New union to challenge 'shoppies' after massive wages scandal
The formation of the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union's (RAFFWU) is a response to a nation-wide wages scandal centred on workplace agreements by the conservative Shop, Distributive & Allied Employees Association with major employers including Coles, Woolworths and McDonald's.
The man who exposed Coles in his spare timeMeet Josh Cullinan, who, on nights and weekends, uncovered the widespread underpayment of Coles employees.
"There's hundreds of millions of dollars being fleeced from these workers and we are sick of it," Mr Cullinan said. "The plan is for us to launch a strong successful union led by retail and fast food workers; they haven't had that for decades."
A serious challenge to the SDA would likely cause major ructions in the labour movement, with 'the shoppies' a major financial backer of the ACTU and Labor, and a powerful factional force which sponsors dozens of politicians across Australia.
Founded 108 years ago, the paternalistic SDA has been dominated since the early 1950s by a small Catholic cabal inspired by National Civic Council founder, Bob Santamaria.
From 1976 to 2014 it was run with an iron fist by national secretary Joe de Bruyn, the man Gough Whitlam famously dubbed "a Dutchman who hates dykes". He is now national president.
But the recent wages scandal has badly damaged its reputation in the labour movement and among its members.
For five years Michael Johnstone has stacked shelves and helped customers at Woolworths in Brunswick where he is also an SDA delegate.
He says he was disappointed to discover his union was actively opposed to same sex marriage. That disappointment deepened when he read that SDA-negotiated agreements had left his colleagues underpaid.
Mr Johnstone said he had already sounded out many workmates about joining a new union that stood up for members. "There's been a lot of positive response. They understand that no worker should be worse off under new union agreements."
Mr Johnstone said the SDA leadership had for decades resisted demands for change. "It's now in the hands of the workers. They now have a choice."
The building of a new national union from scratch is unheard of in the decades since the 1980s when mergers created mega unions and in an era where membership is near historic low levels.
An attempt by socialist activists to set up a rival to the SDA in the 2000s failed to gain traction.
Australia's unions are largely shielded from competition from that restricts them from encroaching on each other's areas of industry coverage.The SDA's response to the new union is likely to be fierce.
"We understand the task of organising these workers is immense," said Mr Cullinan. "The reality is, penalty rates are under attack, half a million retail and fast food workers (on SDA deals) have already had them taken off them."
The initial focus of the new union will be Coles, McDonald's and Woolworths, Australia's three largest employers. Under SDA agreements the companies pay either reduced penalty rates or, in the case of McDonald's, no weekend penalties.
In a landmark decision in May, that followed Fairfax revelations, the the full bench of the Fair Work commission found a Coles agreement with the SDA failed the crucial test that workers under enterprise agreements must be "better off overall" compared to the award.
Mr Cullinan (above) said that in workplaces where employees were paid less than the award the new union would demand employers immediately lift pay rates.
If they refuse to do so he said he expected members to demand the agreements be terminated.
The founders of the new union include Labor, Greens and socialist party members, and unaligned activists. Mr Johnstone said he did not support the new union having an affiliation to any political party. "I think that would distract us from looking after workers."
Union president will be Siobhan Kelly, a barrister who led the historic case against Coles, along with Mr Cullinan and Coles trolley operator Duncan Hart.
In its formative stage the union would be run by volunteers who would seek to sign thousands of financial members and use Pozible crowd-funding to raise funds for part-time organisers and offices in major cities.
"We know that's a big task and it will take time to build our union," said Mr Cullinan. "But we have a sector of a million workers; half a million of them are subject to exploitative enterprise agreements."
The new union won't at be first registered as a traditional union. Instead, it would register as a national organisation under the Corporations Act and as an incorporated association.
Mr Cullinan said this would allow it to act as a "robust and strong" union on behalf of members including through industrial action.