcome of the Employment Relations Act. Without the right to engage in solidarity and political strikes, workers’ hands are tied.

In the past two elections the Labour Party received more campaign money from the bosses than did the National Party. Under both National and Labour, solidarity strikes have been banned. The legalisation of solidarity strikes would strengthen the industrial power of the working class. In order to maintain their support from the bosses, no Labour government will give us the right to take solidarity strike action.

What this means is that workers have get behind wider political campaigns for the right to strike. Any political organisation that does not call for the right to strike is not worth a grain of support from working people. The Workers Party, which produces The Spark magazine, demands the right of workers to strike in solidarity with other workers. The third point of the Workers Party platform is “For the unrestricted right of workers to organise and take industrial action and no limits on freedom of speech and activity”. A separate political project, one that the Workers Party is not involved in, called Workers Charter, also argues for “The right to strike in defence of our interests”.

If workers had the right to take solidarity action, MUNZ and other union workers would have been able to openly strike in defence of locked out Progressive Enterprises workers. Without solidarity strikes taking place, Progressive Enterprises workers can still win, but Labour’s Employment Relations Act will not contribute to our victory. The Employment Relations Act and its strike provisions impede workers’ ability to struggle.

Material support flowing in

Money from unions and the public has flowed in for the workers. For example MUNZ has so far donated $17,000, the AUS has donated $2000 and is encouraging members to donate more, and, through the Council of Trade Unions, other unions have donated tens of thousands of dollars. Other unions, including Unite Union and the Engineers Union (EPMU) have made their employees available to help on picket lines and to draw support for the locked out workers.

A musician belonging to Brass Razoo Solidarity Band said that over $750 came in from the public within the first half hour of their band’s performance on a busy pedestrian street in Wellington. He reported that people were rushing off to Eftpos machines so that they could donate $20 notes.

Labour MP Steve Maharey donated $200 to the fund for the locked out workers. His electorate is Palmerston North, where workers are locked out. MPs like Maharey have become accustomed to believing that they can buy workers off with affordable public relations exercises, while at the same time stabbing them in the back with repressive anti- strike laws, cuts to welfare (like the withdrawal of the Special Benefit), and statements and regulations in favour of wage restraint.

Create two, three, many Favona Roads!

In 1966, revolutionary leader Che Guevara wrote, ‘Create two, three, many Vietnams’. He was referring to the struggle of the Vietnamese workers and peasants against their oppressors, chiefly the US ruling class. He was declaring that the world needed more resistance against the oppressor class.

The company has locked the workers out, and at picket lines the police have arrested a number of people for defending workers’ rights. At Favona Road, where the Progressive Enterprises Distribution Centre is located, workers on the picket line know that this struggle has developed into an industrial war between the company and the workers. And more than this, they know that this is a battle to strengthen the union and a battle to establish future conditions in the distribution and supermarket industries in New Zealand.

In order to win we all have to continue the struggles to block the supply lines, we have to win more workers to our cause, and we need to keep money coming in from the unions and the public. Let’s all get on board with building fighting unions and building political organisations that really support workers.

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