As the socialist left of the Victorian ALP met yesterday to gloat over the left-right “stability pact” that guarantees it unprecedented influence in state and federal preselections for up to 10 years, the two major right wing unions excluded from the deal — the shop assistants and the National Union of Workers — would have been licking their wounds somewhere in political exile.
The pact was overwhelmingly backed by at least 75% of the SL faction, the 250-strong Trades Hall mob recalling the labour movement’s heady days of the 1930s. Renegade elements seemed thin on the ground with only the construction division of the CFMEU and elements of the AMWU speaking against the proposal.
So what does this near-unanimous re-statement of factional peace mean for the parliamentary dreams of those left on the outer? Crikey has previously canvassed how the NUW’s “ambition faction” had its future cut short as a result of the deal. But less attention has been paid to their bedfellows at the shop assistants’ union, whose fledgling excursions into the internecine world of pre-selection warfare had only just begun.
By far Australia’s biggest union with close to 220,000 members, for years the SDA was content to sit on the sidelines and see its officials ascend to parliament strictly in relation to its influence on state conference floor (unions get 50% of state conference votes and an individual union’s influence is determined by its membership – for the SDA, this is around 6-10%). But all this changed in last year’s pre-selection battle for the Victorian state seat of Kororoit when state secretary Michael Donovan hit the phones hard to install one of his organisers, Marlene Kairouz, above the Bill Shorten and Stephen Newnham-backed candidate Natalie Suleyman.
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Sources say the usually mild-mannered Donovan was initially hesitant to declare war on Shorten and Newnham, but emerged flushed with pride after it became clear his charge was headed to the leather-bound luxury of Victoria’s lower house. The stability pact won’t completely attenuate the SDA’s influence — deal or no deal, the shoppies retain some clout on sheer weight of numbers alone. (For an indication of the SDA’s parliamentary presence, see Crikey‘s list of unionists turned pollies).
For such an influential union, the SDA’s history is enlightening. Crikey readers would be aware that its predecessor disaffiliated from the ALP in the wake of the 1955 DLP split. For the next 30 years, it functioned as the industrial base of conservative Catholicism until finally re-admitted to the party to shore-up Bob Hawke’s base in 1984. However, its legacy remains for the most part undimmed.
Insiders complain of murky deals between the SDA and senior management. In short, they say the SDA agrees not to rock the wages boat in return for an easy ride from the company’s HR department as salaries are traded for conditions that fail to hurt the company’s bottom line. The SDA retains members — and its preselection punch — and the employer walks away with a rock-bottom wages bill.
Last week, Crikey was inundated with tips claiming the SDA was complicit in the sackings and reductions in part-time hours that have occurred inside Myer stores. Insiders say rolling 20% cuts were aided and abetted by the union, which had agreed to questionable clauses in the Myer agreement that effectively gave the whip hand to management. Some claim the union actively resisted redundancy payments so as not to rock the boat.
A series of other events seem to bear this out.
In Melbourne’s inner north, the SDA’s ambivalence to breaches in casual conditions has sparked a turf war with fringe rabble rousers Unite. When one video shop was sprung paying staff with free DVDs , it was Unite, not the SDA, that alerted the media, resulting in an unprecedented splash on Today Tonight. The store was forced to back down.
Those with even better memories may also recall a particularly unfortunate incident when an SDA agreement with Subway was rejected by the industrial relations commission after it amazingly failed John Howard’s no-disadvantage test.
But far the most serious allegations leveled at the SDA have nothing to do with industrial disputes.
When the Victorian abortion bill was debated last year, ex-SDA organisers James Merlino, Christine Campbell and the newly-elected Kairouz exercised their conscience vote in an attempt to modify the laws. But the pro-life stand doesn’t seem to square with the views of the SDA’s majority-female membership. Surveys consistently show over 75% of women approve of abortion law reform but you wouldn’t know it from the union’s parliamentary voting record.
In his maiden speech to the Victorian parliament, Merlino said the following:
“Take my union, the SDA. Its representation is largely young and predominantly female. Without the SDA retail workers in this country would be fair game”.
Now, there’s little doubt a 16-year old working casual shifts at KFC is far better off in the SDA than flying by the seat of their pants. But it would be interesting to see what the union’s rank and file thought of the heated right-to-life debates that engulfed the Victorian parliament in September last year. To Crikey‘s knowledge, such a survey has never been conducted.
The SDA has achieved some significant victories, not least paid maternity leave at places like Woolworths. But the latest controversies could signal the first rumblings of an internal backlash — combine this with yesterday’s emphatic factional sidelining and all indications point to a period of extensive soul searching at shoppies’ HQ.