The conservative union that undercut the pay and conditions of more than 250,000 workers in a series of substandard wage deals is seeking to “come in from the cold” by rejoining Victoria’s peak union body.
But the move by the Shop, Distributive & Allied Employees Association (SDA) has been met with heated opposition from one rival union in particular, and renewed criticism of its industrial practices.
SDA state secretary Michael Donovan. Photo: SDA
The SDA – the “shoppies” – left the Victorian Trades Hall Council in the early 1990s complaining about its pro-land rights (Mabo) position and political direction at that time.
It is renowned as the last bastion of Catholic conservatism in the labour movement, for its key role in the Labor split of the 1950s that kept the ALP from power in Canberra and Victoria for decades, and for its historic opposition to abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage.
Trades Hall Secretary Luke Hilakari. Photo: Pat Scala
The union re-affiliated to Labor in the 1980s but its Cold War mindset, moral agenda and employer-friendly deals under veteran national secretary and now president Joe de Bruyn, and Victorian secretary Michael Donovan, have strained its relations inside Labor ranks.
In 2016 a 12-month Fairfax Media investigation revealed workers at major fast food and retail outlets including Woolworths, McDonald’s and KFC were being underpaid more than $300 million a year in deals struck by the SDA.
Those agreements traded away weekend and night penalty rates, and in some cases did away with penalties altogether, without adequate compensation.
A cosy deal between supermarket giant Coles and the union – first revealed by Fairfax Media – was quashed in a landmark Fair Work Commission decision last May after it found workers were left with less than the minimum award.
SDA left Trades Hall in the 1990s. It was critical of the pro-land rights position of Trades Hall after the Mabo decision.
The left-wing meat workers union is a rival to the SDA in the major supermarkets. In recent years it has even held pickets at the SDA Melbourne headquarters in protest at deals struck by the shoppies with Coles that affected meat workers.
Meat workers Victorian secretary Paul Conway said he would oppose the SDA rejoining Trades Hall unless it changed its industrial strategy at Coles and Woolworths.
SDA head Joe de Bruyn remains seated as the ALP National Conference gives senator Penny Wong a standing ovation during the marriage equality debate in 2015. Photo: Andrew Meares
He described the SDA’s current campaign against penalty rate cuts as “hypocrisy at its highest” as many of its agreements included no penalty rates at all and hourly rates barely above the award.
He said if the SDA was allowed back to Trades Hall with its current industrial approach he would heckle and disrupt it in all union forums. “If they turn up we will harass and harangue them.”
Illustration: Matt Golding
But senior union sources said the SDA is likely to be accepted back into the union fold. As Australia’s biggest private sector union, the SDA’s money would be a boon to the Trades Hall coffers.
“The shoppies want to come in from the cold,” said one union chief, despite issues around their deals with Coles and Woolworths.
He said the union movement needed to come together to resist the attacks from the Turnbull government: “Unions should be circling the wagons, including the shoppies.”
Trades Hall secretary Luke Hilakari said he wanted the SDA and meat union to try sort out their differences. He said this was the main issue delaying their re-entry.
But he said the union movement in Victoria would be stronger with the shoppies back in.
“I can’t see an argument why the union movement isn’t stronger by having more people in it.”
Mr Hilakari said Trades Hall would also consider on “their merits” an application by the small Retail and Fast Food Workers Union, which was set up in response to the wages scandal involving the SDA. The SDA’s Mr Donovan did not respond to a request for comment.
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