Our words are in their hands: authors for Better Read Than Dead workers

Type
Cartoon
Category
open letter
Workers' rights

*UPDATE JULY 28 2021*

After nine days of industrial action, RAFFWU members at Better Read Than Dead unanimously endorsed an in-principle agreement on the evening of July 27 with the store’s management. Their historic campaign has delivered a landmark agreement in the retail sector.

Members have lifted all industrial action and the lock-out instituted by management has ended. 

Better Read management have agreed to these new workplace conditions —

  • Conversion to permanent, ongoing employment for all members engaged on a casual basis who which to convert;
  • Converted permanent part-time workers to be paid a base rate of $1 per hour more than the Award minimum, with penalty and other rates on top;
  • A planned pathway to a $25 per hour living wage;
  • Classification of workers at least at Retail Employee Level 3 by the Award, following probationary periods;
  • A minimum of four weeks consultation with members over any major changes at the store; six weeks notice of any redundancy; rights to redeployment and severance pay;
  • Full restoration of 100% penalty rates for shifts worked on Sundays;
  • Abolition of Junior Rates following probationary periods;
  • A full suite of health and safety clauses, policies and rights;
  • 20 days paid domestic violence leave for any worker experiencing or supporting those who are experiencing domestic violence; and
  • 26 weeks paid parental leave.

These agreed upon conditions represent a historic achievement by unionised workers in Australian retail. Each of these conditions is superior to any major retail or fast food agreement currently in place in Australia. They show us what is possible when workers organise together in a fighting union and implement direct industrial action.

We thank all 295 of you who signed the open letter (preserved below) in solidarity with Better Read Than Dead booksellers. Such acts of solidarity are more than symbolic — they are a means by which we can act collectively, and conceive of our collective power. As authors we need booksellers — as workers we need each other.

On their behalf, author and Better Read bookseller Madeleine Gray says —

The workers at Better Read Than Dead are thrilled with this development, and we cannot thank our union, our community supporters, and you, our comrades-in-arms, enough. Thank you, thank you, thank you. 

This has been a long, hard battle for job security and workplace safety, and it has not been without casualties. But our message is this: unions work. Solidarity works. We hope our campaign can inspire other workers and workplaces to fight for what they deserve, whether they be in retail, or the literary industry, or any other industry. Everyone is in this for everyone else.

*

A book in inventory is little more than a stack of paper. Whenever books move off shelves and into readers’ hearts and minds – whenever they truly come alive – we as authors and as readers have booksellers to thank. 

For more than two decades, every time a book has been moved into the hands of a reader from the shelves of Newtown bookshop Better Read Than Dead, it has been thanks to booksellers who all the while have lacked the benefit of basic workplace protections and conditions.

*

Most of the workers at Better Read Than Dead are on casual contracts, with no job security or the option of converting from casual to permanent employment. They are being paid the minimum award rate. No employee at Better Read has had the benefit of an OHS policy, or basic protections from discrimination or sexual harassment.

Last year, Better Read booksellers came together to do something about this. They sought to unionise their workplace as members of the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU), and they sought an enterprise agreement from their employer that would deliver them a living wage, job security and workplace policies on safety, sexual harassment and discrimination. Better Read initially agreed to bargain with the workers through their lawyers, but withdrew a week later. 

A majority of workers then applied to the Fair Work Commission to compel Better Read to bargain with them. Three booksellers who posted about the store’s unionisation efforts on social media were sent cease and desist letters via Better Read’s lawyer. These letters also contained threats of criminal prosecution. Two of these booksellers were then issued “show cause” termination notices by their employer, where they were asked to explain why they shouldn’t be sacked for publicising their union organising.

The employer then announced that it could no longer subsidise the running of the bookstore, and began a process of restructure and redundancies, without consulting workers.

The first bookseller retrenched was a RAFFWU delegate, committee member and bargaining team representative. The second employee made redundant was a store manager who was instrumental in bringing workers together. Now, Better Read operates as a bookstore without a store manager. These retrenchments were a naked attempt at union-busting.

But, the booksellers have guts and every reason to keep going. In the words of writer and Better Read Than Dead worker Madeleine Gray: ‘Every single person here is doing this for everyone else’.

On 13 July, RAFFWU members at Better Read Than Dead voted in the first retail protected action ballot, outside of meat workers, in fifty years. The result gives them the option of future industrial action.

*UPDATE*

On 19 July, unionised booksellers at BRTD began industrial action due to the employer’s refusal to negotiate on workers’ demands for a living wage of $25/hr, health, safety and anti-harassment policies, and job security. Workers instituted a ban on cash handling, changing window displays and processing online orders. Because of their industrial action, workers at BRTD have now been served notice that as of Monday 26 July, they will be locked out by the employer – in the middle of a city-wide COVID lockdown.

