Young workers need fighting unions

February 3, 2007

Tim Zammit, a young worker at Woolworths in Hackham, South Australia, wrote the following letter to his union — the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) — in response to the recent employment agreement negotiated by the SDA.

Retail workers are used to being exploited and trodden on, but usually it is by the heartless, profit-driven corporations that hire them, not the very union employed to protect them. The recent enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) proposed to Woolworths employees in South Australia offered workers an across-the-board wage increase of 3.41%, barely enough to compensate for inflation. This wage increase was met with scepticism by SDA members. The agreement also offered night-fill, perishables and grocery staff the opportunity to go onto the same pay classification as checkout operators.

This scepticism was quickly replaced with anger and dismay once night-fill, grocery and perishables staff were informed that they were now required to work as checkout operators as well as in their original departments. The failure of the SDA to fight for a decent agreement has damaged the image of the organised labour movement in this country among young workers, especially considering that the SDA is often the first union that many young people will be affiliated with. Woolworths bosses are surely ecstatic at the terms in the new enterprise agreement. Enabling other staff to act as checkout operators will cut the number of people that Woolworths has to hire. This new staff "flexibility" (Woolworths' terminology) is sure to save the company an enormous amount of money at the cost of its employees.

Retail workers are generally either young part-time employees or unskilled employees with few employment prospects. They are vulnerable and susceptible to exploitation by the powerful corporations that employ them. Retail has overtaken manufacturing as the new haven for unskilled labour in the 21st century. These workers also have the added burden of having their "interests" protected by a toothless tiger, the SDA. Retail workers deserve better from their union, which proudly boasts to be the largest trade union in Australia. The Australian Council of Trade Unions argues that AWAs (individual contracts) are trading workers' rights for a few extra cents in the pay packet; this new EBA offers the same result.

The SDA claims that the Howard government is the main threat to retail workers' rights in this country. This is undeniably true. But SDA members have every right to be disappointed in the performance of "their" union. The soft, conservative approach taken by the SDA has once again failed to reap rewards for its members.

Please don't misinterpret me: I am a supporter of the trade union movement. While the average wage increase (resulting from union agreements) for the June quarter of 2006 was 4.4% around Australia, retail workers only received a 3% increase. This is despite the greedy corporations — e.g. Woolworths — making revenue exceeding $37 billion. Active and militant unions such as the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union received a 5.1% pay increase for its loyal construction members in the same period. The Australian Education Union, another militant union, received a 5.3% increase for its members. The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, which represents the declining manufacturing industry, received a 3.8% increase for its members. The increases for retail workers are 1.4% lower than the national average.

Employees at Woolworths Hackham in particular feel lost and uninformed. The overbearing and exploitative bosses constantly abuse staff. Many staff members are single parents or have little employment prospects, and are afraid to stand up for their rights at work. The fact that we do not have an SDA union delegate at our store exacerbates this issue. This is despite me offering my services to the union several months ago. The fact that I was willing to contribute to the union and that the paperwork has not been sent out is nothing short of disgusting and is yet another example of why the SDA's unprofessional, weak approach is turning young people away from the union movement.

[Abridged.]

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