Secretary, the NSW branch (Services) of the Australian Services Union
Friends: Bill Shorten
Foes: Joe de Bruyn | Barry O'Farrell
Home Town: Sydney
What Sally McManus lacks in numbers, she makes up for with chutzpah, endless reserves of energy and a willingness to piss off her own side of politics. She was the driving force behind one of the biggest union triumphs in decades – the landmark equal pay campaign that achieved massive pay rises for over 150,000 low-paid community workers.
"I'm not a Labor hack," the feisty left-winger tells The Power Index. "I only participate in the ALP to advance the interests of my union."
Feminist academic Eva Cox describes McManus, who has run the white-collar Australian Services Union's NSW branch since 2005, as the "archetypal 'goodie' union leader".
"From everything I've observed about the equal pay case, she's been terrific. She knew exactly what she was talking about and she was very tough."
In February, following a six-year campaign by the ASU, Fair Work Australia granted pay rises of 19-40% for workers at social and community organisations such as UnitingCare, Mission Australia and Oxfam.
The reason: their work had been systematically undervalued because of gender.
The case's significance could be felt across other sectors too, with senior business figures like Heather Ridout deriding the decision as "dangerous" because of the potential for similar claims in female-dominated areas like aged care and child care.
The tale of how the victory was achieved is a gripping one, yet has gone largely untold.
"At some points, I thought the chances of us succeeding were less than 5%," McManus says. "There were so many times the campaign could have fallen over."
The first key moment came in 2009. Julia Gillard, then workplace relations minister, was manoeuvring to transfer state and territory-based workers to her new national IR regime. McManus, who led negotiations for the union, grasped the enormous opportunity for leverage this presented.
The ASU extracted a promise that, in return for shifting community sector workers to the national system, the government would support a federal push for equal pay (the ASU's Queensland branch had just won a test case in that state).
The next step was pressuring the government to keep its promise via an all-out national campaign involving protest rallies, online lobbying and delegations to Canberra.
The campaign was co-ordinated by Linda White, the ASU's respected and experienced assistant national secretary. But the grunt came from the NSW branch. Half of McManus' 12,000 members are community sector workers – giving her more members in that sector than all the union's other branches combined.
"In our campaign – and I'm not being arrogant but it's true -- all the major strategy and negotiations with government were done by us," McManus says.
In November 2010, disaster struck. The government's submission to Fair Work Australia cautioned that any pay rise needed to be balanced with the impact on the budget, and would lead to other job and service cuts. Convinced Labor was backing away from its promise, McManus publicly attacked the government for betraying Labor values and threatened to organise the "biggest mobilisation you've ever seen".
Behind the scenes she was lobbying senior Labor ministers to support the case. One influential figure who took up the cudgels for the ASU was McManus' long-time friend Bill Shorten, then Parliamentary Secretary for Disability Services. The pair began their union careers together in 1994 as ACTU trainee organisers and have maintained a strong relationship ever since.
The intervention of MPs such as Shorten – and a heated public backlash – saw the government override its earlier submission and fall in behind the ASU. Julia Gillard went on to commit $2 billion to help fund the pay rises.
The equal pay case wasn't the 40-year old Sydneysider's only big win over the past year.
McManus played an important role in the ALP's decision to support same-sex marriage at last December's national conference. She led a coalition of 11 unions – representing 300,000 teachers, nurses, manufacturers and construction workers – advocating for change to the party platform.
In what is believed to be a first for a Labor-affiliated union, McManus polled her members for their views on gay mariage last April and found 70% in favour. The move could be a game changer if, as she hopes, it leads the members of other unions – such as the 200,000-strong SDA run by conservative Catholic Joe de Bruyn – to push for a vote on the issue.
As for a career in politics, McManus has no desire to parlay her union credentials into a spot on the parliamentary benches.
"I've seen a lot of excellent union leaders go into politics and lose their voice," she says. "It's never been an ambition of my mine. I'm a true believer in unions; I'm totally committed and I love what I do."