- Interview by
- Chris Dite
Retail workers in Australia have historically been low-paid. This is due in large part to a lack of industrial militancy. But a change is sweeping through the industry. Over the past two years, retail workers have taken industrial action at bookstores Better Read Than Dead and Readings, and even gone on strike nationally at Apple stores.
Now this new phase of union action is set to hit Australia’s supermarket duopoly. Coles and Woolworths together dominate roughly 70 percent of the market. On Saturday, October 7, workers at both chains will undertake the first ever national strike of Australian supermarket workers.
Coles’s and Woolworths’s profits for the last financial year were $1.1 and $1.6 billion, respectively. But its employees are some of the lowest paid people in the country, and must now spend over 81 percent of their income on rent if they want to live in a capital city in Australia. Supermarket workers were praised as “essential” during the pandemic, but in practice were often treated as punching bags.
The dire wages and conditions at Australian supermarkets are at odds with their high union density rates. Both companies have sweetheart deals with the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA), with whom they collude to keep wages low. Challenging this rotten status quo is the member-led Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU), which is at the forefront of the historic recent strike wave.
Jacobin spoke with supermarket worker and RAFFWU delegate Nelio Da Silva about conditions on the shop floor, the demands of the strikers, and the unique and complicated situation facing union members at Australian supermarkets.
The cost of living is spiralling out of control in Australia. What are supermarket workers asking for in terms of wages?
Workers at Coles and Woolworths only get paid a few cents above minimum wage. But a lot of us are younger, and this is where junior rates come into it. If you’re under twenty you only get a percentage of the adult rate. This can go as low as 46 percent — less than half of the adult wage!
Coles completely relies on these junior rates. Many workers don’t realize how much less they’re getting paid — it can be difficult and embarrassing to talk about. But people are starting to get how shocking this is and are taking action to change it. Abolishing junior rates is one of our big goals in this dispute. We also want the base rate moved closer to what somebody would get in a warehouse, which can be around $30 an hour. This higher rate isn’t normalized in warehouses because the job is harder, it’s normalized because the union is stronger.
A lot of people might have a stereotype of supermarket work as being “temporary,” but job security is one of your key demands. How secure is work at Coles and Woolworths now?
In theory, our part-time days and hours are set and guaranteed. But functionally there’s no such thing as permanent roster work. This is because Coles uses the catch-all term “business requirements” to call for “roster resets” to change people’s hours. For example, they can just say “October roster reset, let’s do it!”, bring you in for a meeting, and move you from the night shift to the evening shift. This means you lose money.
There’s nothing in the current agreement that protects you from this or guarantees no loss of pay after a reset. Obviously not everyone can just change their working hours whenever Coles demands it. If there are lots of union members at a store, the union can try to influence this process. We have close to ten people disputing this at my store right now. We can win good outcomes when union members stick together, but it’s not guaranteed.
We also don’t have any proper processes for conversion from casual to part-time work. There are many people who want more hours, and it’s very difficult for them. Then there’s the reverse problem, that a lot of part-timers are on nine-hour contracts, but in practice are working full-time hours. They’re accruing annual leave and sick leave at a full-time rate, but can only take it nine hours at a time. All of this needs to be fixed and written back into our new agreement.
Supermarket work regularly made the news during the pandemic for being really dangerous. How are you factoring that experience into your demands?
During COVID it was drastic. People shouting, abuse being hurled, physical threats, assaults — it was insane. Coles claims it’s trying to fix the situation. But when we ask for security guards during the day, they say the cost is too high. The time pressures they’re putting us under are also compromising health and safety. For example, an incident might happen on the shop floor, but there are only one or two people at the checkout. If there are customers waiting to be served, we can’t report and log the incident, call the police, wait for them to arrive, write a statement, etc. Then because none of this has happened, it can be impossible later on to pursue a WorkCover claim.
If we are seriously threatened or weapons are pulled on us, our stores don’t close. That is not right. If someone were to go into a bank and threaten someone, what would happen? First of all, there would be security guards during the day. But the police would also get there within a couple of minutes, the place would be shut down, everyone would have to leave. We want the same protection and rights to a safe workplace. We want the ability to get the team member away from the situation, to have the time to instantly report the incident, and to shut the store if need be. Coles thinks this idea is crazy — but members of the public often try to help during incidents like these. They will understand if something serious has happened.
