Over recent months, the global supply chain crisis has attracted increasing media attention, with much coverage focused on explaining the macro-level complexities of aligning goods movement with the new patterns of production and consumption that have been shaped by the pandemic.
While the movement of goods and products has been the main focus of macroeconomic attempts to respond to the supply chain crisis, the main ways in which workers feature in many of these analyses is in terms of worker shortages, especially among drivers. Yet for workers in these industries, the increasing pressures placed upon them has generated far less widely recognised crises of conditions and security. Over recent months, in Australia and around the world, supply chain and logistics workers have therefore been campaigning for the burden of these pandemic-era economic adaptations to be borne more fairly and for their working conditions to be made more secure and sustainable.
Over recent weeks, a series of stop-work actions and strikes by TWU workers across the transport sector have been taking place as part of coordinated actions across the country to improve job security, consultation rights, pay and superannuation rates. Through united action, TWU members have achieved strong in-principle agreements with six of the eight major transport companies, locking in enhanced job security protections, improved conditions and fair pay and super increases, with industry-first 15% superannuation at Toll, Global Express and Linfox. StarTrack and FedEx have proven to be outliers waging ideological battles against workers, but members continue to fight back as one strong wall of resistance.
In Australia, media reporting on these strikes and proposed strikes has been predictably atomised, treating these actions in isolation, while focusing on exploiting fears regarding access to consumer goods in the leadup to Christmas. Such a narrative fails to recognise the importance of coordinating collective bargaining to improve workers’ conditions, and the importance of doing so in a global climate pressuring workers in their industry. Coordinated action is a show of solidarity and a recognition of the need for sector-wide transformation; rather than aiming for piecemeal change, coordinated bargaining rounds allows workers to insist on consistency and fairness in negotiations, refusing to leave workers behind in the process of improving their working lives. This is especially important given the vast profits these companies have garnered during the pandemic; there has been no shortage of money in this sector, merely a scarcity of will to pay workers their due.
In-principle agreements have been secured at some employers such as Linfox and Global Express, with headway made at others – and it is through ensuring that standards throughout the sector are lifted that a stronger foundation for these rights can be maintained. This in turn complements struggles in other parts of the broader supply chain and logistics industries, from stevedoring to gig economy delivery services.
These struggles in Australia’s logistics sector form part of a global trend, where the expansion and increased significance of supply chain and delivery work has greatly magnified the pressure workers are under, as well as the profits of those corporations reaping financial gain.
Yet this has meant that these workers are more than usually on the frontline of the economy, as even while there has been a clear economic incentive for corporations to attempt to facilitate more COVID-safe working conditions, human interaction and movement remains integral to the work of these industries, meaning that contagion risks cannot be eliminated. Indeed, workers in these industries have consistently led their employers on issues of workplace safety during COVID – such as in the case of TWU HSR Theo Seremetidis, who was stood down by Qantas for defending his colleagues’ safety by insisting adequate PPE be provided to workers cleaning planes early in the pandemic.
Far from receiving hazard pay in recognition of this frontline essential role, however, these workers have faced additional cuts to their pay and conditions, undermining of their job security, and overall a failure to recognise and adequately acknowledge the vital economic role they play. Coordinated actions in the transport sector point to the importance of standing together to lift the floor for all workers.