You can accuse Tony Sheldon of many things — from indulging in overblown class war rhetoric to bleeding the national carrier to death. But you’ll never hear the Transport Workers Union boss bagged for being gutless.

Over the past year, the former garbage collector has waged war on Qantas, made a failed run for the ALP presidency and arm-wrestled the Gillard government into overhauling pay rates for truck drivers.

“Everywhere you look, Tony’s always fighting somebody,” says a senior NSW Right figure. “He’s a crash or crash through kind of guy.”

Sheldon, distinctive for his gruff voice and silver sideburns, delighted the Coalition last year by describing Julia Gillard’s carbon price as a “death tax” for truckies. He went on to lambast then-workplace relations minister Chris Evans as incompetent and unfit for office, comparing him to the “dead guy” in Weekend At Bernies.

And don’t even get him started on Alan Joyce.

“He’s a person with a very short tenure as CEO — I expect him to be gone by the end of the year,” Sheldon tells The Power Index.

Joyce’s decision to accept a 70% pay rise while shifting jobs offshore, Sheldon says, is as an example of “excessive greed” that “makes the HSU scandal look insignificant”.

Despite his bluff and bluster, it’s impossible to construe the year-long dispute as a triumph for the TWU, which represents Qantas baggage handlers and ground crews.

Following Joyce’s dramatic decision to ground the airline’s entire fleet last September, Fair Work Australia terminated all industrial action and sent the dispute to compulsory arbitration. A decision isn’t expected until August, but arbitration usually works out in the employers’ favour.

Indeed, during his interview with The Power Index, Sheldon sounds far from confident the TWU will get everything it wants — namely a 5% pay rise and a new “job security” clause that would limit Qantas’ ability to use contract labour.

To make matters worse, the union has been ordered to pay Qantas $750,000 in compensation over illegal strikes at four Australian airports in 2009.

There’s no doubt, however, that Sheldon has knocked it out of the park with his “safe rates” campaign — a 20-year crusade to ensure that financial pressure doesn’t endanger truck drivers’ lives.

Sheldon was relentless in his efforts to get the government onside. He became a tabloid TV regular thanks to his endless supply of lurid tales of speeding, crashes and drug use. He showed up at press conferences with crosses and model coffins. He organised protests of TWU members dressed up as cows (the message: you care about live cattle exports more than us). And his criticism of the carbon price wasn’t really about the carbon price at all — it was a tactic to intimidate the government into acting on safe rates.

It may not have been subtle, but it was brutally effective. In March, legislation passed the Senate to create a new Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal with the power to set minimum pay rates and conditions, resolve disputes and review industry practices. According to the trucking industry, it’s simply a trojan horse for increased wages that will do nothing to improve road safety.

“It will be proved to be a failure — and an expensive one,” says Steve Shearer, executive director of the South Australian Road Transport Association. “The whole thing is a sham — but it was very cleverly done by Tony Sheldon and the union to get it up. They played the politics well.”

Sheldon’s other big achievement has been turning the 90,000-strong TWU into a cohesive unit.

“The public perception of Tony is that he’s a tough-talking, forceful character and that’s true,” says AWU national secretary Paul Howes. “But he’s also a thoughtful person; a compelling person to talk to … He’s turned the TWU from a loose federation into a powerful national force. That’s a big deal.”

Especially when you look back on his colourful, at times downright scandalous, career.

*Read the full profile at The Power Index

Peter Fray

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