Readings workers fight for better pay, conditions

September 7, 2022
Unionists and community members have twice rallied outside the Readings Carlton to show their strong support for workers. Photo: RAFFWU/Twitter

Workers at Readings bookshops in Victoria voted on August 23 to take protected industrial action as part of their campaign for a living wage, secure jobs and better working conditions.

Retail and Fast Food Workers' Union (RAFFWU) secretary Josh Cullinan explained how the campaign began in a video posted on social media on August 30: “Four-and-a-half years ago, I and 10 workers from Readings held a meeting with the owners and senior management at Readings Carlton, in Melbourne. We wanted a negotiated agreement that would deal with the issues of members.”

Cullinan said workers’ main concerns were sexual harassment in the workplace, living wages and job security. Some workers have been pressured to work for free, including writing book reviews in exchange for vouchers rather than pay.

Readings “never came back to workers to negotiate a satisfactory agreement” despite trading on a “purported progressive image”, Cullinan said.

It was “genuinely disappointing” how Readings responded to workers’ concerns. Management “attacked its own workers” and attempted to divide its workforce, despite RAFFWU members being “immensely professional and responsible” throughout the campaign. 

RAFFWU members at Readings went to the Fair Work Commission last year to get Readings boss Mark Rubbo to the negotiating table.

Workers had reached an in-principle agreement in July that included a 4.6% pay rise. However, Rubbo backed out of the agreement weeks later and has implemented a two-year wage freeze.

This prompted workers to go public with their campaign: they organised two rallies, on August 6 and 19, outside Readings Carlton, with unionists and community members showing strong support. 

Readings worker and union delegate Clare told Green Left that the community support has been “endlessly strengthening”. 

Rubbo complained that the process had been “difficult” for management in an interview in the Australian Financial Review.

Cullinan refutes this, arguing: “It has been difficult for our members because, under current laws, they couldn’t exercise that basic human right to strike … because we need to jump through so many hurdles to get there. Five years later our members are jumping those hurdles.”

He said the boss was crying “crocodile tears” because he has had to cede “a tiny amount of control to the workers who make every cent of profit”.

Management is now holding a ballot on a non-union agreement, but has promised to return to negotiations if workers vote “no”. RAFFWU described the deal as “unsatisfactory”.

Readings workers have been inspired by the success of RAFFWU members at Better Read Than Dead, a bookshop in Newtown, Sydney, who won a landmark enterprise agreement in July after taking the first industrial action against a retail employer in more than 50 years.

Cullinan said Readings workers will keep fighting until they win their enterprise agreement. He said it is crucial that we “maintain the fight to restore the right to strike” and “stop sell-out deals from being imposed on retail and fast food workers”.

[Join the solidarity rally outside Readings Carlton at 10am on September 10 to show your support.]

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