Happy end to work dispute

9 September 2021 | Posted In: #140 Spring 2021,

An unprecedented deal reached between staff and management at Newtown bookstore Better Read Than Dead has sent shockwaves across Australia’s retail sector. Christopher Kelly reports.

A landmark agreement with historic conditions.” That’s how the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) described the outcome of a workers’ rights crusade at inner west bookstore Better Read Than Dead. After an almost year-long campaign by the store’s staff (pictured above) and the RAFFWU — which culminated in industrial action — an in-principal enterprise bargaining agreement has been reached with management.

RAFFWU secretary Josh Cullinan said the move to industrial action was “outrageous and unprecedented in the sector”. It came after initial attempts to negotiate an agreement with the King Street store’s owners broke down in June. The strike included a ban on overtime, handling cash transactions, refusing to process online orders or update the window display.

Staff claims ranged from improved job security, the adoption of anti-discrimination, bullying and harassment policies, and a base hourly rate of $25. Workers also requested “clear delineation of roles and responsibilities, with the right for staff to refuse additional duties beyond classification level”.

Initially, the owners resisted the demands saying that: “If Better Read Than Dead were to agree to the demands of the union, then we would have to close our doors.” The store’s owners added that the union’s claims were “entitlements the majority of workers in Australia are not entitled to”. They also described the industrial action as “aggressive” and said the strike was “detrimental to genuine negotiations”.

During the action some workers at the independent bookstore had “been targeted” with legal threats. Commending them on standing up to the intimidation, Cullinan said that, at one time, management appeared to be willing to “run the business into the ground rather than negotiate with workers”.

But staff refused to back down. It helped to have strong community support. Customers and local business owners came into the shop with flowers; supportive messages were posted on social media. “These types of situations can really worry and upset workers, so the support has been fantastic,” said Cullinan.

In the meantime, the workers’ campaign was attracting attention and winning support from Australia’s literary community. An open letter of solidarity was signed by 245 Australian authors including David Marr, Di Morrissey and Christos Tsiolkas, Melissa Lucashenko, Evie Wyld and Michelle de Kretser. The letter called the campaign “a litmus test for Australian literature and for retail working conditions across the continent”.

Following the industrial action, Better Read Than Dead’s owners contacted the union to resume negotiations, and on 27 July staff voted unanimously to accept the offer, which included redundancy rights, full restoration of penalties for working Sundays, 20 days paid domestic violence leave, 26 weeks paid parental leave, as well as a suite of health and safety policies.

In a statement, management confirmed that an in-principle agreement had been reached with staff. “Better Read Than Dead is the first non-university bookstore to have achieved such a result and represents a positive move for the entire industry. The enterprise agreement strikes a good balance between the current difficult financial circumstances that Better Read Than Dead is experiencing and providing job security for the staff.”

The statement continued: “Whilst Better Read Than Dead was disappointed in the manner in which the negotiations were initially handled, the final result is testament to a more reasoned approach from both parties. Better Read Than Dead hopes that this agreement sets an example as to industrial relations in the entire industry.”

The historic outcome, said Cullinan, will reverberate across the country’s retail sector. “Each of these conditions is far superior to any major retail or fast-food agreement in Australia.” It is, he added, “a pathway to a $25 per-hour living wage in the future”.