The Retail and Fast-Food Workers Union organised a community rally in Camperdown Memorial Rest Park in Newtown on Friday afternoon to support industrial action being put back in place by Better Read Than Dead workers. Photo: Eva Baxter.
In July, the Inner West Independentreported that the workers at Better Read Than Dead Bookstore in Newtown had become the best paid booksellers in the country.
Retail and Fast-Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) members at Better Read had reached an in-principle agreement on terms of a new enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA).
Now, workers are reporting that management has reneged on the workplace conditions reached through the agreement, including the full restoration of 100% penalty rates for shifts worked on Sundays, the abolition of junior rates following probationary periods, and 26 weeks paid parental leave.
In response, workers are putting industrial action back into place, and implementing bans on overtime, web orders, cash handling, picking returns, and window displays.
At a rally hosted by RAFFWU in Camperdown Park on Friday November 19, casual Better Read staff member Jimmy Gardiner noted that the workers must be one of the youngest groups on average to take industrial action in Australia, most in their late teens and twenties.
He said COVID made them have to, “radically rethink our jobs, but at the same time we’ve been rostered on for fewer and shorter shifts.
“What do we get as a thank you for all this work and sacrifice? We get delayed.
“A change of heart and a stab in the back after surviving the most stressful period of our working lives,” he said.
Easier said than done
The Centre for Future Work found over the two years of the pandemic, Australian workers have seen a one-third increase in the average amount of unpaid overtime they perform for their employers.
Those in the youngest cohort, aged 18-29, performed the most unpaid overtime.
The weak labour market conditions associated with COVID exacerbated the trend to exploit the youngest cohort with younger workers concentrated in highly casual industries rife with time theft, such as hospitality and retail.
The report by the Australia Institute released on November 17, two days before the rally, found unpaid overtime among casual workers has almost doubled since last year and, “suggests that the pandemic has intensified the pressure on workers in insecure positions to accept employers’ demands and expectations, no matter how unreasonable.
“That employers are able to underpay workers on such a widespread basis, with little fear of penalty or censure, confirms deep flaws in Australia’s industrial relations architecture.”
The report found that in the most recent quarter, June 2021, the labour share of GDP fell to a record low of 46.1%, “and is a clear indication of the relative weakness of the bargaining power of Australian workers in the workplace.”
Former Better Read worker Zac said the store’s myriad of issues pushed them to organise; workplace bullying, precarity of labour, and severe destruction between the store’s progressive public image and its regressive workplace politics.
“An employee at Better Read is expected to be a jack of all trades, a book club facilitator, a social media whizz, a writing competition organiser, a podcaster.
“Despite this, they remain at the base award rate for a casual retail employee.
“Those who felt most comfortable engaging solely in bookselling, that is the bread and butter of a successful bookstore, were looked on disfavourably,” he said.
The Sun-Herald reported Better Read co-owner Terry Greer denied reneging and said the full story would be aired at the Fair Work Commission.