Sally McManus is the new face of Aus­tralia’s union move­ment

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - Alex McK­in­non

Sally McManus has a very nice of­fice that she’s not quite used to yet. On the sixth floor of the Aus­tralian Coun­cil of Trade Unions’ Melbourne head­quar­ters, her win­dows look out over the Queen Vic­to­ria Mar­ket. Be­sides a few per­sonal touches, like a gi­ant nov­elty Medi­care card perched above the door, McManus hasn’t en­tirely moved in yet. Per­haps as a re­sult, the room is sus­pi­ciously tidy in con­trast to ev­ery­thing out­side it. McManus made his­tory in March when she be­came the first fe­male sec­re­tary in the ACTU’s 90 years, but her first week in the job was de­fined in­stead by her now-fa­mous interview with Leigh Sales on the ABC’s 7.30, where she de­fended the right to break “un­just” in­dus­trial laws.

If po­lit­i­cal im­pact is mea­sured by how hard your op­po­nents go after you, McManus made one of the big­ger en­trances to pub­lic life. Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull chris­tened her “Sally McMa­n­ar­chist” in Ques­tion Time, and Christo­pher Pyne la­belled her 7.30 com­ments “an­ar­choMarx­ist clap­trap”. Colum­nists solemnly de­clared the interview to be a dis­as­trous start to her tenure. La­bor leader Bill Shorten rushed to dis­tance him­self from her com­ments even as Greens leader Richard Di Natale de­clared, “Good on her.”

A pre­lim­i­nary at­tempt at char­ac­ter as­sas­si­na­tion by the Aus­tralian fell spec­tac­u­larly flat when a story claim­ing McManus may have faked her his­tory as the pres­i­dent of the Mac­quarie Univer­sity stu­dent union turned out to be based on lit­tle more than a mis­read LinkedIn pro­file. The point she was orig­i­nally mak­ing – that cur­rent work­place laws al­low con­struc­tion em­ploy­ers to force labour­ers onto un­safe work­sites – was largely lost, at least ini­tially.

Most pile-ons force a quick apol­ogy, or at least a clar­i­fi­ca­tion. But two weeks after the 7.30 interview went vi­ral, McManus dou­bled down. Speak­ing in front of a largely sup­port­ive crowd at the Na­tional Press Club, she listed points in his­tory where law-break­ing union­ists had spear­headed so­cial change and went on to de­clare that “the [ne­olib­eral] ex­per­i­ment has run its course” as an ef­fec­tive eco­nomic frame­work. Con­ser­va­tives were moved to out­rage once again. Peter Dut­ton ac­cused her of be­ing “a modern-day com­mu­nist”.

In the re­sult­ing me­dia storm, how­ever, La­bor fig­ures such as Wayne Swan and Doug Cameron openly ques­tioned the wis­dom of their party’s com­mit­ment to the ne­olib­eral con­sen­sus. Even Paul Keat­ing con­ceded that the eco­nomic ide­ol­ogy he cham­pi­oned in of­fice “has gone nowhere” since the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis and “has had no an­swer to the con­tem­po­rary malaise”.

McManus’ de­ci­sion to go hard in the face of con­ser­va­tive crit­i­cism re­calls a tac­tic John Howard used of­ten and well: lob a ver­bal bomb to pro­voke your op­po­nents and em­bolden your sup­port­ers, dom­i­nate the news cy­cle, and move the pa­ram­e­ters of the de­bate to where you want them. Be­sides a few ar­ti­cles in this mag­a­zine writ­ten by Kevin Rudd in the mid-to-late ’00s, it’s been a long time since ne­olib­er­al­ism’s sta­tus as the de­fault set­ting of Aus­tralian so­ci­ety has been so openly ques­tioned in the pub­lic arena.

McManus seems as non­plussed as any­one that it was so easy. “I was sur­prised at the ex­tent that it pushed the de­bate out, to be hon­est,” she says.

While she’s never had a pub­lic pro­file like this, and “it has been a bit of a shock”, McManus seems to have taken it in her stride. “I’m used to spend­ing a lot of time in front of peo­ple. That’s what I do.”

