For people who have attended the National Union of Students National Conference over the last several years, the title of this article is a familiar chant. It’s a reference to the Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers’ Union – a right wing union that represents retail and fast food workers. This year, several motions were passed lauding what the SDA has achieved for workers. NUS “recognised the great work done by the SDA” and encouraged “students at risk of exploitation… to join the SDA”.
Unity (Labor right) and National Labor Students (Labor left) voted in favour of the block of motions congratulating the SDA. Yet the SDA has hardly been a model union for students.
For decades until the early 1980s, the SDA was not even affiliated with the Australian Labor Party because the SDA was too conservative. It is even more confusing that the NUS, which has affirmed its support of marriage equality, chose to endorse the SDA. In 2011, the then-national head of the SDA, Joe de Bruyn, warned that legalising gay marriage could result in societal collapse. According to de Bruyn “Marriage is between a man and a woman; always was, always will be.” It is deeply unclear why a union that is ostensibly dedicated to retail workers has devoted substantial time to campaigning against marriage equality, which most Australians support.
In addition to campaigning for socially conservative causes, the SDA has come under fire for failing to negotiate a good deal for workers. The Fair Work Commission found in July that a workplace agreement that the SDA had negotiated for Coles workers left some financially worse off. Workers were offered minor benefits like time off to donate blood. In return, penalty rates were to be cut under the agreement. Nonetheless, this has evidently not deterred the Labor factions from urging vulnerable workers to join the SDA.
The motions to support the SDA did not go through unopposed. A speaker from the Socialist Alternative charged that “the SDA signs sweetheart deals that see worker’s rights undermined… The suggestion that we should be standing in solidarity with the SDA is ridiculous”.
“Up the SDA”, replied Cameron Petrie, NUS General Secretary.
And therein lies the rub—the SDA commands the loyalty of a substantial contingent of Unity (Labor right) delegates to conference, particularly in Victoria. It is almost a tribute to this faction that they have been able to wield such outsize influence on the conference in apparent contradiction to most student’s interests.
Update: the final motion passed by the conference was entitled “‘Neutral’ isn’t a progressive stance on Marriage Equality, SDA”. It called upon the SDA, which recently adopted a formally neutral stance on gay marriage, to actively support marriage equality. Whether the motion was passed as the result of a deal or inattentiveness on the part of SDA-aligned delegates is unclear. Either way, it represents a step forward for the NUS.