The February 23 ruling by the so-called Fair Work Australia Commission to allow the slashing of weekend penalty rates for those working in the food and retail sector is a direct attack on some of the most vulnerable and underpaid workers in Australia.
Green Left Weekly’s Chris Jenkins spoke to Aaron Beardsell, WA state organiser of the newly formed Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) about the new union and the challenges facing workers in their sector.
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You’ve been involved in the founding of the RAFFWU in WA. Can you explain the background to that development and why a new union was considered necessary?
The RAFFWU originated on the east coast with a core team of activists and unionists from a variety of backgrounds. They’d been involved in the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employee’s Association (SDA) for some years, and had been attempting to reform the union from the grassroots, but had no luck due to undemocratic structures in place within the SDA. These structures have ensured it’s been run by the same team of conservatives for the last 50 years or so.
I joined the union some years ago, but was refused the right to be a union delegate on the basis that I would not join the Labor Party. That was a huge issue because we need idealism in politics and the so-called pragmatism of the Labor Party has led to a real weakening of working conditions in Australia.
Activists within the SDA have been trying to reform the SDA from within for more than a decade now, and the entrenched leadership has just put roadblocks in our way. The only option left to us was to start a new union, tear down the corrupt old one and make the call for a return to democratic grassroots organising for workers’ rights.
What have been some of the early challenges getting the new union going?
Right off the bat, we’ve seen collaboration between the SDA leadership and management at various Woolworths and Coles stores. SDA officials have warned local shop management before we arrive of our intention to engage with workers and promote the RAFFWU to them, and they’ve done their best to get us kicked out of stores.
This has mostly occurred in the eastern states, but it demonstrates the united front between the SDA and business management against the grassroots union organisers.
The other big challenge has been in educating workers in this sector. A lot of them don’t know what an enterprise bargaining agreement or the Fair Work Commission is, what their rights are and even what penalty rates they are entitled to under their award. Our first task has been to explain these things and to then promote the RAFFWU as a way of standing up for a better deal for workers.
The ruling on February 23 by the Fair Work Australia Commission is aimed directly at those working in lower paid and precarious jobs, the same people RAFFWU seeks to organise. How significant is this ruling to those workers and the union?
It’s incredibly significant. Already half a million workers are worse off under the current enterprise agreements as compared to the award rates, and if the penalty rates for weekends are slashed it will merely embolden Coles and Woolworths and the other big employers to impose worse terms on workers.
All these businesses are claiming to the Fair Work Commission that this reduction in pay will increase employment, but in reality it will increase the amount of money going into the pockets of these big billion dollar companies.
The ruling came down today, and RAFFWU is already planning our campaign to respond to these cuts. This will be core to the union’s future activities.
Union membership and militancy is in a severe decline across Australia, do you believe a fightback against this and other attacks on workers’ rights is possible, and what would such an effort involve?
I believe it is possible to fight back against the growing decline in union membership. I think some of that disillusionment with the union movement has come about because of the bureaucratic structures of unions such as the SDA, where members won’t see a delegate or someone higher up in the union for months or years at a time.
Previously, when unions were most active at the membership level, every shop would have a delegate, everyone would know who to talk to and the membership would be directly involved at the local level. RAFFWU is seeking to return to that level of grassroots unionist militancy, which is why the SDA are so opposed to us.
We will be a member-driven organisation organising around the issues affecting our members, rather than looking to cut big pay cheques for the upper echelon of the union movement as we see today.