A Woolworths worker has applied to terminate a national agreement on wages and conditions and claim back an alleged $1 billion in underpayments for up to 100,000 employees.
The Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) will represent Woolworths store supervisor Loukas Kakogiannis in his application to the Fair Work Commission to terminate an expired 2012 national enterprise agreement.
The bid comes as the rival retail workers' union, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees' Association (SDA) prepares to close a deal with Woolworths over a new pay deal to replace the expired agreement.
The RAFFWU application to terminate the expired agreement took Woolworths by surprise after six months of negotiations to settle a new agreement.
A spokesman for Woolworths said it learned of the RAFFWU application through a press release on Thursday. He said the proposed new agreement had the in-principle support of the SDA, the Australian Workers Union and the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union.
A spokesman for Woolworths said it had "every confidence in the validity of our existing enterprise agreement" and it would respond to the RAFFWU application to terminate the old Award "as required".
"In the meantime, we will continue to work hard on finalising a new agreement that seeks to provide the certainty and improved conditions our team members are looking for," he said.
Woolworths is still negotiating with RAFFWU, which says the proposed new agreement freezes and cuts base rates and does not provide back pay for workers being paid rates below the minimum award.
RAFFWU alleges the vast majority of the 100,000 Woolworths workers employed under the existing agreement are earning less than they would if there was no agreement at all.
Mr Kakogiannis has applied for termination of the existing 2012 enterprise agreement to be backdated to November 2012, when it came into operation.
RAFFWU secretary Josh Cullinan claims that backdating the termination could entitle workers to the difference between the wages they would have been paid under the award, and the wages they were paid. The union estimates the alleged underpayment is up to $1 billion.
He said the claim was separate to negotiations over a new agreement.
Mr Cullinan alleges the old agreement was based on indicative rosters that did not reflect working hours on evenings and weekends.
"We know the vast majority of workers work at those times. Many of them, like Loukas, have lost a fortune,” Mr Cullinan said.
Mr Kakogiannis alleged he had lost $4000 a year.
“I applied to terminate the old agreement, which has paid me and many of my colleagues less than the minimum wages in the award,” he said. “The agreement pays no penalty rates on weeknight evenings, during the day on Saturday and cuts the Sunday penalty rate."
Woolworths has promoted its proposed new enterprise agreement as containing above-award wages and award penalty rates.
A spokesman for the SDA said it was "getting on with the job" of delivering a new enterprise agreement for more than 100,000 Woolworths workers. The SDA said the proposed new agreement would protect take-home pay, improve penalty rates and ensure all workers received pay rises.
“Mass meetings with SDA delegates were conducted across Australia in July and August. These meetings endorsed a range of bargaining outcomes and authorised SDA negotiators to finalise negotiations on the outstanding matters," he said.
About 1000 SDA delegates representing SDA members will meet around the country next week to consider the final enterprise bargaining agreement proposal.
“Woolworths workers will all have an opportunity to vote on any new EBA proposal,” the SDA spokesman said.
A three-year dispute over pay and conditions for 80,000 Coles workers across the country was settled in April with the Fair Work Commission's approval of a contentious agreement with unions. RAFFWU opposed that agreement after having exposed the failure of a previous Coles agreement to ensure workers were better off overall under the agreement than they would have been under the relevant award.
Anna Patty is Workplace Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald. She is a former Education Editor, State Political Reporter and Health Reporter. Her reports on inequity in schools funding led to the Gonski reforms and won her national awards. Her coverage of health exposed unnecessary patient deaths at Campbelltown Hospital and led to judicial and parliamentary inquiries. At The Times of London, she exposed flaws in international medical trials.