A recent report report in The Sydney Morning Herald confirmed that Sally McManus, long the frontrunner, is all but certain to take over the Australian Council of Trade Unions from Dave Oliver, after his surprise resignation on January 31.

Following the endorsement of the Left-aligned unions that dominate the ACTU executive, McManus is running unopposed to be the next secretary. 

In 2012, McManus delivered the union movement one of its biggest victories of the post-WorkChoices era when, as secretary of the Australian Services Union, she helmed a campaign that secured a 19-41% pay rise for over 150,000 community sector workers. This was the culmination of a campaign that had lasted six years.

In 2015, she left the ASU to become the ACTU’s vice-president and campaign manager. She took charge of the marginal seat campaign, focusing on education funding, employment conditions and, most famously, Medicare in the lead-up to the last election. But as union membership plunges, what kind of influence does the ACTU retain?

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“It’s important not to overstate [the ACTU’s] power,” Nick Dyrenfurth, executive director of the John Curtin Research Centre and labour movement historian, said. “Like most of the labour movement, it’s at something of a crossroads.”

A senior source in the union movement agreed that the ACTU did not have a “big influence” on the day-to-day activities of unions, “but they are an important for representing and speaking on behalf of the movement”.

“I think Dave Oliver is big loss for the movement,” the source added. “McManus has a good reputation as an organiser, but whether she’ll be able to articulate a vision the way Oliver could and take people along with her, I’m not sure.”

A senior Labor official denied that McManus’ election represented the ascendancy of Labor Party’s Left faction, but said it was the result of “the rise of individuals who want to return to a more traditional labour movement narrative”.

The Labor source said the “culture war” between those who favour a focus on social issues and those who believe Labor should focus on economic issues was something that raged across the modern Labor Party, and was not split along factional lines.

Dyrenfurth says the ACTU’s level of influence has always ebbed and flowed — peaking around the union’s involvement in major victories such as equal pay for indigenous workers in the 1960s, the Accord in the 1980s and the maritime dispute in 1998. The erosion of union influence in recent times is not something McManus, for all her successes, will be able to arrest.

“No one person is going to be able to turn around the organisation or the labour movement in general,” Dyrenfurth said. “The long-term trends for the labour movement are not good — union membership continues to fall and most worryingly, more than half of union members are over 45. That would be a concern for any movement.”

The Labor source said if the ACTU wanted to increase its influence, it needed move away from campaigning on social issues, and instead focus on modern economic and workplace issues like 457 visas, income inequality, free trade agreements that “don’t help Labor voters” and casualisation of work forces.

“The NDIS is a very important issue, but the ACTU speaking out on it doesn’t help the union movement,” the source said, referring to the recent campaign on the issue.

The source pointed to recent rise of parties like One Nation as an example of this.

“They’re polling at 23% in Queensland, which means it’s not just the same people who voted for them in the nineties, they are picking up new votes. The majority of working people are socially conservative and fiscally progressive, and if you focus too much on social issues, you create a vacuum for far right parties with populist economic policies to move into.”

Dyrenfurth said the ACTU needed to pursue “radical ideas” like co-determination (the compulsory appointment of employees on company boards) or work council-style arrangements to claw back its relevance.