Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

The real legacy of Joe de Bruyn

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Joe de Bruyn, one of the most influential and long serving trade union leaders in Australia, is to retire as the national secretary of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA) in October.

He will however remain as Vice President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, as well as a member of the ALP national executive, until his term expires in 2015. Under his leadership the SDA has made a number of major concessions to the major retail firms, resulting in further casualisation, sub-par wages, and a culture of industrial passivity in the sector.

De Bruyn became national secretary of the SDA in 1978. The SDA had, until that year, been affiliated to the Democratic Labor Party (DLP). Until 1955 the DLP operated as a right-wing faction within the ALP. Where its supporters had a majority, the DLP took control of a number of unions including the SDA. The DLP’s approach to unionism was to collaborate with the bosses and limit struggle to arbitration.

In a desperate bid to shore up support for his own leadership, then Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke pushed for the SDA, as well as other ex-DLP unions, to re-affiliate with the ALP in 1984.

This move gave the SDA unprecedented power inside the ALP in selecting candidates and determining policy. For example, recent efforts to change the ALP’s position on same sex marriage in 2011 were unsuccessful due to the influence of the SDA. Joe Bullock, an SDA backed candidate for the ALP in the April Senate by-election in Western Australia, came under fire for claiming that ALP Senator Louise Pratt “stole votes off Labor” for her sexuality.

The SDA are far more interested in maintaining their influence inside the ALP, and their cosy relationship with the bosses, than fighting for the workers they claim to represent. Playing limp on industrial matters allows the SDA to sign up members at the big retailers such as Coles, Woolworths and McDonalds.

This allows the union to maintain their membership of 230,000 people – making it the largest trade union in the country – and their claim for more power inside the ALP. This approach, however, allows the major retail firms and fast food outlets to rule the workplace with a free hand.

For example when the SDA and McDonalds signed an Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) in 2010, it was initially rejected by Fair Work Australia, as it fell short of the minimum legal requirements for employment in Australia. When the SDA negotiated EBAs with Coles and Woolworths in 2011 and 2012 respectively, both agreements were scrutinised as they included pay ‘increases’ that when adjusted to inflation were in fact a pay cut. Under de Bruyn’s watch retail wages have decreased by 7% in real terms.

SDA members can expect much of the same from Gerard Dwyer, the general secretary of the New South Wales branch, who is expected to replace de Bruyn in October. De Bruyn and his supporters are not at all interested in waging a serious fight to protect the conditions of retail workers.

SDA members must work to reclaim their union from the rotten leadership that currently runs it. With the Abbott government preparing to take away holiday pay and penalty rates, SDA members deserve a union with leaders that truly fight for their interests.

Under a leadership that was willing to organise proper campaigns, including mobilising the membership and taking industrial action, retail workers could defend and extend their conditions. Joe de Bruyn’s legacy will remain if left unchallenged.

By Conor Flynn


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