While most Australians went into lockdown, retail workers, hitherto largely undervalued or invisible, have been working at the front line, risking their health to stack, pack, scan, and deliver our groceries, household supplies, and electrical goods. For some, the crisis sparked a sudden realization that workers who supply us with food, furniture, and electronics are “essential” for society’s functioning. Some media outlets have even dubbed them “heroes.”
This recognition has not resulted in material recompense. Instead, as the virus caught hold, so did panic buying. Major supermarkets — notably Coles and Woolworths — were slow to address workplace safety concerns and resume delivery services. Electronics retailer JB Hi-Fi refused worker demands to close stores and move temporarily to a delivery-only business model. McDonald’s has cried poor, citing the crisis to justify attacks on conditions, while Best Buy, which has 279 stores in Australia, has sacked casual workers worldwide, despite surging online sales. Kmart at Chadstone only closed its doors after two of its employees tested positive. At Brandon Park, even this wasn’t enough to force Kmart to stop trading. These employers appeared to be primarily concerned with capitalizing on panic buying, at the expense of worker and community safety. Making matters worse, some stockpiling shoppers verbally and physically assaulted workers and brawled with one another. A small few deliberately broke social distancing and even spit on money and credit cards.
Insecure, underpaid, and often dangerous work is not just a feature of the global health crisis — it’s built into Australian capitalism. Illegal underpayment of workers is a business model for many employers.
Retail and fast food workers face an additional challenge. Unlike the other workforces who can turn to their unions for protection, the largest union that purports to represent workers in these sectors is an active collaborator in their exploitation.
The Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA, or “the Shoppies”), has repeatedly negotiated agreements with employers that push workers’ wages and conditions below legal minimums. In exchange, employers like Coles and Woolworths help the union recruit members, often signing them up at induction, and consolidating it as Australia’s largest private-sector union. The Shoppies use their huge membership to affiliate to the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Australian Council of Trade Unions, where members translate into delegates on these organizations’ powerful administrative and policy-making bodies.
In these forums, the union fanatically dedicates its significant resources to stifling the progressive impulses of the labor movement more broadly. SDA-backed ALP politicians are prominent supporters of Australia’s extractive industries — and have fought to defend and extend coal mining. Others have worked to guarantee government funding for private, mostly Catholic schools.
Despite representing largely young, mainly women workers, the SDA also pushes a reactionary agenda on social issues. Although abortion has been accessible (despite restrictions) since the 1970s, from the early 2000s, the Shoppies fought a losing battle to oppose states finally repealing archaic laws criminalizing it. They have also opposed support for IVF and stem-cell research. They were largely responsible for the ALP being one of the last social-democratic parties in the developed world to unequivocally support marriage equality.
The SDA is the final ideological inheritance of a group of fanatically anti-communist Catholics who broke away from the ALP in the 1950s and helped keep the conservatives in power at national level until 1972. Rejoining the ALP in the 1980s, the SDA has been a handbrake on progress ever since. Joe de Bruyn, national secretary from 1978–2015, oversaw the development of a deeply undemocratic union structure, which works to protect the incumbent leadership from internal challenges. De Bruyn now sits on the board of the Ramsay Institute — a think tank “for Western Civilisation”— with two former conservative prime ministers, including John Howard, whose eleven-year tenure was characterized by multiple attempts to smash organized labor in Australia.
A New Union
Business unionism is the yellow thread running through everything the SDA does. As a conservative fiefdom within the Australian labor movement, they have won praise from right-wing politicians for signing collective agreements that leave retail and fast food workers hundreds of millions of dollars out of pocket. Perhaps the SDA’s signature sellout was on penalty rates, a hard-fought union right granting Australian workers a higher rate of pay on weekends, nights, and public holidays.
Under industrial relations law, trade unions can “trade away” certain legally mandated minimum employment conditions, provided workers are better off overall. Often this is reasonable — weekend penalty rates mean little to an oil rigger who works in two-week stints in the Indian Ocean. The key is that the trade-off leaves workers with more money in their pockets — and that workers can cast an informed vote for the deal. By contrast, the SDA has repeatedly traded away penalty rates in exchange for obscure rights like blood-donor leave and other conditions of little value. The SDA’s undemocratic structures, as well as its political and financial power, mean that transforming the union from within is close to impossible.
