Earlier this year the Fair Work Commission (FWC) ruled that the 2015 Coles enterprise agreement, negotiated and endorsed by the retail union – the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) – failed to leave the workers at the supermarket giant better off overall when compared to the award. The union claimed that cuts to penalty rates and other reduced entitlements it had approved were trade-offs for a higher base rate of pay and other benefits, such as blood donor leave and an extra five minutes for meal breaks. But analysis by National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) industrial officer Josh Cullinan found that workers had been left out of pocket by the Coles agreement to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. The SDA has since conceded that almost one hundred enterprise agreements they have negotiated may fail the Better Off Overall Test (BOOT).

The repudiations from the conservative media quickly flowed, with commentators swooping on the opportunity to score points against another dodgy trade union. The same writers who berate the CFMEU for winning ‘too high’ wages are all too eager to snipe at the SDA for suppressing the wages of their members. This irony shouldn’t surprise us. Conservatives understand better than most that trade unionism is the last best hope of challenging the neoliberal hegemony: any chink in the armour is to be exploited, even if the cost is rank contradiction.

Of more concern is that there were so few labour movement leaders willing to stand up and condemn the SDA. Many, in fact, jumped to the union’s defence.

Let’s be clear about how dire this situation is: an Australian trade union representing young, low-paid workers, who are disproportionately women, was found by the independent umpire to have knowingly pushed the wages and conditions of their members below the minimum legal standards. Why would a trade union do such a thing?

It is an open secret within the labour movement that the SDA’s leadership have maintained cosy relationships with big retailers and fast food giants – Coles, Woolworths, KFC, McDonalds and others – in order to have easy access to workplaces and maximise their membership. This membership translates to power in the Labor Party and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), where the SDA’s conservative Catholic leadership have used their muscle to oppose progressive policy on queer rights and women’s issues. When a senior union official wrote to a number of big employers earlier this year, for example, the subject wasn’t wages, but

their public support for what he described as ‘same-gender’ marriage. Would support for this issue become a condition of employment? ‘Is the company requiring its employees to associate with and support same-gender marriage?’

In other words, a trade union is suppressing the wages and conditions of their own low-paid membership – mainly young women – in order to obstruct marriage equality, women’s reproductive rights and other progressive social policies.

But the ACTU leadership, far from condemning the behaviour, was quick to offer support for the SDA. In a series of bizarre attempts to defend the actions of his affiliate, ACTU Secretary Dave Oliver has argued simultaneously that the FWC got it right in ruling that the Coles agreement left workers worse off and that the SDA had done nothing wrong. Opposition leader Bill Shorten was more circumspect: ‘[I am] not defending the behaviour of the union or the company in this matter at all.’ But he stopped short of calling the SDA’s behaviour what it is: worker exploitation.

Australian fast food and retail workers may be some of the best paid in the world but the evidence suggests they would be better off on the award than on SDA-negotiated agreements.

There are a number of possible reasons why labour movement leaders may have been reluctant to condemn the SDA’s behaviour. The most obvious is money. As the country’s biggest private sector union, SDA’s affiliation fees represent a huge source of revenue for both the ALP and the ACTU; criticising the union could jeopardise that revenue. The other reason is the political power of the SDA. The affiliation fees paid by the union buy them significant quotas on conference floors and, with that, significant political power. In 2015, Dave Oliver saw off a challenge from then ACTU assistant secretary, Tim Lyons, with the support of the SDA – he has been their staunch defender ever since.

These justifications are relatively easy to overcome: leaders of peak bodies and political parties should never allow themselves to be beholden to their dishonest affiliates for fear of them withdrawing their financial support or of political retribution.

But there is a third, more insidious argument that is sometimes used as a justification for not condemning the SDA: that we shouldn’t condemn the practices of the SDA because that would be giving ammunition to the enemy. It implies that, regardless of the behaviour of any particular trade union – even if their actions undermine the interests of working-class people – we shouldn’t criticise them because they are ‘on our side’. At a time when the trade union movement is under attack from aggressive employers and reactionary governments, this siege mentality is pervasive.

