Michele O’Neil

Like many products of the Catholic system, Michele O’Neil’s earliest memories of school are characterised by those “formidable nuns”, not scared of standing up to authority, journalist Sue Osborne writes.

The ACTU President attended Catholic primaries in Melbourne and Canberra before her high school years at Braddon Catholic Girls High School in Canberra (now Merici College).

Michele admits she wasn’t the easiest student, with a tendency to rebel. “Some parts of school I found fascinating, others not. I loved the social aspect.”

Her activism developed at a young age. Her five big sisters were a major influence, as were her parents. Her father was a public servant and her mother worked in a tannery, as a factory worker and a waitress. Conversations about politics and social justice were common around the dining table.

Michele became national secretary of the Textile Union after 27 years as organiser, industrial officer and state secretary.

She was elected as ACTU President in July 2018 when the incumbent Ged Kearney won the Federal seat of Batman – since renamed Cooper – at a by-election in March 2018.

One of her proudest achievements was being part of the campaign to introduce world first legislation in 2008 that gave textile workers in sweatshops and at home the right to demand restitution for missed pay, leave and super all the way up the supply chain.

“This was ground breaking legislation for workers who had been forgotten. I met many smart, hard working women who had been undervalued by the bosses, politicians and society as a whole for years.

“If the boss had run off then they could demand their rights from the brands. It was life changing for them to finally have basic rights like super and sick leave.”

The Fair Wear campaign brought exploitation of textile workers into the public gaze. That work continues today.

Michele said teachers are critical in keeping the union movement alive.

“It’s not just formal teaching about unions, but everything that goes on in the classroom and school environment. The capacity to support critical and engaged thinking and develop someone’s capacity to not accept the status quo and question what is happening in the world, that is powerful.

“To encourage people to think about how the world is, and how it might be changing by collective activism – that message never leaves you and that’s what leads to unionism.”

Michele said her main goal is to grow the union movement, tackle inequality in society, improve workers’ rights and conditions and to make the sure the union movement remains relevant to the growing diversity of the workforce.

Michele has memories of her sisters taking her to protests at the Aboriginal tent embassy outside Parliament House and anti-racism and anti-apartheid protests.

She said some teachers, particularly in English and History, welcomed her rebellious nature and saw her tendency to question the status quo as an opportunity for engagement rather than punishment. Those teachers live on in her memory.

At 14 Michele got her first job as a waitress and immediately joined the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union. One of her supervisors was sexually harassing her and she turned to the union for support.

“The older women who were union members realised something was wrong. I finally told them what was happening, and they took me to see the union delegate, and it was dealt with.

“That was a positive early experience I had of what workers can achieve by sticking together.”

After school Michele went into the community sector as a youth housing worker, helping people her own age who were homeless. She eventually became a campaigner for the National Youth Coalition for Housing.

“There wasn’t a lot of money for community services. I got a taste of insecure work very early on. I had to fight for funding for the service and my own income.”

Michele left home soon after school and she had to supplement her community work with waitressing.

In her 20s Michele moved to Melbourne and worked for both the Clothing and Allied Trades Union and the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union, facilitating consultative committees with workers.

She interspersed this with work as a sewing machinist and operating a bank of knitting machines.