That ex­pe­ri­ence – speak­ing to crowds of ac­tivists and work­ers at ral­lies, to CEOs and min­is­ters in board­rooms and back­rooms – has formed the spine of McManus’ ca­reer for more than two decades. She joined the Shop, Distribu­tive and Al­lied Em­ploy­ees’ Association (SDA) as a teenager, or­gan­ised a rate rise to cover fuel costs for her fel­low pizza de­liv­ery driv­ers, and has been a union or­gan­iser nearly her en­tire work­ing life.

Grow­ing up in the work­ing-class Sydney sub­urb of Carlingford, McManus was first drawn to left-wing ac­tivism at the age of 17 dur­ing a protest against mass teacher sack­ings by the Greiner Lib­eral state gov­ern­ment in 1988.

“It was the feel­ing of power that I had, sur­rounded by all those peo­ple, that I’ve only found repli­cated in sim­i­lar

cir­cum­stances where there’s been big col­lec­tive ac­tions,” she says. “I didn’t put my fin­ger on it un­til later, but that’s where it started.”

The daugh­ter of a rail­way worker and a cler­i­cal staffer in a Par­ra­matta phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals fac­tory, McManus is fiercely proud of her westie iden­tity. The snob­bery and dis­crim­i­na­tion she en­coun­tered in more well-heeled parts of town helped shape her un­der­stand­ing of the world as a place where money and power are life’s great de­ter­mi­nants.

“When you were grow­ing up and you man­aged to get to the beach, which would take two and a half hours on pub­lic trans­port, you’d get there and peo­ple would say, ‘Go home, westie.’ You’d hear the place where you grew up be­ing run down, the usual stuff about uggs and flan­nelettes.”

Carlingford also gave her a first­hand look at sub­ur­ban Aus­tralia’s slow and fit­ful evo­lu­tion on racial is­sues. In the ’80s and early ’90s, the far-right Na­tional Ac­tion party was ter­ror­is­ing new Asian mi­grants in Sydney’s west and tap­ping into a deep un­easi­ness at the sud­den in­flux of non-white faces.

“When I was grow­ing up it was a very white place. In the last few years of school we had im­mi­gra­tion from China and Korea, and all of a sud­den these kids turned up who were older than us – they had to get their HSCs, but they were 19 or 20 – and I re­mem­ber the racism. Peo­ple graf­fi­tied ‘Asians Out’ on the Ep­ping high­way and on peo­ple’s garage doors. I’m sure I wasn’t per­fect ei­ther, I was grow­ing up in that en­vi­ron­ment. It was a re­ac­tion to change that was hap­pen­ing very quickly.”

That ex­pe­ri­ence has in­formed McManus’ take on how unions should re­spond to the Is­lam­o­pho­bic and an­ti­im­mi­grant sen­ti­ments that have fu­elled the resur­gence of One Na­tion.

“Parts of Aus­tralia are do­ing it tough,” she says. “They’re do­ing ca­sual work, their kids can’t get jobs, their ser­vices are crappy be­cause they’ve been pri­va­tised, and there’s this re­sent­ment: ‘Why aren’t things the way they should be in Aus­tralia?’ Pauline Han­son is giv­ing them false an­swers to that, but she’s pro­vid­ing an an­swer. Our role in deal­ing with that is do­ing our job – telling peo­ple the truth and ac­tu­ally hav­ing a pro­gram that’s go­ing to make a dif­fer­ence in peo­ple’s lives.

“Na­tional Ac­tion and peo­ple like that had their vi­sion of west­ern Sydney, but that’s not how it’s ended up. Now it’s one of the most suc­cess­ful places in the world where peo­ple from many dif­fer­ent cul­tures live to­gether.”

At the Na­tional Press Club, McManus summed up her po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy like so: “The very wealthy have too much power in our coun­try, and or­di­nary Aus­tralians – work­ing peo­ple – do not have enough.”

