Lessons from the Chemist Warehouse strike

An eyewitness perspective from the picket line

Winning support — the public could not miss these strikers outside a Chemist Warehouse store. Photo by NUW.
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On March 12, Facebook posts were buzzing with news that Chemist Warehouse (CWH) workers had begun an indefinite strike at two distribution centres — two in Melbourne (Preston and Somerton) and one in Brisbane (Eagle Farm). The giant cut-price pharmaceutical chain is well known to people living on tight budgets. The strikers were about to expose how it became so profitable, and their demands said it all: a 25% pay increase to meet industry standards, conversion of casual labour hire into permanent positions and an end to sexual harassment and bullying.

Calls went out from the National Union of Workers (NUW), which covers the striking workers and is my own union, and the Workers Solidarity network to join the picket lines. I promptly signed up for my first of many shifts.

It was at the busy Somerton site. Strikers in red NUW Tshirts were everywhere, many at the gates and others occupied with organising. Union officials and staff were consulting picket leaders and delegates or ferrying in supplies. And other unionists were there to support the picket. The camaraderie was welcoming and the feeling upbeat. 

Infrastructure — from food and communication hubs to shelter, folding chairs and heating for the cold nights — was set up. Rosters were in place. A prominent red sign saying “NUW official picket line. Do not cross.” and picketers stationed at every gate stopped trucks from getting in or out. The 24/7 picket was ready to last for as long as necessary. For the strikers, the question wasn’t if they would win, but when

The reason for the strikers’ optimism was unmistakable. These multi-racial workers — many immigrant and female — had enough of management’s racist, sexist, anti-worker abuse. So they united across worksites and employment status — permanent and casual — into a well-organised, disciplined and determined strike force. 

They had the full backing of the NUW, which over four years had systematically unionised CWH’s once non-union workforce. 

Hard labour. Between 70 and 80 percent of CWH’s workforce has been employed as casual labour hire. Hired through several third-party agencies, these workers serve as a labour force on standby, not knowing when, how many or if they’ll be assigned shifts in any given week. It’s not unusual to get a text message at 10.00 pm to report for a shift the next day, at 6.00 am. It’s also common for a worker to report to a shift to find it’s been cancelled. A shift can be just four hours, and it could be the only one for the week or even a fortnight. Having to travel many kilometres makes it even harder. For this, the average payment was just under $21 an hour. 

Many have worked this way for years, never offered permanency. These are workers with families, some with young children; some are single mothers and carers.

The company also uses casuals to avoid paying permanent employees overtime. If the strike had been only four or 24 hours, CWH would have called in casuals to break it. 

CWH has been paying its workforce 25% below the industry standard. That the strikers were both casuals and permanent demonstrated the strength of organising at CWH and of the strike itself. The workers were clear that this unity was their survival and their power. Casuals were some of the strike leaders. 

Women were prominent on the picket lines as picket leaders, union delegates and rank-and-file stalwarts. These workers also faced sexual harassment — from managers demanding sex for the promise of a shift to demeaning insults and stalking. The threat of being singled out was constant. Delegates and workers defending a victim or making a complaint faced being sacked or hounded out of work. This is how the company controlled its workforce. 

Aretha, a single mother, told me about the harassment she endured: “I was isolated for speaking out. Management followed me on cameras, hoping they would find something. I’d work 4 to 6 weeks straight to try to better me and my daughter’s life.” Aretha had to take sick leave but then returned to join the strike. She’s now back at work and pursuing her complaint. 

Aretha explained the close bond among the women: “It’s formed out of protection. The older women protecting their young. And the younger ones trying to protect their elders.”

The workers, united! Puffed with a sense of invincibility, the company thought it could break the strike. Afterall, its business model — cheap labour and heavy advertising — had been successful. Chemist Warehouse/My Chemist corners 25% of Australia’s pharmaceutical retail market. Owners Mario Verrochi and Jack Gance, together worth $1.6 billion, were listed among the Australian Financial Review’s richest 100 for 2018. What could go wrong? 

