SDA attempts to sell out Coles workers

UNITE talks to Coles workers and delegates

Negotiations recently took place between the leadership of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employee’s Association (SDA) and Coles management for a new 3 year national agreement to cover all Coles employees. The proposed agreement, fully endorsed by the SDA leadership, strips back many of the rights and conditions Coles workers had fought for over previous decades, and sets the scene for future attacks on conditions.

The SDA leadership reported that the new Wesfarmers-led Coles management were aggressive and far reaching in their demands for greatly reduced conditions for Coles workers. This was flagged as the reason for the significant loss of core working conditions for Coles employees contained in the agreement. Stunningly, the leadership of the SDA told union delegates that the proposed loss of key conditions was something to be proud of, because it “could have been much worse”.

The SDA has spent recent weeks debriefing delegates about the loss of worker’s rights. Union delegates have been understandably distressed and raised significant objections to the agreement. Despite the protests of many delegates, the SDA leadership has recommended that members vote ‘Yes’ to the proposed agreement.

UNITE has spoken to SDA delegates and members who have grown increasingly disgruntled with the SDA leadership. “Every three years it’s the same, we hear about all the conditions and penalty rates we are losing, all for a measly 3.5% pay rise each year. Our take home pay is decreasing after inflation and our workplaces are becoming unbearable!” one members said adding “we should tell them no more!”.

This latest proposed Coles workplace agreement goes further than previous agreements in stripping worker’s pay and conditions, with the loss of core employment standards fought and won long ago by previous generations.

Many positions in the store have been abolished, and instead employees who fill these positions will be downgraded in pay and title to regular ‘team member’. Many weekend public holidays have been scrapped altogether, and staff who have or obtain a Responsible Serving of Alcohol (RSA) certificate can be rostered for part of their shift at nearby Coles Liquor stores. The loss of sick leave entitlements is sure to hit employees hard, as will the loss of all penalty rates which apply during sick leave, the delaying of sick leave entitlements to new employees, as well as a new requirement to tell the Store Manager of their being unable to attend work, rather than their supervisor.

Other delegates have shared their concerns with UNITE in recent days. “The loss of penalties during sick leave means employees who are ill on a shift with penalties will have to decide if they can afford to have the day off, with many likely to work despite being sick.”

“The requirement to notify the Store Manager is the SDA permitting workplace bullying. Staff feel uncomfortable or intimidated speaking to a manager who they do not work with directly. One way Store Managers are measured and rewarded is based on their ability to reduce sick days in their store, so of course they are going to be discouraging employees from using their sick days. If this proposed agreement is passed, people should expect to see many sick Coles employees in the aisles, at the registers, and handling food in the deli and fresh produce departments.”

One of the most worrying changes contained in the proposed workplace agreement is the insertion of a ‘Flexibility Clause’. These types of clauses are a key union-busting weapon in the arsenal of employers and will inevitably lead to further declines in the collective strength of Coles workers.

This clause allows for individual ‘flexibility’ arrangements between management and a single employee, permitting changes to penalty rates, holiday conditions, leave loading and rostering principles. In exchange for tiny rises in the base rate of pay, Coles management would be able to bully individual employees into bargaining away the majority of their workplace conditions. It is obvious that young and new employees will bear the brunt of this particular attack.

“This could potentially leave employees on something resembling a Howard-era AWA!” one delegate noted, adding that “this wasn’t conceived in some neo-liberal politician’s office, this was negotiated and rubber stamped by Joe De Bruyn and the SDA. They are actually encouraging members to sign up to giving up their rights at work! We put all that effort into ousting John Howard and his AWA’s, only to have De Bruyn re-introduce them!”

The proposed new Coles-SDA agreement is to be voted on between June 20th and July 3rd, to come into effect July 4th. Members and Delegates who spoke to UNITE were unanimous in their intention to vote ‘No’ to the Agreement.

One delegate said “I will be advising my members to vote ‘NO’ to this rotten agreement. If the value of our work is denied by Coles management why should we continue to help them make their record profits?”

Another member pointed out that there was absolutely no need to give up without a fight. “Contrary to what Joe De Bruyn and his cronies are trying to tell us, we don’t have to accept this slap in the face from Coles management. We should all vote ‘NO’ to the agreement and demand that the SDA begin a ballot for strike action. On the basis of hitting these profiteers in the hip-pocket we could easily force them not only to leave our conditions alone, but to actually improve them!”

The proposed Coles agreement is yet another example of they types of shady backroom deals the SDA leadership has been up to for years. De Bruyn and his clan are not at all interested in waging a serious fight to protect the hard-won conditions of retail workers. Instead, what they want to do is maintain their influence inside the Labor Party in order to push their socially conservative right wing agenda. By doing deals with big retailers, it makes it easier for them to sign up new members at these companies, therefore maintaining their membership numbers and their claim to more power in the Labor Party.

In order to beat off the attacks of the big retailers, SDA members need to work to reclaim their union from the current rotten leadership. SDA members deserve union with leaders that truly fight for their interests. Under a leadership that was willing to organise proper campaigns, including mobilising the membership and taking industrial action, retail workers could defend and extend their conditions, instead of being forced to accept attacks.