John Setka, the man who left his union a smouldering ruin

John Setka, the man who left his union a smouldering ruin

September 3, 2021

By Ben Schneiders

Victorian state construction union secretary John Setka. “90 per cent bluff and 10 per cent bullshit”.Credit:

John Setka was at full throttle – not an unusual thing for the outspoken and divisive trade unionist. But this time it was different.

His deep voice booming across the cavernous room, his tattooed biceps bulging from one of his trademark T-shirts, Setka leant forward over a table facing a nearly all-male audience at the head office of the CFMEU in Melbourne, where he is the state secretary, sticking it to his enemies, his disloyal friends, and defending his more colourful social connections.

So what if he was friends with underworld figure Mick Gatto, he demanded rhetorically. If you don’t like it “tough f—ing luck, too f—ing bad”. As for the Labor Party and other opponents, if they don’t like how he conducts himself, he said, “you can suck me off”.

And the domestic violence charges against him? He had “nothing to be ashamed of”. He even raised how the activism of anti-domestic violence campaigner Rosie Batty had meant men now had fewer rights.

Setka was in his comfort zone here, in the John Cummins Building, the Elizabeth Street offices named in honour of the legendary former Victorian president of the CFMEU. Setka also thought he was safe speaking to the national executive of the union, away from the prying eyes and ears of the media.

But by the end of his rambling tirade in June 2019, devoid of his usual attempts at blokey humour, nothing would be the same again for Setka or the union.

Leaks from the meeting to The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald and graphic details of his criminal charges for domestic violence sparked a rolling national story that ultimately led to calls from Labor leader Anthony Albanese for Setka to quit the party, and from ACTU secretary Sally McManus and much of the union movement for him to resign from his union role.

Instead, Setka dug in further. “For people to try to portray me as some misogynist pig that bashes women is absolutely disgraceful,” he told another national executive meeting a year later, also leaked to The Age. “I ain’t going to wear that; that’s just absolute bullshit.”

The leaks and internal fighting triggered a series of chain reactions that has now left one of Australia’s most powerful unions and important forces on the left wing of Labor politics a smouldering ruin. Two years after that speech, the CFMEU is likely to split into at least three smaller unions, the biggest upheaval of a major union in decades. Its days as a national political force are over.

Central to its decline is 57-year-old John Setka, a proud Croatian-Australian with a thirst for revenge and an almost superhuman refusal to yield. That refusal has led to a schism in the labour movement over the issue of domestic violence, with a noisy minority doggedly offering Setka support despite the allegations.

Private investigators have been engaged by Setka to hunt down leakers and a climate of deep paranoia has enveloped the union. Many of his critics – and even his staff – reckon they are being bugged or followed. Some have quit their positions or been forced out. Even those remaining silent, as has the union’s deposed national secretary Michael O’Connor, have still felt Setka’s wrath.

Setka likes to say to colleagues: “You throw a stone at me and I’ll throw a mountain back.” Since the leak of his speech, Setka has tossed back many mountains.

‘A male-dominated space’

Jenny Kruschel is struggling to hold it back. Her voice is breaking. Until now she has been plain-speaking and direct, what you would expect from a working-class woman from country Victoria who spent much of her life labouring in textile factories.

“I think women don’t have the rights they think they have,” says Kruschel, who is in her late 50s, from a meeting room in a nondescript three-level office building in Carlton. It’s the space where her manufacturing union recently moved to escape the building it shared with Setka’s branch.

Outside the room, boxes are stacked up. This is an office and a union in transition. “I realised how powerless women really are,” she continues. “And we think we are further along than what we are, and we are not.

Manufacturing division official Jenny Kruschel.Credit:Jason South

Kruschel became a committed unionist after one of the factories she worked at, Rocklea Spinning Mills in Moe, caught fire in the late 1980s when she was in her 20s. The workers were told it was safe to return to work. An hour later the factory went completely dark. “And so then the roof went up, and we had to run for it,” she recalls.

“We found out later that the fire brigade never actually said it was safe to come back to work … I was very young and naive and just believed the company because we were told it was safe.”

Kruschel went on to become a senior official with the textile union. (“I didn’t really choose this path; it chose me.” ) When her 15,000-member union, along with the maritime union, merged with the CFMEU in 2018, she was hopeful about its future in a bigger, more powerful entity, the clunkily named CFMMEU and its 100,000-plus members nationwide in mines, construction sites, wharves and factories.

