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The new ACTU president, Michele O’Neil, says her focus will be the globalised economy, but here the attention will be on how she and Sally McManus manage divisions within the union movement over Labor policy. By Alex McKinnon.

New ACTU president Michele O’Neil

New ACTU president Michele O’Neil (left) and ACTU secretary Sally McManus.
Credit: Alex McKinnon

It’s not often Sally McManus gets upstaged in a roomful of unionists. The Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary had just finished giving a fiery speech at the opening night of the ACTU’s national congress in Brisbane this week, but the crowd only had eyes for one person – Danny Glover, of Lethal Weapon fame, who’d flown out from San Francisco to address the conference. The actor, now activist, was mobbed by attendees after speaking in support of Change the Rules, the ACTU’s workers’ rights campaign. Union officials seemed deliriously pleased with how the whole arrangement had panned out. All week, Glover gave unionism in Australia a one-man shot in the arm. The morning before the congress, he even looked down the barrel of a Channel Seven camera and said, “United we stand. Divided we fall. Join your union.”

The other high-profile attendee at the congress, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, also made all the major papers. Although not so much for the substance of his speech to the closing night dinner, which included a promise that his first official meeting in government would be with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders to talk Treaty. Rather it was the fact journalists were locked out of the event – reportedly so delegates would “be able to relax” – a move that prompted an official complaint from the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance.

Amid all of this, the woman set to become the ACTU’s next president, Michele O’Neil, kept a low profile. As the crowd swooned over Glover, Labor federal president Wayne Swan stopped by to shake her hand.

O’Neil’s journey to the top of the Australian union movement has been a long and dogged one. She’s spent half her life in the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia (TCFUA) – which in March merged into the new Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU) – starting as a workplace organiser in 1989 before moving up the ranks. As secretary first in Victoria and then nationally, O’Neil represented a heavily female- and migrant-dominated workforce in an industry plagued by underpayment, exploitation and unsafe conditions.

In 2012, O’Neil’s TCFUA won wage and condition protections for contract outworkers and labourers in clothing sweatshops. She was instrumental in establishing Ethical Clothing Australia and Fairwear Australia, campaigns to combat the exploitation of foreign garments workers by pushing clothing labels to adopt transparency in their global supply chains.

O’Neil’s TCFUA took an internationalist approach to workers’ rights. She described the 1134 deaths caused by the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment sweatshop in Dhaka, Bangladesh, as “murder”, and lent her support to workers’ strikes and protest actions in Mexico, Pakistan and Vietnam. Billionaire fashion moguls Amancio Ortega and Bernard Arnault, and the horrific pay and conditions in the Ethiopian and Bangladeshi factories that churn out clothing for their respective labels – Zara and Louis Vuitton – are a favourite topic of conversation.

“There was no choice for us other than to be part of a global movement. Our industry is almost capital’s laboratory of testing what has become the model of outsourcing and distancing of responsibility,” O’Neil says. “You couldn’t address that worker by worker, or factory by factory, or even country by country. It was so clear that capital was operating in a global way, and we as unionists had to organise globally too.”

When Ged Kearney resigned the ACTU presidency in February to contest the federal seat of Batman for Labor, a gap appeared at the top of the union hierarchy. No other ACTU delegates put their hands up for the role, making O’Neil’s ascendancy a foregone conclusion. Addressing the congress on Tuesday, Kearney deadpanned that she was looking forward to working with the new president, “whoever she is”.

It’s an opportune time to become one of Australia’s most powerful unionists. Public anger about rising economic inequality – manifesting itself in everything from Sunday penalty rate cuts to skyrocketing executive bonuses to exploitative celebrity chefs – has made federal Labor less timid about making a left-wing economic message the centrepiece of its election strategy.

Many in the unions still bear a grudge from the last time a union-led campaign put a Labor government in office. Conference delegates from the CFMMEU handed out flyers accusing the former Rudd and Gillard governments of abandoning the movement after the Your Rights At Work campaign by expanding the Australian Building and Construction Commission and establishing the Fair Work Commission. Congress unanimously supported CFMMEU general secretary Dave Noonan’s resolution demanding “a Shorten labour [sic] government … meet the commitments it has made to abolish the ABCC”.

