About Unions

What is a Union?

A union is formed when a group of employees in a particular trade or industry come together to defend and promote their wages and working conditions through common action.

The SDA promotes the interests and defends the rights of members. It gives members support and advice when negotiating with employers. Union affairs tend to be very time consuming and therefore full-time union officials are necessary to do the various jobs that need to be done if a union is to succeed in its aims.

The SDA is a strong, efficient and progressive union, staffed by dedicated officials experienced in dealing with management at all levels.

What does a Union do?

Unions work to protect and to advance the wages and working conditions of their members.

They are responsible for the wages and working conditions of most Australian workers.

Unions negotiate for improvements to members working conditions through the award system and through enterprise bargaining to create certified agreements (sometimes known as EAs). Unions help to ensure that employers comply with these agreements and awards.

They are responsible for trying to defend the jobs of workers against redundancy and retrenchment threats, and for obtaining social justice through improved wages and conditions for workers and their families. Unions also help women to achieve equality of opportunity in the workplace.

The SDA also assists its members by providing advice on a number of workplace issues including unfair dismissal, sexual harassment, WorkCover claims and changes in the workplace. The SDA provides advice to its members free of charge. The only cost to members is the weekly cost of membership, which is tax deductible. This fee is based on a sliding scale to ensure workers who earn lower wages pay less for their membership.

Membership includes access to Union Organisers who visit workplaces and provide general advice to members on a range of issues. Being a member of the union gives members access to wide-ranging advice from a number of specialists qualified in areas such as worker's compensation, occupational health and safety, women's issues and industrial relations.

Unions also act as a pressure group to lobby the government to create changes to legislation (laws). Examples of this are Occupational Health and Safety legislation and WorkCover legislation. Therefore, unions are able to make major improvements for many workers by promoting the interests of all workers to both state and federal governments.

As well as assisting members with workplace issues, the SDA also provides a wide range of benefits and discount services. The SDA membership card offers members a selection of discount entertainment, accommodation, discount entry to theme parks and discount dining around Australia. As a member you can also take advantage of other discount services such as discount dental, optical and health care.

Some people say that unions used to be important but that now all workers have decent wages and conditions and union demands only disrupt the economy. They say unions have outlived their usefulness. But good wages and conditions do not 'just happen'. They come about only because unions work for them. If unions went out of existence, the workers would have no means of defending themselves and very quickly their wages and conditions would deteriorate.

Unions are vital in preserving and enhancing the wages and working conditions of workers.

History of Retail Unionism

The idea of unionism was brought to Australia by the early British immigrant workers.

The first unions in Australia were formed in the 1840s. These were craft unions; i.e. they were unions based on a particular trade or craft (e.g. carpentry, engineering, stonemasonry etc.).

Early trade unionists saw that the main purpose of establishing unions was to protect the employment conditions and general standing of workers in the particular crafts.

Unions also acted as friendly societies to enable employees to help each other in times of hardship such as when unemployment or sickness struck (in those days there was no dole and no sick pay). Early unionists campaigned strongly to have daily/weekly working hours reduced.

From these early beginnings came the demand - not granted universally until very recently, for an 8 hour day and a 40 hour week for all workers.

In the 1880s and 1890s the first unionisation of general non-craft workers took place. During this period the first general workers unions were formed.

These unions grouped workers in the unskilled or semi-skilled areas such as miners and shearers. Whereas the early craft unions had been formed on colonial or state structures, the general unions quickly developed inter-colonial or national structures, and thus we had the growth of the first national unions.

During the 1890s and the early 1900s unionism grew rapidly. It was during this period that the predecessors of the SDA first came into existence.

In 1904 the Australian Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration was established.

In 1907 Sir Justice Higgins, President of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration established the first minimum wage in what was called the "Harvester Judgement".
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 - today called the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA).

Over time, State unions in Tasmania, Newcastle and Western Australia became part of the national union.


Women in Unions

The SDA is involved in the active promotion of women's interests. We do this through unionisation, education, and representation.

Living in the 21st century, we want to see women treated fairly, as they should be. We believe that it’s our duty as trade unionists to ensure equality for all our members. The SDA was the first trade union to:

  • Establish a Women's Bureau
  • Appoint a full-time Women's Co-ordinator
  • Develop and implement an extensive equal employment opportunity program
  • Act on female members' concerns about personal safety
  • Formulate a comprehensive Women's Policy.

The SDA aims to ensure that women receive equal pay, benefits, treatment and education in the workplace. We are actively seeking improvements in the industrial, social and economic conditions of women.

To view the SDA Women's Policy, please click here.

If you have an issue relating to these issues, we can provide you with the right resources and assistance to help you.


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