That is the question I set out to answer when I hooked up with The Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) member Blair Vidakovich, to talk withJosh Cullinan, Secretary for the RAFFWU. RAFFWU was launched in November 2016, with a mission to win back pay and conditions for retail workers that have been traded off by the SDA, Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association.
Firstly we asked Josh what efforts had been made to reform the SDA, and how the SDA officials had obstructed them, because forming a new union, to compete with, and effectively split an existing union, is potentially divisive of workers who need unity against their employers.
Josh: “There have been various attempted challenges. Some from within the SDA hierarchy, generally organisers or senior Catholics who have opposed the leadership, but we can discount them as not genuinely advocating any change. Other challenges have involved young retail workers. Some tried to work from within the SDA, by getting jobs there, thinking they could organise workers from within, but they would get shut down. There have been small tickets, running for state conference positions, but they never come close to winning any positions. This is due to a large number of issues, not least of which are the undemocratic first past the post ballot rules. Winner takes all. The most votes will elect an entire slate. We had a Shop Watch campaign which rank and file members joined in in the early noughties. Workers were agitating around the penalty rates that were being stolen by SDA deals. . These campaigns lacked capacity because of numerous difficulties organising low paid, insecure, transient workforces against established political elites. Unite in Victoria chose to organise workers outside the SDA employers. Then in 2014-2015 there was the Coles case. It seemed such a conspiracy at the time that journalists would have laughed at us. But it came to a head at an interesting time. We analysed rosters and pay rates on the Coles agreement, and exposed how far behind the award they were.”
Duncan Hart was the part-time Coles worker who, with Josh Cullinan, took Coles to the Fair Work Commission and won. Josh had thought there was a possibility that the SDA might rethink at this point.
Josh: “What was the SDA response? …They fought Duncan’s appeal. When the Commission ruled in May 2016 that the SDA’s 2015 agreement failed the BOOT – Better Off Overall Test – and therefore was invalid, that should have been a watershed. They could have said ‘we’ve been caught, it’s time for a change’. But they didn’t. The combination of anti-worker rules such as its first past the post rules, and anti-communist rules are used to stop any challenge. They have immense resources to block change from within. The other difficulty is that even though the employers are such massive corporations, the workplaces themselves are not very big, around 100-150 with a high turnover. Individual workplaces are too small to have a big impact on the SDA. They continue to defend the Coles agreement, which made some workers better off, but so many more workers were left far behind. The SDA is so beholden to its keepers, the bosses. It will do whatever it has to for the right to have payroll deductions from the bosses. It pays cash directly to the bosses to have that right. All efforts to mobilise get washed away.”
Josh emphasised that RAFFWU did not ask retail workers to join if they could be represented by a genuine union. So drivers can join the Transport Workers Union, fast food restaurant workers (eg Grill’d) can join United Voice, head office staff can join the Australian Services Union and meatworkers can join the Meat Industry Employees Union. RAFFWU is not asking other unions to take a side between the SDA and RAFFWU. And neither does RAFFWU require members to resign from the SDA, though most members could not afford to pay fees to both unions. RAFFWU’s relationships with other unions are in early stages.
Josh: RAFFWU will be affiliating with local labour councils wherever possible and as members identify it as a priority. The SDA has not affiliated to many, but did apply to affiliate to Victorian Trades Hall Council 28 days after RAFFWU was launched, and a range of other regional labour councils in a remarkably overt attempt to shut RAFFWU out. The SDA brings money and power, so it has apologists in the union movement. We think that once the stories come out from our members about their suffering, and what the SDA has done, the SDA officials won’t be able to escape criticism.”
Janet: “Does RAFFWU have plans to become party to agreements or awards?”
Josh: “Definitely yes. Our members appoint RAFFWU as their bargaining representative. But at the moment, employers are simply refusing to bargain. This means we can’t take protected industrial action to bargain. The only way to use the law to force the employers to bargain is to win majority support of the workforce to terminate the agreement. To get a legal “majority support determination” would mean when Coles refuses to bargain, we would have to get over 38 000 workers to vote to support bargaining for a new agreement, in Woolworths over 50 000, and in McDonalds over 52 000. McDonald’s has 105 000 employees. This Abbott-Turnbull change to the Fair Work Act from 2015 makes bargaining like it is in the USA, where you can’t start until over 50% of the workforce votes for in favour of commencing negotiations. We will be bargaining with other employers.