If management bullying couldn’t break the workers, scabbing and thuggery would, they thought. On the strike’s first day, management tried to get scabs past the picketers, and a couple of trucks tried charging through. This didn’t work. Neither did hired security and company lawyers threatening individual picketers or attempts by managers to provoke a reaction. 

The strikers’ policy was clear: Nothing in, nothing out, which became a picket chant. It was successful, because the strikers stuck together. 

Even tons of pungent fertiliser dumped outside the Preston site prior to an all-union rally organised by Victorian Trades Hall failed to deter a rousing show of solidarity from other unionists.

The strikers regarded unity as vital. It came across in the solidarity on the picket line and the contingents sent between the sites. Picketers were shuttled to protests outside Chemist Warehouse stores, where they educated customers about the strike and won their support. 

Also educated and inspired were non-union CWH workers.  One by one, and two by two, they kept joining the union and the strike. 

Unity is impossible without democracy. Early in the strike, after a meeting between management and the NUW, I saw a picket leader admonish a union official for reporting the company’s 4% pay offer to picketers in small groups. It’s undemocratic and demoralising and it undermines the strike, she said. Within minutes, a mass meeting of strikers was called for the following morning. They resolved to stay out until their demands were met. 

Victory! It didn’t take long for retail outlet shelves across the country to nearly empty. Sixteen days into the strike, the strikers were celebrating. On March 28, the company conceded to their every demand. 

Warehouse workers won 18.75% over four years (22.5% for forklift drivers and trainers), 8.75% of this paid within two weeks. Casuals on strike were immediately made permanent. All other casual positions will convert to permanent after six months. Sexual harassment is now recognised as an issue to combat and managers must undergo mandatory training. Union delegates rights are recognised, including paid time for training; union meetings can be held during paid work time.

Unionism is the biggest winner, and members have experienced the power of standing up. Chemist Warehouse isn’t the same workplace.

Lessons for unionists. Across the spectrum of industries, casualisation, management bullying, sexual harassment and racism have turned workplaces into toxic hellholes. The workers at Chemist Warehouse have shown unionists everywhere that we can end this by rising up together. They demonstrated that those at the bottom step up to lead, because they’re most compelled to fight it out and win. Look to these women and workers of colour!

The CWH strikers inspired solidarity from other unionists. This experience should motivate us toward the next step: breaking down our union silos. No union, or section of a union, can or should have to sustain a fight on its own. ACTU secretary Sally McManus said at the launch of the warehouse strike, “CWH relies on broken rules to keep workers in insecure work…It’s absolutely the way that employers keep people weak, they keep people on a string, they keep people insecure, they keep their families stressed. And it’s outrageous that they … make their billions and … keep their living standards up by cutting our living standards.” She declared that the whole trade union movement would stand with the CWH strikers.

Rallying outside the Preston site. Photo by Debbie Brennan.

The union movement needs to put these words into action. Imagine if unionists were called out en masse to stand with the CWH strikers — working collaboratively, pooling together union resources and our experiences of striking and organising. We could have won immediately and shown bosses everywhere they can’t mess with their workers. Imagine an all-union strike around these common issues, across all industries. Both scenarios would require breaking the rules, which is necessary and winnable. The CWH strike gave a glimpse of our all-union power. Standing together, linked by the demands of the most exploited, we can stop production until Goliath caves in. If this takes more than 16 days, it’s because we’re on our way to changing the system.

Debbie is a veteran unionist who has worked in industries including banking, the community sector and teaching. She is currently a member of the National Union of Workers

Letter to Jack Gance

by a striking worker exposing sexual harassment at Chemist Warehouse

Just one meeting was all I ever needed
A quick hello please to meet you
But that day never came and I still ride the wave,
all the disappointment and no manager to blame
My work was my family my life long dream,
my niche in the world
Now I sit in heartache wondering what could of been
Your management shut the door
but my work family continue to help me getting off the floor
While you still carry on with your day
Well I still have so much more to say
Six years with your company and 1 complaint made,
Check my clock in card, I really made your day.
But now I gotta move forward as time has gotten by
Still no answers not even a reply.
So I’ll keep looking for that brighter day
just want you to listen to what we really have to say.

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