She speaks of­ten and bluntly of the arm-wres­tle be­tween labour and cap­i­tal, of power and money and how em­ploy­ers have too much. Con­vinc­ing Aus­tralians of the re­al­ity of that dy­namic, and the im­por­tance of chang­ing it, is one of her most im­por­tant goals. “We want to paint a clear pic­ture in peo­ple’s heads … That so much wealth has been trans­ferred up in such a brief pe­riod of time, that peo­ple don’t have se­cure jobs, that cor­po­ra­tions don’t pay tax – these are all symp­toms of that. If em­ploy­ers have too much power now, and that’s what’s caus­ing all these is­sues, then surely the so­lu­tion is to give work­ing peo­ple more power.”

McManus has brought that mind­set to ev­ery cam­paign she’s run in her 23 years as a union or­gan­iser. She over­saw the “Medis­care” cam­paign that al­most turfed a first-term Coali­tion gov­ern­ment in 2016, and was in the thick of the Your Rights at Work cam­paign that helped top­ple Howard.

Dur­ing McManus’ time as sec­re­tary of the Aus­tralian Ser­vices Union’s NSW branch, her Pay Up cam­paign – a com­bi­na­tion of be­hind-the-scenes lob­by­ing, pub­lic threats and head­line-grab­bing protest ac­tions – drafted the Gil­lard La­bor gov­ern­ment into sup­port­ing pay rises of be­tween 19% and 40% for more than 150,000 so­cial and com­mu­nity work­ers. Out­side of union work, McManus was ac­tive in the De­stroy the Joint fem­i­nist col­lec­tive founded in re­sponse to sex­ism di­rected at Gil­lard by ra­dio shock-jock Alan Jones.

In McManus’ words, the for­mula for a win­ning cam­paign sounds de­cep­tively sim­ple.

“Peo­ple have to feel strongly about the is­sue – there have to be sharp lines around what it is. But that’s not enough. You’ve got to have a winnable strat­egy, and ex­plain how you’re go­ing to suc­cess­fully change the sit­u­a­tion. Peo­ple have to see where they fit in – what the is­sue means for in­di­vid­u­als and why they per­son­ally need to be a part of it.

“I’ve spent the last 23 years just think­ing about these things, and if you do that for long enough you end up be­ing not bad at it.”

It’s oddly for­tu­itous, then, that McManus starts her tenure as the face of Aus­tralia’s union move­ment with no short­age of op­por­tu­ni­ties to put her eco­nomic agenda at the cen­tre of Aus­tralian pol­i­tics. Three weeks be­fore she was elected, the Fair Work Com­mis­sion (FWC) ruled to re­duce Sun­day and hol­i­day penalty rates for re­tail, hos­pi­tal­ity, fast­food and phar­macy work­ers. The rul­ing comes into ef­fect on 1 July, and the ACTU has wasted no time in its ef­forts to turn the Fair Work de­ci­sion into the new WorkChoices.

In the weeks since the de­ci­sion, the ACTU has pres­sured La­bor into aban­don­ing its prom­ise to abide by any de­ci­sion the FWC handed down, and high­lighted the depth of pub­lic sup­port for keep­ing penalty rates at cur­rent lev­els. ACTU­com­mis­sioned polling by ReachTEL found that vot­ers in mar­ginal Coali­tion seats strongly op­pose wa­ter­ing down penalty rates, and pub­lic sen­ti­ment forced both One Na­tion and the Nick Xenophon Team to with­draw their ini­tial sup­port for the FWC de­ci­sion and back a Se­nate mo­tion op­pos­ing it.

But McManus is al­ready think­ing be­yond de­fend­ing what’s al­ready there. In her Press Club speech, she an­nounced that the ACTU would rec­om­mend a $45-a-week in­crease – far higher than its pre­vi­ous rec­om­men­da­tions – in the min­i­mum wage. (The FWC is due to hand down its an­nual de­ci­sion this month.) The head­line-grab­bing push has more than a hint of the strate­gic about it. Wages are grow­ing at record lows, and the min­i­mum wage has lagged be­hind in­creases in other earn­ings for more than 20 years.