We are an Incorporated Association in Victoria, and a registered body that can trade inter-state. We are an industrial association under the Fair Work Act Almost all members appoint us as bargaining representative, which means we represent them as their union in bargaining and we can get a protected action ballot. We will be applying to terminate agreements, which would then bring the Award into effect. We don’t anticipate that the employers will bargain. We will take cases to terminate agreements. With our members we can apply to terminate agreements which will return substantial wage increases for most retail and fast food workers.”
(RAFFWU first applied to terminate an expired agreement in January 2017 covering approximately 400 Bakers Delight staff across 15 or more stores in Victoria.)
We need to mobilise our members, the community has to be active and we don’t want to be bureaucratic. We can’t just engage in all of this legal action on its own. We want to mobilise a lot of workers to share their views, a group of workers across states. In smaller workplaces, eg IGA, workers in stores are electing delegates. They talk amongst their friends in stores about how to get back conditions. Penalty rates are the bread and butter, along with underpayments. The focus is on penalty rates, because workers will be better off, even with the recent penalty rate cuts, on the Award rather than on the EBAs. If we can terminate the agreements quickly enough, it could bring half a million workers to the fight to take back penalty rates, if they can be on the Award before the FWC cuts to the Award come into full effect.
We asked Josh for his view of the role for socialists in the union movement, and his opinion of the Workers’ Liberty draft working class charter.
Josh: “I’m for the emancipation of the working class, but we’re not a red union. We need political education for our members, delegates training. Politics in unions is too often stifled by political party politics. Any radical debate, on anything important is stifled, suppressed. We want to encourage innovation, new ideas and ways of working.
We want to get back to the idea that the power of the union is on the shop floor. We hope that our members will become social activists. We need to focus on bringing the stories of exploitation to light. We need to give workers a voice, and that is how we will pursue socialist objectives. These corrupt officials will not be able to escape when these stories come to light. We are confident we will be able to terminate agreements and deliver wage increases. These IGA workers whose agreement we hope will be terminated within a week will see 25% average wage increases – some over 40%. Once workers realise that they’re losing money they are awakened, and become willing to organise. The role of good unionists is to be sound on workplace issues. It takes dedicated resources and commitment over decades. I agree with pursuing socialist objectives, including the ones listed in this draft workers’ charter.”
We concluded that retail and fast food workers need RAFFWU, and editorialised that for Workers’ Liberty:
A critical point emerged from the interview. The Fair Work Commission (FWC) cuts to Sunday and public holiday penalty rates from July 2017 would not take anything from most part-time and casual workers employed on SDA enterprise agreements, because those agreements are so far below the existing Award conditions. Although the SDA has been exposed in the 2016 ruling by the FWC in the case pursued by Duncan Hart, the SDA is continuing to defend its sell out agreements. But workers joining RAFFWU will be supported to demand the termination of the agreements, and restore the Award conditions. Any workers who achieve this prior to FWC cuts to Award penalty rates take effect, will directly experience the impact of those cuts. According to Josh, there could be up to 500,000 workers in this position.
Whilst these workers continue on the SDA agreements, they are far less likely to be mobilised against the cuts to penalty rates in the Award, because they get no benefit from them. This is a point of urgency for mobilising retail and fast food workers, and building support for RAFFWU’s case to terminate the SDA’s sell-out agreements. There is also potential for SDA members and delegates to express their support for termination of the agreements. RAFFWU should encourage this.
Reform of the SDA is beyond the reach of rank and file members, and could only be seriously tackled by a well-funded political coalition, that would almost certainly get bogged down in legal proceedings, and in any case would lack a rank and file base. Josh Cullinan has a record in organising young workers, and in defending retail workers’ penalty rates, based on thorough research into working conditions in the retail and fast food industry.
The overwhelming challenge is for retail workers to get sufficiently organised on the job, to be able to force their employers to agree to better wages and conditions. The SDA officials have found greater common interest with the employers, via delivering sub-standard enterprise agreements in exchange for employers collecting union dues for the SDA. RAFFWU provides an avenue for retail workers to organise on the job, that they have been denied by the SDA.
