On June 4, I went on strike alongside almost ninety of my colleagues who are members of the United Workers Union. We work at the General Mills factory in Rooty Hill, New South Wales and we are out to win a fair pay raise.
We have been negotiating for almost six months. The company still wants to cut our conditions, reducing the redundancy provisions we won in our last agreement. In return, they are offering a pay raise over three years of 2 percent in the first year, and 1.25 percent in the two years after that.
Union members felt this was totally unfair, and we are asking for 3 percent. Given the extra work we did during the pandemic and the record profits that General Mills generated as a result, we agreed that our demand was fair. When the company refused, everyone was ready to take industrial action.
It’s first time in more than twenty years that workers at General Mills in Rooty Hill have gone on strike. Never in the past have workers been so badly disrespected. Never has the behavior of management been so unfair.
General Mills Can Afford a Fair Pay Raise
General Mills Australia is owned by the international company of the same name, General Mill Inc. Internationally, General Mills made US$3.2 billion last year, with a huge increase in sales due to the pandemic. This was true in Australia too. The company saw profits increase by 14 percent over the twenty-one weeks ending on August 2, 2020.
General Mills told us that they can’t afford a 3 percent pay raise. As an excuse, they cited a recent small increase in mandatory superannuation contributions. Like other employers, General Mills will have to pay 0.5 percent more superannuation per year until 2025, when it reaches 12 percent. But this still doesn’t add up. Where did the record profits from 2020 go?
To keep up, many of us worked twelve-hour shifts during the week before coming in on the weekend to work another three shifts, with only eight hours in between to sleep and see our families. We felt the increase in demand. Yes, it is good to get some overtime hours. But without enough people to meet the demand of round-the-clock production, we stepped up and worked harder, for longer hours.
We did it because we care about our work. We are proud of what we do. Every day we try and lift the bar — try and push production higher. When we see production numbers, we can look at the charts and say: “That was me who bumped that production and pushed up that line!”
After all that, when General Mills came to us and offered us an average pay raise of 1.5 percent, we felt like crying. Instead of crying, we decided to fight.
We feel like the company doesn’t value us. We feel like it doesn’t matter to them who we are — that they have no respect for us. One of the managers told us that we wouldn’t go on strike because we live from pay check to pay check. Well, yes — we do live from pay check to pay check. But we are proud of our work and willing to fight for respect.
Low Wage Growth
We know that low wage raises aren’t only a problem for us. Around the country, factory workers are being hit with low raises. When union delegates from other workplaces come to visit us on strike, they tell us they are experiencing the same problems. They say their employers have increased profits over the last year and are now refusing to share. Some are even threatening to cut conditions and freeze wages.
In February, for example, United Workers Union members went on strike at McCormick, a plant in Clayton, Victoria that produces sauces and spices for fast food giants. McCormick — also based in the United States — wanted to cut many of their conditions and offered the workers a pay raise of only 1 percent in return.
After six weeks on strike, McCormick workers won. The company backed down. The workers at McCormick kept all their conditions and won a 3 percent pay raise as well as a $5,000 sign-on bonus.
We were inspired by them and we hope our strike will help other workers take a stand. If you aren’t treated with respect and you aren’t being paid fairly, then you have to fight. For other workers — and for my own kids — I think we are setting a good example.
Three Weeks Standing Strong
Our strike isn’t over. After three weeks on strike, the company hasn’t changed. They haven’t accepted our demand of 3 percent. But we have changed. We’ve built a stronger sense of community and solidarity with each other.
Before we were on strike, when you came to work, you’d talk to some people. Others, you’d just pass in the hall. But after coming out on strike, we’ve all been looking after each other.
We are like one big family to each other. Most of us have never been on strike. But we are out here together, arm in arm, hand in hand, making sure everyone is OK.
Workers in factories that are facing low wage growth have to speak up. And they have to be strong. We encourage all workers in Australia — and around the world — to be strong, fight for your rights and fight for a decent pay raise.
When we go back inside, I know we will have each other’s backs. If everyone had this much solidarity and treated each other the way we have on this strike, then the world would be a better place.