Recent news linking the Queensland branch of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) to a conservative religious organisation, the Ambrose Society for Religious Freedom, has sparked unprecedented protest among rank and file members of the retail workers’ union. Officials of the SDA, Australia’s biggest trade union, have used their political clout to campaign against marriage equality, abortion rights and euthanasia. Joe De Bruyn, the national secretary-treasurer of the SDA, has publicly argued that “homosexual marriage will lose seats for Labor” in the upcoming federal election. This wafer-thin justification for discrimination not only ignores the majority opinion in society but also within the SDA, whose predominantly young membership back marriage equality overwhelmingly.

This unrepresentative and right-wing policy from the SDA leadership is being challenged after a union organiser, Alan Swetman, was sacked when he nominated in elections as an opponent to the incumbent Queensland branch leader Chris Ketter. After his dismissal, Swetman raised that the SDA organises monthly political lectures presided over by Rocky Mimmo, the chairperson of the Ambrose Society, and that the leaders consciously vet candidates for leadership for their conservative political positions.

As a result, SDA Members for Marriage Equality, a group of rank and file SDA members founded in 2010, organised a small but noisy protest outside the SDA offices in Brisbane on 30 May to highlight members’ discontent with the backward and discriminatory views of the SDA leadership. The fear that the SDA officials hold of their own members’ views was clear from their reaction: they locked down the building and hired security guards to protect the building from their own members!

This event was unprecedented within a union whose conservative leadership has held control since the 1950s, De Bruyn himself having been in power since 1978.

However, the greatest step forward in the campaign to transform the SDA into a union worthy of its members was a meeting of shopfloor representatives that took place after the protest. That meeting resolved to endorse a campaign to unseat Queensland secretary-treasurer Chris Ketter and force the union to back marriage equality.

This presents the biggest opportunity in decades within the SDA to explain to members exactly how bankrupt the leadership of our union is, and to raise the banner of a progressive, fighting union which low paid, casualised retail and fast food workers deserve. The main thing we have on our side is publicity and political argument. We have to make the most of it while we can to push for change in the SDA.

If you are a member of the SDA, please get involved! Contact SDA Members for Marriage Equality at [email protected].