In the context of such regressive leadership, a small group of labor activists from a range of radical and progressive political backgrounds challenged the SDA, launching the Retail and Fast Food Workers’ Union (RAFFWU) in 2016. Unlike the SDA, the young union is not a pro-employer, pro-government outfit in union’s clothing; RAFFWU’s mission is to fight for workers, and not employers. In the words of Loukas, a RAFFWU organizer and former supermarket worker: “We are only really worried about one thing: building worker power with a view to exercising that power.”
The new union’s initial strategy was to bring legal challenges to SDA-negotiated collective agreements, arguing that the conditions they had “traded” for penalty rates left workers at an overall disadvantage. The Shoppies cynically defended their agreements (and sold them to workers) by pointing out that Australian retail and fast food workers are among the highest paid in the world. Yet RAFFWU presented evidence that in many enterprises, workers would be better off with the legal minimum pay and conditions. RAFFWU-led challenges restored penalty rates to workers at McDonald’s, Domino’s Pizza, Coles, and Woolworths, among others, which, according to Fairfax Media estimates, restored conditions worth hundreds of millions of dollars to workers that had been stripped out by SDA agreements.
As with all labor struggles, behind headline grabbing victories is the hard grind of shopfloor organizing. Loukas joined RAFFWU while working at Woolworths: “I found dozens of articles describing this vast conspiracy to deny workers their wages and push a reactionary social agenda.” In his workplace, organizing around safety issues was the key to building the union, a task all the more necessary in the conditions wrought by COVID-19. A campaign to strengthen protections against customer abuse recruited more than thirty new members. After months of agitation and community support, the supermarket was forced to acknowledge the problem, and hired an extra security guard.
Because of efforts like these, RAFFWU now boasts several thousand paying members. It’s the first significant challenge to the SDA’s hegemony in decades.
When panic buying began in early March, the Shoppies’ New South Wales secretary appeared on national television alongside Woolworths’ managing director, praising the company for “taking a zero tolerance approach to customer abuse and aggressive behaviour.” No tangible actions for protecting workers from abuse or violence were outlined. Instead, the managing director deflected questions about why home delivery and “click and collect” services had been suspended at a time when social distancing made them urgently necessary.
As RAFFWU’s national secretary, Josh Cullinan commented, with respect to the other major supermarket chain: “We understand Coles shut down their online business to shift all stock onto customer facing shelves because it moves faster, and profits are maximised. We had delivery drivers put into supermarkets to stock shelves.” With the SDA’s support, profit was prioritized over community and worker safety.
In addition to giving press conferences with employers, the Shoppies rebooted their “Nobody Deserves a Serve” campaign (and its pricey TV ad campaign). Rolled out in the wake of RAFFWU’s launch, Nobody Deserves a Serve asks customers — not employers — to ensure stores are safe for workers. In response to heightened risk of contagion and instances of anti-worker behavior by shoppers, the Shoppies had employers deliver thousands of badges to workers, as though a slogan would have any material effect on the safety of retail workers.
While profiteering employers continue to enjoy the “full support of the SDA,” RAFFWU have focused their work on demanding that employers place security guards in all supermarkets – a demand to which most employers have conceded, albeit slowly.
Simultaneously, RAFFWU organizers have facilitated online campaign groups and compiled lists of demands. At JB Hi-Fi, a RAFFWU list of demands including store closures and pay for workers that are stood down garnered almost a thousand worker signatures in the days after it was launched. When RAFFWU leadership met with JB Hi-Fi to push the demands, they were refused. Shortly after, the SDA announced it was “encouraging” the employer to implement protocols directly undercutting the same demands.
Cullinan believes JB Hi-Fi is now using the SDA to bust RAFFWU: “JB Hi-Fi have agreed to invite the SDA into stores to recruit workers and undermine our safety campaign. It’s old-school union busters using yellow unions.”
The battle is ongoing. Most recently, the Shoppies have collaborated with the Australian Industry Group to once more undermine conditions in the fast-food industry. They have suggested relaxing roster requirements and lowering minimum work hours. Perhaps still bitter over RAFFWU’s win for McDonald’s and Domino’s workers, the SDA is trying to roll back overtime penalty rates once again. RAFFWU is gearing up once again to mount a challenge against the sellout.
COVID-19 has made it clearer than ever — retail and fast food workers are not only besieged by employers, but also by the union that is supposed to defend them, the Shoppies. In the words of Anna, a RAFFWU member and retail worker, “Now more than ever, we need to build a union that actually gives a shit about retail and fast food workers.”