In the heart of Newtown lies a cosy bookshop beloved by many Inner-West bookworms.
Known for its towering blue shelves and staff who are never short of a good recommendation, Better Read Than Dead has become a staple of the community.
But behind the counter, staff are fighting a turbulent battle for bargaining rights.
Late last year, staff approached the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) due to concerns about their wages, working conditions, and insecure contracts.
With the support of the union, they began organising over the next six months to kick off an enterprise bargaining process with their employer.
Staff eventually wrote to their employer in March, saying they wanted to bargain and that if a response wasn’t received within 24 hours, the matter would be taken to the Fair Work Commission.
Although Better Read Than Dead initially agreed to negotiate, their lawyers quickly backpedalled, claiming their client “felt pressured” to provide a response and that they were under duress when they agreed to bargain.
What followed was an onslaught of legal threats against staff.
In April, Better Read Than Dead lawyers sent out cease and desist letters to staff due to a union Facebook post they shared.
The post in question featured an image of workers holding the union flag and a caption setting out their claims.
Alleging the post was defamatory, the bookshop’s lawyers asked for the post to be taken down within 24 hours, else legal action would be taken.
RAFFWU removed the post but contested the defamation allegations.
Better Read Than Dead then issued “show cause” termination letters to two staff members, demanding they attend meetings to explain why their employment shouldn’t be terminated.
“What we’re seeing is the use of a law firm and bad laws to stop workers being able to bargain for a living wage and a range of other conditions,” said RAFFWU Secretary Josh Cullinan.
But staff aren’t going down without a fight.
They are currently applying for a “majority support determination” in the Fair Work Commission, which will legally require Better Read Than Dead to bargain if successful.
While Better Read Than Dead have opposed the application, Cullinan says that he is “optimistic” about its outcome.
RAFFWU is also preparing litigation against the bookshop for the actions taken against workers who are “simply wanting to bargain” and who have engaged in “lawful industrial activity.”
Amidst the chaos, community solidarity has been strong for the workers’ campaign.
Regulars and local cafe owners have come into the shop bringing flowers, and social media has seen an outpouring of supportive messages.
“These types of situations can really worry and upset workers, so the support has been fantastic,” Cullinan says.
“We encourage the community to further show solidarity as we continue to try to stop attacks on our members and press towards a fair new agreement.”