Josh Cullinan: ‘We needed a union for retail and fast food that would fight’

Solidarity spoke to Josh Cullinan, secretary of the newly-established Retail and Fast Food Workers Union

Why is a new union needed?

I worked in retail more than two decades ago and have represented retail and fast food workers in different ways, at different times, across the last 20 years. I have seen first hand the impact of SDA.

In 2015 I did the analysis of the Coles agreement and showed how the arrangements the SDA have put in place across the sector provide for massive wage reductions for retail and fast food workers, particularly those working at nights and on weekends. I was then engaged in the Fair Work Commission, representing Duncan Hart in the Coles case. We won that case.

The SDA chose to attack the decision as having somehow created new law. This is a blatant lie that SDA has continued to perpetrate against retail and fast food workers. They refused to take any form of decisive action either at Coles or Woolworths, McDonalds or any of the other major players and are actively opposing the termination of the Coles agreement which would return penalty rates to 75,000 workers. It became clear to myself and others that we needed to build a grassroots and member-led union for retail and fast food workers that would fight for their rights.

Why have you launched a separate union as opposed to trying to reform the SDA from within?

Of all the employee organisations they have the most undemocratic rules. There are numerous examples and some include in Queensland the state secretary isn’t elected from the membership they’re elected from the state council. They’ve got old anti-communist rules, so that if you’re a member of an organisation that calls for the overthrow of civilised government anywhere in the world, you’re not permitted to run for, or hold, elected office.

We’ve also got a first past the post structure of elections so that winner takes all. That is non-democratic and heavily benefits incumbents, for elections for state council and national council. We came to the decision that it’s not reasonable to ask workers in retail and fast food to throw themselves against that brick wall for another decade trying to democratise what is fundamentally unable to be democratised. These anti-worker rules combined with transient membership and enormous slush funds make member led change impossible.

What has response been and how are you aiming to build membership?

We launched seven weeks ago. Our strategy has been to engage with workers, obtain their contact details and talk with them outside worktime about what we’re doing and how they can be involved. We’re tackling all sorts of stores, from retail and fast food that the SDA has been involved in, but also smaller stores like Baker’s Delight where workers haven’t had any semblance of a union for a long time.

Those workplaces which can be more readily organised are going to be smaller. But to be in a sustainable situation requires us to have a base of membership across the sectors including in the major employers. At the moment we are focusing much of our activity on Coles and Woolworths because we want to organise those stores and engage in processes to bargain for those agreements and terminate the old agreements.

We’ve done almost 100 store visits and we’ve had only two or three over-zealous store managers, at the vast majority we’ve had no problem and we’ve had very positive conversations with workers. We’ve also been clear from the outset that our organisers will come from within. Where workers are organising themselves we’re looking to support their organising with part-time organising jobs. We’ve already put on our first part-time organiser in Melbourne who works at Woolworths.

Is your immediate focus on more legal challenges in Fair Work?

We are aware that unless we organise the workers in these stores the employers will not hesitate as soon as the gaze is lost to slash conditions. You’ve probably heard about the Grill’d case where a socialist activist Kahlani was singled out at a Grill’d store for trying to organise her workmates. That led to everyone in that store being paid higher rates and getting better conditions in the short term. Kahlani moved on from the store, the media stopped looking and that Grill’d store then made an agreement which slashed penalty rates and other conditions. It was approved and then Grill’d rolled that out across the country at every other Grill’d store.

We will pursue legal efforts where appropriate, like termination of dodgy old agreements. In one of the Baker’s Delight stores the workers’ agreement is 12 years old. They get no penalty rates whatsoever. That agreement needs to go and simultaneously we need to identify representatives, get workers joined up to the union and plan collective action to get a new agreement once the old agreement is terminated.

How are you going to take industrial action if you are unable to register officially as a union?

There is a remarkable restriction of the right to strike in Australia. But the right-wing advocates who have individualised workplace rights have left us in a position where we can now collectivise those individual rights. So a bargaining representative, which we are for many of our members, is entitled to apply for a protected action ballot for the workers they represent. We intend to collectivise their individual actions to engage in industrial action. We’re under no illusions about the task before us. This process is going to take a very long time.

New union no short-cut to mobilising the rank-and-file

The new Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) has been established to combat the poor pay and conditions fast food and retail workers face in Australia. It aims to establish itself as a rival to the conservative Shop Distributive & Allied Employees Association (SDA) which collaborates with employers to strip pay and conditions.

A fight against the SDA and employers is entirely justified. But setting up a new bureaucracy is no quick-fix for the terrible situation retail and fast food workers find themselves in. What is essential is struggle organised from the rank-and-file.

