Swipe your way to a parliamentary career
If Macquarie Bank was capitalism’s “Millionaires Factory,’’ the Labor equivalent, at least in SA, is the powerful Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association which turns out parliamentary careers.
Indeed, click on the party’s SA website where it says “Constitution and Rules’’ and the first thing that comes up is an ad for the shoppies’ union.
The socially-conservative SDA has been extraordinary in the degree to which it has dominated the party, colouring its policies, determining its leadership and personnel, and funding its political campaigns.
This activism does not come from any groundswell of particularly political or class conscious retail workers.
Au contraire, it derives from the precise opposite. Ignorance. Indeed it is possible that some of the SDA’s disaggregated and docile members do not even know they are members. And few would have any detailed understanding of what their money helps fund.
For years, this ignorance has given union officials carte blanche to pursue their political careers and push a particularly 1950s version of social policy using unwitting members as their authority and applying their members’ dues to the pursuit of power in the ALP.
In fact, such is the union’s sway over the ALP that it has even sorted internal power struggles and personality differences by bumping the odd (and I do mean odd) union official ``upstairs,’’ meaning into parliament.
Many unions have behaved like this but the SDA does it best and it does it most which is why it has become so powerful.
Not that you would know that from its industrial muscle which seems to be rarely flexed in anger. When was the last retail strike, one Labor critic asked rhetorically? Funny that in an industry known for long hours, low wages, and poor job security.
Perhaps that is why the big employers in the retail sector play along providing a cosy closed shop arrangement which even extends to collecting dues.
But if the union’s record for members is modest, save for its dogmatic attachment to restrictive shopping hours which the Productivity Commission argues is a key factor strangling the industry, its power in the ALP is anything but.
And this power is used to allocate jobs, put obedient candidates in winnable seats, and steer the ALP away from any social reforms its Catholic dominated overwhelmingly male leadership finds offensive, such as the current push for gay marriage.*
This is particularly jarring: most retail workers are young and many would sympathise with much of the Greens’ platform. Yet their union leadership is the opposite. So much for representation.
When SA Premier Mike Rann was visited two weeks ago to be told his time was up, it was not his putative replacement who did him the courtesy but two men** from the SDA stable. One was Jack Snelling an SDA sponsored MP, foisted on the unenthusiastic premier as his new Treasurer earlier this year, and the other, Peter Malinauskas, the 30 year old wunderkind boss of the SA shoppies’ union.
And when Labor’s trio of ``faceless men’’ decided to call an end to Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership, the SDA’s former secretary-turned-senator, Don Farrell was among them.
So how does the SDA get this influence? In short, the answer is money.
Labor’s annual state Convention is where policy is made and MPs are chosen. This is where power and influence are apportioned.
Of the 200 delegates to last year’s SA Convention, (100 union delegates and 100 from local districts) by far the biggest single voting bloc was the SDA’s.
Among unions, the SDA leads the field ``affiliating’’ to the ALP for a very heroic 22,785 members - a euphemism for saying it has 22,785 union members who are willing ALP members. Not bad for a union boasting just 25,000 members all up in SA, NT and Broken Hill.
For this affiliation, the ALP charges somewhere in the ballpark of $5.00 per member (this is not disclosed) or around $113,000 per year in dues _ money taken straight from shop assistants and fast-food workers.
Critics of this longstanding arrangement say there is no requirement for SDA or other unions to demonstrate members’ authorisation for this massive transfer and no names are supplied.
This hefty wedge _ which dwarfs all the other union affiliation fees _ buys the union leadership 26 delegates which BTW, the leadership appoints (no election needed) and who dutifully vote as one giving the union dominance of the Right faction and by virtue of the Right’s majority, control of the party.
In truth, of course with the polls the way they are, the union would struggle to prove it had 22,000 enthusiastic ALP voters across the country let alone 22,000 members in SA happy to pay their dues to the ALP no questions asked.
It is time more people in the ALP stood up to this disgraceful and undemocratic practice. But don’t hold your breath.
Just this week, The Advertiser reported that the next cab off the rank to enter the SA cabinet, Chloe Fox, has recently signed up to the SDA. (Perhaps being an MP qualifies as ``allied employee’‘?)
Should we conclude this new allegiance is merely a coincidence? Unlikely.
* Department store staff seem to have plenty of proudly gay people among them but their union believes they should not have marriage rights.
** Women dominate the retail sector but the union has always been dominated by men. Of the six state branches and the national office, none of the heads are women.
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