If that wasn’t enough, in April the ACTU an­nounced a ma­jor cam­paign against the Turn­bull gov­ern­ment’s $24 bil­lion cor­po­rate tax cuts, plac­ing pres­sure on La­bor to scrap them if it wins the next elec­tion. McManus has tele­graphed her in­tent to open that front too, men­tion­ing at the Press Club that 679 of Aus­tralia’s big­gest cor­po­ra­tions didn’t pay tax in the 2014–15 fi­nan­cial year.

McManus in­sists that she “never picks a fight for the sake of it”, but seems com­fort­able, even non­cha­lant, about con­fronta­tion – which can’t hurt when con­ser­va­tives from the prime min­is­ter on down are lin­ing up to take a shot at you.

“They would carry on the way they have. We’re tak­ing on the in­ter­ests they rep­re­sent. They’re right to be wor­ried.”

Many of the head­lines re­port­ing on the ACTU’s plans have talked up the prospect of union con­flict with Bill Shorten and the La­bor Party. McManus her­self has done lit­tle to down­play that sce­nario, hav­ing got plenty of mileage out of her will­ing­ness to con­front La­bor in the past. In 2012, she told Crikey’s The Power In­dex that “I only par­tic­i­pate in the ALP to ad­vance the in­ter­ests of my union.” When Gil­lard backed away from sup­port­ing the ASU’s equal pay case in 2010, McManus promised “the big­gest mo­bil­i­sa­tion you have seen for a long time” if La­bor didn’t get back on board.

Speak­ing to the Aus­tralian after be­com­ing ACTU sec­re­tary in March, she de­clared that “it will be up to the La­bor Party and oth­ers to de­cide whether they are against us or not” when it comes to an­other planned cam­paign to re­duce em­ployer power, limit the use of ca­sual and labour-hire work and re­lax re­stric­tions on the right to strike via amend­ments to the Fair Work Act.

The po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences be­tween the avowedly left-wing McManus and the more con­ser­va­tive Shorten would cer­tainly ap­pear to be rea­son to ex­pect fu­ture ten­sion. But the two have a long and fruit­ful pro­fes­sional his­tory, work­ing to­gether of­ten since they both started out as ACTU trainee or­gan­is­ers in 1994. As par­lia­men­tary sec­re­tary for dis­abil­ity ser­vices, Shorten threw his weight be­hind the ASU’s Pay Up cam­paign, and later worked be­hind the scenes to se­cure the Gil­lard gov­ern­ment’s sup­port.

“It’s not as though we’re best mates or I’ve ever been over to his house or even had a drink with him. But we’ve both gone through a lot of the same things, be­ing union or­gan­is­ers. You see a lot of dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions, and it does change you,” McManus says.

“When I get up in the morn­ing, I hon­estly do think about those work­ers who are go­ing to lose their penalty rates. That’s what you do. And I know that’s how he works too, be­cause I’ve worked be­side him. We know each other well enough to re­spect that we’ll have some dif­fer­ences.” Those dif­fer­ences will have to take a back seat, at least in the short term. Last June, Shorten dis­missed the prospect of the FWC cut­ting Sun­day penalty rates as be­ing as un­likely as “alien life mak[ing] con­tact with Earth”. Now that the aliens have landed, he and McManus are on the same side once again.

Given McManus’ track record, you’d be brave to bet against her. But win­ning cam­paigns hasn’t solved the big­ger prob­lems that the union move­ment faces – Aus­tralia’s anaemic rates of union mem­ber­ship chief among them. Roy Mor­gan re­search last Septem­ber found that only 17.4% of work­ers are in a union, and that co­hort is pro­gres­sively get­ting older and wealth­ier com­pared to the rest of the work­force. Re­vers­ing that de­cline will need more than a knack for pick­ing a fight and win­ning it. In an age of in­creas­ing work­force ca­su­al­i­sa­tion, con­tract work and job mo­bil­ity, how do you make unions rel­e­vant again?

