In Australia, fitness workers are organizing

As an industry plagued by underpayment, sham hiring and hyper-casualization, the fitness industry has no shortage of issues to rally around. It is common for fitness instructors to explain at UWU meetings and forums that employers expect them to bear the costs associated with travel, time spent learning choreography and obtaining optional training and certificates.

According to some group fitness instructors (GFIs), these financial overheads are so onerous that the cost of teaching a class can sometimes completely outweigh the pay. The only reason this is the case, explained a fitness worker and UWU member, is because people have perpetuated it for so many years. But there is no reason or excuse for unpaid work.

Those who stay in the industry do so because they deeply love their work. And fitness workers make it clear at union meetings, where it becomes clear that they are unanimously passionate about their communities and dedicated to educating and encouraging club members. However, thanks to the cost of living crisis combined with employers desperate to increase profits at the expense of workers, many instructors have begun to seriously question whether their labor of love is sustainable.

However, a recent labor dispute at the Fitness and Lifestyle Group (FLG) gives cause for hope. Led by UWU members, FLG fitness instructors recently won significant pay increases. And most importantly, they developed strategies that could help increase worker power in the industry and beyond.

Fitness and Lifestyle Group owns Fitness First and Goodlife health clubs, with more than 150 clubs across Australia. At the end of 2023, FLG management announced a massive organizational change. The management restructuring included new class limits and scheduling agreements, which meant lower pay for many instructors. It also imposed a new schedule regime that meant less flexible hours, both hurting instructors’ work-life balance and further restricting their ability to serve their students.

In response, a vibration spread through the FLG clubs. The workers were already fed up with job insecurity, and this was the final straw. As one worker wrote at the time,

There could be no clearer way for a company to send the message to its staff that it doesn’t care one bit about them, than by the blanket imposition of pre-determined limitations in the absence of consultation and due consideration.

For the next six months, outrage boiled over. FLG workers across the country came together in online spaces, inviting their co-workers to join the conversation, which led to an increase in union membership.

At the same time, FLG workers began to investigate their rights. Fueled by anger at management’s disrespect, the instructors pursued and sought the Enterprise Agreements (EAs) that govern Fitness First and Goodlife, as well as the Fitness Award, which covers the industry as a whole. They also compared their conditions with national employment standards, which establish minimum rights and conditions for all workers.

They discovered that Goodlife Health Clubs had not negotiated a new EA in years. Thanks to new industrial legislation, however, the archaic zombie agreement that was still in place expired in December 2023. This gave workers an opportunity and they decided they wanted to bargain collectively for better conditions.

The company, however, refused to come to the table. Consequently, Goodlife health clubs returned to the minimum standards outlined in the fitness award. Meanwhile, Fitness First workers continued with their existing EA, which had seen their pay and conditions deteriorate for years.

However, rather than inflicting a terminal defeat, these setbacks further fueled the instructors who took it as yet another sign of disrespect.

A growing number of workers began to compare stories and experiences, and a picture of widespread wage stagnation quickly emerged. It became clear that pay was being reduced by a mess of legacy fees that hadn’t changed in years, inconsistent performance review administration and a lack of management transparency about penalties and compensation. Most importantly, many instructors disclosed that their rate of payment for a class had remained the same since the date of their engagement. Many claimed that in more than fifteen years working at FLG, their salary had not increased even once.

Union delegates organized surveys of FLG workers to determine the extent and severity of wage stagnation. They found that it was indeed endemic, and in real terms that meant workers had suffered stealth pay cuts, sometimes as much as 30 percent. For example, take a cohort of workers who, since 2009, had been paid a flat rate of A$42.50 per class. Adjusted for inflation, the current equivalent would be more than A$61.50 per class.

One worker summed it up: We put our heart and soul into clubs for what? Loyalty and dedication are obviously not rewarded at FLG. Gym memberships are on the rise, another noted, and we don’t see that money in our bank accounts. Instead, FLG was turning increased revenue from customer fees into pure profit.

UWU members got together and formulated a plan. If the company was not going to negotiate in good faith, it would launch a public campaign. They went ahead, launching a Megaphone petition on February 23 this year demanding pay justice.

The petition had two main questions. First, it demanded that management immediately correct any wage discrepancy in its existing wage structure. Second, it required FLG to commit to a review of the pay structure that values ​​employee contribution, developed in consultation with union members.

The petition gained momentum among workers, community supporters, and activist allies, quickly garnering more than thirty-six thousand signatures. The comments left next to the signatures were unanimous. As a reader, I’m sick of people being exploited by big companies that don’t want to take care of their most valuable asset, their human employees. Another suggested rebranding the company, from Fitness First to Fat Profits First.

It took management less than two weeks to give in to the pressure. FLG issued communications to staff members committing the company to raise the minimum class fee to $45 and guarantee an annual salary review with a possible 2 percent increase for all instructors. For the lowest-paid instructors, a minimum class fee of $45 means an 8 percent pay increase. For another large cohort of low-paid instructors, it represented a 6 percent increase.

Although they were spread across the country and new to the union movement, after six months of organizing, a militant minority of group fitness instructors won a major victory against a large corporation.

Like most union struggles, however, this result is far from final. I think we should celebrate that, said one UWU member, and then continue to add more fuel to the fire and make that fire of revolution burn brighter. Another commented that they still have ten years to catch up.

However, insights can already be gained from their efforts. And some of these challenge the conventional wisdom of the trade union movement.

Unions have historically tended to overlook industries where informal and precarious forms of employment are widespread, such as fitness, hospitality, agricultural work and others. This is often justified by the claim that it is too difficult to organize industries where work is insecure and impermanent, or where the workforce is disproportionately young, densely migrant or fragmented.

But these obstacles are not insurmountable, and focusing on them can prevent you from recognizing the strengths that can help offset them. Industries like fitness or hospitality, for example, are full of people who love their jobs but are horribly exploited. The work is satisfying enough to stay while the conditions are bad enough to motivate workers to fight their highly flammable combination.

In addition, in many of these industries, organic solidarity networks connect workers in different workplaces and with their local communities. Indeed, this is an often overlooked consequence of hyper-casualized industries where it is common to switch between multiple employers not only over the course of a career, but often within a work week. Industries where everyone already knows everyone else are fertile ground for organizing.

Ultimately, however, the most important lesson is that the trade union movement can only succeed when it places its trust in groups of workers, understanding that they are the ultimate authority on their ability to organize, fight and win. FLG’s wage justice campaign was led by self-motivated and headstrong instructors determined to make tangible change after more than a decade of disrespect and hyper-exploitation.

It also helps that strength and resistance training is literally part of your job. And, as one UWU official said, I had never thought of it before, but they did they are organizers In addition to being athletes, fitness workers are also educators. They thrive on collective success and good results, and a large part of their work involves motivating others to achieve their goals. No wonder they were born unionists.

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