“Workers are protesting outside Harvey Norman stores across the country today”, read an ACTU press release on 28 May. This would have been remarkable news if true. Finally, the ACTU and its constituent unions, in particular the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA), would be leading an organised fight back of retail workers. Unfortunately, it was a lie.
There were rallies across the country outside Harvey Norman stores. From the photos, it’s evident that the bulk of attendees were officials from unions such as the SDA, the Transport Workers’ Union, the Australian Workers’ Union and some others. But the Harvey Norman workers were inside—working—and played no role in the demonstrations.
The rallies had nothing to do with solidarity. There is no campaign by the ACTU and the SDA, which organises most unionised retail workers, to organise Harvey Norman workers. The workers are paid according to the retail award, which is $21.78 an hour for a typical employee.
Meanwhile, their billionaire boss Gerry Harvey, who has refused to negotiate any union agreements in his stores, made off with a profit of $462 million last year, an increase of 116 percent during the pandemic. Harvey has refused to repay $22 million in JobKeeper payments his company received from the government despite these obscene profits.
Harvey is almost a comic book villain, and his employees have millions of reasons to fight. Yet the SDA leaders and their allies in the union bureaucracy have no strategy to empower Harvey Norman workers to resist. The rallies they organised outside his stores were essentially a publicity exercise in which the workers played no part.
The point was to try to embarrass Harvey over his opposition to any pay increase in the retail award, which the Fair Work Commission will decide before 1 July. Harvey Norman could have paid each of its employees tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses out of the company’s record profits. Instead, it wants to force workers to take an effective pay cut.
The SDA is compounding this perversity. The highly paid SDA bureaucrats who waved flags outside Harvey Norman stores support a model of “unionism” that is about signing deals with some of the country’s biggest parasite companies—such as the supermarket duopoly, most of the department stores and the biggest fast-food chains—over the heads of the workers.
SDA agreements have been supported by most of these bosses because they undercut award conditions, in particular pertaining to penalty rates for nights and weekends. As a result, hundreds of thousands of workers over decades have been paid less than the award. The irony is that Harvey Norman workers, despite being entirely at the mercy of a boss who makes Stalin look charitable, have not had their threadbare award conditions sold out by the SDA. This is the reason the company is being targeted by the ACTU, and not Woolworths, McDonald’s or Bunnings, which maintain agreements with the SDA.
All of this shows what a dire state the union movement is in. What Harvey Norman workers need—and what retail workers, teachers, front-line health workers and all other workers need—is a genuine worker-led fight back. This would involve unions proceeding from the bottom up, organising in workplaces to empower workers to fight for their most basic rights, which the bosses are trampling in the wake of the pandemic.
Millions of workers have a stake in the annual increases handed down by the Fair Work Commission, but the union leaders’ strategy rules out trying to mobilise them. Doing so might start to encourage those workers, including many working under SDA agreements, to begin to understand that their interests lie in class struggle rather than class collaboration.
All the unions that aid and abet the SDA strategy of collaborating with those bosses willing to work with them to undercut workers’ rights are both betraying workers and contributing to the increasing weakness of the union movement.
Duncan is a unionist employed by a large retailer with an SDA agreement.
“I’m exhausted”, declared West Australian Premier Mark McGowan when announcing his resignation at a press conference on 29 May. So too are the state’s 40,000 nurses, who, under McGowan’s government, have confronted daily staff shortages, declining real wages and attacks on their union.
Academic workers at Rutgers University in New Jersey have achieved a stunning victory with a serious campaign of industrial action, centred on an open-ended strike. Their approach is a model for unionists in Australia.
NTEU Fightback, a rank-and-file union group of the National Tertiary Education Union at the University of Sydney, is calling on staff to vote No in the upcoming ballot on the proposed enterprise agreement. The campaign was launched at a forum on 25 May, attended by over 50 people. A members’ meeting on 13 June will consider the agreement. This week will probably be the first time that members are provided with a full list of proposed changes to our working conditions.
We’ll need to bring a lot of industrial power to bear if we’re going to win the enterprise agreements we need. That means putting serious organising work into preparing for open-ended strikes.
Early twentieth century Hollywood moguls declared themselves to be the bosses of a “dream factory”. They were the heads of an industry in which fantasies were splashed in technicolour glory across the big screen viewed by millions. Much ink has been spilled over the ideological nature of these fantasies. Less has been written on the reality of life in the factory. When the curtain is ripped away, Oz-like, the truth is revealed: Hollywood, and the film and television industry more generally, are sites of class exploitation and, at times, working-class retaliation.
Under the cover of darkness, at midnight on 7 April 1998, balaclava-hooded thugs swarmed onto Australian docks, confronting workers with orders to “Get out! You don’t work here any more!”. Shocked Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) members, employees of Patrick Stevedores, were frogmarched off the job and replaced by non-union scabs protected by security guards with dogs and mace.