On the books: Better Read Than Dead workers fight for rights

May 13, 2021

Workers at Better Read Than Dead, a bookshop in Newtown, have launched a campaign for rights and conditions. They want an enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) that includes a formal contract, a workplace and sexual harassment policy, and to be paid a living wage.

The Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) has been supporting them in this quest since late last year.

The workers arranged to meet the bookshop owners to discuss the EBA in March. The owners initially agreed, but then their lawyers contacted RAFFWU saying they had done so only under duress. The owners then launched a legal action.

A post on RAFFWU’s social media, featuring a photo of workers holding the union’s flag, was shared by three of the bookshop’s workers.

Better Read Than Dead management sent “cease and desist” letters to RAFFWU, and to workers who shared the post, demanding it be taken down immediately.

RAFFWU did so, but the owners still demanded two staff members attend “show cause” meetings, in which their jobs were threatened.

RAFFWU considers the management’s threats as intimidation.

RAFFWU secretary Josh Cullinan told Green Left that the owners are doing everything they can to “delay and frustrate the bargaining process”, despite knowing a majority of workers want to bargain.

An initial Fair Work Commission conference on May 5 did not resolve the dispute. A July 1 hearing will decide if the bookshop owners will have to bargain.

“This conduct and threats are unlawful,” Cullinan said. RAFFWU warned the bookshop owner that they could face legal action over their approach and behaviour. But this has not stopped them from continuing their anti-union, bullying conduct.

It is uncommon for workers at smaller workplaces, such as independent bookshops, to collectively organise.

However, RAFFWU is also involved in a campaign for an EBA at Readings bookshops in Victoria. Readings’ owner Mark Rubbo also refuses to negotiate.

Cullinan said these campaigns for workplace rights are not possible without the efforts of the workers themselves. He said the workers at Better Read Than Dead are “committed, organised and are supporting each other through a tough process”.

One of the difficulties unions face in organising workers in bookshops is that they love their jobs, which often makes it easier for owners to exploit them.

An article in Jacobin by Bethany Patch and Joshua Barnes highlighted the illusion, created by the publishing industry, that workers are “doing it for the love of books”, saying that this should not mean that they should put up with wage theft, unsafe working conditions and insecure employment.

The same applies to other specialist retail outlets that employ people passionate about the product, but with little or no experience of collective bargaining. Unions face a big challenge to organise these, largely young, casual workers.

RAFFWU is encouraging the community to support the Better Read Than Dead workers. Check its social media pages to see just how much local support is flowing in.

Update May 14: RAFFWU has informed Green Left that the owner of Better Read Than Dead has agreed to negotiate.

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