Support grows for workers at bookshop that ‘loses staff like a sieve’

The bookshop claims to 'nourish Newtown's intellectual dynamics' but does not treat its workers well. Image: Owlus

Support for workers at Better Read Than Dead (BRTD), a bookshop in Newtown, who are campaigning for a workplace agreement is growing, with hundreds taking part in an online forum on July 14 to discuss their fight.

The meeting was organised by the May 1 Movement, in conjunction with BRTD workers and their union, the Retail and Fast Food Worker’s Union (RAFFWU).

BRTD workers want an enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) that includes a living wage, job security protections, workplace health and safety policy and sexual harassment policy. They have been working with RAFFWU since last year and in June won the first ever Protected Action Ballot Order for a retail workplace outside the meat industry.

The workers unanimously voted to take industrial action, with a 100% turn-out. They are planning to initiate a ban on overtime, on handling cash and will no longer update window displays. They said they would escalate industrial action if management does not respond positively.

RAFFWU Secretary Josh Cullinan said the bookshop workers had “been targeted”, and commended them on standing up to threats and bullying. Management is “more likely to run this business into the ground than negotiate with workers”, he said.

RAFFWU member and BRTD worker Emma Cooper, one of the bargaining representatives, said they were “shouted out of the room” in the second meeting with management. In a clear attempt at union busting, she described how two workers had been sacked for campaigning, including one of the bargaining representatives. A store manager has just been sacked, during the current lockdown.

Former BRTD worker and RAFFWU member Zachary Moore-Boyle spoke about attempts to unionise BRTD in 2019. He said he and other workers were bullied, forced to do overtime and expected to be “jacks of all trades”. Apart from selling books, they had to organise competitions, become social media experts, run book clubs and build complex displays – while being paid the minimum retail award rate.

Moore-Boyle said that last year more than half the staff were on casual contracts, despite many having worked there many years. In addition, the turn-over rate is also high: last year 17 people left.

RAFFWU organiser Loukas Kakogiannis, who has been working with BRTD workers since last August, said the bookshop “loses staff like a sieve”.

Kakogiannis praised the workers’ dedication: they have been meeting weekly to discuss and plan the campaign. He highlighted the difficulties for retail workers deciding to go on strike. “These workers have no ability to save for strike action,” he said.

The lack of leave and low pay leaves insecure workers in a difficult position industrially. RAFFWU set up a welfare support fund for the BRTD workers on June 14. In less than 24 hours it had received more than $5000. It aims to raise $12,000 to help those taking strike action.

Maritime Union of Australia Sydney Branch secretary Paul Keating and Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union Construction and General Division NSW Branch Secretary Darren Greenfield pledged their unions’ support.

Author Anwen Crawford read from an open letter signed by hundreds of authors which thanks booksellers for their role in the industry and calls for improved workplace protections and conditions.

“We as authors cannot expect booksellers to sell our books when their own employment conditions are untenable,” Crawford said. “We call on Better Read Than Dead to end its union busting, turn up to the bargaining table in good faith, and agree to workers’ demands”.

Crawford spoke about how retail workers are vulnerable to sexual assault and harassment, drawing on her own experience as a bookseller. She said the BRTD workers’ demand for anti-harassment policies are “not secondary” but vital for all retail workers.

Cullinan said the bookshop is currently trading in a “click and collect” capacity under the health orders and that RAFFWU would call for community solidarity when it becomes safe. Cullinan said if the BRTD campaign is successful there may be a “string of retail workplaces organising to fight for their rights”.

[Consider donating to BRTD workers’ strike fund. Follow RAFFWU on Facebook for updates. The whole forum can be is viewed on the Facebook event page.]