Australia's 15 most powerful Union Heavies

Tomorrow, we start counting down the Top 10 most powerful Union Heavies. Here, Matthew Knott presents the shortlist.

Bill Ludwig, Queensland Secretary and National President of the Australian Workers Union (AWU)

Big Bill has been a feared powerbroker for decades, but his best days look to be behind him. Ludwig has stepped down from his role on the ALP's national executive and won't be recontesting the upcoming AWU elections. He hasn't chosen a bad time to move on: being a factional boss in the Queensland ALP ain't what it used to be after the Campbell Newman landslide reduced the party to a rump.

Dave Oliver, Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU)

True union believers have stratospheric expectations for Dave Oliver, the man who's been tapped to replace the low-key Jeff Lawrence as head of the ACTU. Oliver has impressed during his time leading the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and wants to transform the peak body into an energetic, high-profile campaigning organisation. He'd better hit the ground running: if Tony Abbott sweeps to power at the next election, the union movement will again be out in the cold.

Dean Mighell, Victorian Secretary of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU)

Kevin Rudd may have loathed him and booted him out of the ALP, but Mighell continues to command something akin to a cult of personality in the Victorian ETU. His members, some of the best-paid blue-collar workers in the country, have backed his controversial moves to disaffiliate from Labor and dole out big donations to the Greens and Bob Katter.

Ged Kearney, President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU)

Kearney has presented a moderate and likeable image for the union movement since moving from the Australian Nursing Federation to the ACTU in 2010. While a strong media performer, she's yet to command the authority of predecessors such as Bob Hawke, Simon Crean or Sharan Burrow. We'll be watching closely to see if she cuts through with her up-coming campaign on insecure work.

Joe de Bruyn, National Secretary of the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees' Association (SDA)

De Bruyn has been a force for social conservatism in the ALP since he took over as head of the "shoppies" back in 1978. The ALP's December decision to amend its platform to support same-sex marriage was a blow to his authority, as was the elbowing out of his ally, ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence. Nevertheless, he remains a powerhouse thanks to his huge membership and well-honed negotiating skills.

Kathy Jackson, National Secretary of the Health Services Union (HSU)

Jackson blew the whistle on alleged corruption and cronyism in the Health Services Union last September and has been basking in the media spotlight ever since. The Victorian is widely loathed in the labour movement for her swingeing attacks on fellow union leaders, the ACTU and the Labor government.

Lee Thomas, Secretary of the Australian Nursing Federation (ANF)

The nurses union is now the second biggest union in the country, behind the SDA, and is growing at a rapid rate. Nurses have done well under Labor, with a big boost in funding for aged care nurses and an increased role for nurse practitioners and midwives in the health system. Yet Thomas, who took over from Ged Kearney in 2010, is still yet to make her mark within the broader movement.

Louise Tarrant, National Secretary of United Voice

Softly spoken Louise Tarrant is the quiet achiever of the trade union movement. While cynics roll their eyes at her obsession with US-style campaigning, her innovative tactics have achieved success for her 120,000 low-paid members in the hospitality, child care and aged care sectors.

Michael O'Connor, National Secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU)

The CFMEU, long divided and dysfunctional, is finally living up to its potential under O'Connor's leadership. Paul Keating once slammed him as a "Labor rat", but O'Connor's ALP connections, particularly in Victoria, are formidable – as is his industrial record over many years representing timber industry workers.

Paddy Crumlin, National Secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA)

The silver-haired sea dog is widely regarded as one of the most charismatic union leaders around. His union is small, but it's iconic and extremely powerful on the waterfront. Crumlin also wields clout internationally through his role as president of the powerful International Transport Federation.

Paul Howes, National Secretary of the Australian Workers Union (AWU)

Self-confident and self-promoting Paul Howes is the wunderkind of the Australian union movement. His role in Kevin Rudd's removal may have been over-rated, but his high-profile interventions on the carbon tax, the future of the manufacturing industry and interest rates have put the 30-year old exactly where he wants to be: at the centre of political debate.

Peter Malinauskas, South Australian Secretary of the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees' Association (SDA)

The former Woolworths shelf packer was one of the right wing plotters who called time on Mike Rann last August and installed Jay Weatherill as his successor. Malinauskas, who prides himself on having a constructive relationship with big employers, was also behind the recent move to create two new public holidays in Adelaide. Although not yet as dominant as his predecessor and mentor, Don Farrell, the 31-year old's star is definitely on the rise.

Sally McManus, NSW Secretary of the Australian Services Union (ASU)

Feisty and energetic, McManus was a key campaigner in the ASU's stunningly successful eight-year Equal Pay battle for community sector workers. She also created a coalition of eleven unions – including teachers, fire-fighters and nurses – to fight for same-sex marriage in the lead up to December's ALP conference.

Susan Hopgood, Federal Secretary of the Australian Education Union (AEU)

The former maths teacher leads the 180,000-strong Australian Education Union, representing the nation's school teachers. Hopgood is also president of the international teachers' federation, an ACTU vice president and a co-convenor of the trade union Left. But, when it comes to industrial heft, it's state teachers unions that have real power.

Tony Sheldon, National Secretary of the Transport Workers Union (TWU)

The combative, media-hungry TWU boss shot to national prominence during last year's standoff with Qantas – an industrial battle that's still playing out. While Sheldon, a key factional player in NSW Right politics, has his fair share of foes, no-one denies he scored a big win by convincing the Gillard government to pass "safe rates" legislation for truckies.

Where and how do Union Heavies wield power? See Matthew Knott's overview.

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