The CFMEU itself had been created in the 1990s as one of the Bill Kelty-inspired super unions that was meant to give the already sliding movement greater clout. It notched up considerable successes, securing world-leading wages and conditions for its members, improving safety on the job and campaigning against deadly asbestos. Since its creation, it’s been the country’s most influential blue-collar union.

Setka’s speech at the June meeting was one of Kruschel’s first on the national executive. “It was a male-dominated space,” she recalls. “He just went on this big rant and there was fear if anyone tried to say anything it would have just got a lot worse.”

Kruschel had previously been on friendly terms with Setka but did not know him well. Kruschel refuses to even say what Setka said about Labor (the “suck me off” comment). “I think the comment about the ALP was absolutely disgusting and offensive, and I don’t think anyone should have had to put up with that.”

The Batty statement came towards the end of the meeting. “I just couldn’t really believe it,” Kruschel says. “Shocked, wanting to just really get out of the room, I wanted it to finish.”

That leaked Batty comment – and the subsequent weeks of media and political fallout – obscured the seriousness of the 30 domestic violence charges against Setka, which included recklessly causing injury and a pattern of harassment through breaching court orders and threats. The harassment included 45 texts in which he called his wife a “weak f—en piece of shit” and a “treacherous Aussie f—en c—” . Setka was later convicted of two of the charges after many of the charges for breaching a court order were combined and his wife, Emma Walters, was no longer a co-operative witness because the couple had reconciled. The remaining charges were dropped.

And yet, the public debate became about what Setka actually said about Batty, whose son was murdered by her estranged husband in 2014. Setka’s allies, including the maritime division’s Chris Cain, said the Batty allegations were “false” and “rubbish”.

Setka added to the confusion, at times angrily denying he had made them and at other times conceding he had, but they were taken out of context, and that his was essentially a men’s rights argument.

Kruschel says the denials by Setka and his allies over the Batty comments “reflects on them very poorly”. The response from then national secretary Michael O’Connor and other leaders at the union was silence. They would neither defend Setka nor speak out about domestic violence.

Legends of struggle and victory

I’m sitting in Cafe John in Carlton on a bleak day in July waiting for Setka to arrive. There’s no sign of him. Peering through the window I can see his construction union office across the road as officials mingle on a balcony.

For weeks, I’ve been asking for an interview but my role in reporting Setka’s charges and his Rosie Batty comments has clearly soured his enthusiasm (we had previously been on reasonable terms). Early in 2019, outside a courtroom at the Magistrates Court in Melbourne was the last time we spoke and for half an hour Setka had provided me with his side of the domestic violence case against him. In this, and other meetings with me, Setka could be charming and self-deprecating, but also cunning. His reputation for threats and intimidation preceded him.

In Setka’s stead, his offsider Mick Myles, a Queenslander in his 40s, built like a bear with a greying beard, arrives. He thinks you’re “biased as f—” , Myles tells me by way of explaining Setka’s absence. Myles agreed to the interview to give Setka and the construction branch’s view on why the overall union was so split.

“People tried to use John’s personal life against him to try to move him on and they just didn’t get the internal dynamics of our organisation … they got it badly wrong,” Myles says. “I think one of the issues stems from the fact [Bill] Shorten lost the [2019 federal] election and there are certain elements within our union who don’t have the strength we have … and they thought it was the end of the world.”

The legends of struggle and victory – construction workers on big sites in Melbourne have enviable pay and conditions – run through Setka’s own life. His father, Bob, was nearly killed in the West Gate Bridge collapse in 1970 that claimed 35 lives. “He rode it [the span] down,” John Setka told the Financial Review in 2012. “That’s why my lucky number’s 18. There were 18 survivors that day.“

Westgate Bridge collapse, 1970: A victim is carried from a massive pile of twisted girders by civil defence men and workmates. Credit:Fairfax

Setka grew up in rough, working-class Footscray the son of Croatian migrants, and by his own telling, got into trouble with the police. By the time he was 19 he was following his father’s footsteps into the industry as a labourer (a son from a previous marriage, David, now also works in the industry).