In his 1945 essay ‘Through a Glass, Rosily’, George Orwell took issue with this type of logic:

Whenever A and B are in opposition to one another, anyone who attacks or criticises A is accused of aiding and abetting B. And it is often true, objectively and on a short-term analysis, that he is making things easier for B. Therefore, say the supporters of A, shut up and don’t criticise: or at least criticise ‘constructively’, which in practice always means favourably. And from this it is only a short step to arguing that the suppression and distortion of known facts is the highest duty …

Labour movement leaders are engaged in exactly this kind of obfuscation and distortion when they defend the SDA. We know and understand exploitation they perpetrate but find a reason to do nothing about it.

There are alternatives. For instance, the SDA could be kicked out of the ACTU or the ALP. Union leaders could condemn the exploitation of the SDA and demand it reform itself or face a well-organised opponent at its next union elections.

But currently, fear of the SDA’s political power and dependence on the money they use to buy that power is too high. Even more disheartening is that powerful trade unionists refuse to stand up for vulnerable workers for fear of ‘giving ammunition to the enemy’. They seem not to have realised that the real enemy is worker exploitation, and that the SDA is exploiting workers for their own, narrow political ends. As Orwell observed, the distortion of facts and self-delusion may seem sensible in the short term, but in the long run it is poisoning us.


Daniel Nicholson

Daniel Nicholson is an industrial relations researcher at the University of Melbourne. He is a member of the National Tertiary Education Union and the Australian Labor Party.

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  1. What is equally sad is that it IS possible for a fighting union representing retail workers to lead the fight for wages and social justice.
    This has been resoundingly demonstrated in the 26 Counties of Wire by *Mandate° the equivalent union there.

  2. I’ve been union member for decades and was (unpaid) shop floor organiser for many years. When I got injured, my union (CPSU), instead of helping me, did everything to undermine my Work Cover claim. The people from the union who were supposed to represent me were only interested in keeping my bosses happy. Unions in Australia, in my view, for all the good they’ve done over the years in negotiating our entitlements through enterprise bargaining, have become criminal organisations. They are corrupt, every single one of them and they haven’t interest of the workers as their first priority. Where I worked, when somebody became a paid union organiser, it was said that he/she became one of the bosses. Enough said! I had a real good chuckle when I read that Overland has NUW as a sponsor for one their literary awards. It looks so good on paper but so terribly flawed (to the point of insult for a regular worker) to read that such mafia are infiltrating leftist magazine such as Overland. I understand that overland needs money but be careful who you got to bed with guys!

    1. I don’t think an anonymous letter attacking a union has any credibility. Even if this anecdote was true There are many legitimate reasons a union might not support a worker. For instance if people are so concerned about honesty and integrity, one aspect of that is that unions should not support vexatious complainants trying to get revenge on an employer, something union officials occasionally come across.

      1. Great! Injured, humiliated worker becomes a vexatious litigant. Care to enlighten us with more reasons why a union might not support a worker? And do you really think anyone would sign their. real name in a forum like this? Insurance companies have their sniffer dogs at every corner.

  3. What doesn’t fit well into your analysis is that Australia has the highest paid retail workers in the world, in a large part thanks to their Union.

    It’s worthwhile keeping that in perspective, its a Unions job to improve the lives of its members and the SDA’s record proves that.

    Its also worthwhile pointing out that all Unions have political leanings, even the NTEU. A large part of your critique seems to be rooted in a dislike of the SDA’s political leanings. Unions have the right to determine their own political views even if you dislike them. I share a similar distaste about some of what SDA does with issues like marriage equality.

