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Rancour in the rank and file

From the moment Prime Minister John Howard won his fourth election in October last year, with the bonus that the Coalition would gain control of the Senate after July 1 this year, he made his intentions very clear: industrial relations reform would be a high priority. The Workplace Relations Act, which former Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Peter Reith ushered though the Senate after lengthy negotiations with the Democrats in 1996, was always just a starting point for the Howard Government. For the Coalition, and its business supporters, a freer labour market is an article of faith.

To say such legislation has made it difficult for unions to operate, even survive, would be an understatement. For example, the 1996 Act made it harder to recruit, especially in non-union workplaces. Changes to the Act now being proposed will make it even harder.

At its core the legislation reflects a fundamentally different mindset about how the workplace operates. For the Howard Government, most employers can be trusted; the Scrooges of the world are few and far between. Employers and individual employees can amicably negotiate mutually beneficial arrangements. Third parties, for which read unions, simply impede the process, not only to the detriment of the employers but often employees.

For unions, employees are best protected in a collective agreement; if their thinking has progressed from the simplistic ‘all bosses are bastards’ rhetoric of yesterday, they still believe that many employers see employees as a cost, not an asset. Myriad annual reports that describe employees ‘as our most valuable resource’ is simply sophistry.

In such an industrial environment for unions, it is easy for organised labour to lay all its woes at the doorstep of the Howard Government. Falling union numbers (in the private sector they represent less than one worker in five), faltering wage campaigns in some industry sectors, and failure to prevent management exerting its prerogative over workplace change without negotiating can be too easily attributed to the legislation and employers who have been emboldened by it.

Unions, however, have been far less willing to reflect on their own weaknesses. Industrial and political cultures that reflect yesteryear remain unchallenged; authoritarianism, factionalism and nepotism still afflict the unions. In the past, when many employers acted as unions’ recruiting officers and the closed shop was an accepted norm, it hardly mattered. Today, they are exploited by employers and used by employees as a reason for not joining.

In this vein is the Victorian branch of the Shop, Distributive & Allied Employees Association (SDA). On paper, it is one of the strongest divisions of one of the more powerful and successful unions in the country. It is Victoria’s biggest union, with an estimated 54,000 members spread across the main retailers. All-embracing enterprise agreements with large retailers that are relaxed about union involvement mean it has a growing membership.

Politically, it is powerful inside the state Labor Party, where it boasts about eight per cent of delegates to the state conference. One issue where the Victorian branch has been publicly—and successfully—active has been to ‘encourage’ the Bracks Government to limit trading hours for large retailers (more than 20 employees on a site or 100 across the group) on major public holidays, evidence of the power it wields inside Labor.

But the power of the collective, of a democratic union marching as one, is not the story of the SDA. Instead, it is a union that still ‘exists’ to largely nurture the ambitions and ideological agendas of its officials, and, in this particular instance, state secretary Michael Donovan. Reflecting its anti-communist past, it is a union that has always stressed unity. Loyalty is paramount. Organised tickets for elected office are the norm. It does not mean the union ignores the wishes of its members; it does mean the union knows best what those wishes are. Power flows down, not up.

Going hand in glove with an authoritarian state of mind is a union where real power predominantly lies in the hands of men although more than 70 per cent of members are female. It reflects, in strong part, the union’s strong Catholic roots: men lead, women follow.

Donovan, who became state secretary in 1996, is very much in this tradition.

For much of the past nine years, Donovan’s position has been unchallenged. Today, however, that situation is changing. This is not to argue that he is about to lose his position; he remains firmly entrenched. But there are a growing number of critics inside the union who are making life harder for Donovan. (Employers, the Labor Party and other unions are either unconcerned or blithely ignorant of this state of affairs.)
The focus of the attack has centred on two former delegates to state council and branch conference—Kay Marks and Judy Cotter, a vice president of the branch—who are fighting to be reinstated to these two governing bodies. (Branch conference has 40 delegates and meets annually. State council has about 20 delegates and meets every two months.)

A deal was done in February 2002 between Marks and Cotter and Donovan and the federal secretary of the SDA, Joe de Bruyn, for the two delegates to step down from office on 31 May last year. Their resignations were signed in February 2002 but postdated to 31 May 2004.

But Marks and Cotter decided to withdraw their resignations, and in an open letter to fellow councillors and members late last year wrote that they had legal advice saying they are ‘entitled to attend and participate in branch conference’. Their letter said: ‘To stop an election happening [more than two years ago] Michael did an agreement that meant we would be able to stay on branch conference only for two more years. We did not want to sign this agreement, but felt we had no choice. We had to sign a resignation dated two years into the future.

‘We spoke to a lawyer who said we had the right to withdraw our nomination at any stage up to 31 May 2004. When we received this advice we both wrote to Michael, withdrawing our postdated resignations. When we turned up to state conference we were shocked and humiliated by things that occurred to us. After many years of loyalty (they have been on state council and conference for more than 20 years), we felt we were not shown courtesy or loyalty in return.’ Legal action is an option both women are considering.

