“I’m a Wobbly through-and-through”: Interview with Australian RAFFWU/IWW unionist Tilde Joy

May Day 2018, so-called Melbourne (image via RAFFWU).

Tilde Joy is an anarchist, activist, trade unionist, and formerly the President of the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU). Based in Melbourne, she is also a gamer, and does Twitch gaming streams under the name ULTROS_PROFESSIONAL.

  1. What were your first jobs and first experiences in the workforce? How did this shape your views on work?

My first job was at Hungry Jack’s, I was actually somehow hired illegally as a 14 year-old. The minimum age was supposed to be 14 and 9 months at the time, but they took me on 2 months after my 14th birthday. I was paid $6.15/hour at the time (2004), under an awful SDA agreement. Eventually there was a Fair Work decision which got me some backpay, but nothing near what I would have been owed. It was an awful workplace, no breaks – I took up smoking as a kid so I’d be allowed to have a sit down every now and then on my shift. Flat pay, no penalty rates whatsoever. The money being so underwhelming I’d try to take on extra responsibilities, doing the high-risk oil changing roles, passing all my tests making x-amount of whoppers in a minute. They gave me a gold badge! By the time I left that job I was making $7.50/hour. We’d start work as early as 6:30am, sometimes we’d get held back as late as 3am if the store was super messy at closing time. My managers were terrible people, one in particular was fond of showing me awful videos on his phone; beheadings, snuff films, really graphic porn. Terrible place for a child to be on a school night. We all joined the SDA during induction, we had no idea how bad we were being exploited. I quit when I was 16, forever embittered. I hated my bosses and knew we all deserved better, but the idea that the union could change that was not quite an idea that ever crossed our minds. We thought all the union was there for was movie vouchers and discounts at the other fastfood joints.

The main thing that I take away from that experience is that all forms of child labour should be abolished, and the first step towards that is the abolition of junior wages. That won’t stop people from hiring children – kids are inherently exploitable, and therefore desirable as workers – but we have to build the friction here, make it socially unacceptable for children to have jobs ultimately.

  1. When did you first come across a trade union, and were they a relevant force or not in your workplace?

Yeah, the SDA. We saw them on day 1, at induction, something something about how they made sure we were being treated well at work. Even back then they’d emphasise how they worked with the company to achieve that. But after the first day they were gone. We’d get the coupon booklet every year, that’s all. They certainly were a force in the workplace though, they were absolutely complicit in our exploitation. That’s their business model, offering ways for companies to save money on wages and placating an unorganised and fairly oblivious workforce with “perks”.

3. Can you explain what the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) is, and the undue organisational and financial influence it wields over its official political representation, the Australian Labor Party (ALP)? Why is the SDA so socially conservative and right-wing, and where does the tendency they represent come from historically? Besides the SDA itself, does this political current have much strength in other labour organisations?

It would be my pleasure. The SDA claims to be the biggest private-sector union in so-called Australia. They cover the retail and fastfood industries, as well as supposedly representing workers in warehousing. They are aligned to the right wing of the ALP and represent the legacy of the grouper movement, which dates back to the 1940’s. Conservative unionists, largely Catholics, organised to combat the influence of the Communist Party within the unions at that time. The National Civic Council ended up being one of the results of this, and the SDA finds its origins there, in anti-communism, social conservatism and political lobbying. In more recent memory the SDA has made submissions to the senate arguing against abortions, stem cell research and same-sex marriage. They were fairly well muzzled during the plebiscite campaign, and seem to have stepped away from openly stating their views, but we can’t forget that Julia Gillard’s alliance with the SDA in the 2010 leadership spill was precipitated upon Gillard towing their conservative line on same-sex marriage. It’s an obscene affair, making millions on yellow unionism, and using workers’ dues to lobby the ALP into withholding rights from women and queers, who are massively over-represented in retail and fast food. I’m sure reactionary elements such as this exist in other unions, and the alliance between the AWU and the SDA in northern QLD is of note here, but I think the depth of the rot in the SDA is somewhat unique.

  1. What relationship should unions have with political parties? In Australia, most unions are part of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and affiliated to the ALP. Do you think unions should disaffiliate from the ALP, and what purpose would that serve? Would you favour a union like RAFFWU affiliating with a radical political party?

Well, being a dues-paying member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) I think that any foray into electoralism is a losing strategy. Seeing the resounding failure of the Change the Rules campaign – the ACTU couldn’t even convince the ALP to adopt the right to strike as a policy – I think all the ALP does for the union movement is tamp down any semblance of class consciousness. The blind loyalty to the parliamentary party is absolutely to our detriment, and an active union movement that was willing to put ALP feet to the fire would undoubtedly be more effective. It’s hard to imagine how it could be worse. Certainly, if there are unions that still value the class struggle, they should disaffiliate and start holding parliamentarians to account.

