Australia: Unite campaign in Australia wins major victory against low pay

The Socialist Party-initiated Unite campaign and workers at the massive US multi-billion dollar Borders Books company have won a massive victory!

This company, for the first time in their history in Australia (and possibly the world), have had to accept a collective agreement, penalty rates (overtime payments) and union representation. This is a great victory for the Unite campaign and for the workers themselves.

Unite campaigns against the exploitation of casual workers and has organised the naming and shaming of dodgy bosses, conferences and meetings, rallies etc on the issue. In March, Unite was approached for help by Borders Books staff, who earn a flat rate of less than A$15 an hour, with no penalty rates (overtime rates). They are on individual contracts, unlike most Australian workers who are on collective agreements.

The company made US$3.8 billion last year, and has a strong anti-union stance. It is to books what McDonalds is to food and Starbucks is to coffee. Despite the fact that Borders do not employ casuals, Unite took the case on. It is outrageous that people are expected to work in permanent jobs on such poverty wages for such a rich capitalist firm.

After weeks of intense campaigning by Unite and Borders staff, management announced that they would not oppose the introduction of the Retail Award (collective agreement) when the issue returns before the Industrial Relations Commission in Melbourne this week.

The back-down by the multi-billion dollar company came after six rallies (four outside the Carlton store and two at Prahran) by Unite, mass petitioning, postering as well as the brave stance of Borders workers themselves. Borders feared that continued opposition to their workers just demands might lead to a boycott campaign by Unite and industrial action from their staff.

This is a great victory for collective action, for Borders staff, and for the new Unite group. It is an important precedent for other workers in stores such as Starbucks.

The move to a collective agreement means that all those workers not on individual contracts will go onto the Retail Award and get penalty rates for the first time. The penalty rates range from time and a quarter to triple time depending on the day and time. For example workers on Sunday night will go from A$14.50-odd to A$42 an hour! Managers staying on individual contracts will, therefore, be earning their flat rate of A$16-odd on Sunday nights compared to staff on $42!

Once the Award kicks in there will be an attempt by the union movement to sign an enterprise agreement with Borders to get workers currently locked into $14.50-odd flat rate individual contracts onto the Award. Staff will be watching very closely to ensure that the SDA (Shop Distributors Association, a right wing trade union for retail workers) does not sell out any Award provisions in order to get Borders management to sign.

Well done to everyone involved in this victory and to the hundreds of people who signed petitions in solidarity with Borders staff! A victory for one is a victory for all!

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June 2004