    However you shouldn’t lecture down at people or Unions just because they disagree with some things you think are worthwhile. It is incredibly hypocritical, especially when Unions like the NTEU(which you no doubt deem good) are involved in mass political action, that is often quite separated from its membership.

    For the record, i am a left faction ALP member.

    1. Where’s the proof that Australian fast food workers are the highest paid in the world? Not at 7-11 or Caltex they’re not. Widespread foreign cheap labour rackets in both companies have been exposed by Fairfax and the Fair Work Ombudsman, to the embarrassment of the union movement. Theoretically SDA coverage there too.
      Anyway, workers here should be among the highest paid in the world, we have the highest housing costs and among the highest power and grocery prices.
      The main point of the OP is that the SDA is out of order giving away workers’ award conditions and running tame cat operations to protect their shonky membership deductions.
      In this respect your man is spot on!

  4. The AMIEU locked horns with Coles during the last EBA negotiations and meat workers commenced industrial action. Whilst on strike the SDA committed the lowest of low acts imaginable, they started bargaining on behalf of meat workers while they were out on the grass!!! The grubs ‘gave’ away (not traded or sold) numerous conditions & penalties that the butchers were on strike fighting to retain!!

    After getting wind of the sell out deals the SDA were making with Coles the AMIEU turned the focus on openly exposing the SDA on selling out. Pickets/ Protests were regularly held out side the Federal & State SDA offices, not one SDA official would try and defend their ‘association’ and that dog Michael Donovan, SDA Victorian branch Secretary put his head down and tried to hide behind women when he was confronted by AMIEU officials during the March ‘save our penalty rates’ rally in Melb.

    When DeBruyn got up to speak at the ACTU congress, all AMIEU officials were the only Union who stood up and turned their backs on him before leaving the room, subsequently blocking him from receiving a medal at the following Congress!

    The current leadership of the SDA have been openly declared sworn enemies of the Meatworkers Union, it would be nice to see the rest of the movement stand up to the grubs too, at least the left!! Full credit to the Vic branches of the NTEU & MUA for attending some of the SDA office protests too!

    1. Thanks for this, Jay. Yes, the AMIEU have been tenacious in standing up to the SDA and representing and organising their members in supermarkets. It is a shame more unions haven’t showed them some solidarity. It was an oversight on my behalf for not mentioning it in the article.

      Thanks for your comment.

  5. I’m not sure who first said “it’s not the union movement killing the Labor party, it’s the Labor party killing the union movement”, but this piece makes me inclined to agree. I wonder what could be done to break the negative incentives (read: access to power) which lead unscrupulous people to exploit workers in service of their own agenda?

  6. The only reason shop assistant wages are relatively high is that historically the SDA has been able to flow improvements in wages and conditions won by other unions under principles of comparative wage justice and the automatic flow on of National Wages case decisions and determinations of the Fair Work Commission. They have been in the business of selling out conditions won by other unions for membership agreements since the advent of enterprise bargaining in the 80’s

  7. I’ve been working at KFC for about five years now, and we’ve never had talks or been asked to join a union. Target tried to get me to sign up to the union straight away but KFC has never bothered with that stuff.

  8. I work in a supermarket and have been an SDA member for 20 years. The only way to ensure that the SDA operates in member’s interests is to ensure that members have control of their union. While union leaders are able to capitalize on the ignorance, lack of confidence and and the disenfranchisement of members…they will continue to control the election of officials and they will continue to use the union to further their own ends. The Royal Commission into Union Governance and corruption found that the officers of the QLD branch of the SDA controlled an account, a “fighting fund”, of over $400000 designed for use to thwart any attempt by members to elect officers out of office. SDA members have good reason to believe that other branches, and even the national office of the SDA, have similar “fighting funds”. The leaders of the SDA are not elected by working members, they are chosen by our politically motivated leaders and elected by default…almost in secret. Ordinary retail workers, SDA members, don’t have the wherewithal to rest control of their union against the well funded political professionals that have controlled our union for decades.

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