“A VIRTUAL unknown will today be confirmed as the next leader of Australia’s union movement.”

So begins an article in this morning’s Herald Sun about Jeff Lawrence, the current national secretary of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union (LHMU), and likely successor to Greg Combet as ACTU national secretary. You’re forgiven if you’ve not heard his name before.

Nominations for the post close at 5pm today, with reports suggesting Lawrence will slip into the top job unopposed. But according to The Australian, he didn’t have it all his own way:

Mr Lawrence, a left-winger who has Mr Combet’s blessing as his successor, has been anointed as the next ACTU secretary after a behind-the-scenes tussle with the right-wing secretary of Unions NSW, John Robertson.

Mr Robertson bowed out of the contest last month when it became clear Mr Lawrence had majority backing from left-wing unions and influential right-wing union leader Joe de Bruyn.

Lawrence’s rise to the leadership of the Australian labour movement began in 1952 in Newcastle, where he was born to Barry, a panel beater and auto mechanic, and Elaine, a typist. He graduated from high school in 1970 and finished a Arts/Law double degree at Sydney University, but rather than pursue a career as a lawyer he took a job as a research officer at the Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union (FMWU). In 1986 he became FMWU Assistant National Secretary, then in 1990 the National Secretary of the LHMU (an amalgamation of the FMWU and the Liquor Trades Union.)

Today, he looks set to add National Secretary of the ACTU to his CV. Yet, who is he? Unlike Combet, he hasn’t mounted any nation-stopping industrial fights to rival Combet’s waterfront dispute or the battle to secure the entitlements of Ansett workers. While he may not have earned a lead role in an ABC mini-series (yet), some of his recent work has garnered attention.

Late last year, Lawrence and the LHMU negotiated a deal with ABC Learning Centres which won childcare workers paid tuition for further study and a national wage structure, an important step, he said, towards professionalising the industry.

More recently he took up the fight for low-paid cleaners in their bid to improve wages and working conditions, a campaign which received the enthusiastic support of 2GB’s Alan Jones, and earned Allco CEO David Coe the Golden Toilet Brush for Services Against Cleaners.

The next chapter in the Jeff Lawrence story is poised to begin. With IR topping the political agenda, his anonymity is set to evaporate. Rapidly.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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