Josh Cullinan on Coles, Woolies #Superstrike: ‘Workers had no choice but to take action’

October 26, 2023
Coles and Woolies workers on strike in Brisbane
Coles and Woolworths workers went on strike across the country for the first time on October 7. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

More than 1000 Coles and Woolworths workers joined the first national strike of supermarket workers on October 7, escalating industrial action in support of a living wage and better working conditions.

Green Left’Isaac Nellist spoke to Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) Secretary Josh Cullinan about the historic #Superstrike.

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What are the supermarket workers fighting for and how did the campaign get to this point?

History shows that workers have only ever gotten the conditions and wages they deserve through direct and uncompromising industrial action.

The 1.5 million workers in retail and fast food have had woeful conditions forever. That is because workers have never been able to take direct action and are paid minimum wages, and for decades even less than that as billions have been stolen through dodgy deals.

For several years, RAFFWU has been working with workers to get unionised and take industrial action. This included at Better Read Than Dead when, in 2021, we were able to secure the best enterprise agreement in Australia.

We backed that up at Readings book stores in 2022, with the threat of industrial action. Then, last October, we launched the first national strikes of retail workers ever at Apple Stores. While the agreement is not good enough, we now have an agreement at Apple which is better than many others across retail and fast food.

Coles and Woolies workers have been watching that and have also been campaigning.

For four years we have tried to get Coles to the bargaining table: they only came to the table when they were forced to last year by new laws. Last December, Coles and Woolies, separately, agreed to bargain.

We put our very modest claims to them in March: they include a living wage, safer workplaces and secure jobs.

A living wage is just $29 per hour, as a base rate — much less than many other sectors. But for us it is a massive step up from $25 an hour currently paid to workers who are older than 21 and do not have a disability (who are often paid less).

The employers refused to come to the table. Our delegates had a series of meetings with Coles and Woolies’ senior management but they refused to budge on any of our claims. That left workers with no choice but to take action. On October 7, we had historic national strikes at Coles and Woolies, with 1000 workers involved.

What other actions has been taken and how have the supermarket giants responded?

We put bans in place at Woolies several weeks ago, including on making heated-up-bread, unloading trucks and working in self-serve without a safety mat. That has now been expanded to other bans.

Workers are wearing RAFFWU T-shirts and stickers, and talking to customers: this is a form of industrial action.

The #Superstrike started with a strike at Woolies in Broken Hill on October 5: it was the first strike ever at a Woolies supermarket. We have a fantastic group of union members there and more than half of the store walked out!

We implemented a range of bans at Coles on October 6. They included not cleaning toilets, not emptying nappies and rubbish out of trollies, talking to customers about the industrial action and wearing RAFFWU T-shirts and stickers.

Coles sent workers a letter in response which said if you implement any ban you will not be paid and your work will not be accepted: management put a “starve-out” in place.

Coles is doing that for one reason: they know workers can’t afford food so they are doing bag checks when workers finish a shift to see if they have dropped in an apple or a roll.

This is happening in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis and as Coles and Woolworths post huge profits. How has this impacted the campaign?

Workers can see it for what it is: it is their labour being exploited to make these massive profits. Like the rest of the community, these workers are struggling to make ends meet. They are paid amongst the lowest wage in Australia.

Sometimes we hear other workplaces are paid less than a McDonald’s worker or a Coles worker, but it is not true. Younger workers are only paid $10–$12 an hour. A worker with a disability can be paid just a few dollars an hour. That is the rule for every supermarket.

There are penalty rates in the evenings now, which RAFFWU fought for over the past six years to bring back.

But, for 40 years, workers have had their penalty rates stolen.

They are often on 9- or 12-hour contracts. They might get four 3-hour shifts a week so the employer does not have to give them a paid rest break.

These workers are taking action partly because of the desperate times, and also because they know they need to take action to get by.

Why is it important to organise young workers?

Our priority is to organise all workers, and young workers make up a very large part of that workforce.

To give you some examples: 80–85% of McDonald’s workers are under 21 years old and are paid junior rates. More than half of McDonald’s workers are under 18.

We are setting up young workers in their first jobs. When they turn 16, they lose shifts; when they turn 17, they lose almost all their shifts and, by the time they turn 18, unless they are in management, they are unlikely to get another shift.

The companies use sophisticated rostering software to make sure the cheapest available worker is rostered on to each shift.

Coles and Woolies are no different.

We know that, across Australia, McDonald’s makes about $650 million profit by not paying full rates to young workers. Coles and Woolies profit about $150–250 million a year from paying young workers less.

Often young workers are working faster: they work in ways that derive great profits for employers. These employers know young workers are more vulnerable and more likely to take risks.

It is no different than 150 years ago in the coal mines and textile mills.

RAFFWU wants to fight that. We believe no one under 15 should be working. The big parties and big companies want to put systems in place to ensure that very young people are working. We think that is exploitation.

Young workers at the frontline need to be organised to be able to fight back and we want to help them do that. They are also the workers who are willing to step up and call out their employers.

We are keen for all our young members to talk to each other and spread the word that there is another way and that starts with a fight. When workers are willing to take action, the world is our oyster.

[Listen to the full interview. Support the campaign here.]

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