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October 16, 2017 | by  | in News Splash |
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An (im)possible dream: Living Wage for Vic Books

A collective agreement ratified on August 1 has resulted in increased wages for Vic Books employees, although staff are concerned that the agreement does not go far enough to provide livable wages.

Prior to the agreement, many Vic Books staff were being paid close to minimum wage, while some in senior positions were being paid “less than $17 per hour,” according to one ex-employee. “We [were] given so much responsibility in terms of sales, cash handling, locking up. But the pay [did] not reflect that.”

Earlier in 2017, Vic Books staff decided to unionise and put forward a collective demand focused on wages.

“There were two messages coming out of those discussions,” First Union Representative Joe Kelly told Salient. “People were either saying, I’m going to have to find somewhere else to work, or I want to stay here but I can’t be an adult living in Wellington on the wages I’m on.”

The unionised staff initiated collective bargaining on May 22, meeting with the Vic Books General Manager Juliet Blyth and an advocate appointed by the Vic Books Board.

The resulting Collective Agreement removes the 90-day trial period, includes a minimum rate to ensure employees will be paid more than the minimum wage, and ensures that all employee benefits are now written into their contracts, Kelly told Salient. It is the first collective agreement of its kind for café and bookstore workers. However, the Agreement, which only applies for a one-year period, “does not go as far as we’d hoped,” Kelly said.

“Pay increases were about 1.4% on average. For the last year, inflation has been about 1.7%. But rent inflation has been 11%. So, despite the pay increase […] staff members will be way poorer in 2018 if rents continue to increase.”

Vic Books did not adopt the standardised pay increase system proposed by staff in the bargaining. The process of seeking pay increases remains unclear, according to Thom, a Vic Books staff member and Union Delegate. “Every six months you can talk to them, there’s a vague list of what you need to achieve — skills based progression — to seek a pay increase. But the onus is on the staff to organise that.”

Kelly said the approach taken by the business was to keep pay increases to an absolute minimum. “I don’t think there was genuine investigation into what the business could afford in terms of raising wages.” Thom agreed: “There’s been no kind of investigation into the management side of it, in terms of whether they are fulfilling their roles.”

Kelly told Salient that the main reason Vic Books were reluctant to provide pay increases was that they had been running at a financial loss for a number of years.

“We didn’t think we would achieve a living wage this year, but we were determined to increase wages, and to explain to the business that what they were paying wasn’t tenable.”

No commitment was made by Vic Books to move towards a living wage when the business returns to profit. “Any increases will be made in line with what the company can sustain, to make any other commitment would be premature,” Blyth told Salient.

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VUWSA has been an advocate for the Living Wage movement in 2017, hosting a forum about the living wage on campus on April 1 and consistently campaigning for VUW to become a living wage employer.

The Living Wage movement advocates for a liveable hourly pay rate, focused on areas where incomes are funded through public money or large employers. In addition to this, “many small and ethical employers choose to pay a living wage and have become accredited.”

Kelly said that they had been encouraged to think VUWSA would be supportive of the collective proposal, “given that the VUWSA Executive have been strong supporters of the living wage.”

The exact relationship between Vic Books and VUWSA is unclear. In VUWSA executive candidate interviews, VUWSA Wellbeing and Sustainability Officer Beth Paterson told Salient that “Vic Books is run by VUWSA,” while Clubs and Activities Officer Marlon Drake said VUWSA “don’t have a direct line to the management of Vic Books.”

When asked directly, VUWSA said they would “not be discussing internal matters of Vic Books. They’re independent from VUWSA.”

VUWSA is an incorporated society with a charitable status. The VUWSA Trust sits alongside VUWSA, gathering revenue and managing assets on its behalf; Vic Books is the Trust’s main asset. The Trust appoints a board to make management decisions about Vic Books.

While the response from VUWSA to the unionisation of Vic Books staff was initially “really positive,” with VUWSA President Rory Lenihan-Ikin being “very supportive,” Kelly said that he  had qualified this response by calling the bargaining “Trust business.”

“Essentially, they distanced themselves from it.”

While both Paterson and Drake fully supported the Living Wage, in the same candidate interview Paterson said that although VUWSA “care so much about this movement,” “to be quite frank, we’re on the edge of our seats in terms of financial flexibility and, for all organisations like VUWSA, it’s about taking the steps that you can to go towards having a living wage.”

Drake expressed a similar sentiment, telling Salient, “The Living Wage movement’s […] main goal is targeting the big institutions and the big businesses that can afford to. Looking at VUWSA, it’s something we’re keen for, but only if we have the cash to do it.”

Kelly said he had been “disappointed” by the overall process. “We accepted that the business wasn’t doing that well financially. We were prepared to accept really low increases on that basis. But what we were looking for, particularly from VUWSA, was a commitment that that would change when the business returned to profit — but that was not forthcoming.”

“Really, it’s just weak.”

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