You wouldn’t know it from the ever-deepening Health Services Union disaster, but Australia’s union chiefs are among the most respected — and powerful — in the world.

Aussie unionists are currently dominating the international union movement, and they couldn’t have picked a better time to do it. Economic globalisation has forced unions to form alliances across state borders in a bid to counter the growing power of multinational corporations and inter-governmental bodies such as the International Monetary Fund. This means that global union federations — whose role used to be essentially symbolic — now have real bargaining power.

Here are five Aussie unionists who wield clout far beyond our shores …

Sharan Burrow

Over the course of her career, Sharan Burrow has gone from being a humble Bathurst schoolteacher to the leader of the workers of the world. Since departing as ACTU president in 2010, the prodigious networker has been based in Brussels as general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation — an enormous body representing 175 million workers in 150 countries. The role has seen her foster nascent trade union movements in the new “Arab spring” democracies, take on the IMF and conservative governments over the European drive to austerity, and expose abuse by companies making sportswear for the London Olympics.

Paul Howes

The Australian Workers Union wunderkind isn’t content with just wielding influence on our shores. “Capital has gone global and labour will have to go global too,” Howes told The Power Index recently. “We have to deal with the fact that we will have to cease to be a national union.” Howes, who represents Asia/Pacific on the International Metalworkers’ Federation’s executive committee, is working to forge a formal merger between the AWU and its fraternal unions in the US and UK. In the meantime, he has formed an alliance with unions in Brazil, Britain, South Africa and Russia to bargain internationally with aluminium giant Alcoa.

Joe de Bruyn

The Dutch-born de Bruyn is well-known for his 35-year career leading Australia’s biggest union — the SDA — and as a driving force for Catholic conservatism within the Labor Party. Since late 2010, he has also been president of UNI Global — a federation of 900 unions representing 20 million workers in the commerce, finance, telecommunications and tourism sectors. The federation negotiates 45 global agreements with some of the world’s biggest companies, such as cleaning giant ISS.

Paddy Crumlin

As well as running the militant Maritime Union of Australia, the charismatic ex-dockie is president of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), which represents 4.5 million transport workers. As long-time chairman of the ITF’s dockers section, Crumlin bargains with multinational CEOs on agreements covering thousands of vessels across Europe and the Asia/Pacific.

Susan Hopgood

The former maths teacher has no public profile, but is a behind-the-scenes force in the local, and global, union movement. Hopgood is national secretary of the 180,000-strong Australian Education Union, representing the nation’s school teachers, an ACTU vice-president and a co-convener of the trade union Left. Since the middle of last year, she has also been president of Education International, representing 30 million teachers in 170 countries. The federation’s recent focus has been campaigning against cuts to education funding during the global financial crisis.

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