Our old agreements used to have a few things in them about health and safety. Now there’s not a single thing! Coles and Woolworths workers are very much for the inclusion of specific health and safety clauses. This would give us the avenue to go, “Hey Coles, this is in our agreement, it’s right here, you need to do this.” It certainly would make it easier for the union to send off a strongly worded email. But it may not even get to that — we can show the manager the clause on the shop floor and stop it right there.
This is the first strike ever at Australian supermarkets. But on paper the SDA, which has had a long presence at Coles and Woolworths, is the biggest union in the country. This seems strange. Could you explain the role played by the SDA?
The SDA is an “employee registered organization.” But take that with a grain of salt; they don’t represent workers very well. We’ve seen their previous agreements get chucked out for failing minimum standard requirements. The SDA is a very conservative organization. It’s lobbied governments in the past against same-sex marriage and abortion rights “on behalf” of members working at Coles and Woolworths. This conservatism, and its undermining of wages and conditions, is what initially got many members on board with RAFFWU instead. RAFFWU is not only progressive, it won back penalty rates for workers, which was huge.
The SDA has a lot of power politically. They’re having secret backroom meetings with Coles, and we have no idea what they’re discussing or how poorly they’re representing workers. A big concern is if Coles convinces the SDA to put forward an agreement that undermines our demands. Industrial laws in Australia are so restrictive — striking outside of bargaining periods is illegal. If the SDA somehow manages to get a dodgy agreement passed, it’ll be years before we can strike again to try to win something better. We’re pressed for time and have to make an impact as soon as possible. We need to keep pushing.
RAFFWU burst onto the scene in 2016. How has the presence of a militant union changed things at Coles and Woolworths?
There’s generally a lot more excitement. RAFFWU has been progressive and militant and proven that there’s only one way to get an outcome. We’ve seen it on a lot of different fronts: penalty rates at Coles and Woolworths, first-ever industrial agreements at bookstores. For the first time, there’s hope on shop floors across the country.
This is all against the backdrop of increasing pressure on people to pay their bills. Everyone is feeling the pinch. Meanwhile, big companies like Coles and Woolworths are making a bucketload and not sharing it around. People are starting to realize the bigger picture: we aren’t getting what we should be getting.
It’s taken a while to spread and grow. But with this strike it’s going to turn into something big. We’re gaining momentum, more people are joining up. We know it’ll take a lot of people jumping on to take strike action to really get Coles to switch its position. It’s never been done before by retail workers in supermarkets, especially across multiple chains. There’s excitement and a nervous energy. We’re starting with some work bans next week, but this is just an introduction, to see if Coles budges a little. Then we’ll progress to something bigger.
Would you say the outcome of this industrial dispute will be the result of a kind of test between two divergent strategies: SDA-style backroom deals vs. RAFFWU’s collective organizing and industrial action?
A lot of the people at my store who are SDA members haven’t even seen their claims. The only possible reason the SDA doesn’t want its members to see them is because it’s not planning on getting much of what it’s asking for. If the SDA does strike a dodgy deal we can point to these claims and say, “Hey SDA members: this is what they asked for, this is what you got. Now we can see what not taking industrial action gets us.”
The SDA may hide its claims from its own members, but Coles has shown them to us. The SDA has definitely felt pressure to match RAFFWU’s claims, which have been public for some time. They’ve stripped anything to do with queer or indigenous people, of course, but the pay increases, job security, and minimum part-time hours claims are bouncing off ours.
But for a backroom deal to win a yes vote from workers it’d have to have something big in it. Last time there were penalty rates. The SDA had helped take these away initially, and RAFFWU won them back. Coles and Woolworths have had to hand over billions of dollars because of it. But what can they offer this time? If they offer something pathetic it’ll only help us, and if they do manage to come up with something good, then we’ll work through collective action to improve that, too.
As we head toward this historic industrial action, do you have a message from the shop floor to other workers at Coles and Woolworths and unionists elsewhere?
If you’re working at Coles or Woolworths and you’re in the SDA, you need to switch immediately and appoint RAFFWU as your bargaining representative. We’re going to collectively fight tooth and nail to abolish junior rates and win better wages and safer workplaces, and Coles will have to listen. Jump into the fight by talking to your coworkers, organizing collectively, figuring out what you want, and talking to RAFFWU about how we can all make it happen.
To everyone working elsewhere: this affects you, too. We’re a huge workforce and one of the lowest paid. We set the pay floor. If we get a wage rise it’s going to be passed on to you. We need your solidarity in this strike, and you need us to win.