Mr Setka has, controversially, offered strong support to a small new union for council workers that is taking on his foes at the Australian Services Union and he has overseen a breakdown in relations with other big unions, previously threatening to poach their members if they do not support him.
The common denominator, according to union insiders, is that all of his targets have either called for him to resign over his conviction last year on domestic abuse charges against his wife, or failed to offer sufficient support in the lead-up to the case.
Mr Setka was originally charged with more than 30 offences – including assault – but that was reduced to two offences of breaching court orders and harassing his wife, Emma Walters, after he agreed to plead guilty. Both he and Ms Walters have since insisted there was no violence in the home.
Such is the controversy in the CFMMEU over the matter that, in a fiery Zoom meeting of the union’s national executive on Tuesday, a simple motion to condemn misogyny was not passed. It was deferred to a committee instead.
At that meeting, Mr Setka’s allies expressed dismay at the chaos within the union, and Mr Setka himself cemented his reputation for colourful language: “Sometimes it’s like a dog f—ing a cricket ball,“ he said, according to detailed leaks. “It’s not perfect.”
Some who attended interpreted the comment as Mr Setka’s attempt to acknowledge that he’d made mistakes in all his internal fights. All disputes, he told the meeting, get resolved in the end. Mr Setka declined to speak to The Sunday Age to explain.
The serious split within the CFMMEU was crystallised when the maritime and construction divisions of the union, Mr Setka’s allies, passed a second no confidence motion in Mr O’Connor, the union’s national secretary, and called on him to resign.
Mr O’Connor is elected so the motion carries only symbolic weight but the union, once a political powerhouse under Mr O’Connor – it was a key backer of Bill Shorten – now has far less political influence. In the past year Mr O’Connor’s national office has been starved of funds by Mr Setka and his allies, reducing its staff from more than a dozen to only two.
Mr O’Connor’s crime in Mr Setka’s eyes was that he stayed quiet and failed to offer public support for the Victorian leader after the leaking in June 2019, of Mr Setka’s comments that the work of anti-domestic violence campaigner Rosie Batty had led to men having fewer rights.
The publication of those comments – Mr Setka disputed some of the reported detail – and details of other misconduct created a political and media storm and his eventual departure from the ALP. Mr Setka’s deputy Shaun Reardon quit in protest at his boss remaining in his role in the union, as did at least three female employees. Mr Setka’s union hired a former homicide detective to try to uncover the “cowardly” leakers.
The chair of last week’s national executive meeting, Paddy Crumlin, whose Maritime Union merged with the CFMEU in 2018, told Tuesday’s meeting: “I don’t get the culture of this f—ing union … I wish I was told this at the beginning.”
After a series of leaks from previous national executive meetings – including Mr Setka’s comments about Ms Batty – Mr Crumlin told the meeting that “leaking” was a “refuge for cowards”. His comments were immediately leaked.
Another MUA official, Paul McAleer, told the meeting, conducted via Zoom, “no-one gives a f— about Michael O’Connor”.
“Michael O’Connor if you are there, you stand condemned,” he said into the digital ether. “And you Crumlin, I f—ing blame you for bringing us into this f—ing shit.”
An older unionist, who has observed the construction union for decades, said Mr Setka had become reminiscent of the late unionist Norm Gallagher in the 1980s. As his power slipped Gallagher fought everyone, including other unions, as the Builders Labourers Federation was deregistered by the Hawke and Cain governments.
As a young man, Mr Setka provided muscle for the BLF during the Gallagher era and he was there when the CFMEU was created in the 1990s and built into one of Victoria’s most important unions. It has won a large membership, strong wages and good conditions on work sites.
In doing so, it has earned many enemies in the industry and in politics. But Mr Setka’s detractors say the current warfare within the union is not about industrial relations. What has brought matters to a head was an issue that few cared about in the 1980s: domestic violence.
At last week’s meeting the union’s manufacturing division senior official Jenny Kruschel proposed a resolution supporting the ACTU’s McManus and O’Neil “unequivocally”. That included their work in protecting jobs in the pandemic and successfully fighting the government’s union-busting Ensuring Integrity bill.
The motion came in the wake of a Facebook post on the Victorian CFMMEU’s branch site that described Ms O’Neil as “talking shit” while visiting locked-down residents of the Flemington flats. Mr Setka denied that he had authorised that post and it was subsequently removed.
The resolution said that denigrating the ACTU leaders “only serves to divide the trade union movement,” and that “sexist and misogynistic behaviour has no place” in the CFMMEU.
The resolution won the backing of the mining division but Mr Setka’s allies, including Dave Noonan from the national construction division, deferred the resolution, referring it to a sub-committee.
The symbolism was acute, Mr Setka’s internal enemies say.
A union with a domestic abuse perpetrator as a leader could not condemn misogyny or attacks on women.
Propping up a rival
On the same day that these internal battles were taking place, Mr Setka took time to publicly back the Municipal & Utilities Workers Union, which moved recently into the CFMMEU’s Elizabeth Street office.
The MUWU is a direct rival to the much larger Australian Services Union – whose leader Lisa Darmanin last year called on Mr Setka to resign. She has also been an ALP factional rival after Mr Setka’s union allied itself with the now disgraced former Labor MP Adem Somyurek (Mr Setka’s wife Emma Walters for a time worked for Mr Somyurek last year).
The new union’s president Jennifer Marriott said of Mr Setka this week: “I’ve personally had nothing but positive interactions, support, loyalty and I absolutely respect the person for who he is and what he stands for as John Setka”.
Ms Marriott would not say if the new union paid rent to the CFMEU as its landlord, describing it as a “commercial-in-confidence arrangement.”
She said the union had grown quickly and was set up after last year’s bitter ASU elections and “as a result of many dissatisfied members”. “They wanted an alternative and that’s what we’ve provided.”
Within the labour movement it’s frowned upon to back rivals to existing unions.
The argument goes that it can split memberships and reduce the credibility of the movement as a whole.
The new union also has some baggage. Its key players are linked to former veteran ASU leader Brian Parkinson who was found by an ASU-commissioned review to have engaged in ‘‘gross misbehaviour’’ by paying union money to a company that was secretly controlled by his wife.
A pragmatic side
But while Mr Setka’s is at war with his own, he can sometimes be pragmatic.
With the construction industry facing a severe downturn from the COVID-19 pandemic he’s worked closely with his old enemies from employer group Master Builders Victoria to keep the industry open. They also have agreed to a recent industry-wide agreement with far lower pay rises than the usual 5 per cent a year.
Mr Setka had a small win at last week’s national executive meeting. Chris Cain, a man he proposes should succeed Mr O’Connor as national secretary, was endorsed to become the CFMMEU representative at the ACTU executive. Sources said Mr Cain can expect a frosty reception from other union leaders.
Mr O’Connor, however, is so far refusing to budge. He has two years left on his term and Mr Setka himself faces re-election later this year. So far no opponents to Mr Setka have emerged.
But long-time labour movement observers say the CFMMEU, even with almost 30,000 members, has lost influence in the past 12 months because of the controversy surrounding its leader, and the current economic downturn will likely hit membership and finances hard.
So far, though, despite internal opponents, the media, hostile governments and builders, Mr Setka has survived a war he seems intent on prosecuting to the end.
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Ben Schneiders is an investigative journalist at The Age and has reported extensively on the underpayment of wages, corruption, business, politics and the labour movement. His reporting has won a number of major honours including Walkley awards. He has been part of The Age’s investigative unit since 2015.