As authors, we entrust our work – which is our words – into the hands of booksellers. Without booksellers, all of us are deprived of the community that literature builds. Our whole literary ecosystem relies on them. When they are put into precarity – through casual contracts, unlivable wages, without protection from sexual harassment, workplace hazards and discrimination – that is a literary ecosystem failing them. 

We cannot ask them to bear this in our name. We as authors cannot expect booksellers to sell our books when their own employment conditions are untenable. 

Many authors have been or are booksellers. Many workers in bookstores, publishing and libraries live every day with the reality of insecure employment, low wages and a lack of basic protections in their workplaces. They do this with our words in their hands.

We call on Better Read Than Dead to end its union busting and its lockout of unionised workers, turn up to the bargaining table in good faith, and agree to the workers’ demands for:

  • Occupational health and safety policies
  • Anti-bullying, harassment and discrimination policies
  • Job security, including the right for workers to convert from casual to permanent employment, proper notice of redundancies and the right to severance pay 
  • A living wage of $25 per hour.

The union campaign at Better Read Than Dead is a litmus test for Australian literature and for retail working conditions across the continent. The publishing industry – of which bookselling is one part – likes to congratulate itself on its social progressivism, but this means nothing without material conditions for workers in the industry that grant those workers job security and dignity of life. 

A bookshop like Better Read can no longer hide behind the veneer of being a ‘progressive’ employer while they suppress their workers’ organising for a fair workplace, nor can we as authors stand aside and let them. 

We stand with each other. Everyone is in this for everyone else.

 

Signed,

Safdar Ahmed, Still Alive (2021)
Adam Aitken, Archipelago (2017)
Ali Alizadeh, Towards the End (2020)
Elizabeth Allen, Present (2017)
Patrick Allington, Rise & Shine (2020)
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Judith Beveridge, Sun Music: New and Selected Poems (2018)
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Comments

  1. Very proud of everyone at Better Read for not submitting to the bosses. Easy to conjure examples of other workplaces with a progressive front while employees inside aren’t afforded basic respect. Solidarity!

  2. We all know that the lawyers involved, the CEOs, the managers, the politicians and the movers and shakers would NOT get out of bed for $25 an hour.
    In fact, they would be ‘offended’ by such a paltry offer.
    What a profoundly sick society we live in.

  3. I am so proud of my colleagues and friends at BRTD to continue serving their community, champion the voices of emerging and established authors, and be a force for good in the world when they are treated so appallingly by their employer.

  4. I hope this goes well man RAFFWU and BRTD are doing good things for Australia, better than the damn pollies and sell out unions like the sda and uwu. Solidarity forever mate

  5. When you are single and intend to stay that way $25 an hour isn’t a living wage. It’s definitely more than I’m on as a bookseller but it’s not enough, especially without payrises on the horizon. This is still an important action. OH&S is non-exisent and managerial bullying is rampant. The idea of ‘you’re lucky to work in this industry’ is as common in small independent bookshops as it is larger chains.

  6. If we prized literary muscle more than those born of football and greed, our word sellers would not have to ask for the right to a fair wage and just conditions.

  7. All credit to them and shame on those booksellers. A disgrace that they have to fight for a paltry $25.00 an hour rate while the vile politicians and others of that ilk continue their plunder.

  8. Years ago I was the Manager of BRTD for six months before I resigned in despair. A lack of a good defamation lawyer prohibits me detailing my views. I stand in solidarity with the staff and I applaud the authors who have this written this splendid letter.

    • I too worked there and resigned after a year when the owner offered zero support in the face of the bullying I received from the manager at the time. I heard great things about you from other staff, Rob.

  9. All power to them!!
    Its wonderful that despite everything the staff are struggling with, they still turn up every day, and continue to be lovely towards their customers.
    Pat Corrigan is associated with some of the ugliest history of the wharfie strikes. I wish BRTD staff all the very best! Stay strong guys, the community is with you.

  10. As an ex-employee I’m limited in what I can say publicly as I don’t have the funds to fight the guaranteed lawsuit that would follow, but I can say I quit when the harassment got too much and had an nervous breakdown due to my treatment there. I stand in solidarity. F*ck you-know-who.

  11. I shop at BRTD and am appalled to hear about what’s going on with staff treatment. Good on you taking a stand. Stay strong

  12. As a long time unionist and reader, all power to you comrades and stay strong, you deserve better wages and work conditions. I have always found the front line staff in this shop friendly and hard-working. Shame on BRTD management.

  13. I won’t walk past this event and look the other way, this issue calls out to us all, that no one can live on air alone! Dignity and respect are the main touchstones in the workplace. These workers need it, we need it, so I am in solidarity with you and wish you well in your good fight.

  14. Well done to the staff sticking with this fight
    As a local resident I am appalled that staff were treated so appallingly
    Shame on BRTD management

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