Exploited bookshop workers keep up the fight

November 21, 2021
A solidarity rally with Better Dead Than Red Workers in Newtown on November 19. Photo: Isaac Nellist

The struggle by Sydney bookshop Better Read Than Dead workers for a new workplace agreement was given a boost with about150 unionists and sympathisers joining a rally in Newtown on November 19.

The workers are continuing to push management to sign off on an in-principle enterprise bargaining agreement, reached in July, on which it has since reneged.

Retail and Fast Food Workers’ Union (RAFFWU) organiser Loukas Kakogiannis said Better Read workers — who are the first retail workers to take industrial action in more than 50 years — were united in their struggle. He said they were going to keep fighting until their demands are met.

Current and former workers spoke about the hypocrisy of a business that “trades on progressive values” exploiting and mistreating workers. Former employee Zachary Moore-Boyle said workers had to be a “jack of all trades”, expected to run social media campaigns, book clubs, podcasts and build complex displays while earning minimum wage.

Boyle said workers started organising with RAFFWU after realising how undervalued and exploited they were. He said the bookshop has a high staff turnover, with 17 workers leaving last year. He also said casual staff have little opportunity to gain permanent employment.

Emma Cooper, a bargaining representative for the workers, emphasised the importance of job security. She said management threatens employees by saying that “thousands of people would love to do this job for less pay”.

Jimmy, another worker, said it may be one of the youngest workplaces to take industrial action in Australia; most employees are under 30 years old. He said they drew inspiration from the School Strike 4 Climate movement and other young workers organising with RAFFWU.

Stella, a worker and member of the RAFFWU negotiating team, described the expertise required to be a good bookseller. Although her job does not require formal education, she and the other workers have a wide range of knowledge and experience that adds value to the bookshop. “People come to Better Read not to just to buy books, but because they like the vibe that we have created; without us Better Read wouldn’t be as popular as it is,” she said.

RAFFWU President Jessica Barnes, who came from Newcastle to address the rally, said just because employees value books and enjoy working in the bookselling industry, they shouldn't have to put up with bad working conditions and low pay.

A solidarity message was read from Greens MP Jenny Leong, and Maritime Union of Australia Sydney branch secretary Paul Keating delivered a short message.

Author Anwen Crawford, who penned an open letter in support of the workers in July, praised their efforts, saying: “This is the union movement of the future: it’s young, it’s militant and, most importantly, it’s not stuck like a barnacle to the hull of the Australian Labor Party.”

The rally marched from Camperdown Memorial Rest Park to King Street and past the bookshop, chanting “The workers united will never be defeated.”

The workers are continuing industrial action, including banning online orders, handling cash, working overtime, and processing returns, until their demands are met.

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