SDA president Joe de Bruyn

Restoring penalty rates cut by the Fair Work Commission is a key Labor commitment under Bill Shorten. Within 100 days of being elected, he says, Labor will restore penalty rates for workers who are the victims of the Fair Work Commission-employer attack on their incomes.

Fair enough. But it prompts the question of why Labor is continuing its financial links with an organisation that, more than any other, has undermined penalty rates for ordinary workers — the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (otherwise known as the SDA). The Shoppies union has sold out hundreds of thousands of workers since the Fair Work Act became law. In deals involving the country’s biggest retail employers — Coles, Woolworth’s, McDonalds, KFC — the SDA has traded off penalty rates for wage rises that have left large numbers of casual and part-time workers significantly worse off. One estimate is that workers under SDA-negotiated agreements have lost around $1 billion in wages between 2011-16, when Fairfax revealed the dodgy deals.

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Indeed, the SDA’s dodgy deals have been known in trade union circles since the union — which is also profoundly homophobic and socially reactionary — began negotiating them. 

But despite the SDA’s long track record of failing to represent its workers properly, Labor has maintained strong connections with the union. The union is represented in the Senate on the Labor side by conservative Catholics Jacinta Collins and Don Farrell (and, until he resigned last year, WA senator Joe Bullock). The key reason is that the SDA is, outside of Labor’s own investment vehicles, is the biggest donor to the federal party, having handed over $1.8 million in donations since 2010. The SDA is also a big donor to state and territory branches, contributing $2.15 million to party coffers around the country in 2015-16.

A party committed to backing penalty rates would be returning the SDA’s cheques with a polite request that it stop screwing over its own members. But when you write cheques as big as the Shoppies do, Labor will overlook what you do to your members, however much it contradicts a key plank of the party’s political strategy.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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