Setka witnessed the demise of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) first hand as young muscle for the union in the 1980s on city building sites. He was later convicted of dozens of trespass-related offences, and some for assault, for entering building sites once the BLF was banned but still operating.

From there he worked for decades in the building union, rising to assistant secretary and later leader from 2012, a story of success for Melbourne’s large Croatian community. Much of Setka’s extended family work in construction, and tales of Croatians getting cushy jobs on sites swirl around the rumour-filled industry.

Along the way he garnered notoriety as a senior official shutting Melbourne’s CBD in 2012 in a dispute with Grocon that required nearly 1000 police. In 2003 he was fined after threatening a Grocon manager, stating: “You just f—ing watch, I’ll get you. I’ve got a 12-year-old son and I swear on his f—ing life, I swear on my son’s life, you watch, I’ll fix you up.”

When Tony Abbott as opposition leader called him a thug, Setka sued for defamation and lost.

A prominent supporter, who asked not to be named, said: “John is as rough as guts … a western suburbs working-class kid. He’s going to get his words wrong.” But, the supporter says, Setka is “incredibly effective” and helped make the union the “strongest in the country by a long way”.

Setka’s spokesman Mick Myles echoes the point. The views of Albanese, McManus and the 13 national unions that Setka should have resigned do not matter, he says. “A lot of people would have, 95 per cent of union leaders would have at least. But he had massive support from rank and file members … and in the end that is all that matters, all the bullshit written in the papers, all the ALP statements, statements from ACTU … it all doesn’t matter.”

When asked why Setka was convicted of two charges related to domestic violence, Myles says, “He’s a CFMEU leader”, suggesting the legal and political systems are stacked against them. (Magistrate Belinda Wallington said during his sentencing that Mr Setka’s behaviour had been “nasty” and “misogynistic”.)

Myles says Walters’ public support for Setka outside court on the day he was convicted “should be the last word on it.” “Everyone wants to go on about women and their voices … people don’t take what she said and her condition and all that sort of stuff into account when they view this.”

As for the case against Setka, he dismissively calls it “texting”, a reference to the string of abusive texts and calls Setka made to his wife. Setka himself, in leaked recordings to union activists, has dismissed the conviction as a “few bad text messages”.

“I mean, big deal.”

Emma Walters reconciled with Setka and appeared in solidarity with him in 2019 when he pleaded guilty to harassing her.Credit:Jason South

‘No insight into his behaviour’

A few weeks before Christmas in 2018, Emma Walters, Setka’s estranged wife, took out an intervention order against him. She had accused him in sworn statements of a pattern of violence and a campaign of harassment (Setka and later Walters denied there was any violence in their relationship at that time). He had obscured her face out of family photos, and she said she feared she was under surveillance including at home.

On the day Walters got the intervention order, she put a safety device under her front door of her house to stop him getting in, according to a sworn witness statement from Walters’ friend Anne Gooley.

“When John arrived back at the house, he broke the door in while I was sitting in the front room of Emma’s house. I yelled out to Emma and she ran into the downstairs bathroom and locked herself in. Emma then called the police.”

Gooley’s statement, which was leaked to The Age in 2019, continued: “Seeing John’s anger … whilst yelling at Emma I was extremely distressed.” Most of these details are now reported for the first time, due to the lifting of legal restrictions.

Gooley, in her statement, said Walters had accused Setka of throwing her against a wall, throwing her down the stairs and also tossing an iPad at her, striking her in the head. Walters took refuge at Gooley’s house a number of times through this period, according to the statement, and had been physically shaking, “catatonic” and at times barely able to speak.

Gooley is as credible a witness as you could get. She sat on the Fair Work Commission, had been a senior lawyer and a respected figure in the industrial relations world for decades. The language in her statement is careful, formal and lawyerly.

When I contacted her for this article she emailed a response, which described the severity of Setka’s conduct.

“John’s behaviour was not simply a few abusive emails or text messages,” she wrote. “His conduct drove my friend out of her home and at one time out of the state. I was not surprised that John did not stand down or that he targeted those who did not support him as I never believed that he had any real insight into his behaviour. It was always someone else’s fault or he downplayed his conduct.”

Gooley explained that she had sat on the Fair Work Commission full bench that dealt with the ACTU’s claim for paid family violence leave – a world-leading entitlement.

