22 June 2011

Sold out

The estimable Matt Cowgill has important issues to raise on retail sector workers' wages, but he has overlooked some key issues in the retail industry's employment practices.

Firstly, Cowgill coyly dodges the declining proportion of retail sales to Australians conducted in retail outlets located in Australia employing retail workers able to be legally employed in Australia, and possible effects of this decline on said employees over time.

Secondly, there are wider political, managerial and media issues surrounding Australian retail which are not subject to the kind of searching analysis conducted by Cowgill and all-too-few others.

Retail sector employees tend to fall into two groups: younger people starting their working lives (and mostly going on to careers outside retail), and middle-aged women partly or wholly supporting families. Of the two, the latter are much more likely to join the union than the former. The retail workers' award provision under the new legislation that prevented employees from working short shifts was squarely targeted at students in their teens and twenties who not only sought, but actually held jobs in retail after school which then had to be covered by other employees.

Retail employers are to be commended for fighting for the right to hire students, and in so doing fighting against the organisation that purportedly represents young retail workers (and which, in recruiting new members, puts guilt trips on gullible youngsters for something unionists call "the free rider effect"). Some might be tempted to over-egg that pudding without laying blame where it belongs, but the principle is still important, however freaky it may appear: young people, a politically hard-to-organise group of people, were screwed by their union and a Labor government, and their interests were upheld by the employers.

If I was still in the Liberal Party I'd be going hard at this issue. One reason I'm not in the Liberal Party, however, is because it's weighed down by the sorts of people who pay undue attention to the head of the retail workers' union. For all the unreconstructed union-bashing in WorkChoices, John Howard had a solid relationship with SDA leaders, directly and through ciphers like Kevin Andrews. It is inconceivable that any senior member of the Liberal Party would have anything like that level of influence in the ALP.

Retail workers can be hard to agitate but they were easy to organise back in the days when the union did sweetheart deals with Coles and Woolworths. Back then, retail employers would only complain about wages as a gambit in wage negotiations, and then keep quiet once the deal was done. These days there is a greater proliferation of employers and fewer sweetheart deals, making for your traditional tension between employers and employees (particularly when retailers are as rattled as MSM proprietors, with their business model under attack across a number of fronts).

The SDA, meanwhile, has moved on from mere retail employees to being a force in the ALP. Each state has a Labor Senator who is a former employee of that union but who still owes his or her job to them. The shift of focus by the SDA to politics has not been to members' benefit.

Cowgill's graph showing the dip in employee wages after the introduction of the Fair Work Act 2009 (legislation that strengthened the SDA's hand out of all proportion to its actual representation of retail workers) is telling, and not flattering to the union. One non-wage indicator of the extent to which the SDA valued its relationship with employers over that with its members was over seating. Retail workers are expected to be too busy-busy to sit down, even when there aren't many customers to serve. Ironically, younger workers have fewer problems with spending long periods on their feet, but older workers - the ones more likely to join unions - suffer knee, back and foot problems from having to stand on hard floors for extended periods and lift things. Occasionally there is training performed by larger employers for its employees, or by the union (again, mostly for the easy-to-organise employees of larger multi-site retailers), on which employees of smaller firms miss out. This training tends to be a tick-the-box effort for the trainers and the training organisers as much as the trainees. Occasionally the SDA produces OHS reports castigating naughty employers for not allowing employees to sit at checkouts, for example, but nothing much is done about it.

Aldi has no sweetheart deal with the SDA, and it allows its employees to sit at the checkout (as Aldi employees do in Europe). It is stronger at enforcing safe handling and other safe work practices than, and its workplace injury costs are a fraction of those of, its competitors. Aldi employees aren't just paid for their time but for their throughput at checkouts, which is why customers wait for shorter times at Aldi checkouts than at other supermarkets. Regardless of employees' experience, though, the SDA are terribly upset at Aldi for their lack of interest in cutting a deal with the union. Who do they think they are?