There is no sign that unionists who express reservations about RAFFWU and call for working for change from within the SDA, have put a tenth of the energy that Josh has already put into advocating for retail workers, identifying a basis for organising them against the employers, and challenging the SDA officials’ partnership with the employers. If RAFFWU is not built, then there will be no effective union for retail and fast food workers.
If RAFFWU gains ground, the major retail and fast food employers will be concerned about having to deal with a more militant workforce. They are likely to encourage the SDA officials to shut down RAFFWU, and to look to the Fair Work Commission to reassert the lower standards of pay contained in the expired enterprise agreements. Equally the SDA officialdom will want to keep its power and influence, and could pitch to both the ACTU to broker a shut out of RAFFWU, and the employers to go to war with RAFFWU. The full-time permanent weekday sections of the retail workforce have fared best from the trade-offs in the agreements, and is the most likely base of member support for SDA incumbents.
In the name of unity, some sort of deal could be proposed, with mild democratic reforms to the rules of the SDA, that might allow the appearance of an electoral challenge, but with the odds stacked against RAFFWU supporters. Josh said, it will be up to the RAFFWU members to convince other trade unionists that RAFFWU deserves support, and not the SDA.
Workers’ Liberty anticipates there will be no smooth path for RAFFWU, and that ACTU and individual union leaders will be confronted with a choice between shoring up the SDA leadership (Dave Oliver, former Secretary of the ACTU obliged the SDA by defending their ell-out EBAs), or helping retail workers to build the industrial capacity to fight their employers.
We stand in solidarity with retail and fast food workers organising their workplaces for decent pay and conditions, and protecting penalty rates. We will be calling on all trade unionists to support RAFFWU’s efforts to mobilise retail and fast food workers to terminate sell-out enterprise agreements, and at a minimum to restore the penalty rates contained in awards.
The victors behind Brendan Grylls loss of the seat of Pilbara are the same mining corporations who campaigned against Labor’s mining super profits tax. The miners targeted Grylls because of a tiny 25c a tonne tax rise to fund Royalties for Regions.
The labour movement needs to innoculate Australian workers against capital’s “jobs” blackmail or we’re doomed.
Baby demands to be fed
though she can’t pay for mother’s milk
Mother supplies to keep baby content
No money changes hands
Without a price milk has no value
to capital, accumulating
Replace the milk from the breast
with pricey milk from a formula tin
Deliver value to hungry capital
Mother’s supply dries up
no longer stimulated by demand
Millions of people in the streets against Trump must win. Not necessarily, these street protests may be a necessary, but far from sufficient condition for beating Trump. Scott Walker smashed union rights in Wisconsin despite huge numbers of protestors, as Mike Gecan reminds us.
He says that the Trump administration has “studied the game films from Wisconsin in 2011, when Gov. Scott Walker declared war on organized labor, the Democratic Party and the moderate wing of his own Republican Party. Right after his election, Walker introduced Act 10, a bill that drove large holes in the defensive position of unions by severely limiting collective bargaining and eliminating the main fund-raising tool of the unions, fair share.”
“The unions and their supporters responded to this play by organizing massive demonstrations and sit-ins in the capitol in Madison. During the week of Feb. 14, attendance grew day by day, hitting 25,000 by Friday and more than 50,000 on the weekend. The next week, the daily average was 50,000, and the weekend attendance hit 100,000.
“On and on it went, with the opposition using massive demonstrations and a statehouse occupation to counter the offense run by Walker.”
“This reaction attracted national and international media, brought celebrities flooding into Madison, and generated scores of millions of dollars for the cause. The demonstrations took on a life of their own. Their leaders then called a second play — a recall of the governor, which attracted more than $75 million to just one progressive organization and untold millions to others.”
“Here was the problem. These defensive moves didn’t work. On March 9, the Wisconsin Legislature passed Act 10. And on June 14, the state’s Supreme Court ruled the law constitutional, after which the demonstrations and occupation evaporated.”
Gacen skirts over the governor recall tactic chosen by the Democrats, and Walker’s subsequent increased numbers in the legislature. The mobilisation in the streets became a campaign to elect Democrat Tom Barrett as governor, after union preferred candidate Kathleen Falk lost the primary.
Nonetheless, a huge number of protestors against Walker in Wisconsin was not by itself enough to stop him smashing the unions. So what direction for the masses assembled against Trump? How will they avoid a repeat of the Wisconsin defeat?