She said the union movement had made significant progress on the issue of domestic violence but was concerned about what message was being sent by Setka’s supporters. “My concern about their support for John is the message this sends to those in the movement who experience family violence that their experiences will not be believed,” she wrote. “It also tells those in the movement who are perpetrators of family violence that their conduct will be condoned.”

But the matter does not end with the events of 2018. In late August this year, Walters provided a new sworn statement to police. “We started having a verbal argument and it was getting very heated and aggressive. We were arguing about issues with our relationship,” the statement read. “We were standing near a small circular table in the outdoor area. John was on my left side, and he grabbed the back of my head and my hair and forced my head into the table.

“John was out of control. He hit my head against the table about five times. It was very painful. John is a lot bigger and stronger than me and he can totally physically control me. When he loses his temper, there isn’t anything I can do but submit to him.”

An image of the bruise to Emma Walters’ head after the alleged assault.

Police are investigating the most recent incident. Walters, who has two children with Setka, told police the couple had a long troubled relationship and have separated at times. “I have grave concerns for my physical safety and that of my children.”

Within hours of the allegations being published by The Age, Setka issued a statement to fellow union officials attacking the credibility of his wife, calling the allegations false and stating he would not stand down. “I would never harm my wife and I have done nothing but stand by her.”

Mindful militancy

A recognisable Scottish accent echoes down the line from his home in Hobart, barely dimmed despite nearly five decades living in Australia. Doug Cameron, the feisty left-wing unionist and later Labor senator, is now retired but as sharp as ever. “I just find it really tragic,” he says of what’s happened at the CFMMEU.

In the last year, the union’s national secretary Michael O’Connor has been driven out by the Setka-backed construction division and their allies in the maritime division with the idea of replacing him with Setka’s ally, Chris Cain.

The mining division under veteran leader Tony Maher has meanwhile applied to the Fair Work Commission to quit the broader amalgamated union. It is expected the manufacturing division, where O’Connor has retreated, will do the same.

Cameron says this union should be at the forefront of a labour movement seeking to re-energise itself. “We had a union with the resources and capacity to provide so much leadership and it is focused on this stuff (infighting).” With O’Connor and Maher as leaders, the union had been rebuilt into a national political force, he says. “These are two of the most effective union officials I’ve come across.”

With Bill Shorten as Labor leader, O’Connor had used his factional influence to protect him from his rival Albanese as part of an unusual left-right factional alliance. He had supported Shorten on contentious issues such as boat turn-backs, moving the party closer to the Coalition, while extracting concessions on some of the union’s key claims.

If Shorten had won in 2019 it would have given the CFMMEU unprecedented influence over a Labor government. O’Connor, whose brother Brendan is a Labor frontbencher, is also close to ACTU secretary Sally McManus, while Maher has the ear of Albanese. It was quite the contrast to when Labor was last in government and the union had been openly attacked by Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd. That influence is now all but gone.

Cameron says it’s not enough for a union to be tough and uncompromising. “Looking at what’s happened, I think it’s a perfect example of what the old metal workers union (now the AMWU) used to teach me: you had to be a mindful militant. It’s alright being a militant but you have to be mindful.”

Tony Maher has been with the CFMEU since it was created in the 1990s. Now, his mining branch remains uncomfortably part of the union, and has been “operating completely independently of the union since late November … We are better already from the informal divorce … we will never go back.”

Maher blames Setka and his allies for wrecking a good political strategy after the 2019 federal election loss by changing “the whole basis of the CFMEU and what made it successful”.

“When Michael O’Connor took over from John Sutton, he actually breathed life into what was really a latent political force,” he says. “Michael was shrewd enough to work out we could have a bigger impact if we pooled our political activities and he was dead right about that.”

He says the strategy worked. “If you look at the [2018] Adelaide ALP conference. I won’t say we ran the show, but we succeeded in most policy areas we identified.”

Surveillance concerns

I’m sitting across from a nervous-looking employee of Setka. He looks at my phone and wants me to turn it off, worried it could be accessed remotely as a listening device. I comply. He tells me he’s convinced the cameras at the union office are used to monitor staff and the office is bugged. He’s not alone; several other employees have passed on similar messages of concern that they’re being surveilled at work and their phones are being monitored. Many use second or third phones, or devices with special encryption.

