cosy up

Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association

The Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) is the largest trade union in Australia with more than 230,000 members and branches in every state and one in the Newcastle, Hunter Valley and Central Coast region. The SDA is known for providing many discount services to members as well as providing normal industrial services.

The union has a long history of being part of the socially conservative branch of the labour movement and this is often traced back to the Irish Catholic background of most of the union's leaders. The current national secretary is Joe de Bruyn who has held the position for over a quarter of a century.

Brief history

In 1908, unions representing retail workers in New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and South Australia joined together to become the Shop Assistants and Warehouse Employees Federation. Over time, unions in Tasmania, Newcastle and Western Australia became part of the national union.

In 1972, the union changed its name to the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association.


The main categories of workers covered by the SDA are retail shop assistants and fast food workers but the SDA also covers:

  • Reserve and Backdock Employees
  • Pharmacy
  • General Distribution and Warehousing
  • Pharmaceutical Drug Manufacturing and Distribution
  • Cosmetic Manufacturing and Distribution
  • Van Sales
  • Photographic Industry
  • Modelling and Mannequin
  • Motor Vehicle Sales
  • Shoe and Boot Repairing
  • Hairdressing and Beauty

In addition to this, the SDA covers some other categories of workers when they are connected to a retail or warehousing environment. For example, the SDA does not have coverage of bakers at large factories or a small bakery. These workers include:

  • Clerical Employees
  • Butchers
  • Meat Packers
  • Bakers
  • Pastrycooks
  • Bakery Assistants
  • Security
  • Cleaning
  • Vehicle Repair Services and Retail
  • Call Centre Workers

Relationship with Employers

The SDA is a union largely based on the servicing model as opposed to the organising model. Unions associated with the Socialist Left criticise the SDA as a "bosses' union" because they claim the union is too close to the management of companies who employ their members. An example of this was an enterprise bargaining agreement that the SDA negotiated with Dominos Pizza which undercut a Federal Award maintained by the Transport Workers Union for pizza delivery drivers. In March 2006 the SDA also negotiated an Award for McDonalds employees in New South Wales which stripped back their penalty rates on weekends to a level less than the previous Shop Award they were employed under. It also increased the spread of hours with no compensation.

The SDA argues that its relatively positive relationship with employers allows it to negotiate better outcomes for its members than a more confrontational approach because of the reluctance of SDA members to take industrial action. To a certain extent, this reluctance is inherent to the categories of workers who are covered by the SDA - young people and women who are generally in casual employment. There is a relatively high turnover of staff in the retail sectory generally and having a strong relationship with employers is necessary in order to maintain membership levels. The reluctance of employees to take industrial action is also a side effect of the servicing model of trade unionism which means the union is focused more on providing services to its members rather than organising its members to take industrial action against employers.


The SDA is sometimes criticised for having an unchanged leadership over the course of many years, for example, Joe de Bruyn and Don Farrell have been in high leadership positions in the SDA for decades. This is largely due to the Collegiate Voting system used to elect national officials meaning that State Branches, as opposed to the SDA membership, elect these officials.

One reason for the constant leadership may be the high turnover of membership, a reality because of the retail environment, which makes challenging for union office difficult. SDA supporters argue that rather than being a negative aspect about the organisation, the stable leadership is a positive and reflects of the strength of the union.

Social Positions

The SDA has taken morally conservative positions on social issues especially concerning issues like abortion and rights for same sex couples .

The SDA made a submission in 2005 to the Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC) opposing the provision of in vitro fertilisation and other assisted reproductive techonologies to same sex couples .

The socially conservative position of the union has caused some groups of retail workers to boycott the union, including some workers who identify as homosexual.

While speaking on marriage during the 2007 ALP national conference the SDA's national secretary, Joe de Bruyn, and other members of the ALP Right, were heckled by delegates who supported gay marriages. .

The SDA has also been criticised as having a disproportionate influence over the Australian Labor Party, influencing party policy towards more socially conservative positions. The SDA argues that it merely has the same amount of influence that any large union would have over the ALP, especially one which identified with the dominant faction within the party.

Turf wars

In 2003, the UNITE union was set up in Victoria in order to organise food and retail workers who were perceived as being neglected by the SDA. In March 2006, UNITE declared:
Unfortunately the union that most young workers in Australia belong to, the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association, (SDA) does not have the same fighting spirit as UNITE. The SDA is a weak union that prefers to cosy up to the bosses instead of fighting for young peoples’ rights at work. Workers can’t leave it up to a bosses union like the SDA to protect them from the worst elements of the new laws. We need our own fighting organisation along the lines of UNITE in New Zealand.

The move drew heavy criticism from the SDA. Michael Donovan, the secretary of the Victorian branch of the SDA told Lateline that "Now is not the time to be splitting the union movement. The SDA is the union to look after the interests of young people in the retail industry and fast-food industry and all we're doing is playing into the hands of John Howard and the Liberal Party.


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