Magazine of the Socialist Party, Australian section of the CWI

Building fighting unions of young people

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In recent months Fairfax Media has exposed the rotten deals negotiated between the Shop, Distributive & Allied Employees Association (SDA) and big companies like Coles. These sweetheart deals have sadly become par for the course for the SDA. Under the agreements workers have ended up worse off than they would have been under the Award – supposedly the minimum safety net.

Union activist Josh Cullinan worked to uncover this injustice. His research led to the Fair Work Commission finding that tens of thousands workers were being significantly underpaid. One worker’s roster suggested that Coles were underpaying him by $2,504 a year! The most vulnerable workers – part time and casual workers – are the most affected as they miss out on the penalty rates they would have otherwise been paid under the Award.

Similar agreements have also been negotiated with Woolworths, McDonalds and Bunnings. Given the findings of the Commission against Coles, it is likely that the deals between these other big employers would also fail to pass the “better off overall test”.

If it wasn’t bad enough that the SDA had overseen these dodgy arrangements, it has also been revealed that they actually pay companies for the privilege! The SDA pays out around $5 million a year to big employers for “processing membership fees” via payroll deduction – a process that costs them nothing.

In reality the SDA represent the interests of big business better than they represent the hundreds of thousands of predominantly young workers they have on their books. Instead of being an organisation that facilitates workers organising to improve their wages and conditions, it operates purely as a tool for its conservative leaders to exert undue influence in the ALP.

The leaders of the SDA are right-wing Christian conservatives who have previously waged campaigns against abortion rights and same-sex marriage. On the basis of a cosy relationship with employers they sign up thousands of members to their ranks. They then use these numbers to affiliate to the ALP and ACTU and maintain the rightward trajectory of those organisations.

Shamefully, the ACTU have come out in defence of the Coles deal. This shows the extent of the shift to the right within the trade unions and their unwillingness to upset the status quo. By refusing to stand against these rotten deals, other unions are doing themselves a disservice as the entire movement is discredited when employers and unions collude.

Young workers rights are not only being threatened by greedy employers and right-wing politicians, but they are also being undermined by sections of the union movement itself. Young workers deserve much better. The leaders of the SDA need to be removed, but the question is how to do that given the tight control they exert and the lack of democratic structures that exist.

Most likely, change will require activists challenging the SDA leaders from both inside and outside the union. Moves to challenge the SDA’s rotten deals and build a left opposition within the union should be vigorously pursued. But at the same time there are tens of thousands of fast food and retail workers who are employed in companies that the SDA has no agreements with. There is scope to organise these people outside of the clutches of the SDA.

For example UNITE, the small fighting union for fast food and retail workers in Victoria, has waged several important campaigns. Amongst other things it was UNITE that first exposed the 7-Eleven half pay scam. In the coming years there will be a necessity for activists inside the SDA and in unions like UNITE to work together.

If we are going to put an end to the super exploitation of young people in the workplace we will need to rebuild the union movement along fighting and democratic lines. The Socialist Party will do all we can to facilitate this process.

By Kat Galea

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