John Setka is a charismatic leader.
He embodies a lot of what the Australian trade union movement stands for: vocal about worker’s rights, visible through industrial action, and intimidating when necessary.
He is the archetype of a union ‘thug’. A big bloke with tattoos who is part of a ‘militant’ trade union. Setka and the Construction Forestry Maritime Mining Energy Union (CFMMEU) regularly push the boundaries of industrial action, incurring $15 million in fines since 2005.
There is nothing wrong with this.
Quite the opposite, testing the limits of the industrial relations system is very much necessary. Australia’s restrictions on the right to strike are in breach of international law and without equivalent among advanced countries with a tradition of civil liberties.
Rather than representing ‘lawlessness’, as the critics of the labour movement would have you believe, the CFMMEU and Setka embody justifiable civil disobedience in Australia.
Unfortunately, Setka also plays into misogynist stereotypes.
Police documents show that Setka called a woman – now revealed to be his wife – 25 times and sent 45 text messages in a single night in 2018, calling her a “c–t”, “drunken moron” and a “weak f—n piece of s–t”.
Setka’s wife stated that many high-profile union leaders “have always known I am the woman at the centre of all of this, and not one of them has picked up the phone to hear my side of the story. In fact, they have all actively worked to silence me and my story in favour of the Labor Party’s line.”
Setka was released on a 12-month good behaviour bond, with security of $500. He must complete a men’s behaviour change program and donate $1000 a not-for-profit domestic violence organisation.
In court, Magistrate Belinda Wallington commented that “It’s the language, it’s the misogynistic language is what is causing concern.”
Setka also allegedly made denigrating remarks about domestic violence campaigner Rosie Batty, supposedly stating that Batty was harming ‘men’s rights’. Setka himself says he was merely recounting general statements about the shift in balance of family law.
What Setka actually said is a matter of nuance. The irony is that he is correct in his assertion that the balance is shifting: men like him do not deserve the benefit of the doubt anymore.
The dawn of #MeToo era denotes a watershed development in recent history. Many powerful men have been exposed as harassers. This movement has helped to reveal how deeply misogyny and sexism are embedded in society.
Tellingly, #MeToo had to be accompanied by another hashtag: #BelieveWomen. It is not simply the case that perpetrators have to deal with the consequences of their actions. Men accused of harassment often go on the counter-attack, and this is when it gets ugly quickly.
Setka’s defence has been to frame the accusations against him as attacks on the CFMMEU. In doing so, he has provided momentum for the traditional adversaries of labour movement, who have seized the opportunity to conflate ‘union thuggery’ with misogyny.
Scott Morrison stated that they can “root out one Labor thug in the union movement, but there’s plenty more where John Setka came from.”
Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter is using the Setka case to reintroduce the Ensuring Integrity Bill, which aims to ensure organisations are run by “fit and proper” persons and can be deregistered or placed under administration.
Fortunately, Anthony Albanese and Sally McManus have condemned Setka, urging him to resign from his position. Those that are part of Australia’s political left who have not spoken out against Setka, or have picked his side: you are showing yourselves to be tone-deaf.
The debate shouldn’t be about getting rid of union ‘thugs’. On the contrary, there is a need for union leaders who aren’t afraid to flex industrial muscle and challenge the status quo.
The focus should be on stamping out misogyny.