New retail union stands to disrupt enterprise agreements

Josh CullinanFor the first time in decades there’s a new voice at the negotiating table between major retailers and their employees, as a new union comes to the foray in the wake of widespread criticism of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA).

Launched on Monday, the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) has plans to significantly disrupt the state of current retail enterprise agreements negotiated by the SDA, who RAFFWU says have done a poor job advocating for their workers.

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RAFFWU claims that SDA agreements leave 500,000 workers more than $300 million dollars worse off every year, signalling their intent to bring penalty rates back to the negotiating table with some of Australia’s largest retail employers.

“There is a new growing progressive union fighting for the workers who have been left to the sidelines for far, far too long,” RAFFWU secretary Josh Cullinan told Inside Retail Weekly.

“Employers now need to make a choice – they can either continue participating in the arrangements they have with the SDA, which deliver conservative political agenda, and we‘ll be exposing that, or they can come to the table and negotiate fair, reasonable conditions for their workers.”

Under current agreements negotiated by the SDA, employees of Coles and Woolworths receive reduced penalty rates, and McDonald’s employees receive no weekend penalties.

“Agreements were negotiated which slashed the penalty rates and other rates of workers,” Cullinan said. “Any agreement has to be better than the minimum conditions in the award, which will obviously have a substantial impact on the retailer employers.”

Australian Retailers Association chief executive Russell Zimmerman says that retailers will  ultimately work with any new union presence that presents itself, but has labelled the new union as an unknown quantity.

“[Australian] retail workers enjoy some of the best wages and conditions in the world. The 500,000 retail employees who are better off under the agreement system should consider whether Mr Cullinan will see these arrangements continue,” said Zimmerman in a statement.

Zimmerman maintains that the SDA agreements, whilst sacrificing penalty rates to some degree, provide workers with compensation in the form of a higher rate during the week. Speaking to Inside Retail Weekly, he said that retailers will ultimately have to wait and see what shape the union takes and how popular it becomes among workers.

The new union has been formed in the wake of multiple Fairfax Media investigations, one of which Cullinan worked on himself. Most recently, Fairfax reported that SDA deals have left more than 250,000 workers earning less than the award.

In May this year, the full bench of the Fair Work commission found that a Coles agreement with the SDA failed the ‘better off overall’ test when compared to the award because some 77,000 workers faced “significant” underpayment from the deal stemming from a cut to penalty rates.

For their part, the SDA is less than impressed with the formation of the union, labelling its establishment as a “smearing” and refusing to recognise RAFFWU as a union.

“The SDA has cautioned retail workers to be wary of a new body purporting to be a ‘union’ operating in the retail sector,” said SDA national secretary, Gerald Dwyer, in a statement to Inside Retail Weekly.  “The so-called ‘Retail and Fast Food Workers Union’ is nothing more than an alliance of political activists and lawyers with a stated desire to undermine the SDA and its coverage of the sector.”

“The SDA totally rejects assertions that the majority of workers at Woolworths, Coles and McDonalds are worse off under a variety of Enterprise Agreements and Fairfax reporting on these matters is consistently filled with inaccuracies and falsehoods.”

Zimmerman says that it’s important to remember that 70 per cent of workers were better off under the Coles agreement, admitting that there’s a “view being held” that the ‘better off’ rule needs changing.

“We’ve always got to be concerned that we’re doing the best thing. This new union has seen an area they want to focus on and time will tell whether that will be part of a new set of claims,” Zimmerman said.

Unemployment is what unions should be concerned with, according to Zimmerman, who says that members are telling him that Sunday penalty rates are unsustainable and will restrict employment growth across the sector.

“Unless we see a reduction [in penalty rates], you’ll not see more retail employment growth because retailers can’t afford to employ more people,” he said.

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