The latest stage of Fair Work Commission cuts to minimum penalty rates came in on 1 July 2019. The union that is taking on employers and keeping penalty rates is the Retail And Fast Food Workers Union. We spoke to Hayden Walsh, a Sydney retail worker and member of the RAFFWU National Committee.
Sydney RAFFWU ranks-and-file members organised a snap speakout in the CBD on 6 July to coincide with the 2019 cut to penalty rates. About 40-50 people came along. It was fun. We know it’s possible to retain penalty rates.
Recently, we had a win at Readings bookshops in Victoria. Management had planned to implement the FWC reduction in Sunday penalty rates. Readings promote themselves as a “progressive bookshop”, supporting refugees and marriage equality. But when they said they’d cut penalty rates, this led to a mass of workers joining RAFFWU, who challenged management collectively and won! They are now paid at the original higher rate.
Cutting penalty rates to the level set by the FWC is optional and open to challenge. It’s therefore phenomenal that the ACTU affiliated unions are not motivating workers to challenge the cuts. Some young activists with Hospo Voice (an affiliate of United Voice in Victoria) have done some media stunts to expose non-payment of penalty rates. But we need more action.
RAFFWU argues in every EBA negotiation for restoration of penalty rates to pre-2017 levels. The SDA has not supported this, but has gone along with the FWC minimum rates. New EBAs are now BOOT (Better Off Overall Test) compliant, as a result of a worker challenging Coles in 2016. RAFFWU also makes some minimum claims arguing for better conditions.
RAFFWU campaigned for a No vote in the recent Woolworths EBA. Although the EBA got voted up, RAFFWU exposed the SDA for making agreements with employers outside of the official EBA negotiations. RAFFWU brings workers to negotiations. They actually get to be involved in this process. The SDA does not involve members.
RAFFWU’s membership is growing. The union is only 3 years old and already has around 1400 members. Building density is the biggest challenge. We need activist members to recruit new members. RAFFWU encourages members to vote up delegates in workplaces with 5 or more members. The union keeps in touch with delegates, encourages them to be spokespeople or bargaining representatives in negotiations. We are learning from the UNITE union in New Zealand, even though there are differences in NZ laws which make it easier for them.
Recent steps towards greater democracy include the establishment of a National Committee made up of 10 delegates and ordinary members elected during the union’s AGM. Any member can nominate to be on the Committee or challenge for RAFFWU’s executive roles, including Secretary, President and Treasurer. RAFFWU is working towards having delegates conferences in the near future.
The generally accepted belief about retail and fast food is that it will forever be a low pay sector. Fighting low pay is a bread and butter issue, and these sectors need organising. RAFFWU wants to run campaigns outside of the limited period of enterprise bargaining. There’s no reason why retail and fast food workers can’t take industrial action. We will pursue bold industrial campaigns where our members want us to. If RAFFWU members ever go on strike, we hope we’d be supported by other unions, even if unofficially. An obstacle to solidarity with RAFFWU is the SDA, who has a close relationship with the ACTU. The SDA was a major funding source behind the Change the Rules Campaign.
Some ALP and Greens unionists say to us, “you’re not real, you’re not official” and ask when are we going to register with the Fair Work Act, as if this has been beneficial for unions that are registered. But we don’t need that. While we are a registered union and organisation under different laws, I think unions should be edgy. Lots of people are not being represented by the ACTU. RAFFWU members were part of a Break the Rules forum in Sydney in July, with groups like Extinction Rebellion, Australia Asia Worker Links and the Australian Unemployed Workers Union. There was a lot of enthusiasm at that forum for fighting for penalty rates and the right to strike. RAFFWU members are linking these issues and taking on issues that affect all workers, like marriage equality and climate action.