Chemist Warehouse strike – how should anarchists relate to existing trade unions?

Chemist Warehouse workers maintaining a picket in Somerton, 18 March 2019

Workers at Chemist Warehouse Distribution Centres have won substantial pay increases, increased job security, and much more, on the back of a determined strike that challenged the power of their bosses.

On March 5, Workers at distribution centres in Preston, Somerton, (Melbourne) and Eagle Farm (Brisbane), represented by the ALP affiliated National Union of Workers, launched indefinite strike action after Enterprise Bargaining negotiations broke down.

The workers demanded pay increases of 25-30%, secure jobs, and action on sexual harassment and bullying.

Like an increasing number of warehouse operators, Chemist Warehouse keeps workers precarious and wages down through the use of “labour hire” outsourcing.

At Chemist Warehouse distribution centres approximately 75% of workers are labour hire casuals employed through various agencies. Workers in these arrangements find out day to day whether they will get a shift or not, and have little legal recourse against their actual employer.

Union delegate Husain Alqatari described the reality of working for Chemist Warehouse:

“There’s hundreds of casuals fighting for limited positions,’’ he said. “You have to work fast, you have to be like an animal. If you don’t reach your target you don’t get your shift.’’

smh, 1 March 2019.

Under these working conditions, it is little surprise that bullying, sexual harassment and abuse are rife. Managers hold substantial power over precarious workers on below industry standard wages

The power that Chemist Warehouse has over workers underpins their massive profits and rapidly growing business.


Workers in Australia labour under extensive legislation that is intended to make strikes effectively illegal.

Workers are only ‘permitted’ to take industrial action during a defined bargaining period in pursuit of a new collective agreement.

Strikes for political demands and strikes in solidarity with other workers on strike are unlawful. The issues that can be addressed in a new collective agreement are significantly curtailed.

To even plan a strike over the limited issues that workers are allowed to strike over, within the limited times workers are allowed to strike, a union has to jump through all manner of legal and administrative hoops. Unions have to apply for a protected action order from the Fair Work Commission, hold a secret ballot of members conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission, and provide generous notice to the employer.

Once on strike, the activities workers are legally permitted to undertake are also limited. Pickets to prevent access to a worksite in dispute are routinely the subject of legal injunctions.

When workers play by “the rules” they rarely win.

Workers at Chemist Warehouse won by pushing “the rules” to the limit. At Chemist Warehouse’ Victorian sites, distribution was completely disrupted as workers picketed warehouses, turned back trucks, and obstructed all access to work sites.

The employer responded with heavy handed private security and violence. At the Preston location, the warehouse is co-located with Chemist Warehouse corporate offices. The company used corporate office staff to muscle aside picketers; attempted to load and unload trucks in the street outside the warehouse; and on at least three occasions drove a car at or into striking workers and their supporters maintaining the picket. Private security were employed to threaten and menace workers, and at least one person attending the picket had tires on their car slashed.

The NUW campaign for Chemist Warehouse workers included daily actions outside retail stores, a rally outside corporate headquarters, and at least one “home visit” to the Toorak mansion of one of the company’s owners.

In the aftermath of any successful campaign, there is always debate about what tactics contributed to the win, what the tipping point was, and what made the difference. The economic reality for Chemist Warehouse was that for as long as workers maintained solid pickets outside their warehouses, Chemist Warehouse was unable to effectively resupply their retail stores.

After 16 days on strike the company announced substantial concessions, NUW negotiators and Chemist Warehouse management struck a deal, and workers voted unanimously to endorse a new collective agreement.

Questions for Anarchists

These workers were organized by the National Union of Workers, a traditionally right wing union affiliated to the Australian Labor Party.

Actions like the Chemist Warehouse strike pose substantial questions for anarchists.

The legal framework that these workers struggled against was largely a product of ALP governments. It was the Labor Party who introduced narrow “Enterprise Bargaining”, wrote the “Fair Work Act”, and maintained widespread restrictions on the right to strike when they were last in government.

