Siobhan Kelly, president of the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union, gave this speech at the 12th Socialist Alliance national conference, held over January 20-22 at the Geelong Trades Hall.
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I’m in the really privileged position of getting to build a militant union from the very beginning. We have unashamedly started a union that has the same coverage as another union with a 100 year history in this country.
That is controversial to the wider union movement across the country, because competitive unionism is usually a dirty phrase in Australia.
The first principle we started with is there comes a time when you can no longer accept the entrenched power structures, including in our own movement.
Breaking with the SDA
For us that meant a conversation after the Coles case when we actually had to grapple with the reality of, for example, the 60-year-old cleaner in Benalla who earned 60% less than the minimum award rates.
Or when you are confronted with 75% of a workforce who not only earn lower than the award minimum — which is not a fair standard of living, it is an absolute rock bottom minimum — and who don’t even understand that that right has been taken away from them.
Or when you are confronted with a union that has $120 million in the bank and an exploited membership of 135,000.
Or when you are confronted with young women at Bakers Delight who earn 60% less than the minimum. These are 14, 15 and 16-year-old women, this is their first experience of work, this is their first experience of unionism and they earn less than the basic minimum wage.
Or when you have Josh Cullinan, my very dear comrade who has spent the past 25 years trying to achieve reform internally in the Shop, Distributive & Allied Employees Association (SDA) and has not succeeded because of entrenched rules about power and money.
There comes a time when you have to stand up and say now is the time we no longer accept that this is a union. And so we made the really difficult decision that we would go out there and try and take the membership of another union.
But it wasn’t just about taking their membership. We got together a group of really committed activists and started with this principle: you have to begin as you mean to continue. What I mean by that is we are not a small group of people who are looking to the future of what a union might look like.
From the very beginning we have been membership led, we are democratic and we are committed to class struggle. Our rules, our foundations, our election structure, our financial transparency, our delegate structure, our goals, our aims, our projects are driven by the members.
We made a very conscious decision from the beginning that we would not be a small group of people who have never worked in retail or fast food, sitting in a lawyer’s office with a plan for the future.
We had to embed the principles that we want to see this union operate under from the very beginning and then direct everything to ensuring that those values and those principles were upheld from the very beginning. We can say to everybody who joins our organisation, we are socialists, we are unionists, we are democratic and you will determine your own future as a unionist with us.
That was the second really important thing we did.
The third thing is we decided that when a union starts out in the way we have started out, you must have solidarity from the very beginning. Solidarity is not something that should come years from now when we have a broader structure, and it is not something we should think about when we get a moment. We should make sure solidarity with the broader union movement and everyone committed to class struggle is embedded with us from the beginning.
So we are here talking to you, we are talking to the International Federation of Retail and Fast Food Workers’ Unions, we are in every community group, every organisation, every trades and labour council that will have us. We are anywhere that any committed group of unionists or left wing activists is prepared to have us, as a sign of our commitment to solidarity with the movement from the very start and embedded into everything that we do as a union.
The fourth thing that we are really committed to is a conversation about class struggle. I like to call this the “go where the money isn’t” rule.
In everything that we have done so far we have had pushback from the broader union movement. I should note there are a great many unions in Victoria that are helping us without making it public and I understand that there are a lot of reasons why that might have to happen.
But we are getting entrenched pushback from a number of organisations, including the ALP and a number of really large unions. One of things we are faced with is the discussion about money and the money that is available in the union movement, but more particularly the money that the union movement funnels into the ALP for its political purposes.
We have made it very clear from the very beginning that we are not interested in having a conversation with anyone who wants to talk to us about the flow of money. Our workers, our members are some of the poorest workers in this country. They have some of the lowest wages and on top of that they have union-negotiated agreements that undercut their very basic rights.
So our rule is we’re going where the money isn’t going. We’re going to the workers who are having money stripped away from them, penalty rates stripped away from them; overtime, weekend penalties, casual rates, junior rates. That is where our focus will be.
If there is a problem of money flowing between unions and the ALP, that is a consequence of the exploitation of this group of workers and we won’t have any part of it. So we accept that what we are doing is potentially a threat to those money channels but our rule is we will go where the money isn’t and that’s where our members are.
The fifth thing is we are committed to activism not clicktavism. I was banned in my first week from tweeting. Apparently I was no good at it and that’s OK. Facebook, Twitter, all these things are a fantastic method to communicate with people and to reach out and to have networks. But they don’t activate people.
RAFFWU activists are an extraordinary group of about 500 volunteers who are giving up their weeknights and weekends to go out in teams of four to Coles stores and Woolworths stores and Aldi stores and Bakers Delight with our flyers and to talk to young workers about penalty rates, about exploitation, about enterprise agreements. We go into these stores until we get thrown out. Half of the time the store security will throw us out, the other half of the time the SDA delegate throws us out.
But this is not simply about getting outcomes for people. It is about organising young workers into being activated, educated young unionists.
I’m a barrister. What I want to do every time I see a case of exploitation is go to court. That gets an outcome but it’s a flash in the pan and then it’s gone.
We saw what happened with Grill’d. There was a huge campaign but now those workers are back on sub-standard agreements because nobody built union understanding, nobody built union power, nobody educated young workers about what it means to be a unionist.
So we are doing it the long way and what we think is the right way. We go into stores, we get people’s details and we call them, we go to their homes, we meet their parents, we take them out for coffee, we talk about what it means to be a unionist. And that is how we are going to build our union.
It will take time, it will take effort, it’s taking an extraordinary body of volunteers but everything we do is directed to activating and educating the working class about what it means to be a unionist and what collective action can achieve.
So those are the five things I wanted to say to you about what it’s like to be at the very beginning of a militant union journey. We look to the experience of Unite [in New Zealand] to say that it can be done. We look down the track to having a really well-established militant union that has 100 years of history and we hope that 100 years from now we can say we have a proud history of militant unionism.
[Visit http://www.raffwu.org.au/ for more detrails on the new union.]