Michele O'Neil's ascent to ACTU president

After nearly three decades working in the union movement, Michele O'Neil has risen to Australian Council of Trade Unions president.

When a young Michele O'Neil was sexually harassed at work, it sparked a chain reaction which would elevate her to one of the most powerful positions in Australia's union movement.

The new president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions first joined a union as a teenager working in hospitality at clubs, bars and pubs, and spent nearly three decades fighting for workers' rights after collective action helped her.

"The first time I understood about workers sticking together and what can happen from that was my own experience of being sexually harassed at a young age," O'Neil told AAP.

She was 14 and being harassed by her supervisor.

"Having my other co-union members stand up for me and with me, that gave me a really early understanding of you're not alone if you're part of a union," O'Neil said.

Later, she ran a bank of knitting machines and sewed labels inside the back of jumpers before rising through the ranks as an organiser at the Textiles Clothing and Footwear Union.

She became that union's Victorian secretary and led it nationally.

"Pretty much every job at the TCFUA I did," she said.

After winning the key backing of Left faction unions, O'Neil was elected ACTU president on Tuesday.

It's an office once held by Bob Hawke, who was prime minister from 1983 to 1991, and fellow former Labor leader Simon Crean.

When you throw in Rudd and Gillard government minister Martin Ferguson, Jennie George and Ged Kearney, five of the last seven ACTU presidents have entered politics.

But O'Neil insists the well-travelled path to parliament isn't for her.

"I don't have a desire to be a politician," O'Neil said.

"I love having the privilege of representing working people and I don't want to go to politics."

Despite being repeatedly sounded out to become a Labor politician during the past 15 years, O'Neil has at times clashed with the party.

In 2004 she told union members to consider cutting ties with the ALP over tariff cuts in the clothing, footwear and textiles industries.

Three years later, O'Neil clashed with Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard on unions' right to enter workplaces.

"I expect to have a strong and robust relationship with the Labor Party," O'Neil said.

"Sometimes we'll agree, and sometimes we won't."

ACTU secretary Sally McManus has been labelled the union movement's rock star and O'Neil is happy to be on the same bill.

That includes backing McManus' view that it's fine for workers to break unjust laws.

"Australia has a set of industrial laws that are out of touch and are not in keeping with many industrialised countries around the world," O'Neil said.

She says strike laws are "seriously out of whack".

Within the movement, O'Neil wants to boost diversity in leadership - an aim she sees as critical to unions' future.

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch