National Secretary, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees' Association
Born in: Netherlands
Foes: Alex Greenwich
Home Town: Melbourne
Any burnt-out politicians in need of sympathy should steer clear of Joe de Bruyn -- the leader of the country's largest and most ideologically fervent union, the Shop Distributive and Allied Association.
The man Gough Whitlam famously described as a "Dutchman who hates dykes" says he works harder than most pollies -- and wields more influence than them too.
"You have far more impact as a union leader than being a member of parliament -- absolutely, particularly at a union like ours," de Bruyn tells The Power Index in a rare extended interview.
As for politicians: "They just spend a lot of time hanging around doing nothing or sitting in the chamber listening to other people speaking. It's that lack of activity that would be of no interest to me."
You can't blame de Bruyn, who's led the 215,000-strong retail union since 1978, for a lack of false modesty. He's outlasted five prime ministers and, at 62, maintains a schedule so punishing it makes most workaholics look like bludgers.
De Bruyn, a member of the ALP's elite national executive, has a platoon of loyalists in parliament and controls the biggest bloc of votes on the ALP conference floor. He uses it to pursue a hardline anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion, and anti-stem cell research agenda.
Although best known for his staunch conservatism, it's in the industrial arena where de Bruyn has the most clout. He negotiates with the nation's biggest employers -- Coles, Woolworths, McDonald's, Myer, Bunnings -- on behalf of millions of employees.
"Joe is an incredibly organised, structured, well-considered union leader," says former ACTU assistant secretary Chris Walton. "He's often giving history lessons to the employers he deals with. He knows the industry back to front. In many countries, retail employees are part of the underclass but not in Australia -- that's because of the SDA."
De Bruyn's famously fastidious approach is on display when The Power Index meets him at 8.30am in the SDA's national office, deep in the heart of Melbourne's latte belt. He's already cut out, highlighted and filed away an article from that morning's Australian Financial Review headlined "Woolworths executive pledges profit growth".
"We're in negations with Woolworths [and] this is all going to be quoted back at him at our meeting next week," he says with a grin.
"I'm just sitting back with the company and saying, 'We won't accept your offer; it's not good enough.' I'm just arguing with them intellectually and going higher and higher in the company. It will force them, ultimately, to improve their offer. I know that. And when they get high enough we'll accept it."
De Bruyn's pragmatic approach infuriates his critics, who accuse him of disempowering his members and stitching up soft deals in exchange for access to the workplace.
"They don’t involve their members in decisions about wages and conditions," says one left-wing union leader. "They don't cause trouble. Retailers have given them a closed shop."
It's a charge de Bruyn -- the calmest, most courteous man you're ever likely to meet -- denies.
"By going about our job in a sensible way we've been able to exert a remarkable influence over companies," he says, citing a 2008 deal that won paid maternity leave for Woolworths employees.
"We do not trade wages or conditions for access and we never have. The one thing we don't do is go to employers and threaten their business. I think that by working behind the scenes and talking to the key decision makers in the company we're more likely to get a change of heart and a higher wages offer than by going public and bagging the company."
De Bruyn's industrial tactics, while hotly debated, aren't nearly as controversial as his staunch Catholic views -- and willingness to use his factional muscle to enforce them.
During our interview, he retells the story of a US father who was supposedly jailed for seeking to withdraw his children from any classes where same-sex marriage was taught as legitimate: "This is what the future looks like when you go down this path."
Legalising gay marriage, he argues, would breach the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
"When I go overseas -- outside of Europe and North America -- there is no suppot for gay marriage whatsover," he says. "Throughout Asia this is just a big no-no."
While de Bruyn remains a pariah for progressives, there's no doubt his influence has taken a tumble over the past five years. Gone are the days of 2006, when South Australian senator Linda Kirk lost preselection for voting against the union's wishes on cloning and Rudd's leadership challenge.
At the ALP's national conference last November, a majority of delegates voted to amend the party platform to support same-sex marriage -- an historic defeat for the SDA. Key Right factional figures -- including Mark Arbib and Paul Howes -- swung their support behind change, leaving de Bruyn clutching to a conscience vote as consolation.
Cabinet member Kate Ellis, who is backed by the SDA, says she will vote for same-sex marriage when a bill comes before parliament later this year.
Ordinary SDA members are also growing increasingly vocal in their demands for a say over their union's position.
"The SDA leadership is seriously out-of-step with its own members on this issue, and we should know," John Kloprogge, a former SDA store delegate, and Brett Jones, an SDA member, wrote in Fairfax papers last year.
"Before the SDA contributes any further to the debate about same-sex marriage, we call on it to survey its members. Until then, the SDA can only claim to speak on behalf of de Bruyn and his personal views. It has no mandate to speak for us."
De Bruyn's authority was dealt another blow in March, when a group of up and coming union leaders -- including Paul Howes and Michael O'Connor -- went behind his back to install Dave Oliver as ACTU secretary. De Bruyn had wanted Lawrence -- whom he helped shoehorn into the job in 2007 -- to stay even though he could not commit to a full term.
"I believe Jeff Lawrence was doing a good job," de Bruyn says, folding his arms, looking defensive for first time during our interview. "We're changing from one to another and we probably won't see a great deal of difference."
De Bruyn himself was once tempted to run for the ACTU when Bill Kelty stepped down in 2000. But he couldn't bring himself to leave the SDA, which he's called home since abandoning an agricultural economics PhD in 1973.
Although he admits he can't keep up the hectic workload forever -- he's also a senior vice president of the ACTU -- he's got no plans to retire yet. Even when he does, his influence is likely to live on through his son, Michael, who is president of Victorian Young Labor and a rising star on the right.
The de Bruyn era isn't even close to being over.