Anarchists make substantial and damning critiques of the role and nature of trade unions under capitalism. However we must avoid crude caricatures.

Trade unions are not monolithic homogeneous entities. There are different ways of understanding what unions are, the different roles they perform, and the different interests they represent. The ‘union as its members’ is different to ‘the union as bureaucracy’ and the ‘union as legal structure’

Today under capitalism in Australia, the ‘union as legal structure’ is a mediator of the relationship between capital and labour. Unions sell periods of ‘labour peace’ to bosses in exchange for collective agreements that offer marginal improvements in wages and conditions to their members. Unions manage and moderate class struggle within the confines of a legal framework.

The ‘union as bureaucracy’, the structure of leadership and paid full time staff, have a substantial material interest in maintaining this role. This diverges from the interests of the ‘union as membership’. Unions that confine and moderate class struggle to within established legal confines avoid crippling fines and legal repression. Keeping a lid on militancy avoids the kinds of struggles by the ‘union as members’ that could see the position of the ‘union as bureaucracy’ overturned.

None of this is to say that union bureaucracies are made up of bad people, quite the contrary. Union bureaucracies attract as many idealists as they do political hacks, and the reality of work in many trade union bureaucracies involves high stress, long hours, and substandard pay. But the material position of the union bureaucracy pushes it in certain directions.

There are plenty of anarchists historically, and in Australia today, who respond to these critiques with a crude rejection of existing trade unions in their entirety.

This crude anarchist position sees trade unions as politically irredeemable organizations, lead by a bureaucracy that will always and inevitably sell workers out, and comprising of a membership unable to rise above narrow self interested reformism.

According to this position, anarchists should either abandon trade union work entirely, or instead dedicate themselves to building new “revolutionary” unions in direct opposition to the existing reformist “business unions”.

This position is wrong.

Trade unions remain one of the most important mass movements of the working class.

Workers join trade unions in order to defend and advance their interests in opposition to those of the bosses.

Workers would not support and join trade unions if they did not to some extent, defend and advance their class interests against the bosses.

Even the most bureaucratic and deformed union must ultimately respond to the needs of the rank-and-file membership if it is to retain their support. …

Not all reformist demands can be won in the framework of capitalism. Therefore even the most bureaucratic union will in some circumstances clash with the imperatives of capital and the State. In other words the unions can never be totally “integrated” into capitalism.

All unions depend in the final analysis on their ability to mobilise their members in direct action against the bosses. … The bosses do not set up or support the unions as a means of fooling the workers. The bosses will attack and if possible destroy even the most moderate unions if they have the opportunity

ZACF, 2010, Trade Unions and Revolution

Despite union affiliation to the ALP, despite the size and power of union bureaucracies, and despite the very real material interests the ‘union as bureaucracy’ and ‘union as legal structure’ have in moderating and containing struggles, unions remain massively important sites of working class contestation. Anarchists who refuse to engage in these sites of contestation, surrender them to those who will.

Projects to create new “anarchist” unions simply have the effect of walling anarchists off from that wider layer of more the more politicized working class contained within the union movement.

Even if new “anarchist” unions were somehow able to break-out beyond the tiny layer of people currently convinced of anarchist or socialist politics, this process would soon turn these “anarchist” unions into organisations subject to the same dynamics, pulls and pressures faced by the existing trade unions.

The politics of the union movement are not simply imposed from the leadership down. The politics of any trade union is shaped by the whole range of contradictory politics it draws in from its membership, which is in turn shaped by the struggles it engages in.

The NUW members at Chemist Warehouse won substantial improvements in their material conditions, but their struggle also went beyond this. They raised and fought on the issue of sexual harassment and women’s rights in the workplace. They pushed back against precarious work, outsourcing, and the powers of the employer.

The current power of the trade union bureaucracy and the deformed role of the existing trade unions within capitalism, is neither inevitable nor unchangeable. The challenge for anarchists is to organise within existing the existing union movement, and seek to shape its politics by advancing and winning in struggle.

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