Retail and Fast Food Workers – building solidarity on the job
Most Retail and Fast Food Workers Union members are the only member in their workplace. Janet Burstall of Workers’ Liberty spoke with a RAFFWU member from Melbourne who has organised around 20 of his fellow workers at a Woolworths store to join up in only a few months. We asked Loukas how he made the difference.
“When an SDA organiser came round to recruit, I looked up the SDA and found out about RAFFWU. I joined RAFFWU, not the SDA. A few months after I joined I asked RAFFWU how I could be more involved and I started organising in my workplace.”
“I followed up a lot of RAFFWU information online, learning about how Enterprise Bargaining Agreements work, then I told my co-workers starting with my closest friends. The main thing that really activates people is the disparity between the Award and the EBA, and we’re in a position right now where something can be done.” Loukas is on the RAFFWU team that is taking part in bargaining for a new agreement with Woolworths, in which RAFFWU’s position includes restoration of penalty rates with back pay to 2015, and equal pay to replace junior rates.
“I regularly communicate with them about the bargaining process, get their thoughts on it and help them to find out more about what they’re entitled to after the deal that the SDA made in 2012. It has been a big shock to find out that there’s a union (the SDA) that is supposed to be fighting for our interests but has struck a bad deal for us. I also help with the RAFFWU social media campaign to engage Woollies workers. The SDA delegate [at my store] is a middle-aged woman who has spent her whole life working in Woollies. When I told her what RAFFWU is doing, and about the broader political positions of the SDA, for example on abortion and gay marriage, as well as the underpayment in the EBA, she was upset and let-down, and sympathetic to RAFFWU. She is an important person in the workplace and well-trusted by members. We will potentially work together.”
“In the future members will meet up and we will build a healthy grassroots infrastructure. The community of it is an important aspect. If more unions were focussed on being effective at the workplace level, people would get involved in the community of their workplaces.”
Loukas has also helped colleagues assert their rights against management, for example when a manager tried to force a worker to take 10 weeks annual leave. “It has a lot to do with meeting people where they’re at, with stuff where the union can help out. When we increase awareness of their rights that can be protected, people realise that they don’t just have to follow company procedures.”
And what is your advice to solo members in workplaces, to get more people involved? “The best thing people can do is to start talking with a best friend at work, start from there. For me there were no other people who were involved in unions in a big way. I just started to tell my colleagues what I’d been reading online. Get informed and talk about what you find out.”
Janet Burstall is a RAFFWU Solidarity Supporter. The Spring 2017 RAFFWU newsletter carried her explanation of why she is contributing her efforts to RAFFWU.
I passionately believe the world would be a better place for everyone if the people who did the work were the ones who made the decisions, and not the company directors. We need retail and fast food workers to give us access to food, drink and basic necessities. Many are working for large corporations, including the two biggest employers in the country, Wesfarmers and Woolworths, who squeeze staff in the competition for profits to pay dividends to shareholders.
I am a student of political economy, a retired public sector union delegate and a socialist. I want to use my knowledge and experience to support RAFF workers to become good delegates, and to develop RAFFWU as a democratic accountable union that builds self-confidence of workers to take industrial as well as political action for their interests against employers.
As a delegate my priority was solidarity. I got to know people in all different sections of my workplace, circulated news bulletins, with stories of local, sector and union issues and information about workers’ rights. We met to make decisions together, democratically. Delegates need to be well-informed about EBAs and industrial rights, patient, committed and brave about standing up to management. Sometimes it seems slow between successes, but standing up for what’s right always feels right.
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