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