“Pardon us for being a little bit pissed off, considering we and the rest of the trade union movement were the ones campaigning, handing out how-to-vote cards and spending money to get the ALP elected,” the flyer read. “It is our job to make sure the light on the hill burns bright, because in the Rudd–Gillard years it looked like someone had forgotten to pay the bill.”

While O’Neil is more diplomatic in her language, she appears confident the unions can both help Labor win government at the next election and hold them to its pro-union commitments once in office. She says the ACTU will push for an expanded right to collective bargaining and more rights for workers in contract, casual and “gig economy” employment.

“There have been changes since the Fair Work Act came in, but I don’t think it addressed what was happening structurally in the labour market – that massive rise in casual, insecure, outsourced work,” O’Neil says. “I think we need a dramatic overhaul of the type of system we’ve got. What we created post-WorkChoices is not doing the job. We need to change the bargaining system, and we need to change the ability of workers to take collective action to win those improvements.”

As the public voice of the TCFUA, O’Neil wasn’t shy about picking a fight with Labor governments. At the Victorian Labor conference in 2011, she called on the Gillard government to “get over it” and legalise same-sex marriage. At the ALP’s last national conference in 2015, O’Neil earned a standing ovation from delegates when she spoke against Labor adopting the government’s policy of turning back asylum seeker boats.

“Let’s learn the lessons of our history. When we were silent about Tampa, did that work?” O’Neil said at the time. “What we failed to do is, I think, show true leadership, because great leaders take on hard issues and move public opinion.”

While O’Neil maintains she is still strongly opposed to Labor’s support for offshore detention and boat turnbacks, no motion urging the ALP to change its refugee policy was forthcoming at the congress.

The new CFMMEU “super union” is spoken of with dread by employers’ groups. O’Neil oversaw three years of negotiations for the merging of the TCFUA, the Maritime Union of Australia and the old CFMEU. TCFUA members were assured they would retain their sectoral independence as part of the CFMMEU, but signs are already emerging that the larger union is threatening to gobble up its identity. O’Neil was reportedly “aghast” when Queensland CFMEU officials entered a formerly TCFUA-controlled textiles factory in April. It remains to be seen how the textiles, clothing and footwear sector will continue within the larger union without its longtime champion at the helm. But O’Neil asserts the TCFUA retains its independence, and that the merger was approved by the overwhelming majority of members.

“The CFMMEU is absolutely democratic in how decisions get made by members,” she says. “Within the CFMMEU, our members form what is now the TCF sector, which is part of the manufacturing division. When we took it to a vote of our members, 97 per cent of those who voted, voted yes.”

There exists some confusion around the delineation between O’Neil’s responsibilities as president and the role of Sally McManus, who has firmly established herself as the ACTU’s public face since being elected in March last year. Publicly, O’Neil sings her praises, saying the secretary has “energised and mobilised our movement in a way we could only have dreamed of”, but who exactly is calling the shots remains unclear.

For her part, O’Neil’s acceptance speech suggested focusing the peak body’s might on the position of female workers will be central to her presidency, revealing she had been sexually harassed as a 14-year-old, while working as a waitress.

“It was a supervisor. He used to systematically push me into storerooms and the cold room and try to touch me and kiss me,” O’Neil said. “For a while I thought, ‘This is wrong’, but I was young, it was my first job. I didn’t know who to talk to about it … The older women who were working alongside me, I reckon they had an inkling of what was going on … Those union members gave me the confidence, because of the way they treated me and spoke to me, that I could tell them.

“They got the delegate involved, who went to the management on my behalf, and his behaviour was stopped. It was those other union members, it was that collective, unified response and their ability to give me some courage, that made the difference.”

Shortly after O’Neil’s acceptance speech, a panel convened on how the union movement can contribute to ending violence against women. CFMMEU NSW construction president Rita Mallia, who spoke on the panel, said that having two outspoken women leading the trade union movement would help to further drag community attitudes on gendered violence to a more enlightened place.

“We still have a pretty sexist undertone in Australia in the way women leaders are treated, but I think Michele and Sally will help change that perception,” Mallia said. “I know them personally – they are two of the strongest, most intelligent women you’ll ever meet. They will never take a step back.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 21, 2018 as "Textile on main street". Subscribe here.

Alex McKinnon
is Schwartz Media’s morning editor, and a former editor of Junkee.