Young workers take on retail giant over COVID safety

JB Hi Fi storefront
JB Hi-Fi. Source
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The severity of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia keeps gaining momentum, as case numbers continue to rise. Many outbreaks are linked to workplaces across the country, especially in the state of Victoria. When it was announced in March that essential services were to remain open during the first lockdown, JB Hi-Fi, an electronics and appliances retail company based in Australia and New Zealand, announced that it fits this government criterion and would remain open. 

The response among workers was fear, confusion and anger. Working with customers and near-impossible safe distancing, we felt unsafe, insecure and incredibly vulnerable. These feelings led what initially began as a small but solid group of union members from the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) to band together and fight back against a billion-dollar boss.

With little information provided by the company about COVID safety, workers turned to the union for advice and direction. In March, we launched a petition, demanding that all stores be closed, business be switched exclusively to online and all staff be paid for the duration of the lockdown. Word of the petition had gotten out very quickly. In a short period of time, over a thousand employees from JB Hi-Fi had signed, endorsing each and every one of the demands! And it went public. We hit the media, doing interviews for radio and major daily newspapers.

RAFFWU urged members to stay away from JB Hi-Fi stores due to unsafe working conditions.

When the company caught wind of the campaign, the bosses called a conference with its head of Human Relations (HR), the company’s second-in-charge and representatives from the union to discuss the petition and demands. Over the course of the phone call, we discovered that the company hadn’t provided workers with hospital grade cleaning products or adequate hand sanitiser: the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends at least 70% alcohol content for sanitising to be effective against the virus. They also dismissed the idea of paying workers’ wages if the store were to close. 

The company ultimately rejected the union demands. However, the conference call brought changes. Cleaning products and hand sanitisers, complying with WHO standards, suddenly appeared in the stores.

The company’s refusal to accept our demands made unionising on the ground spread like wildfire. In a workplace that previously had next to no representation, the company’s partial capitulation showed workers at JB Hi-Fi the benefits and wins that come with organising as a union. 

We established a Facebook group, where JB workers, union and non-union, keep staff across the company informed of what is happening in other stores. Horrible incidents of mismanagement, from the top down, and customer abuse led to a group of workers almost being run over in a car park by a disgruntled customer in New South Wales, for example. Through regular video calls, workers stay informed of rapidly changing developments. We are communicating with one another and finding a common ground. Workers are steadily realising that they need to turn to each other and stand together as a union during this time. 

Through this organising, women have begun a conversation to confront gender and race discrimination in the workplace. With slightly more than 40% women and very few people of colour employed, JB Hi-Fi is a white, male-dominated workforce. Misogyny needs to be confronted and beaten, and RAFFWU is ready to do so! What’s more, union caucuses of workers who are First Nation, migrant, queer and non-gender conforming, with disability, young and women are being set up. None of us could ever have imagined this level of organising against the boss six months ago!

The novel coronavirus continues to change daily and become more vicious. Companies more interested in profits than they are people do not protect workers, especially those on the front lines. However, this has also proven to be a crucial time for organising. We have seen its significance in battles won by unions throughout this time. As the RAFFWU campaign continues to change and grow daily, workers are gaining confidence in speaking up and speaking out. 

This hasn’t been without constant pushback from JB Hi-Fi. The rightwing-led union, Shop and Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA), which also covers retail workers, aligns with the company. To sabotage RAFFWU’s demand for closure during the crisis, the SDA issued a plan to keep the company open. The SDA doesn’t serve the interests of workers, nor does it appear to have any members at JB Hi-Fi. It has never once come to the stores or invited us to join. We know where its loyalty lies, and it’s not with working-class people made to work in a global pandemic!

In 2016, unionists formed the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union as a democratic alternative to the SDA and its shonky agreements with the bosses. In an era of economic instability and unionism devastated by neo-liberalism, retail workers have a union through which we can fight back. Our battle at JB Hi-Fi isn’t over, it’s building. 

Charlie is rank-and-file dynamo in the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union and a member of Radical Women. Contact them at radicalwomen@optusnet.com.au

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