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‘Unprecedented’: the fight for Sydney independent bookstore Better Read Than Dead

·8-min read

Newtown bookstore Better Read Than Dead was devoid of customers and the majority of its workers on Monday morning, but it wasn’t strictly the result of Sydney’s ongoing Covid-19 restrictions. Instead, this disruption marked a fresh escalation in a dispute between the inner west institution and its recently unionised workforce. On Tuesday night, the bookstore’s staff reached an in-principle agreement with management which the union described as “a landmark agreement with historic conditions in the retail sector” – but not before the clash had reverberated across Australia’s literary community.

Last week, Better Read Than Dead staff voted unanimously to begin protected industrial action, the peak of an almost year-long organising effort by the store’s workforce and their union to seek an enterprise bargaining agreement with the store’s management. First, they placed a ban on handling cash transactions or updating the store’s King Street shopfront display. Last Wednesday, they refused to process website orders or pick returns (removing unsold books from the shelf to be sent back to the publisher for refunding).

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Retail and Fast Food Workers Union secretary Josh Cullinan says the move to industrial action was rarely seen in a retail setting. It came after initial attempts to negotiate an agreement with the store’s owners broke down in June. Cullinan describes the recent action by management, which he characterised as a “lockout”, as “outrageous and unprecedented in the sector’.

Better Read Than Dead management said in a statement on Tuesday prior to the staff vote that it was “simply false” that staff had been locked out: “The staff have not been locked out. The staff have been told that they will not be paid for the period they are refusing to perform their work duties. This is a legal right of the employer. The store continues to operate with other staff performing the duties that have been subject to the bans.” The company said it respected the workers’ right to engage in lawful industrial action, but that such action was “aggressive” and “detrimental to genuine negotiations” and had requested the union and workers to refrain from action during the Covid–19 lockdowns, when the store was restricted to web orders.

Staff claims ranged from improved job security (the store’s workforce, like many across the retail industry, is comprised largely of casual workers) to the adoption of health and safety policies encompassing anti-discrimination, bullying and harassment. In addition to a base hourly rate of $25, before casual loading and penalty rates, the workers’ log of claims also requested “clear delineation of roles and responsibilities, with the right for staff to refuse additional duties beyond classification level”.

In May, Better Read Than Dead’s owners described some of the demands as “simply not affordable to our business and certainly not in the current economic climate”, and that: “If Better Read Than Dead were to agree to the demands of the union, then we would have to close our doors.” In a statement to Guardian Australia, the store described union claims for “5% annual wage increases across the life of the agreement, 25 days annual leave, 15 days sick leave, 26 weeks of notice for a redundancy” as “entitlements the majority of workers in Australia are not entitled to”.

The past decade has presented both challenges and opportunities to the bookselling industry. Despite the high-profile collapse of chains such as Borders and Angus & Robertson in 2011, the last few years have seen growth in some corners, with Melbourne’s Readings adding several new branches and Dymocks announcing a plan to open 25 new franchises over the next three years.

As online retailers such as Booktopia and Amazon’s Book Depository have become a dominant force, many local bricks-and-mortar bookstores have promoted their sense of community and local, personal touch as a valued point of difference. In a submission to the 2017 parliamentary enquiry on the impact of global internet-based competition, the Australian Booksellers Association – of which Better Read Than Dead is a member – highlighted how bookstores have become “active cultural and social hubs for their local communities”, of which the “social capital can’t be understated”.

Established in 1996 by Derek Dryden, who sold the business to its current ownership group in 2012, Better Read Than Dead has grown to exemplify this model. Today the store boasts a broad and diverse footprint that extends into author events, book clubs, writing competitions, podcasts and an active social media presence across multiple platforms and accounts.

In a historically left-leaning and inclusive neighbourhood such as Newtown, the rainbow flag-festooned shopfront has also curated a progressive and cosmopolitan image evident in its very name – a pun that playfully invokes the anti-communist rhetoric of the cold war era.

“The way that Better Read Than Dead and bookstores in general in Australia have been positioned is that they’re not just bookstores, they’re community spaces,” says Zachary Moore-Boyle, a former Better Read Than Dead employee and RAFFWU member who was involved in the early stages of unionising before he resigned in October last year.

“What that has meant is that bookstores are increasingly turning towards other forms of engagement that go beyond just bookselling – they might be facilitating book clubs and community forums, partnering with and participating in writers festivals, creating literature podcasts or attempting to build a following on social media.”

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The pandemic brought further pressure to innovate, and multiple staff members said that by the end of 2020, staff turnover was so significant it helped galvanise the push to organise.

Tensions were already high before stand-down notices were issued last week. They followed cease and desist notices, sent to RAFFWU and several workers by the store’s lawyers, demanding the removal of a Facebook post about the campaign, which they claimed was defamatory. The RAFFWU subsequently removed the post without admission. More recently, the RAFFWU has taken up the case of two workers – including a store manager – facing retrenchment (both are currently the subject of legal challenges).

In the meantime, the workers’ campaign had won broad support from the general public and literary community, with a welfare fund for workers raising more than $22,400 and an open letter of solidarity backed by 245 Australian authors published in the literary journal Overland. The letter, signatories of which include David Marr, Di Morrissey and Christos Tsiolkas, alongside Miles Franklin winners Melissa Lucashenko, Evie Wyld and Michelle de Kretser, called the campaign “a litmus test for Australian literature and for retail working conditions across the continent”.

In this respect, Better Read Than Dead is not an isolated case; workers at Melbourne chain Readings are also currently negotiating their own agreement after several years of organising with the RAFFWU, while staff at publishing houses Penguin Random House and Hardie Grant have also campaigned for EBAs of their own. Such disputes reflect a growing recognition across the publishing industry that the prestige and attractiveness of working in and adjacent to creative and cultural sectors – and the passion of its workers – can also form the preconditions for low wages and insecure work.

Better Read Than Dead’s owners wrote to the union last week to resume negotiations, and on Tuesday night the staff voted unanimously to accept their offer, which included giving casual staff the opportunity to convert to permanency, redundancy rights, full restoration of penalties for Sunday work, an abolition of junior rates following probationary periods, 20 days paid domestic violence leave, 26 weeks paid parental leave, a suite of health and safety policies and rights detailed in the agreement, and what the union said was “a pathway to a $25 per hour living wage in the future”, among others.

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“Each of these conditions is far superior to any major retail or fast food agreement in Australia,” Cullinan says.

Better Read Than Dead management confirmed in a statement to Guardian Australia on Wednesday afternoon that in-principle agreement had been reached with staff. “Better Read Than Dead is the first non-university bookstore to have achieved such a result and represents a positive move for the entire industry. The enterprise agreement strikes a good balance between the current difficult financial circumstances that Better Read Than Dead is experiencing and providing job security for the staff,” the statement said.

“Whilst Better Read Than Dead was disappointed in the manner in which the negotiations were initially handled, the final result is testament to a more reasoned approach from both parties. Better Read Than Dead hopes that this agreement sets an example as to industrial relations in the entire industry.”

On Wednesday morning, staff lifted all industrial action and returned to work.

“People come to brick and mortar bookstores because they know that there’s going to be a bookseller there who’s spent a lot of time thinking, reading, and cultivating a kind of literary niche that might suit that customer’s interests,” Moore-Boyle says of the value that passionate booksellers bring to a store, its customers and the literary community. “They’re a wellspring of knowledge that a lot of people in the community really cherish and rely on.”

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