In a masterful display of linguistic contortionism, Julia Gillard managed to avoid mentioning either the Health Services Union or Craig Thomson by name in her speech to the ACTU congress yesterday.

But the prime minister’s message was clear: union members’ money has been abused, and the reputation of the labour movement has been tarnished. “Members have been let down very badly — instead of the sole focus of those union officials being on those members,” Gillard said. “That disgusts me and I know that it disgusts you too.”

Gillard was among friends yesterday, as a thousand-odd union delegates gathered in Sydney for their triennial congress. The Power Index was there as interested observer.

There were heavyweights everywhere you looked at Darling Harbour. Bill Ludwig came down from Queensland for his last congress as AWU president. Transport Workers Union boss Tony Sheldon was spotted in a waterside tete-a-tete with ALP national secretary George Wright. Pro-WikiLeaks protesters scored a win when CPSU leader Peter Tighe signed their “Free Assange” petition.

Despite the sparkling sunshine, it was a day of decidedly mixed emotions.

First there was frustration that the scandal at the HSU — which represents less than 4% of the nation’s trade members — has sucked oxygen from the event and besmirched those who have done nothing wrong.

As one angry union official told The Power Index recently: “Everyone is making jokes, asking, ‘what are you doing with your credit card?’ Bosses are telling workers to ask where your union fees go. It’s sickening.”

There was anger when news broke, on this day of all days, that HSU national secretary Kathy Jackson would be the guest of honor at the annual dinner of the HR Nicholls Society — a passionately anti-union IR think tank. If there’s one thing that could have made her even more loathed by her fellow union officials, this was it.

But there was excitement too when Dave Oliver took to the podium to give his first speech since being elected ACTU secretary. Behind closed doors, many union leaders have been frustrated by the low-key style of his predecessor Jeff Lawrence — and are looking to Oliver to fire up the movement.

He certainly did that yesterday in a rousing speech. Unions, Oliver argued, have squandered the momentum achieved by the 2007 Your Rights at Work campaign. “We thought because we’d defeated one enemy, that we had won all the battles we needed to,” he said.

Oliver asked for support to set up a permanent unit at the ACTU to drive national campaigns and, hopefully, a boost in union membership.

There was a sense of pride as union leaders and members took the stage to report on their achievements over the past year. There have been many — from big pay rises for Baida poultry workers in Victoria to new “safe rates” laws for truck drivers to the abolition of the Australian Building and Construction Commission. Among the most memorable was a presentation by a large group of textile outworkers — dressed in colourful homemade creations — explaining how new laws giving them the same conditions as employees would improve their lives.

Gillard’s government, of course, has helped make many of these victories possible — a fact that helps explain her warm reception. Gillard, a former industrial lawyer, said arriving at the congress felt like a “homecoming”. That’s something Kevin Rudd would never have said — nor, of course, Tony Abbott.

That’s why a sense of impatience — and dread — was also palpable yesterday. A distinct feeling that time is running out before Abbott sweeps to power, leaving unions out in the cold and the future of many of their hard-won gains hanging in the balance.

*For more on union heavies visit The Power Index