National Secretary, United Voice
Home Town: Sydney
Louise Tarrant is demurely-dressed and softly-spoken – an unlikely radical if ever there was one. Yet she, as much as anyone else, is redefining what it means to be a unionist in 21st century Australia.
Tarrant is the national secretary of United Voice, a left-wing union representing 120,000 workers in some of our most precarious and poorly-paid industries: childcare, aged care, cleaning, and hospitality.
Over the past two decades, she's been the most influential local advocate of the so-called "organising model" – a controversial approach that repositions unions as grassroots campaigning machines, rather than bargaining outfits, and eschews militancy in favour of constructive relationships with employers.
She's a philosopher, a persuader and a risk taker. Just look at her decision to ditch her union's former name (the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union). Or to launch The First Star, a wotif-style website encouraging travellers to make bookings with ethical luxury hotels.
"She has left-field ideas, she challenges people, she tries different things," says ACTU assistant secretary Tim Lyons.
"She doesn't have a huge public profile but she has an intellectual take on things that is compelling."
Chris Walton, a former senior ACTU official, describes Tarrant as "the conscience of the Australian union movement and a real talent".
But she has her critics too.
Some branch officials were angry she didn't speak out against Julia Gillard's pre-commitment pokies deal with Andrew Wilkie (United Voice represents workers in pubs, clubs and hotels).
Traditionalists also see her tactics as too soft and fluffy.
"Louise Tarrant runs a cult, not a union," remarks one union and ALP insider. "They're all about organising members, not servicing them. A lot of people think they've drunk the Kool Aid".
Tarrant laughs off the cult leader tag during an interview with The Power Index in her Sydney office. But she has a potent message for her doubters: resist change at your peril.
"Too much is happening around us for us just to restrict ourselves to the workplace. We exist to make positive change in workers' lives. That's our benchmark and we've struggled in recent decades to deliver on that promise."
The most recent example, of course, of a union spectacularly failing to deliver on its promise is the Health Services Union. And the excesses of the HSU are clearly on Tarrant's mind during our interview.
"We're not a big spending union, we're a very lean organisation," says the proud penny pincher, who shifted United Voice's national office from the CBD to Redfern to save money.
When United Voice officials travel interstate, they're also expected to catch public transport from the airport rather than taxis.
"We're really conscious that when we spend money, it's out of a low income worker's pocket."
Tarrant knows what it's like to be poorly paid: she started out as a telephone operator at the Sydney GPO and became active in the telephonists' union. Before joining the LHMU full-time in 1993, she worked as a consultant on union amalgamation campaigns and recruitment strategies.
Tarrant has drawn much inspiration over many years from United Voice's US sister union: the Services Employees International Union (SEIU). More recently, she's been taken by the Occupy movement's ability to put equality at the heart of economic debate in America.
"In most of our areas it's very difficult to bargain through traditional strategies. We've got to change the economics of an industry to deliver something for workers."
This approach has paid off spectacularly with Clean Start – a local version of the SEIU's famous Justice for Janitors campaign. The seven-year long crusade has achieved increased hours and pay rises of up to $200 a week for office cleaners through agreements with property owners, contractors and governments.
United Voice is now pushing to extend these conditions to cleaners working in shopping centres – a move that has embroiled Tarrant in a stoush with cleaning giant Spotless, which is refusing to sign up.
Years of lobbying for increased aged care funding were rewarded in the recent budget, with the Gillard government committing $1.2 billion to tackle labour shortages.
Not that there haven't been setbacks.
Last year, United Voice ran the first test case under the Fair Work Act's low-paid bargaining stream. Fair Work Australia ruled that aged-care workers can use the new bargaining powers – but only if they are not already covered by enterprise agreements. Tarrant slammed the decision as an "insult" because it excludes two thirds of the workforce from access to low paid bargaining.
Her call for the government to lift the pay rates of child care workers by 30% – at a cost of $1.3 billion a year – has so far fallen on deaf ears.
So is she tempted to enter parliament and advocate change from within?
No, Tarrant says. Going into politics would be a "backwards step".
"I'd hate to think people see the union movement as a stepping stone.
"It's easy when you're amongst the lowest paid to feel powerless; it's easy to feel like someone else should do something for you. Yet our members don't feel that way. They're really committed to creating a better tomorrow and I just think that's really exciting to be part of ... I can't think of a better job."