When Joe Bullock became a Labor senator in 2013, he hoped his vote could make a difference. He hoped it would stop same-sex marriage becoming law. The Western Australian Labor powerbroker and former state secretary of the shoppies union was left disappointed. The party gave its parliamentarians a conscience vote for two terms of Parliament and then bound them to back same-sex marriage after what Bullock remembers as a 499 to one vote at the ALP national conference in 2015. “Mate, you start to feel you’re in a bit of a minority,” Bullock says. He quit the Senate that year, adamant “marriage is between a man and a woman, full stop”.
Bullock, who worked for the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, better known as the shoppies or SDA, for 38 years was one of the last of his kind in the unions. The type of people (usually committed Catholics) who used to put “anti-Communist” as their occupation in the census and built the SDA into a socially conservative, strike-averse union that has been at times Australia’s largest and arguably most powerful.
As other unions have declined, the SDA has retained its status as the biggest private-sector union with just over 200,000 members. It is a huge total at a time when unions represent about 15 per cent of the workforce, down from about half when Bob Hawke sat atop the movement throughout the 1970s. But critics accuse the shoppies of having won their membership through matey relationships with employers built on questionable pay deals and using their numbers to fight progressive views on everything from stem cell research to reproductive rights.
Gerard Dwyer, the union’s national secretary, has taken a different tack. In his first major interview since winning the position uncontested in 2014, he stands by the union’s history. As an official since 1987, he has been a part of a lot of it. But he is equally determined to stay out of social fights and so-called “culture wars” debates. Asked whether the union has a view on any of the social issues that were so prominent in its agenda, Dwyer says it is for “individuals to make up their own position”. Some SDA-linked politicians, including James Merlino, the Victorian Deputy Premier, and Greg Donnelly, a NSW Labor upper house member, have made their views clear. Merlino came to support same-sex marriage but was an opponent of voluntary assisted dying legislation, which passed in Victoria in 2017. Donnelly, who is the president of the NSW branch of the SDA as well as sitting in Parliament, campaigned against same-sex marriage and is a leading anti-abortion voice.
But Dwyer says he is more interested in “facts” than “hyperbole”, something he credits to his upbringing in the small northern NSW town of Casino, where he was born in 1963 to a union family. His uncle once ran as a state ALP candidate and his grandfather was a union delegate at a butter factory but Dwyer studied education at the Australian Catholic University. After working as a teacher and social worker, Dwyer found himself picking up more hours at a bottle shop where he had a job when studying. He says he was looking for a job when he joined the SDA and worked his way up. At a time when the coronavirus has put more stress on workers than at any time since the Second World War, Dwyer is determined to focus on two watchwords: “dignity and respect”.
He will not comment on Bullock’s decision to leave the Senate, short of saying it was “interesting” and does not see the union’s transition from an organisation that did more than any other to forestall Labor’s eventual support of same-sex marriage to one that has no public stance on the issue as a defining shift. “You might see it as a significant change,” Dwyer says. “I think it’s more of a changing context.”
That context is now COVID-19. The union has thrown its energy behind a push for bonus payments to workers keeping shelves stocked, paid pandemic leave for those who show symptoms of the virus and maintained some of its old objectives, like the fight against reduced penalty rates. So far, so traditional.
But many in Labor see that as a marked change. One senior union leader from outside the Shoppies, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says there has been a “quiet revolution”. Several federal Labor politicians, including some who have clashed with the union historically, agree. Even Josh Cullinan, Dwyer’s chief antagonist and secretary of the rival Retail and Fast Food Workers Union, which numbers about 2500 members, concedes the SDA no longer pursues a socially-conservative agenda publicly, though he is suspicious of its longstanding leadership. “It didn’t really have a choice anymore,” Cullinan says. Whether the change is a rupture or evolution, the largest socially conservative voice among the unions has vacated the public square.
Most Labor figures who spoke to The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald attribute it to the departure of Joe de Bruyn, the union’s national secretary of more than 30 years once branded the “Dutchman who hates dykes” by Gough Whitlam. De Bruyn, who retired as national secretary in 2014 and president in 2018, declined to comment. Dwyer has nothing but praise for his old boss. De Bruyn, he says, is “a very fair minded, compassionate individual with an incredible work ethic”.
Asked what he would like to see from the ongoing negotiations with businesses and the government over industrial relations reform, Dwyer says he would like enterprise agreements to be dealt faster by the Fair Work Commission, which is the industrial umpire. “If it’s not up to scratch, make the decision and kick it out,” he says. “Or if it is, give us a decision and let us get on with it.”
At stake in enterprise bargain decisions are the pay and conditions of tens of thousands of retail workers, and the profitability of some of Australia’s largest companies. Dwyer points to the Kmart enterprise agreement, which was approved in 2019 after more than a year of legal battles, as one that took too long. The ambition is one employers and unions could both get behind but it also skirts territory that has prompted the SDA’s critics to skewer it for having a “cosy” relationship with employers.
One reason the Kmart agreement took so long to approve was the commission ruled its thin pay rise for employees — in some cases 1 cent an hour above the award — was not enough to compensate employees for the downside of being placed in the REST super fund linked with the SDA. In 2016 The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age revealed retail workers at major chains including Coles and McDonald’s were being underpaid millions a year compared with the award under deals struck with the union. Those revelations prompted criticism, including allegations the SDA had sold out workers. The commission, which is supposed to check whether the deals signed by unions and employers make workers “better off overall” (known as the BOOT test), ultimately struck down the Coles agreement and only approved the Kmart deal after the superannuation clause was removed.
Dwyer says the union believes its deals did make workers better off, but “we’re not the union that gets bogged down in in fighting yesterday’s battles”. But he is voluble and detailed on industrial matters. Even as some chains have walked away from the enterprise agreement, including McDonald’s, Dwyer points to several agreements the SDA has signed in recent years with businesses from Hungry Jack’s to KFC that meet industrial standards. “Fully BOOT compliant,” he says. He points to public holidays and safety measures the union has fought for too.
Cullinan, who has challenged many of the SDA’s agreements, is not convinced. He argues the union’s deals favour employers because they allow the SDA to recruit members at company inductions. “They are only implementing any changes and returning the billion dollars that was stolen because of RAFFWU action,” he says. There are some indications the SDA claims victories it was not wholly responsible for. At least one employer, Bunnings, which paid workers a $1000 “thank you” payment in a “union win”, said it did so of its own accord.
Bullock, retired and a Liberal Party member living in Tasmania, has no regrets. He argues that unlike militant unions like the CFMMEU, the SDA’s mostly younger, often casual workforce meant the union did not have the “weapon” of strike action and had to rely on persuasion to convince employers. Still, he says, he had fun, and feels he improved working people’s lives and would do it all again. The union is doing fine without him, he says.
“The union has probably acknowledged that time has changed [on social issues], sometimes you win and sometimes you don’t,” he says. “When the battle is fought and lost you get over it and move on.”
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Nick Bonyhady is industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based between Sydney and Parliament House in Canberra.