In an era of low union membership numbers, it comes as a surprise to many labour movement insiders that a new union has burst onto the scene, the Retail and Fast Food Workers UnionIt poses an existential threat to the increasingly infamous and under-pressure, hard-right Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA) or “Shoppies”. 

Unions affiliated to the Labor Party wield their internal power by way of the size of their rank-and-file membership. The Labor Right-aligned SDA as the union of retail workers is the largest national union and has almost 250,000 members. As a result of the weight of these numbers, they are well represented in terms of delegates on state and territory party conference floors all over the country, particularly the national conference.

These numbers have ensured the SDA have been for decades able to control the Right’s policy positions on pet issues such as blocking marriage equality, euthanasia and abortion at a branch and national level, and therefore the party’s positions on these issues. It’s been considered something of a secretive paranoid reactionary Catholic cult since the days when Tony Abbott used to socialise with SDA stalwarts Joe de Bruyn and former senator Joe Bullock.

The Shoppies have been constraining prime ministers since the days of Gough Whitlam. The newly re-elected SDA-aligned senator from South Australia, Don “The Godfather” Farrell, was central to Kevin Rudd being dumped as prime minister in 2010. At least 12 members of federal Parliament are believed to owe their positions to the SDA, and that tends to engender loyalty. 

The Shoppies also hold three of the 10 Right positions on the finely divided Labor Party national executive. The Left have the other 10 positions, with the Right’s Bill Shorten having the casting vote as leader. 

The SDA needs to be kept happy or it can do damage at the highest level of the party if its members were to abstain on any issue in protest; it has had it its own way for many years, using its powerful patronage and numbers machine without hesitation on issues it has conservative convictions on. These convictions are often counter to those of rank-and-file members.

Increasingly, all across the country, the SDA — save for the SDA ghetto, SA Labor — has been looking like losing the power it’s become used to. There was a highly publicised midnight coup against SDA leadership in Victoria that stripped their Victorian secretary of his numbers in the Victorian Labor caucus, and most importantly halved the weight of SDA-aligned delegates at state conference from 21% to around 10%.

Being ruthlessly sidelined in a major power centre is a serious blow to their Victorian delegate numbers next national conference and their ability to get their state and federal candidates preselected in Victoria.

A co-ordinated flood of Right faction federal MPs and senators, including SDA-aligned members such as Tony Burke and David Feeney, came out supporting marriage equality ahead of the 2015 national conference, signalling they were no longer intimidated by SDA powerbrokers and/or embarrassed about being attached to such a retrograde, out-of-touch union.

All but 5% of the federal Labor caucus would now support marriage equality in a conscience vote in this term of Parliament.

Next term of Parliament, members of the federal Labor Party caucus are bound to vote for marriage equality under a deal struck between the Left’s Tanya Plibersek and the Right’s Bill Shorten at the 2015 national conference. 

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial and get Crikey straight to your inbox

By submitting this form you are agreeing to Crikey's Terms and Conditions.

The SDA’s national conference delegates in attendance, about 44 of them, barely whimpered when “those against” was called when voting on that deal. But there was one lone voice: Joe Bullock. Bullock has since resigned as a senator for Western Australia. He said he couldn’t campaign on the current marriage equality position of the party at the 2016 election.

The union is so aware of its reputation the national executive stunningly voted this year to take a “neutral stance” on the issue of marriage equality. The SDA has been the subject of numerous reports of how they keep their officials and members in line, how they ask about various policy positions of candidates seeking to be employed and how they intimidate those seeking to challenge their leadership in elections.

The SDA’s cosy relationship with employers like Coles, Woolworths and McDonald’s has been comprehensively exposed by the media. The Fair Work Commission recently quashed the Shoppies’ EBA with Coles, and ruled that Fair Work was “not satisfied that the Agreement passes the better off overall test”. The better-off-overall test requires that any EBA doesn’t leave any employee any worse off than the award would allow for.

Independent analysis found that some workers were thousands of dollars worse off as a result of the defunct negotiated agreement. It has also been revealed that the SDA has paid $5 million in commissions to employers such as Woolworths and Coles to secure workers’ union fees being payroll-deducted. 

The SDA has rejected the claims and said that most workers were better off, but it’s quite clear what was going on; Woolworths actively encourages union membership with the SDA when employees commence working for the suparmarket, and that is unheard of in any other workforce.

Dating back to the mid to late ’70s, controlling the union was only ever seen as a way to wield power within the Labor Party, and workers were a side issue. Meanwhile, current Coles workers have found themselves thrust back onto the previous EBA as Coles now refuses to renegotiate terms after the Fair Work Commission defeat.

This brings Retail and Fast Food Workers Union into the frame.

People central to the Fair Work case against the SDA and Coles have established it to form a progressive modern retail union that works for the benefit of their members and represents their values within the Labor Party.

It doesn’t intend to be affiliated with the Labor Party at this stage.

Rank-and-file SDA members are increasingly aware of how their union has functioned — for so many years, without their knowledge — as a result of in-depth investigative journalism, whistleblowers and social media. They will put up a fight, but I suspect the SDA has had its day and is mortally wounded by being exposed for what it is.

Many within the Labor Party are hoping it drives a stake into the heart of the out-of-date, out-of-touch, complacent SDA.

I’m led to believe Retail and Fast Food Workers Union — RAFFWU for short — is getting hundreds of applications from workers who want to be represented by a serious and democratic union.

With the rap sheet of the SDA, can you blame them?

Hopefully, retail workers can build this new union and get the representation and the rights and entitlements every worker is entitled to, least of all low-paid and often young employees of huge employers Coles, Woolworths and McDonald’s.