For many Melburnians, Readings is more than just a bookstore – it’s a bricks-and-mortar embodiment of progressive values, a business that doubles as a community space where ideas are shared and diversity is celebrated.
But an ongoing pay dispute has divided staff and threatens to tarnish the independent retail stalwart’s image, with hundreds of authors – such as Michelle de Kretser, Jennifer Down, Clementine Ford and Omar Sakr – recently campaigning on behalf of booksellers, and protesting outside the company’s flagship Carlton store.
Amid the increasingly heated, four-year dispute, staff last week narrowly voted 61 to 58 to accept a revised enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA). However, the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) has raised concerns about the validity of the vote, claiming that some ineligible staff were allowed to cast a ballot. Representatives say they will raise the issue when the EBA is considered by the Fair Work Commission.
Since opening the door of its first store in Lygon Street, Carlton in 1969, Readings has carved a niche not just as a seller of books, but as a staunch supporter of Australian authors, elevating the voices of unrepresented groups, including Indigenous and female writers.
With eight stores, including the first commercial bookshop at the State Library of Victoria, Readings is a major partner of the writers’ festival and renowned for its in-store book launches, author talks and the Readings prize, which provides funding for emerging Australian authors across multiple categories.
But RAFFWU secretary Josh Cullinan alleges that behind the scenes management spent years resisting calls to address staff concerns over job security and wages, before protracted negotiations on an enterprise bargaining agreement began in early 2022.
“Everything that has happened, especially this year, has exposed just how far from progressive Readings is,” Cullinan says. “It’s just not a bastion of progressiveness, it’s a business that’s making substantial profits off the backs of low-paid workers.”
The Readings managing director, Mark Rubbo, told the Australian Financial Review in August that had been “traumatic”.
In response to Guardian Australia’s questions this week, Rubbo said Readings employees had voted in favour of a deal that was developed in consultation with staff over seven months.
“It is a retail leading agreement that is generous, fair and transparent,” he said. “It will be submitted to [the Fair Work Commission] next week. We will be happy to respond to any questions once fair work has made their determination.”
A fortnight ago, before the EBA ballot was held, criticising the terms of the deal and supporting staff in their bid for “fair wages and fair conditions”.
“Readings is a local literary institution, celebrated for its support of Australian literature over many years,” the authors’ letter read. “A store that stakes its community reputation and brand recognition on its support of Australian literature has no business undercutting its workers’ demands for a living wage.
“Readings can afford to pay a living wage to its workers. This is a multi-store business that, until 2021, posted profits for 25 consecutive years, and which in the past year has spent considerable amounts of money opening both a new store branch and a warehouse, without consulting workers.”
Walkley award winner Jeff Sparrow, who writes for the Guardian in a freelance capacity, signed the letter and says writers relied on a network of people to support their work, including booksellers.
“Writers know what it’s like to not earn very much money so it’s really important that we do what we can to support others,” he says. “Like booksellers and publishers, we’re not in a position where we can do this because we simply love words, people have to pay the bills.”
The letter provoked an angry rebuke from Rubbo, who emailed multiple authors to refute their claims.
“Dear authors, over the years Reading has supported you, promoted you, given you space on shelves, awarded you prizes and championed Australian writers,” Rubbo wrote.
“Do you have such low regard for us that you would immediately accept one version of this narrative? Couldn’t some of you had the decency, especially those of you who know us personally to ring and ask us or our staff, for our version events before you signed?”
Rubbo said the RAFFWU only represents 17% of the Readings workforce, that the authors’ letter “contains many inaccuracies and falsehoods” and pointed to a range of positive aspects from the company’s record, including having “distributed 10% of its profits to employees” since 2010 and being “the first Australian retailer” to provide paid parental leave and family and domestic violence leave.
In response, the union said it represents 35% of workers, and Readings had spent four years refusing to negotiate before the union “forced them to the bargaining table through the Fair Work Commission in July 2021”. It also said Readings had refused to make the profit share a term of the agreement.
Throughout negotiations, the union has called on the template successfully used by staff of independent Sydney bookstore , who in July signed what Cullinan described as a “sector-leading” EBA.
Clare Millar, who has worked at Readings for four years, says while she has personally been treated well, she felt that the atmosphere in some stores had become “divisive and hostile”.
“I do think, to an extent, there’s [been] an attempt at dividing the workforce, at trying to make the union seem radical and ridiculous,” she says.
Millar says whatever the outcome of investigations into the ballot, the campaign has left staff in an “incredibly strong position”.
“Everything good that has been achieved has been because of staunch union effort for more than four years. It’s still an incredibly good thing to have an agreement.”