Forming separate breakaway unions has a long history in the labour movement as one strategy for overcoming the conservatism of the union bureaucracy.

In certain situations, such as in the case of the Industrial Workers of the World in the United States, where there was no competition from already established unions, this can result in the mobilisation of previously unorganised groups of workers.

American unionist and IWW founder Eugene Debs famously said “to talk about reforming these rotten graft infested unions which are dominated absolutely by the labour boss, is as vain and wasteful as to spray a cesspool with attar of roses”.

But a dual unionism” or breakaway strategy tends to locate the barriers to militancy entirely at the top of the union. As a result the prescription can end up being equally top down—everything will be fixed if only an enlightened minority split.

However, on its own, forming a separate union does absolutely nothing to build the strong rank-and file organisation necessary for militancy. Worse, such breakaway or “dual unions” can also divide the workforce and separate the minority of militant workers who want action from the majority of workers who remain in mainstream unions. It can leave workers in the mainstream unions under the unchallenged influence of conservative union leaders, inadvertently strengthening the hand of the union bureaucracy and employers.

Many of the activists in the young Communist Parties formed in the 1920s argued for left-wing breakaway unions based on the radical minority of workers.

In the wake of the German revolution of November 1918 bosses conceded the eight-hour day, and union membership tripled in a year. But German communists urged workers to “get out of the trade unions” and to join their own red unions.

Similar opinions were held by the American and Italian communists.

In Left Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, written in 1920 to address this trend, the Russian revolutionary Lenin explained that, “To refuse to work in the reactionary trade unions means leaving the insufficiently developed or backward masses of the workers under the influence of the reactionary leaders.”

Furthermore, revolutionaries needed to, “learn how to work legally in the … most reactionary of trade unions” and “must absolutely work wherever the masses are to be found.”


The SDA has been exposed in recent years for selling out its members by making deals with bosses that leave them worse off than under the basic industrial award, particularly over penalty rates.

The SDA notoriously negotiated an agreement with Coles in 2015 that cut the penalty rates of thousands of union members.

The SDA even pays Woolworths and Coles up to $5 million a year to have union members’ dues deducted from the payroll, often without the workers knowing they are members. This boosts the SDA’s membership and increases its representation at state and national ALP conferences, where it pushes conservative positions like opposition to equal marriage.

RAFFWU can expect determined opposition from the SDA and the retail bosses. In May 2015 Coles and the SDA won a vote in favour of a single national enterprise agreement (now void) that would cover all employees, superseding all separate agreements covering Coles workers, some of which were better than the new one.

Prior to the new agreement meatworkers in the AMIEU working in Coles were covered by a separate agreement with better conditions.

The AMIEU ran a campaign to reject the new agreement, but this ran up against the combined force of Coles and the SDA, with the result that only 8 per cent voted against the agreement.

As well as sending organisers to recruit members in Coles and Woolies, RAFFWU is planning legal challenges to various SDA agreements that traded away penalty rates.

But legal challenges can’t force employers to accept improved agreements. Last year Coles defied orders from the Fair Work Commission to lift penalty rates by scrapping the 2015 agreement signed with the SDA. Instead, the bosses have now rolled back a previous enterprise bargaining agreement, although on this occasion they decided to keep paying the higher base wage rate in the 2015 deal.

RAFFWU has been launched as a new union outside the SDA, the existing retail workers union, without a base among workers in the industry. It is not going to succeed without a substantial membership amongst rank-and-file workers.

Even if RAFFWU is able to recruit retail members, it risks becoming a small more militant union on paper, but separated from the bulk of union members still in the SDA.

Winning improved penalty rates and better agreements for the foreseeable future will require organisation within established SDA workplaces, organising to fight both the bosses and the SDA leadership. RAFFWU would need to build rank-and-file support in particular workplaces to defeat ballots on agreements supported by the employer and the SDA. Shop-committee style initiatives with workers who remain in the SDA would be a necessary part of any serious push around Enterprise Bargaining. It also means building enough support to take industrial action in defiance of the SDA trade union leaders.

Building an active and organised rank-and-file through site delegates and activists at big employers like Coles and Woolworths is an immense challenge. Coles alone operates 776 stores across Australia.

But building rank-and-file organisation is the only way to organise independently and to push union leaders to call action and support strikes.

Nobody would be sorry to see the conservative leadership of the SDA toppled. “Breakaway unions”, with a new bureaucracy can seem like a short cut, but the key to rebuilding the fighting unions we need is the militancy and consciousness of the rank-and-file.

By Lachlan Marshall and Adam Adelpour


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