A new union: Retail and Fast Food Workers Union

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Janet Burstall and Blair Vidakovich

The Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) was launched in November 2016, with a mission to win back pay and conditions for retail workers that have been traded off by the SDA, Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association. Janet Burstall and Blair Vidakovich spoke to Josh Cullinan, Secretary for the RAFFWU.
Firstly we asked Josh what efforts had been made to reform the SDA, and how the SDA officials had obstructed them, because forming a new union, to compete with, and effectively split an existing union, is potentially divisive of workers who need unity against their employers.
Josh: "There have been various attempted challenges. Some from within the SDA hierarchy, generally organisers or senior Catholics who have opposed the leadership, but we can discount them as not genuinely advocating any change. Other challenges have involved young retail workers. Some tried to work from within the SDA, by getting jobs there, thinking they could organise workers from within, but they would get shut down. There have been small tickets, running for state conference positions, but they never come close to winning any positions. This is due to a large number of issues, not least of which are the undemocratic first past the post ballot rules. Winner takes all. The most votes will elect an entire slate. We had a Shop Watch campaign which rank and file members joined in in the early noughties. Workers were agitating around the penalty rates that were being stolen by SDA deals. . These campaigns lacked capacity because of numerous difficulties organising low paid, insecure, transient workforces against established political elites. Unite in Victoria chose to organise workers outside the SDA employers. Then in 2014-2015 there was the Coles case. It seemed such a conspiracy at the time that journalists would have laughed at us. But it came to a head at an interesting time. We analysed rosters and pay rates on the Coles agreement, and exposed how far behind the award they were.”
Duncan Hart was the part-time Coles worker who, with Josh Cullinan, took Coles to the Fair Work Commission and won. Josh had thought there was a possibility that the SDA might rethink at this point.
Josh: "What was the SDA response? …They fought Duncan’s appeal. When the Commission ruled in May 2016 that the SDA’s 2015 agreement failed the BOOT – Better Off Overall Test – and therefore was invalid, that should have been a watershed. They could have said ‘we’ve been caught, it’s time for a change’. But they didn’t. The combination of anti-worker rules such as its first past the post rules, and anti-communist rules are used to stop any challenge. They have immense resources to block change from within. The other difficulty is that even though the employers are such massive corporations, the workplaces themselves are not very big, around 100-150 with a high turnover. Individual workplaces are too small to have a big impact on the SDA. They continue to defend the Coles agreement, which made some workers better off, but so many more workers were left far behind. The SDA is so beholden to its keepers, the bosses. It will do whatever it has to for the right to have payroll deductions from the bosses. It pays cash directly to the bosses to have that right. All efforts to mobilise get washed away.”
Josh emphasised that RAFFWU did not ask retail workers to join if they could be represented by a genuine union. So drivers can join the Transport Workers Union, fast food restaurant workers (eg Grill’d) can join United Voice, head office staff can join the Australian Services Union and meatworkers can join the Meat Industry Employees Union. RAFFWU is not asking other unions to take a side between the SDA and RAFFWU. And neither does RAFFWU require members to resign from the SDA, though most members could not afford to pay fees to both unions. RAFFWU’s relationships with other unions are in early stages.
Josh: RAFFWU will be affiliating with local labour councils wherever possible and as members identify it as a priority. The SDA has not affiliated to many, but did apply to affiliate to Victorian Trades Hall Council 28 days after RAFFWU was launched, and a range of other regional labour councils in a remarkably overt attempt to shut RAFFWU out. The SDA brings money and power, so it has apologists in the union movement. We think that once the stories come out from our members about their suffering, and what the SDA has done, the SDA officials won’t be able to escape criticism."
Janet: "Does RAFFWU have plans to become party to agreements or awards?"
Josh: "Definitely yes. Our members appoint RAFFWU as their bargaining representative. But at the moment, employers are simply refusing to bargain. This means we can’t take protected industrial action to bargain. The only way to use the law to force the employers to bargain is to win majority support of the workforce to terminate the agreement. To get a legal “majority support determination” would mean when Coles refuses to bargain, we would have to get over 38 000 workers to vote to support bargaining for a new agreement, in Woolworths over 50 000, and in McDonalds over 52 000. McDonald's has 105 000 employees. This Abbott-Turnbull change to the Fair Work Act from 2015 makes bargaining like it is in the USA, where you can’t start until over 50% of the workforce votes for in favour of commencing negotiations. We will be bargaining with other employers.
We are an Incorporated Association in Victoria, and a registered body that can trade inter-state. We are an industrial association under the Fair Work Act Almost all members appoint us as bargaining representative, which means we represent them as their union in bargaining and we can get a protected action ballot. We will be applying to terminate agreements, which would then bring the Award into effect. We don't anticipate that the employers will bargain. We will take cases to terminate agreements. With our members we can apply to terminate agreements which will return substantial wage increases for most retail and fast food workers.”
(RAFFWU first applied to terminate an expired agreement in January 2017 covering approximately 400 Bakers Delight staff across 15 or more stores in Victoria.)
