The Guardian • Issue #1968

RAFFWU protected action ballot order marks new era for retail unionism

On 22nd June 2021, the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) secured a Protected Action Ballot Order for its workers at the ironically named Sydney bookstore “Better Read Than Dead.” The ballot, which will run for three weeks, will question workers whether they wish to undertake legally protected industrial action.

This is the latest phase in the long-running campaign, which began when RAFFWU members invited their employers in March to bargain for an Enterprise Agreement.

Their requests are simple: a formal contract, workplace and sexual harassment policies, and a living wage.

While the owners initially agreed to bargain, this was quickly rescinded by their lawyers who claimed that the agreement was made under duress. They then countered with their own legal action, marking the beginning of a fierce union-busting campaign.

When in April RAFFWU’s social media posted a photo of workers holding the union’s flag as well as a list of their demands, the union and three workers who shared it on their personal social media pages were sent cease and desist letters from the employers’ lawyers, demanding the post be removed.

Despite RAFFWU removing the post, two members were still required to attend disciplinary meetings in which they were threatened with dismissal.

RAFFWU has condemned the owners’ conduct as unlawful and is preparing litigation.

The union stated that despite the majority of workers clearly wanting to bargain, the owners are using Australia’s bad industrial laws “to delay and frustrate the process.”

After an initial Fair Work Commission conference on 5th May failed to resolve the dispute, the owners were forced by workers to agree to bargain on 14th May. Workers added a series of new claims aimed at protecting workers facing redundancies.

In another milestone for the bookshop industry, a RAFFWU-led campaign in the book-store chain Readings won a landmark Majority Support Ballot on the 25th of June, confirming the workers desire to collectively bargain.

Readings and Better Read Than Dead would be the first EBAs in an Australian bookshop.

The 22nd of June provision of a Protected Action Ballot Order is not only a significant win for the Better Read Than Dead workers but a historic moment for the Australian retail sector.

It is the first-ever Order in a retail workplace (other than for meat workers), a sector of almost 1.5mil workers that has not had a single day of industrial action in decades.

Despite retail in Australia being rife with underpayment and high casualisation, workers have been conditioned to accept this due to decades of corruption by the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA).

The SDA, which is Australia’s largest private-sector union, represents over 200,000 of Australia’s lowest-paid workers and has a history of selling them out.

The SDA has routinely negotiated Enterprise Bargaining Agreements (EBAs) that have left the majority of workers paid below the minimum wage.

This is achieved in various ways: by weakening or removing penalty rates, exploitative junior rates, and lowering workplace rights and conditions.

This is due to the SDA leaders’ historic anti-Communist Catholic political agenda.

Founded in 1941 by Bob Santamaria and the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Danial Mannix, the clandestine Catholic Social Studies Movement, which later rebranded as the National Civic Council (NCC), aimed to prevent communism by combatting the Communist Party of Australia.

During the 1940s and 1950s, this battle was fought primarily in unions influenced by Communists, with the Movement successfully capturing the SDA and three other prominent unions, known as the “Grouper unions.”

The SDA disaffiliated with the Australian Labor Party in 1955, unsurprisingly siding with the splinter group the Australian Labor Party (Anti-Communist), which later became the Democratic Labor Party that would help keep the ALP out of power until 1972.

However, in a bid to sure up right-wing numbers, Bob Hawke successfully convinced the SDA and other Grouper unions to re-affiliate with the ALP in the 1980s. Eventually, union amalgamations led to the SDA being the last Grouper union remaining.

The SDA has worked with employers to keep communists out, prevent strikes, and create predictable wage outcomes that ultimately benefit the employer.

In return, employers grant the SDA access to members for recruitment, such as the 1971 deal in which six major retails, including Coles and Woolworths, agreed to automatically sign-up workers to the SDA.

This practice continues today, with the SDA routinely given access to induct new members in many workplaces and is a major explanation for the SDA’s emergence as Australia’s largest union whilst others have faced declining membership.

Higher membership numbers give unions more power within the ALP, and as a result, the SDA is the largest and most powerful union-bloc in the ALP.

This power is utilised to carry out the NCC’s socially conservative agenda, such as long-time opposition to marriage equality by the Australian Council of Trade Unions and ALP.

By selling out workers to employers in return for easy access to recruitment, the SDA has helped realise another of Santamaria’s objectives: control of the ALP “to implement a Christian social program.”

The founding of RAFFWU in December 2016 was a breakthrough moment for retail unionism in Australia. Its first campaign, “Taking Back Our Penalty Rates,” has been a big success, restoring penalty rates for over a hundred thousand workers in workplaces including Coles, Woolworths, Kmart, Big W, and Officeworks.

RAFFWU is a progressive union, fighting not only for living wages and secure employment but progressive social values, demonstrated by their ongoing campaign against gender discrimination and sexual harassment faced by women at JB Hi-Fi stores.

The retail sector employs some of Australia’s most vulnerable workers. National Skills Commission statistics show that of Australian retail workers, thirty-one per cent are young workers aged 15-24, and fifty-two per cent hold no post-school qualification, suggesting that they are more likely to be both economically and socially progressive.

Retail workers are underpaid, undervalued, and have the potential to be highly progressive and radical unionists under the correct leadership.

Better Read Than Dead’s Protected Action Ballot Order could foreshadow a new era of progressive retail union activism.

Workers harness the ability to radically reshape society. As retail workers are increasingly made aware of their strength when united and the power of industrial action, the ability for large scale change will emerge.

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