Nurses. n Nursing Federation stop work meeting at Dallas Brooks Hall. Melbourne Age. news. Photo by Angela Wylie. October 12 2011.’s biggest union, the nurses’ federation, has condemned the “reprehensible conduct” of the shop assistants’ union over sweet-heart wage deals that left hundreds of thousands of retail and fast food workers underpaid.
In a rare breaking of labour movement ranks, the n Nursing & Midwifery Federation has attacked its fellow ACTU affiliate in a submission to a Senate inquiry into penalty rates.
The inquiry was prompted by a 12-month Fairfax Media investigation that revealed how the Shop, Distributive & Allied Employees Association (SDA) struck deals with employers that left more than 250,000 workers paid less than the award, the wages safety net.
The scathing assessment by the nurses’ federation federal secretary Lee Thomas and assistant secretary Annie Butler, is the first open attack by current union chiefs since the revelation of the underpayment scandal in 2015/16.
The conservative “shoppies”, the largest private-sector union in the country, and the ALP’s biggest union affiliate, is the last bastion of conservative Catholicism in the n labour movement.
In the last few weeks, federal MPs aligned to the SDA have threatened to blow up any bid by Liberal rebels to vote to legalise same-sex marriage.
And in Victoria, Deputy Premier James Merlino, also from the SDA, has declared he will vote against proposed voluntary euthanasia laws, calling them “endorsed suicide”.
But the union has come under sustained pressure for the past two years over inferior workplace agreements that have cut or removed penalty rates and left workers at least $300 million a year worse off.
Many senior union officials have been privately scathing about the SDA deals but publicly silent. Unions are loathe to publicly criticise one another. So too are they very conscious of financial importance of the shoppies to the ACTU, and the ALP.
In its submission the nurses’ union, which is not affiliated to Labor, says it “sadly” appeared the union and employers had “co-operated” on deals “that left hundreds of thousands of low-paid employees” paid less than the award.
Ms Thomas and Ms Butler said gaps in the current industrial laws may allow such arrangements but that this did not “excuse this reprehensible conduct”.
About one in six union members in is a member of the nurses’ federation, which has been hugely successful at organising workers. A former federal secretary, Ged Kearney, is the ACTU president.
The nurses’ union has also supported a push by Greens MP Adam Bandt to make changes to the Fair Work Act.
Those amendments would protect workers from SDA-style wage deals that traded away penalty rates with inadequate compensation.
Mr Bandt’s proposed legislation was subject to a recent lower house vote where it was voted down narrowly after winning last-minute Labor support. The Coalition opposed it.
The Senate inquiry was the work of Nick Xenophon, who has said the cosy enterprise agreements between the shoppies and big employers had disadvantaged low-wage workers.
They had also provided an unfair advantage to big businesses by undercutting awards adhered to by smaller retailers, Senator Xenophon said.
‘s three largest employers, Coles, Woolworths and McDonald’s, have all benefited from wage deals with the union that have traded away penalty rates and left many tens of thousands of workers paid less than the award.
In 2016, the full bench of the Fair Work Commission, in a landmark decision, quashed an agreement between Coles and the SDA as it underpaid workers and failed the “better off overall test”.
More than half of Coles workers were paid less than the minimum rates of the award, evidence from the supermarket showed. Coles workers are now employed on an older agreement from 2011, which is currently being challenged by night-fill worker Penny Vickers in the Fair Work Commission.
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