Early evening, Carlton, when we hit the joint. We piled out of the car near the supermarket entrance, clogged with Christmas shoppers, banging trolleys, yowling kids. Michael, the leader, gave the place a once-over.

“You go this way,” he said to Jon, a young dark-haired man. “Blair you head there. I’ll go by the deli, see how far we get.” Christmas music crackled over the system — Jingle Bells, All I want for Christmas is you — on slow hell rotation, the candies and crackers in bright red and green, aisles and aisles of them, dizzying, disorienting. “Let’s go.”

We hit the ground, running, Michael and I wheeled round the first corner, and came across a staffer unpacking a pallet of sanitary pads. “Hello,” said Michael, and pulled out his weapon of choice: a clipboard. “I’d like to talk to you about penalty rates.”

OK, OK, being on the road with RAFFWU wasn’t exciting as that, even. RAFFWU? The Retail and Fast Food Workers Union, formed in the wake of revelations about the systemic sell-out by the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA) of penalty rates. Michael, Jon and Blair were doing an organising sweep, and I’d come for the ride-along.

Michael’s the team leader, but it’s a pretty equal set-up. Simple method. Hit a supermarket — they’re focused on Woolies at the moment — find staff not overly busy, and try and get them interested in the half-dozen ways they’re being ripped-off, chewed-up and spat out by the system. Try and avoid management and avoid security for long enough to get some names and phone numbers on the clipboard for a follow-up.

“We’re talking to people about the loss of Sunday penalty rates,” Michael says to a stocker, Ian*. “Have you been affected?”

They talk back and forth for a few minutes, no bagging of the Shoppies from Michael, no mention of them. Ian’s been working there six years, started as a casual thing, but he hasn’t been able to find another full-time gig. He signs up readily.

“We don’t do more than the basic chat here,” Michael says, finishing the paperwork, leaning against huge tins of condensed milk. “We follow up, try and get a meeting of them offsite.”

Jon and Blair are making their way up the other aisles. Michael eyes the deli. “Hard to organise the deli — they’re always busy.”

“You should take a number and then just buy stuff very slowly,” I said helpfully.

“Tried that; I just ended up with packs of rotting meat.”

He starts talking to Lin, a young Asian woman, who looks a little wary, and is in any case immediately called off to dispense one of the 16 varieties of stuffed olives on offer. Choice, in our time. All the olives, one official union, take it or leave it.

Suddenly behind us a few metres, a Wilson Security guard, a slender African man, neutral of expression.

“Manager’s coming,” says Jon, walking up.

“Hi fellas, how’s it going.” The manager, stocky, ginger-moustachioed, in a better shirt than the stackers, but still with his name on the left breast. He’s affable, and unfussed. Shakes hands. “Listen, everyone’s very busy today; we’ve got a state managers’ inspection tomorrow. I’m just about to knock off actually, but don’t keep people too long.”

“Actually, we’re just done,” says Michael equally affably. It’s all very pleasant, but as we drift to the exit, the Wilson Security is still behind us.

***

Quick debrief in the car: “Yeah the inspection visits got people pissing themselves a bit.”

“We should head to Brunswick.”

“Why?”

“Outside of the Woolies city area they wont be inspected tomorrow.”

Both Michael and Blair have worked for Woolies for longish stretches; Jon worked in hospitality. Blair had a few years of uni anti-war activism, has the voice of a man who’s manned a trestle table. All of them have felt called to this organising by the successive revelations about the SDA.

“I quit the SDA because of their anti marriage equality campaign,” Blair says. “Joined the National Union of Workers as a citizen member. The pay revelations came out later.”

He joined RAFFWU when it was set up by Josh Cullinan, an SDA whistleblower. Cullinan had started out as a Christian social activist, and RAFFWU bears the mark of that: persuasion, humility, and patience.

***

And what patience! We hit a few more stores, gaining two or three signatures each time. The mood among workers is a mix of irritation with management, resignation and mild fear.

“I’m leaving after 8 years,” a guy running the automated checkout says. “There’s nothing here, no career structure, they don’t give a damn.”

“That’s true,” Michael says later. “The numbers are just falling. Look at these stores.” True, they are emptier than they were of staff a decade ago.

Reports that came out the weekend after I did this ride-along make it clear. The SDA has done another deal, legally secret this time, for a pay deal for their new “dark stores”: minimally staffed depots that handle deliveries. The big retailers are preparing for a post-staff retail future. That’s one defense the SDA will make of their conduct. But turning yourself into a supine company union is no way to make a stand in the massive changes we are about to go through.

***

Few more stores, about 15 signatures and phone numbers later, we finish up. Michael drives me back through Carlton in the battered Toyota that serves as the RAFFWU chariot. I spot the Woolies manager walking home, in casual shirt now, puffing on a cigarette. Like seeing your teacher in grade six, weird. He looks stressed.

“Not much aggro today.” One senior woman on the fags counter in Brunswick, sixtyish, old Anglo voice, chasing us away from the younger Asian workers. “Gaan, we’re not interested! Gaan!” Old Shoppies loyalist. How many tens of thousands have they screwed her out of over the years?

“Yeah we’ll start again after Christmas. I’m going to Adelaide, Michael, says, letting me out at the edge of the buzzing city. “We’re doing a great campaign in the bottle shops. RAFFWU in each state, and he’s looking forward to more organising over the holiday.”

“Slow work”

“It is,” he says, and then he says what only a born/made organiser could say, and why we are all in such people’s debt: “Yeah but in 20 or 30 years we’ll look back and say we really did something here.”

More power to your clipboards.

*all names have been changed, Mr Woolies.

Peter Fray

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