Tuesday, June 01, 2010

[olympiaworkers] New Zealand: JB Hi-Fi; always cheapest wages

Libcom.org May 30 2010

On the 16th of April retail workers at JB Hi-Fi in Wellington, New
Zealand, part of a nationwide electronics chain, walked out of their
workplace and went on strike to protest their meagre wages. The workers
have struck several times since and are now bracing themselves for a
bitter struggle against bosses who want them to carry on working long
hours for little money. The Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement speaks to
Shanna Olsen-Reeder, a JB Hi-Fi worker and Unite Union delegate, about her
involvement in the industrial action.

Could you briefly explain the present working conditions at JB Hi-Fi?

The present working conditions are very difficult. Like many workers in
New Zealand staff are working long hours. 8.30am – 6pm are the regular
hours for most people and the majority of staff are on their feet for all
that time. The culture at the company can also be quite challenging. The
attitude is quite old-fashioned, the attitude that the Managers are a
different class from the other workers and that they must be obeyed at all
costs. Anyone who is seen to be challenging that idea has an automatic
target on their back. The class difference is also quite apparent when it
comes to money. Some people at the company are well paid but the ones at
the bottom are really finding life difficult. Workers are expected to turn
up to work and be on their feet all day, greeting customers with a
friendly smile within seconds of them entering the store. But it can be
pretty difficult when you are literally wondering how you're going to pay
for the bus home.

How widespread is support for the strike action amongst JB Hi-Fi workers?

I believe support is very strong for the strike action and the reasons
behind it. The union members are committed to seeing this through until we
reach an agreement. I've had many positive comments from non-member
workers who - although they haven't joined the union - still support the
ideas behind it and would like to see us reach an agreement.

Is support for the strike the same now as it was when you started taking
industrial action? More, Less?

The support for the strikes is growing stronger and stronger every time as
people become more comfortable doing it. I don't think support will ever
die down. We're just asking for what the workers deserve. We've had lots
of support from the public, as well as other unions and their members.
Metiria Turei has spoken in support of us as has reggae legend Tigi Ness
and his band Unity Pacific. We expect that support will grow as we get our
message out there.

How successful do you think the strikes have been thus far?

In terms of getting our message out there and gaining public support it's
been great. People are really interested in what's going on and we've had
customers approach staff asking about how it's going and whether or not we
have got our pay rise yet. One guy offered to stop shopping at JB Hi-Fi
until we get an offer. And when we're out on the street we get toots and
waves all round. It's a great feeling to know that people care and will
get behind a good cause.

The reaction from the company has been interesting. After our strike media
outlets both in Australia and New Zealand were hounding them for comments
but they were keeping quiet. Then the share price dropped and the next day
the CEO issued a comment calling the industrial action "absurd." Not
surprising that they weren't impressed but I thought the wording was
interesting. I'm not sure why asking for better conditions and pay is
absurd. It's a basic right. And taking industrial action to make that
happen is entirely lawful so it was an interesting wording choice. It just
shows that there is a lot of emotion behind the action we are taking so I
think we're definitely making a difference.

Has there been much effort on the part of Unite to involve workers in the
organizing of the strike?

Workers are involved in all aspects of organising the strikes. Unite have
been really helpful in advising us in what we can and can't do and giving
us ideas but ultimately it's our members deciding what action they're
comfortable taking. We have strike committees in each store and they play
a big part in the organisation of the campaign and help to ensure that all
the workers' ideas are represented.

So far you have been taking short and infrequent action, what are the
prospects of this being escalated into more prolonged walk outs?

In the Wellington store our members prefer to take short and random acts
of industrial action. This keeps the company on their toes and keeps it
fun and exciting for the workers. Other benefits to keeping the action
short and sharp are that the workers lose less money as they are unpaid
for the time they are on strike. Our view is that strike action should
cause maximum harm to the company and minimum harm to the workers. Union
members are currently brainstorming new and different ways of taking
industrial action. Of course there is always the possibility of more
prolonged walk-outs and strikes in the future if we deem it necessary
depending on any new developments.

What is your relationship with other JB Hi-Fi stores? Do you know if they
are sympathetic to the strike action? If so, have there been efforts to
spread the strike action to other stores?

I've been through the bargaining process with a couple of delegates from
the Auckland stores, and visited and recruited at Auckland stores also. We
have very strong stores in Auckland with very high membership.
Unfortunately they have been suffering a lot of harassment and
intimidation regarding their union membership so it has taken them a
little longer to find their feet. They have gained a lot of confidence
from Unite's weekly picket outside the Queen St store and took their first
strike action on Tuesday 25th May which I think they can be really proud
of. From now on it will just get stronger and stronger. We have around 100
members in Auckland so they're going to make a big difference to the

Where do you think this struggle is heading? Is JB Hi-Fi any closer to

I think we all know that this is going to be a long hard road. But it's
something we are all committed to, most of all because we know that we
aren't asking for anything unreasonable or unattainable. All we ask is for
reasonable conditions including wages that workers and their families can
live on. There are small independent businesses who pay their staff higher
wages than JB Hi-Fi. For them to say they can't afford it is "absurd." We
will continue to take action, for as long as it takes and Unite have made
long-term plans for this campaign. We're in this for the long haul and we
know we will get a good result in the end- not just for ourselves but for
all the future JB Hi-FI workers.

From the June 2010 issue of Solidarity, the free newssheet of the Aotearoa
Workers Solidarity Movement. Visit http://awsm.org.nz/?p=339 to read more
articles or download a .pdf of this issue.

No comments: