The campaign to win equal wages for young workers made a big gain last month, when the Fair Work Commission ruled that 20-year-old retail workers must be paid full wages.
The ruling applies to workers with more than six months experience who are employed under the General Retail Industry Award and will be gradually implemented over the next financial year. It comes after a public campaign by the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA), which represents more than 200,000 retail workers.
The 100% Pay at 18+ campaign aimed to bring workers over 18 to the full adult wage. It was launched a year ago at a convergence in Canberra and has more than 40,000 supporters on its website.
Campaign tactics have included petitions, television ads, stalls at university Orientation weeks and a series of creative videos produced by young workers around Australia showing what full pay would mean for them. It is one of the most prominent campaigns the SDA has organised in years.
SDA national secretary Joe de Bruyn said: “This is a real credit to our witnesses and the thousands of workers who have thrown their support behind the 100% Pay at 18+ campaign. There’s been overwhelming support from the community for fair pay for our younger workers."
The next step, according to de Bruyn, is to fight to bring 19-year-old workers in line with the adult wage.
The SDA rarely, if ever, organises industrial actions to pursue the interests of its workers. In fact, during industrial action by workers at the Woolworths Brisbane Liquor Distribution Centre in Stapylton in December, management tried to shut out the National Union of Workers (NUW) and bring in the SDA to sign a new agreement more to its liking.
In an interview with Crikey's The Power Index, de Bruyn defended his industrial tactics when dealing with retail heavyweights like McDonalds, Woolworths and Myer. “By going about our job in a sensible way we’ve been able to exert a remarkable influence over companies."
"We do not trade wages or conditions for access and we never have. The one thing we don’t do is go to employers and threaten their business. I think that by working behind the scenes and talking to the key decision makers in the company we’re more likely to get a change of heart and a higher wages offer than by going public and bagging the company.”
Under his reign, the union has taken an equally "behind the scenes" approach to influencing social policy in the Labor party. A staunch Catholic, de Bruyn has advocated against abortion and queer rights — most notably leading the push against the equal marriage campaign in recent years.
Rank-and-file members have led protests against the leadership's social stance — forming the group "SDA for Equal Marriage" in 2010.
SDA member Duncan Hart said: "We've made it our mission to try to show that the SDA leaders who act like they speak on behalf of their members, the 250,000 members of the SDA, do not represent the members."
The union has refused calls to de Bruyn will be stepping down as secretary after more than 30 years gives some small hope for change within the union.