A Battle At The Heart of the Australian Union Movement

By Alexander Vos

In 2016, The Retail and fast food workers union (RAFFWU) was founded, in direct opposition to the existing Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA). While this split on the surface appears to be about the SDA v RAFFWU it is indicative of boarder concerns in the Australian union movement. On one side you have those who wish to take a collaborationist and often careerist approach. Here, unions act as an organ of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) providing employment usually for ALP members over rank and file workers. In the SDA, union bureaucracy takes political positions that do not upset the business-friendly wing of the ALP or actively pursue business-friendly policies. On the other side, you have those who are more militant in their outlook. Here, unions act as a vehicle for class struggle and raising class consciousness amongst the working class. In RAFFWU, rank and file workers are in control of the political positions and the union sides with the interest of workers. In this sense, SDA v RAFFWU can be contextualised within this boarder conflict inside the Australian union movement.

Critics of SDA’s tactics and strategy (myself included) say it represents the most extreme manifestation of this class collaborative careerist approach. This is evidenced by the SDA paying commissions to businesses like Australian supermarket giants Woolworths and Coles in exchange for employers actively “encouraging” workers to join the SDA and payroll deductions for dues. However, the SDA defends this close relationship with employers arguing that it’s self-described “moderate” and “responsible” approach has delivered substantial gains for its members. While it is true that Australia does have one of the highest minimum wages in the world. It is also true that SDA enterprise bargaining agreements have locked in below award pay rates and stripped workers of basic rights guaranteed in the Australia award system. Even before the Fair Work Commission’s 2017 ruling on the reduction of penalty rates, SDA enterprise bargaining agreements (EBAs) had reduced or outright stripped workers in businesses like KFC, McDonald’s, Woolworths, Coles of there penalty rates. And while penalty rates are some of the most high-profile rights lost it is just the tip of the iceberg. With many workers across the retail and fast food industry seeing reductions in junior pay rates, casual loading, and even break entitlements. More recently this year we have seen the SDA potentially facilitate the restructure of Woolworths, the restructure could result in the closure of numerous stores resulting in massive job losses. All the while the SDA uses its members’ dues to bankroll its influence inside the ALP pursuing socially conservative and business-friendly policies against its own members’ wishes.

The SDA’s action compromises the entire trade union movements ability to advocate for low wage workers. its mere presence in the Australian Council of trade unions (ACTU) means that their campaigns become disingenuous and hypocritical. How for instance can the ACTU campaigns like “change the rules” be taken seriously when for retail and fast food workers the rules need to be changed due to the actions of an ACTU affiliate?

This discontent in the SDA rank and file is why RAFFWU was born and how it is gaining momentum. While RAFFWU is still small it has been effective in mounting legal challenges that have seen the termination of SDA EBAs at Baker’s Delight and IGA supermarkets resulting in better pay and conditions for workers there. However, despite these gain and earlier successes against fast-food giant Dominos and in particular against Coles, where the Fair Work Commission’s found that Coles-SDA EBA failed the BOOT (better off overall test). RAFFWU is still yet to engage in direct industrial action. This is due to RAFFWU having a membership that is largely spread out. When you combine this with the SDA teaming up with employers like Woolworths to actively block RAFFWU from entering stores, it means that gaining density in individual stores needed to directly challenge the SDA via industrial action has been an uphill battle. As such RAFFWU industrial approach has been confined mostly to legal challenges in the FWC mentioned earlier. This sadly falls short of the more militant action members wish to see. However, it is important to note that as density has risen, we have seen RAFFWU engage in their own pickets and support strike actions. Like the chemist warehouse dispute with the National Union of Workers (NUW) and the on-going Manly Fast Ferry dispute with the famously militant Maritime Union of Australia (MUA). RAFFWU is becoming more daring in its approach and this needs to be fostered if the SDA and all it represents it to be challenged and defeated.

RAFFWU supporting the MUA during a strike action at circular quay. And for those organisations like “Solidarity” who wish to invoke Lenin’s criticism of those establishing rival unions from “Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder”, I ask you: consider that the SDA over its 100+ years of existence has created a hierarchy that it is completely anti-democratic by design, to explicitly stop workers from gaining influence out a deep-rooted fear of communism. Its own organising strategy means the SDA acts as an apparatus of the business sector funnelling members’ dues back to employers and spreading pro-business anti-worker policies through the labour movement neutering militant worker actions and handing the unions over to liberal ALP. These actions render any designation of the SDA as a union so ridiculous it borders on absurd. The SDA in no sense of the word can be described as a union without distorting the definition of what a union is to such an extent the word becomes a deformed mockery of its intended meaning. As such the consequences of any self-proclaimed “leftists” choosing not to support RAFFWU results in tacit support for a non-union employer organisation over a genuine workers union. We only need to look at the Unite Union in New Zealand and its successes in organising retail workers. We can see how it has successfully challenged the existing collaborationist union there to understand that with persistence and good political leadership RAFFWU will build into something truly militant.

For RAFFWU, developing this militancy that workers desperately need will help to obtain better conditions in low-paying industries. The boarder union movements need to cement unions as a vehicle for anti-capitalist struggle, communists need to actively support and steer the union actively. It’s is our duty as those committed to class struggle to help RAFFWU grow so that we may erode the control reformist collaborative unions and the ALP have in the Australian union movement. This is particularly important when you consider that retail and fast food unions are often where young people first contact with the labour movement. RAFFWU needs to be developed along the right line so it will help to invigorate and radicalise young people, to create a working class that is conscious of its struggle and is active within it.

If RAFFWU is successful in toppling the SDA it will damage the reactionary elements inside the union movement immensely. It will send shockwaves across the union movement and cement militancy as the norm creating far-reaching structural and cultural change in the unions. This is why the success of RAFFWU is imperative and why we must support it. its success is directly tied to a shift away from collaboration and towards militancy and agitation. Every inch gained by RAFFWU over the SDA is a win for those who wish to see union power back in the hands of the workers and out of the hands of self-serving bureaucrats.