It’s a ques­tion that has oc­cu­pied much of McManus’ time since she took the job – she says grow­ing union mem­ber­ship is “my num­ber one pri­or­ity”. Here, too, she has form – the NSW branch of the ASU grew by 20% on her watch. So far, her so­lu­tion in­volves some well-worn ideas along with some fresher ones of her own: work­ing harder to reach more casuals, part­time work­ers and con­trac­tors; broad­en­ing the tent to in­clude or­gan­i­sa­tions that share her op­po­si­tion to inequal­ity, such as churches and civil so­ci­ety groups; and in­tro­duc­ing a sin­gle life­time union mem­ber­ship that can fol­low peo­ple as they change ca­reers and in­dus­tries, like a su­per­an­nu­a­tion ac­count.

But her an­swers gloss over an un­com­fort­able fact: peo­ple just don’t trust unions like they used to. Es­sen­tial polling over the past five years has con­sis­tently found unions are among Aus­tralia’s least trusted in­sti­tu­tions. The royal com­mis­sion into union cor­rup­tion, the Health Ser­vices Union fi­nan­cial scan­dal in New South Wales and links be­tween CFMEU of­fi­cials and or­gan­ised crime fig­ures have dented Aus­tralians’ faith that unions are there to pro­tect them, rather than to look out for them­selves.

What are the unions get­ting wrong?

It’s here that McManus be­comes slightly more cagey. She draws a line be­tween broader union­ism and “a few dis­gust­ing in­di­vid­u­als”, declar­ing “they de­serve ev­ery­thing they get” for com­mit­ting the “mor­tal sin” of us­ing mem­bers’ money for per­sonal gain. She also blames the Lib­er­als,

say­ing the royal com­mis­sion “was de­signed to dirty us up”.

“They’ve worked out if they try to directly take away work­ers’ rights, it’s not go­ing to work. It failed dis­mally with WorkChoices. So the royal com­mis­sion was a de­lib­er­ate de­ci­sion to go, ‘Right, let’s weaken the unions be­fore do­ing it again, be­cause they’re the ones stand­ing be­tween us and be­ing able to take peo­ple’s rights off them.’”

But she has much less to say about the union move­ment’s self-in­flicted wounds. One of the fights McManus must be less ea­ger to in­herit is a slow-burn­ing wages scan­dal that threat­ens to split the coun­try’s largest union, and raises big­ger ques­tions about how unions ne­go­ti­ate with large cor­po­ra­tions.

One of the big­gest vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties in the ACTU’s penalty rates cam­paign – and one of the big­gest po­ten­tial con­flicts of McManus’ term – is the fact that re­tail and hos­pi­tal­ity work­ers at some of Aus­tralia’s largest com­pa­nies had their week­end and over­time penalty rates traded away years ago under en­ter­prise bar­gain­ing agree­ments (EBAs) ne­go­ti­ated by the SDA and other unions. Those long­stand­ing ar­range­ments be­tween big unions and big busi­nesses have thrived on the ACTU’s watch, and it’s com­ing back to bite them. When a Fairfax ex­posé last Au­gust de­tailed how agree­ments ne­go­ti­ated be­tween the SDA and ma­jor em­ploy­ers such as Hun­gry Jack’s, KFC and Wool­worths were un­der­pay­ing tens of thou­sands of work­ers, the ACTU kept mum. So too in 2015, when the SDA traded away Satur­day penalty rates in South Aus­tralia. Mal­colm Turn­bull has tried to un­der­cut the penalty rates cam­paign by ar­gu­ing that Shorten’s for­mer union, the Aus­tralian Work­ers’ Union, traded away penalty rates for clean­ers in ex­change for ar­ti­fi­cially boosted union mem­ber­ship fig­ures in 2010. Shorten’s suc­ces­sor as Vic­to­rian sec­re­tary, Ce­sar Mel­hem, is now the sub­ject of an FWC cor­rup­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

But it’s low-paid re­tail work­ers who are now giv­ing the SDA – and the ACTU – their big­gest headaches. Coles shelf­s­tacker Penny Vick­ers is chal­leng­ing her SDA-ne­go­ti­ated EBA on the grounds that it leaves her $33 a week worse off than if she were cov­ered under the award. An­other Coles worker un­happy with the SDA, Dun­can Hart, suc­cess­fully chal­lenged his EBA in 2016 on the grounds that he lost out on for­gone penalty rates.

