Sally McManus is the new face of Australia’s union movement
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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 “anarcho-Marxist 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 anti-immigrant 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, fast-food 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. ACTU-commissioned 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, part-time 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 shelf-stacker 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.”
Alex McKinnon is Schwartz Media’s morning editor and a former editor of Junkee and the Star Observer.