In July, Michele O’Neil was elected president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). She replaces outgoing president Ged Kearney who was bumped into the federal parliament.
O’Neil is the former head of the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia (TCFUA) and oversaw its merger with the CFMEU and MUA. In the last few decades the textile industry has been decimated and the TCFUA had been reduced to a mere 2000 members.
O’Neil first came to prominence in the late 1990s when she took control of the TCFUA branch in Victoria. At the time, the TCFUA and several other blue-collar unions in Victoria saw a change of leadership.
A layer of younger, more left-wing leaders came to the fore, building an informal alliance that amongst other things, played a key role in the 1998 waterfront dispute. These left unions also participated in the S11 anti-globalisation protests.
With Sally McManus the secretary of the ACTU, the peak body is now being led by two prominent women who identify as left and progressive. This has given hope to a layer of trade unionists who desperately want to see the union movement take on a bold fighting approach.
But so far, the ACTU have refused to ramp up the ‘Change the Rules’ campaign, preferring to divert the momentum generated into an election campaign for the Labor Party. The ACTU needs to put much more pressure on Labor and refuse to sign any blank cheques.
With that in mind all eyes will be on O’Neil to see if she brings a new approach to the organisation.
While O’Neil is a loyal Labor member, she has been prepared to stand opposed to some elements of Labor policy in the past. But as an election looms, and Labor face the prospect of coming to power, much more pressure will now be on her to capitulate.
The coming months will show where O’Neil and McManus’ priorities really are.
By Socialist Party reporters