These things also matter – what demands do the protestors agree they are fighting for, how do they organise, what tactics and leverage will they use, how will they decide who gets to speak for them, and how will they decide when they are satisfied with any settlement or result.
Leverage against Trump will be critical, and it is employed labor that can bring a halt to Trump, by stopping work, and stopping doing Trump’s bidding.
One group of workers responded immediately, according to Peter Cole: “perhaps, the most dramatic and important action [on inauguration day] was taken by dockworkers in Oakland, California: They stopped working. Their strike demonstrated the potential power ordinary people have on the job, when organized. Longshore workers, who load and unload cargo ships, chose not to report to their hiring hall. As a result, “Oakland International Container Terminal, the largest container facility at the Northern California port, was shut down Friday,” according to the Journal of Commerce. It also reported that all other Oakland container terminals were essentially shut down, too.”
As Buzz Malone says in Jacobin magazine “It’s truly organize or die time, and that doesn’t mean simply signing up new members — it means moving all of them to action around their issues, not ours, because clearly, there must be a difference between the two that we have missed along the way.”
The recently late John Berger described The nature of mass demonstrations, and to paraphrase Berger, it could be said of the Trump protests that there is a danger that these demonstrations may in retrospect appear to have been merely public spectacles, if they do not become the property of a movement for revolutionary change.
“It would seem that the true function of demonstrations is not to convince the existing State authority to any significant degree. Such an aim is only a convenient rationalisation.
The truth is that mass demonstrations are rehearsals for revolution: not strategic or even tactical ones, but rehearsals of revolutionary awareness. The delay between the rehearsals and the real performance may be very long: their quality – the intensity of rehearsed awareness – may, on different occasions, vary considerably: but any demonstration which lacks this element of rehearsal is better described as an officially encouraged public spectacle.”
I like that this article reasserts the case for democracy, and identifies the failure to persuade citizens of a viable alternative as lying behind the Brexit vote (and presumably the Trump vote), not the idiocy of voters.
I also find a lot of sense in the explanation that limits are being reached in productivity increases, in economic growth and in the material limits of application of energy and use of natural resources.
The point I’m hoping to expand on though, is the excessive complexity of managing the damaging consequences and terms of class relations, and the complex market systems and regulations that attempt to find equilibrium and consent in a system that is fundamentally hugely unequal. We are told socialism is too difficult and inefficient but capitalist complexity is failing us.
You don’t have to be a socialist to pick the bull-dust and self-interest behind corporate tax cuts. The SMH and even US “bond czar Bill Gross” can see the danger in Trump’s proposed 15% corporate tax rate. But Malcolm Turnbull seizes the opening to peddle the line that cutting corporate tax rates is good for everyone, because lower taxes lead to more investment and “more investment makes workers more productive, it means greater demand for workers, it means more jobs and over time higher productivity [which] as we all know, everybody knows, is the foundation, the bedrock of higher wages.” He argued that if Australia’s corporate tax rate is higher than other countries, then capital will not invest in Australia.
I can only laugh and then feel angry to hear Turnbull argue that after 25 years of continuous growth in the Australian economy that “Australians will have to accept policies that create short-term ‘winners and losers’ [um, who could they be?] in the interests of strengthening the economy for all.” But “to overcome disquiet we [he’s talking to the Business Council of Australia] must ensure that the benefits of open markets deliver, and are seen to deliver for all Australians, not just a few.”
If growth is meant to create jobs and higher wages, and we’ve had 25 years of growth, then when are the benefits meant to arrive? In 2016 we have:
- 1.1 million part-time workers wanting more hours, i.e. 8.7% of workers
- wages growth at a record low of less than 1.9% a year
- prevalent insecure employment – only 48% of people in work or looking for work have full-time jobs with paid leave entitlements
- inequality increasing – the growing Gini coefficient is 0.446 compared to 0.417 in the mid 1990s (0 is perfect equality – 1 is total inequality)
- unemployed people driven into deeper poverty (graph from ACTU submission)
There’s no value (except to the Business Council of Australia) in allowing Turnbull to take Australia into the global race to the bottom for corporate tax rates. That must lead to further cuts in benefits, in public services and public sector jobs. So, after 25 years of economic growth we have such poor results for the majority. And it is inevitable that growth will end, leading to even worse employment and income conditions, and less tax revenue. If we need to wait for so much more growth before we get the jobs and higher wages, we are waiting for Godot.
