The Power Index: Union Heavies, Paddy Crumlin

[First published on Crikey 10th May 2012]

No-one else in the union movement can spin a yarn like Paddy Crumlin, the boss of the militant Maritime Union of Australia.

"If you can get a seat next to Paddy Crumlin you grab it," explains Michael O'Connor, national secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union. "The next day your guts will be sore from laughing."

The Power Index discovered this first-hand when we interviewed Crumlin, who was in London on trade union business at the time ("I'm sitting on the bed in my undies," he informed us).

The silver-haired sea dog is especially well-known for the tales of his travels through the Eastern Bloc as an up-and-coming unionist.

In the mid-1980s, he travelled on a left-wing union delegation to Bulgaria, which was then in economic disarray. After exchanging his cash into Bulgarian levs, he went to the shops to get a feed - only to discover there was barely any food available. The shelves were, however, stacked with cleaning products and alcohol.

"When I returned home, my father picked me up from the airport," Crumlin, 57, recalls. "He asked me how it turned out and I said, 'My experience of the communist world is that I've never been so clean or so drunk in my life."

Humour, Crumlin says, is a great tool in the "social-political toolkit". But don't think his life is all shits and giggles. Crumlin commands respect for his record since becoming national secretary of the MUA 10 years ago. Although the union has only around 13,000 members, its ability to cause millions of dollars worth of economic damage through strikes gives it enormous industrial leverage.

"He has led the MUA with strength, determination and panaché," says AWU boss Paul Howes, who counts Crumlin as a friend and mentor. "Through his own style, intellect and foresight he has ensured that the MUA belts well above its weight."

Chris Cain, secretary of the MUA's WA branch, says: "Under his leadership, we've become one of the most powerful, strategic, feared unions in the country. He can go into any room, any forum and turn it around to his way of thinking - whether its employers, governments or his members."

It's been a big 12 months for the waterfront warrior - both politically and industrially.

Last September, following years of concerted lobbying by Crumlin, transport minister Anthony Albanese announced major reforms to revitalise the Australian shipping industry through tax breaks and training incentives. Crikey's Bernard Keane slammed the policy as a "taxpayer rort" that will lift the MUA's membership, but deliver negligible benefits for ordinary Australians.

Crumlin's also led the MUA through a bitter 20-month dispute with stevedoring company Asciano that saw over 60 work stoppages and cost the company an estimated $15 million. In April, the parties signed an agreement that will deliver pay rises of 22.5% over five years in exchange for productivity increases.

"I'm not losing my bargaining edge," Crumlin says. The Fair Work Act's rules of engagement, he notes, have also helped the MUA assert its influence - a statement sure to draw howls from Peter Reith and others.

Crumlin's clout extends far beyond our shores, thanks to his role as president of the powerful International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF), representing 4.5 million transport workers. As chair of its dockers section, he bargains with multi-national CEOs on agreements that cover thousands of vessels across Europe and the Asia/Pacific.

These duties mean he must keep up a schedule of punishing international travel that rivals that of a foreign minister. "I'm busier than a one-armed bricklayer in Baghdad," he says.

Luckily for Crumlin, the son of a merchant seafarer, he's always been a wanderlust. He grew up in an Irish-Catholic family in western Sydney and spent a year travelling the world surfing after leaving school. Following stints in the deep-sea fishing industry and merchant navy, he became a full-time union official in 1987.

One of the few people left in Australian politics who proudly identifies themselves as a "socialist", Crumlin could spend hours railing against the evils of laisez fare capitalism and how "corporate greed, negligence and criminality" brought on the global financial crisis.

He says he plans to stand for re-election as MUA national secretary, then retire after serving another full-term - not that he'll ever give up the union game entirely.

"I love my union, it's like a family," he says. "Sometimes it can be dysfunctional, even more than The Simpsons. But family commitments last for a lifetime.

"Part of the stress of modern life comes from a sense of dislocation. Being in the MUA gives me a sense of location and stability in my own emotional life. It works - and if it works don't fuck with it."