As far as RAFFWU affiliating with a radical party, I wouldn’t be in favour. I’m a fan of big-tent leftism, I think we achieve more focussing on the specifics of class struggle – in RAFFWU’s case building grassroots industrial power – in a non-denominational formation. I mean, I’m a wobbly through and through, and what I love about the idea of the IWW is that we unite in the struggle and synthesise the best of all kinds of radical traditions. I guess I fear the prescriptivism of any given party. People don’t often come to the union movement with super developed politics and I reckon the friction and autonomy of the rank-and-file is the key to keeping the upper echelons honest. That’s the most beautiful thing in the world I think, people coming to radical conclusions through the struggle itself, and keeping the labour aristocracy in check.

  1. What was the reasoning behind the formation of RAFFWU? How do you regard rank-and-file attempts of SDA members to transform the organisation from the inside – is that a viable approach?

Well I wasn’t there on day 1, but the key aim was to challenge the SDA and get our penalty rates back. For decades workers under SDA deals earned substantially less than the minimum wage, and people had tried and tried to reform the SDA. Truth is the SDA punished delegates who tried to do shopfloor organising, one of RAFFWU’s organisers was in that situation before RAFFWU showed up. They were a delegate in a supermarket and their SDA organiser not only took their position away from them but argued to their boss that they should be sacked! They’re fundamentally opposed to even the most basic of workplace organising campaigns. They maintain anti-communist clauses in their rules, odds are that none of the people reading this right now would even be allowed to run for office. It’s a losing game.

But for me personally, why shouldn’t I attack the SDA from the outside? They have harmed me, starved me, gone to the parliament and argued I don’t deserve to exist. I owe them no loyalty, and no retail or fastfood worker on this continent does either. They are equally as implicated in our oppression as our bosses, I’m not here to rehabilitate them, I’m here to burn the house down.

  1. Please tell our readers about some of the activities RAFFWU has been involved in. To take one example – legal challenges have been an important part of RAFFWU strategy. How can legal victories win immediate gains while advancing workers’ rights and workers’ struggle as a whole?

Well the biggest example would have to be the redefinition of the Better Off Overall Test (BOOT). The SDA had sailed by on dodgy EBA’s since 2010, because they were compared to even worse deals from the WorkChoices era. They argued that their deals passed the BOOT because every worker was better off than the old agreement, even if they received less than the award minimums. The bosses didn’t complain about that and the Fair Work Commission (FWC) signed off on all of these atrocious deals. RAFFWU’s biggest innovation here was winning the argument that the BOOT test needed to be applied to the award wage as well. This lifted tens of thousands of workers’ wages to what should have been the minimum wage that whole time.

Other examples are the class action against Domino’s franchises that have attempted to pay workers under substandard SDA agreements without approval by the FWC. Or taking the biggest McDonald’s franchise in the southern hemisphere to court for denying workers toilet breaks and water and their paid 10-minute breaks (hopefully the zoomers won’t take up smoking or vaping or whatever like I did!).

Obviously these campaigns are not the direct result of rank-and-file organising, but the wins are phenomenal, and only possible because someone decided to take a stand against the SDA, who created and fostered these conditions.

  1. Unlike the SDA, RAFFWU takes a strong stance on social issues. You were yourself the first leader of an Australian trade union who is a trans woman. What has RAFFWU practically done when it comes to defending LGBTQIA+ rights, and are there any lessons there for the labour movement as a whole?

I’d like to push back on that question, the SDA does take a strong stance on social issues, and it’s a misogynistic, queerphobic, theocratic and Christian-supremacist stance. They’ve been forced to shut up for the past couple of years, but the rationale remains the same. Check out which parliamentarians came out of the SDA and check their influence on the ALP.

As far as how we enact our stances? RAFFWU is possibly the first union in so-called Australia to make paid transition leave a bargaining claim. We’ve got transphobic supervisors sacked from workplaces. We’ve run campaigns about sexual harassment in McDonald’s and JB-HiFi. We’ve demanded unlimited leave for family and domestic violence. We reject discriminatory parental leave policies which see fathers and queer parents locked out of sharing reproductive labour. We’ve established autonomous caucuses for queer workers and women to direct the union (full disclosure: I’ve just been offered a job facilitating and expanding these caucuses). We show up for International Working Women’s Day to keep transphobes and sex-worker-exclusionists confined to the marginal position they barely deserve. We bring workers out in support of the Kurdish struggle for autonomy in Rojava. We’ve shown up to defend sacred land from Djab Wurrung women’s country to Deebing Creek. We get out there for Invasion Day. And we do these things because they are working class issues. Touch One Touch All.

Insofar as lessons go, I can speak to RAFFWU’s strong emphasis on queer rights and queer unionism. When I first started meeting with my fellow RAFFWU activists from other shops it turned out we were all queers, and mostly women. And that’s because we’re the people who build the backbone of these industries. And because too often these are the only jobs that we can get, whether due to reproductive injustice or queerphobia and discrimination. And we’re not the only feminised/queer industry out there. Unions need to go and have a look at what their industries look like, because the movement has fallen prey to a weird version of identity politics in many cases. White blokes in utes and hi-vis is not where the action is at anymore, but that’s a lot of people’s only idea of what the working class is.

