What Sally McManus lacks in numbers, she makes up for with chutzpah, endless reserves of energy and a willingness to piss off her own side of politics. She was the driving force behind one of the biggest union triumphs in decades — the landmark equal pay campaign that achieved massive pay rises for over 150,000 low-paid community workers earlier this year.

“I’m not a Labor hack,” the feisty left-winger tells The Power Index. “I only participate in the ALP to advance the interests of my union.”

Feminist academic Eva Cox describes McManus, who has run the white-collar Australian Services Union’s NSW branch since 2005, as the “archetypal ‘goodie’ union leader”.

“From everything I’ve observed about the equal pay case, she’s been terrific,” she says. “She knew exactly what she was talking about and she was very tough.”

In February, following a six-year campaign by the ASU, Fair Work Australia granted pay rises of 19-40% for workers at social and community organisations such as UnitingCare, Mission Australia and Oxfam. The reason: their work had been systematically undervalued because of gender.

The case’s significance could be felt across other sectors too, with Heather Ridout and other senior business figures deriding the decision as “dangerous” because of the potential for similar claims in female-dominated areas like aged care and child care.

The tale of how the victory was achieved is a gripping one, yet has gone largely untold.

“At some points, I thought the chances of us succeeding were less than 5%,” McManus says. “There were so many times the campaign could have fallen over.”

The first key moment came in 2009. Julia Gillard, then workplace relations minister, was manoeuvring to transfer state and territory-based workers to her new national IR regime. McManus, who led negotiations for the union, grasped the enormous opportunity for leverage this presented.

The ASU extracted a promise that, in return for shifting community sector workers to the national system, the government would support a federal push for equal pay (the ASU’s Queensland branch had just won a test case in that state).

The next step was pressuring the government to keep its promise via an all-out national campaign involving protest rallies, online lobbying and delegations to Canberra.

The campaign was co-ordinated by Linda White, the ASU’s respected and experienced assistant national secretary. But the grunt came from the NSW branch. Half of McManus’ 12,000 members are community sector workers – giving her more members in that sector than all the union’s other branches combined.

“In our campaign — and I’m not being arrogant, but it’s true — all the major strategy and negotiations with government were done by us,” McManus says.

In November 2010, disaster struck. The government’s submission to Fair Work Australia cautioned that any pay rise needed to be balanced with the impact on the budget, and would lead to other job and service cuts. Convinced Labor was backing away from its promise, McManus publicly attacked the government for betraying Labor values and threatened to organise the “biggest mobilisation you’ve ever seen”.

Behind the scenes she was lobbying senior Labor ministers to support the case. One influential figure who took up the cudgels for the ASU was McManus’ long-time friend Bill Shorten, then parliamentary secretary for disability services. The pair began their union careers together in 1994 as ACTU trainee organisers and have maintained a strong relationship ever since.

The intervention of MPs such as Shorten — and a heated public backlash — saw the government override its earlier submission and fall in behind the ASU. Julia Gillard went on to commit $2 billion to help fund the pay rises.

*Read the full profile at The Power Index