So let’s raise, not lower, the corporate tax rate. And let’s not be blackmailed – a workers’ government would retaliate by taking fleeing capital’s property into public ownership for continued productive use. Alternatively, how about producing and sharing the goods and services we need without private capital investment at all?
This article suggests that the separation that most of us are shown, between politics and economics perhaps doesn’t apply for the ruling class. It just applies to the ruled class.
“Unemployment is not a mere accidental blemish in a private enterprise economy. On the contrary, it is part of the essential mechanism of the system, and has a definite function to fulfil. The first function of unemployment (which has always existed in open or disguised form) is that it maintains the authority of master over man. The master has normally been in a position to say: ‘If you do not want the job, there are plenty of others who do’. When the man can say: ‘If you do not want to employ me, there are plenty of others who will,’ the situation is radically altered’ From a Times (UK) editorial of 1943, during wartime debates over full employment in the UK, quoted by Victor Quirk on the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union website.
“When Scottish farm labourers were fired it meant that the thatched roofs of their houses were burnt to make them unlivable. Sacking meant they were only allowed to take a sackful of belongings with them.”From Susan Stead via Sydney Morning Herald column 8, 2 Sept 2016.
PS Other sources say that being given the sack originally meant being given back your sack of tools to take away, i.e. go find another job. In the Scottish Highland clearances, thatched rooves were burned to force evictions but were not necessarily connected to “getting the sack” of tools or belongings. Perhaps being fired in Susan Stead’s story might refer to burning the roof of the house? But here’s an article that says being fired from a job may be more like a bullet being discharged or fired from a gun.
More on the labour market and unemployment from my Macroeconomics Theory course: “The natural rate of unemployment is the unemployment rate such that the actual inflation rate is equal to the expected inflation rate.” This idea has been guiding economic policy since the 1970s. Let’s unpack it.
The two main components of the prices that are subject to inflation, are the markup (m) on production costs in sale prices, and factors that increase the bargaining power of workers (quaintly called z in macroeconomic equations), such as unions, minimum wages, job security, unemployment benefits – all things that have been squeezed in recent decades.
So, looking at markup, the inflation rate and the unemployment rate are both products of the contest between capital and labour over the effective size of the markup, the markup being at the core of profits and capital accumulation.
Profits are capital’s way of retaining (or appropriating) output beyond that paid in wages for household consumption. Capitalists then choose what parts of the value of that retained extra output to allocate to further investment and accumulation, or to their own personal consumption and pet projects.
Wage and labour condition demands are an important way for labour to gain an increased share of that output, but that can only be at the expense of capital’s share. Capital controls the markup, and accordingly inflation, and contests labours’ demands for a larger share of output.
It’s good not to consume everything we produce all at once, it’s good to save or to work on things that may not provide a benefit for sometime, or will provide a benefit for a long time to come, eg infrastructure, productive capacity, environmental repair. But when the savings that can be put to these purposes are decided by and kept in the hands of private capital, they are outside the power of labouring-consuming citizens. We feel we can only squabble for our little share for immediate consumption, and not make decisions about the far more important portion of savings and investments which affect the future shape of our society and world.
We might battle over price markup, wages and employment, but we don’t get to consider the wise allocation of resources to longterm purposes. Instead, as labour we are the victims of an imposed unsatisfactory unwinnable choice. At the macro level the choice is between the wages and conditions of those who are employed versus the proportion of would be workers who are un or under-employed. At the individual and union level this choice makes for employees who are reluctant to challenge the employers’ share of output, and become trapped in a downward spiral of lower expectations of employment and decent labour conditions and reduced power to demand them.
Macroeconomists in the 1970s figured out the workings of the wage-price upwards spiral which capital wanted to end. The policy answer was to reduce the bargaining power of workers by maintaining a so-called ‘natural rate of unemployment’ and to curtail union power and labour benefits that diminished the threat and risk of unemployment. This could be called a working conditions and employment – union power downward spiral. When capital was committed to ending the wage – price spiral, they worked out what action to take against it.
Unions so far have not worked out a platform around which to mobilise working Australians to reverse the working conditions and employment – union power downward spiral. There’s no end in sight.