Since the heady days of the 2007 anti-WorkChoices campaign, union leaders have been holding out for a hero — someone capable of returning the ACTU to the centre of Australian politics. Now, finally, they think they’ve found him.

His name is Dave Oliver, he’s a former lift mechanic from Sydney and he’s here to help.

“Dave is an idea whose time has come,” says Tony Maher, president of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union. “He’s a good media performer, he’s got a collegiate style, he ticks all the boxes. I think Dave will develop into a very significant ACTU leader.”

Despite the optimistic glow around his appointment, Oliver could hardly have landed in the job at a worse time. Union membership is dwindling at 18% of the workforce — a figure that could fall even lower thanks to the ever-deepening Health Services Union scandal.

Still, the motorbike-driving teetotaller has one thing going for him: he’s not Jeff Lawrence, the outgoing ACTU secretary.

“The ACTU hasn’t been particularly successful under Jeff,” says the national secretary of one large union. “That’s a harsh assessment, but it’s a pretty universal one across the movement. He’s one of the most decent men I’ve ever met. He’s an absolutely lovely bloke, he’s been a union official since the mid-80s. But the mid-80s were a long time ago.”

Another union leader is even more swingeing: “There have been rumblings about Jeff’s leadership for three years. Jeff was a hopeless leader. He didn’t have a voice.”

Oliver, the former national secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, is far more complimentary of his predecessor. But he acknowledges the peak council has lost its way in recent years.

“I want to get the ACTU back in the position of being a strong, independent voice for workers — a high-profile campaigning organisation,” he tells The Power Index. “I think I have a history of being a pretty good campaigner.”

Although Oliver only officially started in the job last week, he’s already made his presence felt.

At the ACTU congress in Sydney earlier this month, he won support to set up a permanent fund to run Your Rights at Work-style campaigns; union delegates also agreed to pay an 11% increase in affiliation fees by 2015. It’s a sign the power in the union movement is swinging back to the peak council.

Not that every union leader is yet drinking the Oliver Kool Aid.

“I believe Jeff Lawrence was doing a good job,” Joe de Bruyn, national secretary of the powerful SDA “shoppies” union, tells The Power Index. “The new guy is equally capable of doing a good job, but it’s not clear to me he’s going to do anything fundamentally different.”

Paul Howes, who garnered support behind the scenes for Oliver’s ascension, is, unsurprisingly, far more effusive.

“Dave will be a unifying and decisive figure. He’ll do the thing an ACTU secretary needs to do — command the respect and the loyalty of his troops. He will have a far more aggressive and forthright stance on issues and give us a sense of what we’re fighting for.”

Howes counts Oliver as one of his closest friends, a fact that stuns those familiar with the acrimonious history between their two unions. The right-wing AWU and left-wing AMWU had brawled for decades over turf and ideology, and their predecessors, Bill Shorten and Doug Cameron, loathed each other. Yet when Howes and Oliver met for lunch in 2007 a bromance was born.

“We both very clearly said, ‘the days of us fighting each other are over’,” recalls Oliver. “‘We should be putting the collective interests of our membership over the battles of the past’. The minute we signed off on that, it all followed from there.”

The AMWU/AWU “manufacturing alliance” may not have prevented heavy job losses in the sector, but it has achieved significant wins: new “Buy Australian” procurement requirements, a toughened-up anti-dumping regime and the creation of the Steel Industry Innovation Council.

Manufacturing is a personal passion for Oliver, who’s the ACTU ‘s first blue collar union leader in decades. Raised in Sydney’s south-eastern suburbs, he left school at the end of year 10 to become an apprentice fitter and turner for a small engineering firm. He handled chemicals such as asbestos, mercury, sulphuric acid and chlorine on a daily basis, unaware of the dangers they posed.

*Read the full profile at The Power Index

Peter Fray

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