Retail employers should expect to be no more successful with their bleating about wages than they were about GST, or whatever other excuses they make for their own laziness in the face of e-business and other changes to their industry. No wonder foreign retailers like Zara, Harvey Nichols and Costco are lining up to take on these mugs.

Journalists covering industrial issues reported the disenfranchisement of students from retail work, but didn't examine why this happened. Journalists covering business issues cover retail employers, and write stories that - almost always implicitly, and usually unintentionally - reveal them to be run by mugs. Journalists covering the federal parliamentary press gallery occasionally mention the SDA as one faction in the Labor Party, but usually pass over them because the SDA don't spend a lot of time courting the media - as any journalist will tell you, organisations that don't actively court the media obviously have no story worth telling, while those that aggressively seek media attention must be fascinating to journalists and to the wider public. It is a slander (if not a heresy) to claim that there may be any difference between what fascinates journalists and what those who read/listen to/watch them want and need from the media.

There is a whole set of stories to be told about the SDA and its political influence, and how they and a bunch of (at best) second-rate managers control what is still one of the major sectors of our economy. Such stories represent the kind of high-value journalism that MSM defenders fancy themselves as producing on a regular basis, but the reality is that journalists can't and don't tell those stories.


  1. At Coles HQ in Melbourne, no one gets a reserved parking spot, not even the CEO. When Joe de Bruyn visits though, a space is set aside for him

  2. Lachlan Ridge23/6/11 1:21 pm

    Once again Mr Elder cuts through the hubris to deliver a telling indictment of the media.

    Yes there is a great yarn to tell about the SDA, the unionised wing of the conservative Catholic ideologues. Latham hinted at it in his diaries when he confronted then NSW SDA Secretary Greg Donnelly (now an MLC) at a stereotypical Sussex Street Chinese feed about Donnelly's rabid 'pro-life' agenda. Latham told Donnelly that his teenage and female members might be better served by a union that better reflected their social views and actually took an interest in matters closer to their industrial needs. Latham was astute on that point - even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

    I once worked for a union orientated media outfit and had to report on the SDA's "win" in securing an EBA for fast food workers. This "win" came after the Trotskyites had set up UNITE, an independent union organising low paid unskilled workers, such as fast food outlet employees,and had begun to have some small success, mainly in Melbourne. The SDA agreement was an absolute shocker with six hours between breaks and pay rates as low as $6 an hour.

    Thankfully these days I have left the media and actually now work for a living.

    On a related front, Steve Hutchins, the Honourable Senator for Glenbrook (well, until next Thursday) was breathlessly reported by Press Gallery doyens for tipping on Jack Robertson and the NSW ALP. In an astonishing rewrite of history the good Senator believes that it was the anti-privatisation forces that were unpopular with the people of NSW. Without getting bogged down in the hubris surrounding that monumental debacle, I can name three people that I know that thought electricity privatisation in NSW was a good ideas. None of them live in NSW. Everyone else I know thought it was a shocker. This was reflected in poll after poll, and even in the ALP, which voted eleven to one at its state conference in May 2008 AGAINST the idea.

    But no, anti-privatisation was a destructive minority view, apparently, which brought down the wildy popular Mr Iemma. Whatever.

    The real seed of Steve Hutchins vexation is that he is a creature of the Transport Workers Union (are you noticing a pattern here?). Hutchins' protege, Tony Sheldon, had to abort a putsch against Mr Robertson in the mid-2000s when the latter was running Unions NSW. Sheldon even tried to rope in the one Ferguson Brother who isn't in the Federal House of Reps, Andrew, who was (then) secretary of the construction workers union. Sadly Senator Hutchins man, Sheldon, didn't get to the starting gate but the bitterness persisted. And didn't the media shine a lot of light on that affair?

    Ah, the unions. their internal tribulations are like watching two bald men fight over a comb, but they do run the party of Federal government, which should be some pause for thought by the fourth estate.

    Meanwhile out here in the real world half of Australians of working age earn a tad over 36,000 or less - that's the median wage.

    Reflect on that before you sink your portfolio into big retail.

    Over to you Mr Elder.