The vote in support of marriage equality becoming federal ALP policy at the Victorian State Labor conference at the weekend is a well-deserved kick in the teeth for the ultra-conservative head of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA), Joe de Bruyn.

The SDA has more than 230,000 members, covering shop assistants, pastry cooks, hairdressers, beauticians, and employees in the modelling, cosmetics, footwear and fast food industries. Despite the thousands of LGBTIs in those industries, De Bruyn has used the union as a personal vehicle to crusade against the rights of LGBTI Australians for years.

Like many young people just out of high school, I took a job packing shelves in a supermarket in my late teens, and was convinced by co-workers that it would be a good thing if I joined the union.

Sadly, my experience with the SDA left a bad taste in my mouth about unions in general that has only recently begun to be washed clean by the actions of the Australian Workers Union and Australian Services Union in support of marriage equality and staunch unionist Labor politicians like Doug Cameron.

My memory of the SDA was of its constantly spruiking the gains it had made for full-time supermarket employees, in a sector where most employees are casuals and the full-time employees tend to be in supervisor roles — in other words, managers.

Looking across the industries the SDA represents it’s hard to ignore that they are predominantly industries with a young workforce, with high rates of casual employment, and with young workers who will only work in those industries for a handful of years before moving on to something better.

Young union members are typically unaware of how to take their concerns to the union — I wouldn’t have known who to speak to when I was a member — so it’s easy for Joe and his cronies to cream off these workers’ union fees to pay their own salaries while failing to represent their views and needs.

That De Bruyn failed to block a vote on the motion in his home state is telling of how far we’ve come in the fight for marriage equality, and how increasingly marginal his ilk are becoming in the ALP and the wider union movement.

Only in May, he orchestrated a walkout to avoid a vote on the issue at the 2010 Victorian conference, and it was widely reported that it was to avoid a clash with the SDA that NSW Labor did not vote in support of marriage equality at this year’s state conference at the Sydney Town Hall.

It is looking increasingly likely that the Labor Party will move forward on this issue at the National Conference in Sydney in December.

But we have to keep the pressure on — if there is one LGBTI rights event you go to this year, make it the rally outside the conference on December 3.

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