This evening, protestors and unionists gathered at Camperdown Park to demand that Better Read Than Dead (BRTD), the bookstore on King St Newtown, reverse their decision to renege on part of their in-principle Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA).
Organised by the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) and chaired by Lucas, an organiser with the union, the action continues from last Saturday’s rally outside the store itself. There were also members of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), United Workers Union (UWU) and Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) present.
BRTD workers have now been implementing new industrial action for a week, which means banning overtime, web orders, cash handling, picking returns and window displays.
Emma, the BRTD worker who spoke at the last action, reiterated the need for job security, permanent positions and a workplace free of harassment, alongside honesty and accountability from management. She described how management create an artificial sense of precarity through telling workers they are expendable and how despite book sales increasing, and by extension expectations and responsibilities for workers increasing, wages remain the same.
Jimmy, another current BRTD worker, described the inspiration he found in the School Strike 4 Climate (SS4C) movement in 2019, predicting that BRTD probably has one of the youngest workplaces to take industrial action in Australia. Most of the workers are in their late teens and early twenties working casual jobs. He described the turn by management as a “a change in heart and a stab in the back.”
“Their actions are laying the groundwork for improved conditions not only at their workplace but for retail establishments all over the country and I’m bloody proud of them,” said Zac, a former worker and one of the first in the workplace to begin to organise. He also described the campaign to bring a Workplace Health and Safety (WHS) officer to the workplace, which BRTD did not allow.
Stella, a worker and member of RAFFWU’s bargaining team which begins negotiation next week, described how BRTD, like most bookstores around Australia, does not have an EBA which means workers do not have the right to transition from casual to permanent positions. Workers are paid at the “retail level 1” award level, which describes workers as unqualified despite the extensive and niche knowledge expected of bookstore workers and how much the reputation of BRTD relies on this intellectual labour. In the EBA, workers are demanding retail level 3 classification and pay.
“We thought we had won and celebrated as so, it was to be a landmark agreement in the retail sector won by the first industrial action taken in over 50 years,” she said. “Unfortunately here we are again taking another industrial action.”
Jenny Leong was unable to attend and sent a message of solidarity in her place. The next speaker was Jessica, the president of RAFFWU, who emphasised the outrage of workers being fired for unionising in an establishment that claims to be progressive. The average rent payment per week in Newtown right now is $850 and the lowest paid workers are those that are feeling the brunt of the post-Covid price rises; this includes bookstore workers paid below their skill level whose shifts are being cut.
“The future of the union movement is young, and it’s militant, and it’s not stuck like a barnacle to the hull of the Labor Party,” said Anwin Crawford, NTEU and MEAA member who wrote an open letter in Overland supporting the union struggle at BRTD which was signed by hundreds of authors around Australia.
After this, attendees of the action marched around the block past the BRTD store, coming back around to Camperdown Park. The final speaker was Paul Keating, secretary of the Sydney branch of the MUA, who congratulated the “courageous” rank and file members of RAFFWU for standing up for themselves and their community. “I’ve never known a boss who will come to the table and tell us how good things are,” he said. “When we are on the move, there is nothing that can stop us.”