For his part, Donovan says Marks and Cotter ‘resigned earlier this year from their positions on state council and branch conference. Those resignations have been accepted so state council has appointed people to fill the casual vacancies according to the rules. They attended branch conference [in June] as observers.’ He adds that the resignations ‘were received here this year and we processed them … in accordance with the law’.

Marks and Cotter will not comment beyond their written statement. That is left to Mark Clarke, an organiser and training officer before Donovan showed him the door in late 2002, who has become the unofficial spokesman for the anti-Donovan forces inside and outside the union. He says the ‘harsh way’ Donovan has treated these two loyal servants of the union is symptomatic of the way he runs the union.

‘Donovan had his good points. He was hard-working. He was dedicated. But he has become paranoid about his position. Any disagreement with staff, organisers or delegates is seen as directly challenging his authority. Typically these people are forced to resign. If Michael suspects he hasn’t got your total loyalty he pushes to the outer.’

Supporting Clarke’s contention is an employment contract in which loyalty to Donovan is a condition of the job. It says, in part: ‘The unity of the union is very important to ensure that the interests of the union members take priority. Therefore loyalty to the elected secretary of the branch must be maintained at all times.’

Donovan does not see anything wrong in such a loyalty clause. He makes no distinction between expecting loyalty and demanding it. He says: ‘Part of the letter of offer makes plain that loyalty to the branch secretary is part of their job. That is something every single union secretary in Australia would expect of their staff. And that’s expected of staff here.’

Former and current organisers and staff members say this loyalty clause has nothing to do with protecting members and everything to do with enhancing Donovan’s authority. They speak of a culture of fear in the office, of people being afraid to speak their minds. Says one current organiser: ‘Staff are scared. When we go out on the job we talk to our members about it and they say, “How can the union treat you like this when its job is to protect employees?” There really is no answer to that.’ They also note how Donovan strictly controls divisional meetings, limiting questions to a few ‘Dorothy Dixers’ from his supporters.

Clarke cites other reasons why there is a growing anger at Donovan inside the union. Some organisers are on individual contracts despite the fact they are anathema to the union movement. Donovan denies they are general policy, saying these contracts are used only to replace people on maternity or long-service leave. ‘This is unlike the employers we deal with. They just make their employees work harder,’ he says.

Other factors cited by Clarke include shutting down a women’s bureau in an organisation where more than 70 per cent of the members are female, and abolishing a counselling service for staff and members. To Donovan’s critics, this was an appalling decision. (This position has now been reinvented as an equity officer, an ironical title in a union where women are in the majority and men wield the power.)

The SDA was the first union to have a women’s officer, the position being established nearly 30 years ago. One example of how it helped women members was to run free self-defence courses. Clarke says the courses, which cost the union only $30,000 a year, were ‘very empowering, very popular, especially in regional Victoria’. He adds: ‘Violence against women working late hours and domestic violence are issues for the female membership. The program said to members that this is your union working for you. So why stop the program?’

But Clarke’s biggest complaint focuses on how poor morale among the organisers and shop delegates is ‘seriously impairing’ the union’s capacity to service its members. ‘Take the case of Margaret Muscat, who was a union delegate at the Coles store at Williamstown. The company dropped an allegation of harassment against her after an investigation. But Donovan still removed her as a delegate in the workplace. Members are furious. They want her back, but Donovan will not see them and explain his decision.’

When shop assistants at the store heard this story was being written, several made the effort to ring and confirm Clarke’s version of events. Says one: ‘Muscat’s a tremendous delegate. Even when she’s not at work she comes in if there’s a problem. We don’t understand why the union has got rid of her—and they won’t tell us.’ The shop assistant begs to remain anonymous. ‘It wouldn’t be worth my job,’ she says plaintively. She is not referring to any management threat. Rather, her fear lies with possible repercussions from the union. Donovan says he will not discuss individual cases.

Kaye Williams, an official for nearly six years, lost her job late last year after allegedly being seen ‘clapping’ a delegate who had the temerity to criticise Donovan in a public forum. A pay offer has been refused and she is considering her legal options.

Three years earlier, Natalie Lupton, who Clarke describes as an ‘excellent organiser’, was dismissed after 16 years of service. The dismissal allegedly resulted from Coles Supermarkets threatening to ban Lupton from their stores, and the loyalty demanded by Donovan was not reciprocated to this long-serving staff member. Her services were terminated. This resulted in the SDA staff taking the extraordinary step of holding a stopwork meeting and calling in an official of the Australian Services Union (ASU) to address staff grievances. The stopwork meeting called on the ASU to negotiate a grievance procedure for SDA staff, a request Donovan has still not agreed to.

It reflects an attitude where attempts by officials or employees to raise issues with Donovan are ignored. Similar approaches to de Bruyn have received expressions of sympathy—but no action. According to Clarke, an office that once prided itself on the stability of its staff now has a high turnover.

An office that should bubble with enthusiasm, ideas and debate is more akin to that of a Dickensian employer. It reflects a leadership more concerned with its own position, especially politically, than a vulnerable rank and file working in one of the lowest-paid industries. To date, employers have not exploited a union that must be vulnerable. Perhaps they are simply waiting until July 1.              

Nicholas Way is a senior writer with Business Review Weekly.



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