Last month Business SA and the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA) drew up a template workplace agreement that, if implemented, would cut penalty rates for already low paid retail workers.
Business SA is a major employer organisation in South Australia and the SDA is Australia’s largest union representing around 230,000 retail employees. Employers and right wing politicians alike hailed the agreement as “landmark” and called for it to be spread to other states across the country.
While the agreement is merely a template it provides employers, who are currently obliged to pay Award rates, with an avenue to reduce their wages bill by slashing penalty rates that are paid when employees work anti-social hours.
The SDA claims that the agreement is “win, win” for both the employer and employees as in exchange for reduced penalty rates the employee would receive a small pay increase. They would also get the right to refuse some weekend work.
The problem is that the pay rise in exchange for the penalty reduction is only once off and there is also the possibility that no pay rises at all will be forthcoming once the agreement has expired.
As for refusing weekend work, whether or not that right can be implemented would depend upon the strength of the union in the shop. In places with a weak union presence those types of things are routinely ignored by employers.
It is not possible for an agreement to be “win, win”. A certain amount of wealth is created in a business and there is a struggle over how much of that wealth goes to wages and how much goes to profits. Employers compete amongst themselves and are constantly looking for ways to outdo their rivals. No employer gives up a share of the wealth without being put under pressure.
If this agreement was implemented the employee would be much worse off. The employer has control of the rosters and therefore has the ability to manipulate shifts to their advantage. The one off pay rise would be eaten into in no time but the condition would be lost forever. Measured over several years the employer would be thousands of dollars a year better off.
The question some may ask is if this is the case, why would the SDA agree to it? The SDA have in fact signed many agreements similar to this with major retail chains. Their modus operandi is to sign sweetheart deals with employers in exchange for exclusive coverage in the shop.
In many shops they have helped employers reduce wages and working conditions in exchange for the employer helping them to recruit to the union – a type of closed shop arrangement.
The employer gets increased profits while the SDA gets thousands of members paying fees to the union. They use this massive paper membership as the basis of their affiliation to the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). Within these bodies they hold undue influence and push a right wing conservative political agenda.
The motive behind the new template agreement is an attempt to extend their reach beyond the major retail chains and into small and medium business where they currently have little coverage.
In reality the SDA are a yellow union that facilitates low pay and casualisation in the retail sector while dragging the ALP even further to the right. Worse still they negatively impact on the whole union movement.
Young people in particular are repelled by their collaboration with greedy employers and vote with their feet by refusing to join unions despite high levels of exploitation. There is a desperate need to challenge the corrupt practices of the SDA and rebuild the trade union movement along fighting and democratic lines.
Unless this is done wealth inequality will continue to rise and union membership will continue to stagnate.
By Anthony Main