Six years ago, around about now, I was being taken on a tour of “The Lowers” in Columbus, Ohio. The Lowers (low ground near the river) had been a neat enough working/middle-class neighbourhood of wooden houses and shopping streets, before being hit by the “great unravelling” — the relentless destruction of working life in America. The wooden houses were falling apart; the shopping streets were boarded up. Instead of shops, there were church-run “food pantries”. The local bar had become a depot for pimps to run drugs and girls out of.

My tour guide was Sandy, a 50-something heavyset woman who, like many there, worked in the service sector of Ohio State University — a vast organisation that ran on huge sporting events. Sodexo, a huge French-owned service company with links to the Socialist Party, ran the food kiosks, and in 2009, they had squeezed the workers down to zero-hours contracts on reduced wages, split shifts. They relied on the scattered nature of the workforce, and a residual sense, in America, that the wage was the wage. But by 2010 they had had enough, and their union, the Service Employees International Union, went on strike.

Boy, did they strike.

They began by blockading the stadiums, they spread it across the state. By the third month they were “locking on” — chaining themselves to vehicles by the neck — in the crossroads of main streets of Columbus. Arrested, released, they went back to the picket line. The same spirit was present in the fast food strikes that echoed across the nation.

I thought of Sandy and others last week with fresh revelations, brought to light by the first-rate investigation by The Age, of the manner in which the SDA betrayed its members at Coles. The giveaway of penalty rates has been revealed as amounting to $70 million; the process by which the leadership presented the deal to its members exposed as inadequate at best, deceitful at worst.

Workers in a low-wage job now know how much they were ripped off by. If they read the financial pages they’ll learn that, despite the poor performance of Coles’ umbrella company Wesfarmers, the pay of the Wesfamers CEO remains at close to $10 million per annum. You would be forgiven for thinking that the Shop, Distributive & Allied Employees’ Association and Coles had co-operated to maximise the dispiritment of their workers. And it indicates the paradox of Australian workers — especially the lower paid and least specialised — in the current period. The worst deal that the SDA could or would get for their members would most likely be better than the best deal similar American workers get. Yet, at the same time, the union has turned (or did turn) into a machine for the systematic exploitation of its members.

[Rundle: why unions are dying (and 6 ways to save them)]

The series of revelations about the union movement — of direct payments from companies to unions, of conditions traded away, and wild and crazed personal spending — has been one of the great unintended consequences of recent politics. Arising from a codded-up royal commission aimed at nobbling the CFMEU, it has hit the unions the Abbott government least wanted to damage. The CFMEU was barely ruffled by it, and the ABCC revival is set to fail. The major right-wing unions have been revealed as so closely bound in with corporate Australia as to be part of it. The latest revelations as to exactly how much they were sold out puts the cap on it — for years such unions have treated their members with a steadily growing contempt.

For anyone who retained some belief in the Australian union system, however realistic, there has been something deeply disturbing about the rolling revelations of these deals. The possibility that unions could make en-bloc deals with corporations has been a possibility since genuine centralised wage-fixing was done away with. That it didn’t take off immediately, and has since become comprehensive, is a measure of the age. That the practice quickly detached from any reasonable limit or service to the members was notable. That it quickly became giddy with insouciance — culminating in the Kathy Jackson follies — was inevitable.

The reasons are obvious: a two-tier process whereby the whole of the union leadership comes from the elite from which the Labor elite are drawn; the weakening of any notion of a working-class movement in favour of a “managed” society, in which capital and labour are merely two of many inputs; the transformation of unions by the rise of compulsory super funds; the escalating arms race of internal factional wars, and the need for funds to fight them; the self-selecting process whereby a Labor Party that has ceased to be a fighting outfit becomes a place in which those with an apparatchik personality rise to the top; and finally, a sort of organic contempt that develops among such elites for the people they represent. The more they’re nominally in service to such people, the more they’re affronted by the idea that they are beholden to them. Fuck ’em, they’re just trolley-pushers. The contempt is, if anything, doubled by the widespread acceptance by the rank and file of the status quo. Look at ’em, they’re not even pushing back.

Thus, the central paradox of Australian unionism in its current state. When these official, cemented-in unions are running properly, they give Australian workers a better deal than most. But when they use their workers as a means to an end, that’s reversed. Anyone who wants to fight it has to take on an entire state apparatus, a state-capital-union system stitched tight. The century-plus-old mechanisms for giving unions greater standing in the society thus become a mechanism for the utter exclusion of workers from the process of gaining their own conditions. The system goes from being one of the best in the world to one of the worst, by the simple process of decline, decadence and elitism.

Even now, it is shocking how little shock and shame has been expressed by Labor’s tight elite network over these months and now years of revelations. You would think that anyone who had got in the game to fight for those with the least social power would have a more fundamental reaction to the news that the system has been run as a racket for years, with the lowest paid used as bait. Some of the Coles workers were part-timers on as little as $10,000 to $15,000. For some, the missing money would have represented real hardship: actual hunger, eviction, functional homelessness and the like.

It should be, literally, stomach-churning. The double-victimisation deprives workers even of the dignity and recognition gained from fighting directly for their own conditions. Sandy and other SEIU strikers had, in the months before and during the strike, gone from a somewhat sketchy understanding of the way things were — more than half of them had voted Republican several times — to an acute understanding of the forces arrayed against them. It had turned the tedious and exhausting job of dishing out food, at sports, to Americans, into a place where solidarity and a demand for respect became uppermost. It was, said Sandy, “the best thing I’ve ever done, apart from having my son” (her son had been shot dead two years earlier, victim of a home robbery in the Flats).

[Time for Labor to cut the Shoppies loose]

You wouldn’t trade good wages and conditions for that, but the melancholy fact is that the Coles workers got neither. They had to resort to individual petitioning to restore their conditions. There is no evidence they benefit from being in a union at all. That is a stunning achievement by the SDA. The union and its various incarnations has often been a poor rep of its workers going back decades (a female-dominated workforce represented by a male, conservative Catholic union apparatus), but the sheer scale of the sell-out beggars belief. The only thing worse was the HSU sellout of hospital workers, and the use of their funds for Kathy Jackson to eat oysters from a salver, on holiday in Italy with her “cunt-struck” lover.

That, and the obvious fact that many turned a blind eye to such behaviour for years, strikes one as really posing some fundamental questions about workers’ representation — questions uncomfortable for those of us who are the sort of people who would never cross a picket line. There are claims that the SDA has gone through a reform process. We’ll see. If it lapses again, it will have proved incorrigible and should simply be broken up.

In the interim, the best thing that could happen would be for Socialist Alternative to have a couple dozen of its many young recruits go deep cover into Coles and Woolies. Between them, the two chains hire 120 new people per day, so, with piercings removed, it wouldn’t be difficult. Three months of quiet working, three months of organising, and then 10 wildcat strikes called on the same day — aimed as much against the union as against the company. The shelf-stacking would be tedious, but the whole mission would be a lot more fun and heroic than selling newspapers. It would also force some of Labor and the union’s supporters and associates to take a stand. I would have thought that any such people would have viewed the situation as obscene. But then it’s funny what some people regard as obscene these days.