A for­mer Wool­worths em­ployee, Josh Cul­li­nan, is head­ing up a direct chal­lenge to the SDA’s au­thor­ity to speak for Aus­tralia’s re­tail and hos­pi­tal­ity work­ers. Dur­ing his time as a se­nior in­dus­trial of­fi­cer at the Na­tional Ter­tiary Ed­u­ca­tion Union, Cul­li­nan led ac­tion to se­cure fairer pay and con­di­tions for ca­sual staff at Swin­burne Univer­sity, win­ning the ACTU’s Best Work­place Cam­paign Award in 2013. His pri­vate re­search in con­junc­tion with Fairfax in 2015 ex­posed the wide­spread un­der­pay­ment of Coles work­ers in the first place.

Now Cul­li­nan is the sec­re­tary and co-founder of the Re­tail and Fast Food Work­ers Union, a splin­ter quasi-union that sprang up in Novem­ber cit­ing dis­af­fec­tion with the SDA as the main rea­son for its ex­is­tence. While in­dus­try cov­er­age re­stric­tions forced RAFFWU to launch as an in­cor­po­rated association, the break­away union has launched its own penalty rates cam­paign tar­get­ing su­per­mar­ket and fast-food chains.

McManus takes a dim view of RAFFWU cut­ting the SDA’s grass. “If you’ve got a prob­lem with your union, these are demo­cratic or­gan­i­sa­tions. Stand for lead­er­ship, put your case, and have it de­cided by the ac­tual work­ers. Ev­ery ex­am­ple I’ve seen through­out my life where unions have split, all it’s done is weaken the work­ers and strengthen the em­ployer.”

McManus is much more for­giv­ing of the SDA than she is of their new ri­val, and be­lieves the real blame for the wage scan­dals lies with em­ploy­ers.

“No union is go­ing into ne­go­ti­a­tions try­ing to cut peo­ple’s wages. If there are some peo­ple who are worse off, they shouldn’t be, and that needs to be fixed, but the peo­ple with the re­sources are the com­pany. They’re the ones with the pay­roll.

“If you’re work­ing at McDon­ald’s, you have pro­tec­tion against dis­crim­i­na­tion, peo­ple to stand up for you. You’d be one of the best-paid fast-food work­ers in the world. That’s the case in su­per­mar­kets too, and it’s be­cause of the union move­ment.”

RAFFWU and the shelf-stack­ers they claim to speak for aren’t likely to be paci­fied by that jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. As the penalty rates cam­paign rolls out, it may be the un­fold­ing bat­tle with RAFFWU that takes up more of the ACTU’s time in the long run.

When­ever a pub­lic fig­ure says or does some­thing that cap­tures a cer­tain col­lec­tive mo­ment, ques­tions about whether they’re think­ing of en­ter­ing pol­i­tics fol­low. It hap­pened to Stan Grant and Waleed Aly in 2016, and to Rosie Batty in 2014. Po­lit­i­cal par­ties have courted Adam Goodes for years.

On pa­per, McManus is a prime can­di­date for of­fice. Bob Hawke, Simon Crean and Greg Com­bet used the ACTU as a spring­board to higher things, and count­less La­bor iden­ti­ties have trun­dled down the union­ist–par­lia­men­tar­ian–lob­by­ist con­veyor belt. But a scep­ti­cism about en­ter­ing par­lia­ment runs through McManus’ pub­lic state­ments. She pub­licly warned Shorten upon be­com­ing ACTU sec­re­tary that she’s “a union­ist first, sec­ond and third”.

Re­cent ex­pe­ri­ences have done lit­tle to change her mind. “Imag­ine some­one just start­ing a job like this and im­me­di­ately think­ing, What am I gonna do after it?” she says.

“The union move­ment’s like my fam­ily. It’s my love, it’s my life’s work. I ac­tu­ally can’t imag­ine do­ing any­thing else. That doesn’t mean I’ll be do­ing this job for­ever … But we’re do­ing some­thing very big here, and I’d like to con­trib­ute to that while I can.

“I like cam­paigns. I like fight­ing.”

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