We need to mobilise our members, the community has to be active and we don't want to be bureaucratic. We can't just engage in all of this legal action on its own. We want to mobilise a lot of workers to share their views, a group of workers across states. In smaller workplaces, eg IGA, workers in stores are electing delegates. They talk amongst their friends in stores about how to get back conditions. Penalty rates are the bread and butter, along with underpayments. The focus is on penalty rates, because workers will be better off, even with the recent penalty rate cuts, on the Award rather than on the EBAs. If we can terminate the agreements quickly enough, it could bring half a million workers to the fight to take back penalty rates, if they can be on the Award before the FWC cuts to the Award come into full effect.
We asked Josh for his view of the role for socialists in the union movement, and his opinion of the Workers’ Liberty draft working class charter.
Josh: "I’m for the emancipation of the working class, but we’re not a red union. We need political education for our members, delegates training. Politics in unions is too often stifled by political party politics. Any radical debate, on anything important is stifled, suppressed. We want to encourage innovation, new ideas and ways of working.
We want to get back to the idea that the power of the union is on the shop floor. We hope that our members will become social activists. We need to focus on bringing the stories of exploitation to light. We need to give workers a voice, and that is how we will pursue socialist objectives. These corrupt officials will not be able to escape when these stories come to light. We are confident we will be able to terminate agreements and deliver wage increases. These IGA workers whose agreement we hope will be terminated within a week will see 25% average wage increases – some over 40%. Once workers realise that they're losing money they are awakened, and become willing to organise. The role of good unionists is to be sound on workplace issues. It takes dedicated resources and commitment over decades. I agree with pursuing socialist objectives, including the ones listed in this draft workers’ charter.”
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Workers’ Liberty says retail and fast food workers need RAFFWU
A critical point emerged from the interview. The Fair Work Commission (FWC) cuts to Sunday and public holiday penalty rates from July 2017 would not take anything from most part-time and casual workers employed on SDA enterprise agreements, because those agreements are so far below the existing Award conditions. Although the SDA has been exposed in the 2016 ruling by the FWC in the case pursued by Duncan Hart, the SDA is continuing to defend its sell out agreements. But workers joining RAFFWU will be supported to demand the termination of the agreements, and restore the Award conditions. Any workers who achieve this prior to FWC cuts to Award penalty rates take effect, will directly experience the impact of those cuts. According to Josh, there could be up to 500,000 workers in this position.
Whilst these workers continue on the SDA agreements, they are far less likely to be mobilised against the cuts to penalty rates in the Award, because they get no benefit from them. This is a point of urgency for mobilising retail and fast food workers, and building support for RAFFWU’s case to terminate the SDA’s sell-out agreements. There is also potential for SDA members and delegates to express their support for termination of the agreements. RAFFWU should encourage this.
Reform of the SDA is beyond the reach of rank and file members, and could only be seriously tackled by a well-funded political coalition, that would almost certainly get bogged down in legal proceedings, and in any case would lack a rank and file base. Josh Cullinan has a record in organising young workers, and in defending retail workers’ penalty rates, based on thorough research into working conditions in the retail and fast food industry.
The overwhelming challenge is for retail workers to get sufficiently organised on the job, to be able to force their employers to agree to better wages and conditions. The SDA officials have found greater common interest with the employers, via delivering sub-standard enterprise agreements in exchange for employers collecting union dues for the SDA. RAFFWU provides an avenue for retail workers to organise on the job, that they have been denied by the SDA.
There is no sign that unionists who express reservations about RAFFWU and call for working for change from within the SDA, have put a tenth of the energy that Josh has already put into advocating for retail workers, identifying a basis for organising them against the employers, and challenging the SDA officials’ partnership with the employers. If RAFFWU is not built, then there will be no effective union for retail and fast food workers.
If RAFFWU gains ground, the major retail and fast food employers will be concerned about having to deal with a more militant workforce. They are likely to encourage the SDA officials to shut down RAFFWU, and to look to the Fair Work Commission to reassert the lower standards of pay contained in the expired enterprise agreements. Equally the SDA officialdom will want to keep its power and influence, and could pitch to both the ACTU to broker a shut out of RAFFWU, and the employers to go to war with RAFFWU. The full-time permanent weekday sections of the retail workforce have fared best from the trade-offs in the agreements, and is the most likely base of member support for SDA incumbents.
In the name of unity, some sort of deal could be proposed, with mild democratic reforms to the rules of the SDA, that might allow the appearance of an electoral challenge, but with the odds stacked against RAFFWU supporters. Josh said, it will be up to the RAFFWU members to convince other trade unionists that RAFFWU deserves support, and not the SDA.
Workers’ Liberty anticipates there will be no smooth path for RAFFWU, and that ACTU and individual union leaders will be confronted with a choice between shoring up the SDA leadership (Dave Oliver, former Secretary of the ACTU obliged the SDA by defending their ell-out EBAs), or helping retail workers to build the industrial capacity to fight their employers.
We stand in solidarity with retail and fast food workers organising their workplaces for decent pay and conditions, and protecting penalty rates. We will be calling on all trade unionists to support RAFFWU’s efforts to mobilise retail and fast food workers to terminate sell-out enterprise agreements, and at a minimum to restore the penalty rates contained in awards.

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