New retail and fast food union challenges old order

December 3, 2016
Josh Cullinan

Fast food workers, many of whom are young, have been left without a union fighting for decent wages and conditions.

On November 21, a new union — the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) — announced its formation. It is a rival in more ways than one to the conservative Shop, Distributive & Allied Employees Association (SDA).

The SDA, long led by Labor Party officials, has been at the centre of a national wages scandal in which 250,000 people are being paid less than the award by major employers including Coles, Woolworths, Hungry Jack’s, KFC and McDonalds

Green Left Radio’s Jacob Andrewartha interviewed Josh Cullinan, secretary of the RAFFWU, on November 25. Below is an edited version of that interview.

* * *

Tell us how this union came to be started

There has been a general disquiet now for the past decade. There have been efforts over the past 30 years to democratise the SDA. But over the past decade there has been a growing disquiet among young workers mostly, but also other workers about the way SDA does its business.

That came to a head last year during the Coles case. I was responsible for working with a young worker at a Melbourne western suburbs Coles store where we were able to identify that the majority of workers were going to be worse off under the new agreement.

This was then exposed in the national media and, in the end, Coles made undertakings to improve the agreement. They were not small undertakings: it was 5% more pay to casuals and up to 10% more for 17-year-olds.

They were substantial undertakings, worth many millions of dollars. But they didn’t deal with the core issue of mostly ongoing part-time workers, the vast majority of Coles’ workforce.

I then represented Duncan Hart in Brisbane. His case exposed that the SDA had done a very dodgy deal with Coles to undercut the rights of retail workers: they had been paid under the minimum, by probably more than $1 million a year.

That was the catalyst to expose all the other deals, which the SDA now freely admits are more than 100 agreements, that cut about half a million workers’ conditions from the very minimum they would have if there was no agreement at all.

There was a lot of opportunity for a progressive union to do the right thing, own up to mistakes and fix them. It has been 178 days since that decision, so that’s $178 million ripped from the pay packets of some of the lowest paid workers in Australia. The SDA has done nothing for them. Unfortunately, the Australian Council of Trade Unions has also been silent, and the ALP has done nothing either.

So it has come to a head. A group of activists, retail and fast food workers and their supporters have decided enough is enough and that it’s time for a genuine trade union to step into this space. That’s why we've launched the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union.

What has been the response from other unions to the RAFFWU?

Unfortunately, this space is fraught with danger for many other organisations because of the influence the SDA has in the ALP.

There is a group of unions that are prepared to stand up and say that the exploitation has got to stop and have a vision that goes beyond the next year or two — a view beyond the parliamentary careers of the current union leaders. Those progressive unions are slowly getting in contact with us.

We’re in contact with the Meat Industry Employees Union. They were the ones who were most affected by the SDA deal with Coles and Woolworths and we’re keen to continue to build a relationship with that union.

We’ll continue to be in contact with the other unions that face the damage that the SDA does to the working class in their shops, their warehouses and across Australia and, hopefully, build stronger relationships with them.

Right from the outset you've been very clear about demarcation. Can you explain why?

Yes, we wanted to be clear from the start that we are not seeking a demarcation fight with any other trade union.

So the National Union of Workers, the Australian Services Union, United Voice and the Transport Workers Union have coverage in various shops and in the retail and fast food sectors. We respect that. We want to encourage those workers to get involved and help make those trade unions great.

The reality is that many workers had no other choice other than to join the SDA. But, let’s be frank, the SDA is not a trade union.

So we want to be clear with the workers who do join us that we’ll be encouraging them to resign [from the SDA] and move on to those other unions, because we don’t want to be representing those that can be effectively represented by genuine trade unions.

Does the union have a particular focus on the workplaces that SDA previously covered, including McDonalds, Woolworths and Coles?

They are the three largest employers in Australia and they are the three most obvious and significant worksites for us to get involved in.

Media reports have said that the RAFFWU was started by socialists, greens and ALP members but that the union wants to remain politically independent. Why is this important to you?

I think there is a distinction between being political and being associated directly with a political party. 

Obviously all of those engaged with RAFFWU, especially in the early stages, are politically engaged. Every person is political as well as social. We were born out of an experience of SDA members which has come about through the relationship between the SDA and the ALP.

We are acutely aware that, in the foreseeable future, the union’s relationship with a political party is not something our members are going to be interested in.

We need to be able to influence politicians and influence employers through the expression of worker power. We’re not interested in affiliating with any political party or getting engaged in those antics.

Our pursuits are at the workplace level. No doubt, over time, our members are going to want to coalesce at a state and a national level and they will want to develop policy and they will want to implement that policy. But affiliation to a political party is not on our radar.

What sort of democratic structures is the union planning, especially for the rank and file to be centrally involved?

We have not established a structure beyond the national membership electing an executive and a committee. At this stage we have not established a new structure that mobilises representatives from shop stewards upwards. But we have convened a subcommittee to explore that and the way other unions work to see what will work for us.

We cover people who are employed by national employers and we need to be able to implement the decisions of our members in the best way possible.

We are interested in feedback from our members and we'll go through that process for the next six months to a year, after which we will have a special general meeting of our union to decide on our new structure.

We have already decided we want full proportional representation. The structures and rules of some of the old guard unions, like the SDA, are anti-democratic. So we want to have the best possible democratic structure.

The other element is the way we resource it. Everyone on the committee and at the shop floor is very clear that we want to resource organising of and by our members.

As our members get engaged, as they organise their workplaces and as they organise the workplaces of their colleagues, they will get to a point where they can, through their own resources and through their own membership fees, establish organising efforts. We will be appointing organisers into that space from among them. We are hopeful that that will also be another way we can build a democratic structure into our union.

[You can listen to the full interview here.]

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