According to the Sydney Morning Herald low paid workers in the fast food and retail industries have been deprived of more than $1 billion over the last 5 years. The blame for this rip-off can be laid squarely at the feet of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA), as they have sold away penalty rates in dodgy deals with a raft of big employers.
This so-called union have consistently conspired with employers to undermine wages and conditions in exchange for easy access to members. It is estimated that the penalty rate rip-off amounts to over $70 million a year in extra profits to Coles, a similar amount for Woolworths, $50 million to McDonalds, and $38 million for Dominos.
It’s this organised underpayment that has put the SDA’s rogue practices under the media spotlight of late. In May last year, the Fair Work Commission ruled that the latest Coles/SDA agreement failed the Better Off Overall Test (BOOT). In other words, the workers were actually better off without the union negotiated agreement!
Similar wage cutting agreements are in place at Woolworths and McDonalds, who along with Coles are Australia’s three largest employers. There are over 500,000 workers covered by SDA negotiated agreements, the vast bulk of which have sold away penalty rates in exchange for a marginally higher base rate.
The SDA is a blight on the entire trade union movement. Not only do their dodgy practices need to be exposed, but there is an urgent need to build a real fighting union in the fast food and retail industries. The SDA is an extremely undemocratic union so transforming it is extremely difficult. While supporting those who are campaigning for a more democratic SDA, much can also be done outside of the SDA to organise fast food and retail workers.
To this end, a new national union called the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) was set up in November 2016. RAFFWU grew out of the work of a few activists who had uncovered the Coles penalty rates scandal. People, like the founding Secretary Josh Cullinan, had been representing small groups of fast food and retail workers for years but decided that a broader challenge to the SDA was required.
Since its launch, RAFFWU has been calling on fast food and retail workers across the country to join their ranks. One of the key focuses of their work is a campaign in several chains to “take back our penalty rates”.
While its establishment has been met with scorn from the SDA, a wide range of activists have embraced this exciting new development. In Melbourne for example a network of RAFFWU activists have been out several times a week speaking to, recruiting, and organising new members. Similar networks are being established in every major city across the country.
The plan of the union is to organise direct action at certain stores that is coupled with legal action to terminate some of the agreements that slash penalty rates. The aim is to draw workers into the process of fighting for penalty rates by first getting workers back onto Award conditions and then campaigning for a new agreement. While legal action can be an important auxiliary, the best way to win better conditions is by using industrial action as a weapon and hitting the employer where it hurts – the profits.
The task of building a new progressive union for fast food and retail workers is not going to be an easy one. Crucial to RAFFWU’s success will be an ability to draw people in, train a new layer of activists and ensure that the members exercise real control over their union.
As for the SDA, they cannot be ignored. Not only will they do everything possible to crush the growth of RAFFWU but they themselves have something in the order of 230,000 (albeit paper) members. As well as RAFFWU setting a fighting example, activists will also need to work within the SDA to cut across any divisions that the leadership attempts to sow.
Up until last year, Socialist Party members in Victoria worked within UNITE, a small rebel union for fast food and retail workers in that state. UNITE has welcomed the establishment of RAFFWU and has encouraged its members to join it. UNITE has since transformed into a campaign group for young workers’ rights and alongside helping to build RAFFWU, will be involved in other work aimed at rebuilding the union movement amongst young people.
RAFFWU has the potential to really challenge the rotten methods of the SDA and to win a much bigger share of the wealth created from the big retail and fast food chains. A fighting, democratic RAFFWU, with real rank and file involvement, has the potential to grow and have a real impact but to do that it will have to be consciously built. We encourage all socialist and trade union activists to get involved.
By Alex Foley