The lockdown here in so-called Melbourne shows that there are only maybe five or six jobs that matter: nurses, couriers, wharfies, truckers, chefs and shelf stackers. Everyone else can take a year off and the world keeps turning. Some of the people with the most industrial power at the moment are migrants, women and queers. The union movement needs to come to terms with that, drop the white-bloke identity stuff and get real. And I don’t mean “this is what a unionist looks like” posters.

  1. What kind of relationship does RAFFWU have to the other trade unions? Has the organisation been welcomed or sidelined by the existing trade unions since its foundation in 2016?

When we first got started we had some amazing support from the ETU, who weren’t affiliated with the ALP at the time (read into that what you will). Outside of that we’ve had brilliant support from the rank-and-file wherever we go, and so long as the union brass is at arm’s length from the parliament then other unions are happy to get behind us. The May 1 Movement in Warrang (so-called Sydney) is a good example.

  1. Among the organisations RAFFWU has collaborated with are the various Anti-Poverty Networks around Australia. What can RAFFWU and other unions do to assist the struggles of the unemployed, underemployed, and those living in poverty?

The way I see it unemployment is a major component of the precarity that characterises the industrial landscape right now. The fact that the coronavirus supplement was perceived as such a threat to employers demonstrates that our wages are intimately tied to the state’s administration of poverty. This should be core, the idea of the reserve army of labour is nothing new.

RAFFWU, and other unions, need to get behind campaigns to raise the rate and end the scam that is the JobActive scheme. For retail in particular, outfits like the salvos use forced labour (work-for-the-dole) in places where they could be actually giving people paid employment. We should also be putting effort into mutual aid schemes, like the ACP’s CUDL programmes for example. If we can defang the threats of homelessness and destitution we can start to destabilise the idea of work’s necessity. At some point automation and productivity gains are supposed to make life easier right? The 30-hour workweek is not even on the map it seems, because we’re all so desperate for whatever we can get.

  1. What are your views on current ACTU leader Sally McManus? Do you think she has offered any alternative to past ACTU leaders and policy in recent years, or does she represent more of the same?

I ran into Sally in the airport once, I was wearing my RAFFWU hoodie, she kinda gave me a glare and kept walking. I’m not a fan. For all the bluster at the start about breaking unjust laws I haven’t seen anything change. The pandemic gave us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take action – even protected action, under WorkSafe legislation – the opportunity to demonstrate some industrial muscle. We could have seen workers walking off on safety grounds, keeping communities safe from transmission. It was no secret that the place the virus spreads is work. The union movement could have shown their relevance, shown some leadership. Instead we had McManus palling around with Christian Porter to subsidise bosses’ wage bills. They dressed it up as saving jobs, but I’m not sure that played out, they’re cutting the subsidy now and sackings are soaring. We could have had a play at an actual functional welfare state.

But ultimately that kind of mass action is unlikely because the culture isn’t there. The union establishment doesn’t seem to care about class consciousness or militancy anymore, it’s just superannuation funds setting out to regulate the price of labour on behalf of their capitalist mates. I see McManus as part of that trajectory.

  1. How would you describe your own politics, and do you have any thoughts as to the best way forward for left-wing forces and the wider labour and progressive social movements?

I’m an anarcha-communist, perhaps not the best read leftist in the world, but I like to think I take after a lot of Kropotkin’s ideas. I’m down with syndicalism as far as workplace organising goes, but I think the establishment of communism can’t rest solely in the hands of able-bodied “productive” workers. Social ecology, democratic confederalism, that has a lot going for it, but I’ve only read Bookchin’s earlier stuff so I’m not confident in using that to describe myself.

I reckon the massive unrest we’ve seen in places like the so-called United States in 2020 could have gone a lot further if the labour movement had been in a position to strike on a mass scale. The best way forward? Christ help me. I don’t think we have the time on the clock to build the movement we need, but I think we do have to be on the lookout for the next insurrection. Who could have known that George Floyd would be the big one in 2020? Who could have picked that bus fares would have kicked off the uprising in Chile? A fuel tax started the Gilet Jaunes?! All of these movements have benefitted massively from the robustness that decentralised anarchist organising can facilitate in the face of modern militarised policing. The individualist anarchists drive me wild with some of the more deontological stuff, I’ll never be that pure I suppose, but they sure know how to handle the pigs and their chemical weapons. That mode of organising being practiced, being just picked up as the default way to do street-based actions, that’s mighty important. We don’t have that on this continent. Not by a long stretch.

The ability for people to take action in the 2020 uprisings was due in large part to mass-unemployment; i.e. more free time. The union movement can make that real too, if we picked up the old ideas of the 4-day week and things like that. If we fought to make the welfare state reliable, if we prioritised anti-poverty work. I dunno, a girl can dream.

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