Mr Unions considers his next step in life

AFTER 25 years in the union movement, Tony Cooke is looking for a change.

He will not be standing for re-election at the end of his second term as Unions WA secretary.

Until recently, Unions WA – an organisation that represents 44 affiliated unions – was the Trades and Labour Council of WA.

Some of the high-profile campaigns he has run during his six years at the organisation’s helm earned him the tag of Mr Unions.

Probably his most publicised campaign was the creation of Solidarity Park, a camp set up by the union movement near Parliament House to protest against the coalition government’s second wave of industrial legislation.

Mr Cooke admits his time with Unions WA has been turbulent.

“I would have liked a time when we could have had some positives,” he said.

“It’s been hard yakka. There are times when I didn’t sleep or eat for three days. I didn’t know I had the reserves within myself to do that.”

He admits to having a tense relationship with some of the Unions’ WA affiliates.

Most recently Mr Cooke had to mediate in a dispute between the Australian Workers Union and the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union, which centred on the control of workers at the Woodman Point Water Treatment Plant job.

As Solidarity Park showed, Mr Cooke did not stick to traditional union tactics.

“My background allowed me to look at alternative methods,” he said.

“I found I have a very good tactical mind. Everything I’ve done in all the campaigns I’ve run has been about the next step.”

Mr Cooke said the choice of April 29 for the march to Parliament House that drew 30,000 people and led to the creation of Solidarity Park was controversial.

“A lot of people wanted to hold the march on May Day, but I wanted to use that day to build on the campaign,” he said.

April 29 is another significant, but lesser known, anniversary on the union calendar. It commemorates the end of the Easter Rebellion, an armed uprising of Irish nationalists in 1916.

Solidarity Park was built around a caravan that was smuggled onto Parliament House ground under the guise of a first-aid van. After the march, the caravan was left there and became the focus for the camp.

Mr Cooke is not sure what life will hold after the union.

Besides some personal projects including spending more time with his family, doing an oral history on his mother and learning to surf, he has no firm ambitions.

“I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up,” Mr Cooke said.

“I’m driven by principles of social justice. Any work involving that is something I’ll always be attracted to.

“I’m 45 now and that’s a good time to take a career change and reassess your options.

“If I didn’t take a break now I’d be tempted to stay around until I retired.

“But the union movement is a fairly ruthless and demanding employer. It certainly wouldn’t win any employer of the year awards.

“I may work overseas for a while to cleanse myself both publicly and privately.”

Mr Cooke is keen to lose the Mr Unions tag, which has become both a professional and private burden.

“There is a point when a profile can become eroding. You never want to get yourself believing your own image,” he said.

Mr Cooke refused two offers to run for Parliament during his time as Unions WA secretary.

“I always said I was going to fill two terms as secretary to give Unions WA some stability in its leadership,” he said.

He was also afraid his union leader profile would become a political football for Labor Party factions.

This is not the first time Mr Cooke has stepped away from the union movement.

In 1984 he left Australia to study his Masters in Social Policy at York University after spending the “four hardest working years of my life” as the TLC’s workers’ compensation advocate.

He also completed his Masters in Business at Curtin University before returning to the union fold as a TLC industrial officer.

Mr Cooke said his one great ambition as Unions WA secretary had been to leave a woman secretary in his wake.

He believes that ambition will be realised with the promotion of assistant secretary Stephanie Mayman to the top job – although that relies on her election in December.

Mr Cooke also ranks changing the TLC to Unions WA as one of his major achievements.

The change was made for practical reasons. TLC staff were sick of fielding calls put through by directory assistance from people looking for tradespeople.

“Someone would ring up directory assistance looking for someone to fit some blinds. They’d go on their computer, type in trades and our number would come up,” he said.

“The demographics of unions also started changing in the 1980s with the growth of white collar unions such as nursing and the public sector. The term ‘trades’ didn’t sit well with them.”

Mr Cooke believes Unions WA is the broadest-based labour council in Australia but he still wants to get the WA Police Union on board.

“We work closely with them now informally,” he said.

“You have to deal openly with the police and respect them for the job they do. Sometimes I’ve had to pull my own people into line and that doesn’t make you popular.”

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