Shop stewards at CFMEU’s Elizabeth Street office in Melbourne.Credit:Justin McManus

The office itself has a windowless secure room for senior leadership to avoid surveillance and in which phones are not allowed to be used. Suspicion runs deep – of authorities, of journalists and of each other.

Soon after his national executive comments were leaked to The Age, Setka engaged former homicide detective Stephen Curnow to hunt down the leakers. Setka did not respond to written questions about who is paying for Curnow’s services and a range of other issues raised in this article.

Even so, national executive meetings were routinely taped and leaked to The Ageand even meetings of union activists were recorded and passed on. In 2019, Setka was recorded saying in a private meeting to activists that “there’s a full-on investigation going on” by Curnow, which was “almost like a f—ing murder investigation”.

It is unclear how much of this was bluster, but the pressure on perceived enemies has been real. The Age and Herald have confirmed that Setka’s former deputy, Shaun Reardon, who quit in June 2019, felt he had been unable to get work in the construction industry because of pressure from Setka’s branch. Reardon declined to comment with the information relayed by others.

Reardon and Setka had been close – he even ran Setka’s Twitter account for him – and the pair had faced possible jail together over blackmail charges that collapsed in 2018.

When Reardon, a long-term campaigner against family violence, quit, he said he made the decision as it related to “personal values I will live and die by”. He’s now working outside the industry.

Blackmail charges against Setka and his deputy, Sean Reardon, were dropped in 2018.Credit:Justin McManus

Other staff quit Setka’s branch soon after Reardon, including three senior women, one of whom was the head of the legal team. As part of this piece, The Age and Herald interviewed more than 30 people and many noted that those who stood up to Setka had suffered most. “He’s absolutely driven by revenge,” said one senior union figure.

Kruschel, whose branch had been sharing an office with Setka’s at that time, said the atmosphere was oppressive. “Within the building there were jokes about domestic violence. It was very uncomfortable to the point where our division had to leave the building.”

Others have said Setka would swear, then ask sarcastically: “Is that domestic violence?”

The ACTU leadership – which called for Setka’s resignation in 2019 along with 13 national unions – have also been targeted. ACTU secretary McManus was dismissed as a “stooge” by Setka, while president Michele O’Neil was attacked in a Facebook post by Setka’s union as “talking shit” while visiting and helping public housing tenants locked down in Flemington last year.

There has been a recent election challenge supported by Setka’s branch to try to remove O’Connor from his manufacturing division job – O’Connor won comfortably. Setka has also offered support to a small rival union to the Australian Services Union, a union that had called on him to resign.

The Setka charges – and his subsequent pushback against opponents – have exposed surprising fault lines. A host of factionally aligned Victorian unions – part of the Industrial Left sub-faction – supported Setka, including the Electrical Trades Union and Rail, Tram & Bus Union.

Victoria’s Trades Hall did not join the chorus calling for Setka to resign despite its leader Luke Hilakari typically taking a progressive stance on social issues while the construction division and its national secretary, Dave Noonan, also fell in behind Setka. Friendships have been severed.

Senior union sources say Noonan and others from his own branch in June 2019 wanted Setka gone but then changed their position. “The expectation was Dave Noonan was going to deal with it and should have dealt with it,” Kruschel says. In a brief statement, Noonan denied he wanted Setka gone.

Senior union leaders have even described Noonan and Hilakari – who was filmed at a meeting of building union delegates chanting “John Setka here to stay” in 2019 – as Setka’s “enablers”.

Without their support, they say, not even Setka could survive.

Friendship with Gatto

Mick Gatto occupies an uncomfortable place in Melbourne somewhere between underworld figure and minor celebrity. After being acquitted of murder in 2005 during the city’s gangland wars, he’s continued his side-hustle of “mediating” building industry disputes.

When two CFMEU organisers were attacked by up to seven men on a Hawthorn East building site last year, the expectation was that the union would live up to its motto, “If Provoked Will Strike”, and shut the developers down. One of the organisers was bashed so badly – thought to be either with a piece of wood or metal bar – that he’s been unable to work for more than a year.

But after an initial protest, the issue died away. Instead of industrial action or a police complaint, a meeting was held within days at the union’s office between Setka, his friend Gatto and developer Raman Shaqiri, one of the men who demolished the 159-year-old Corkman pub in Carlton without approval.

The demolished Corkman hotel immediately after Kutlesovski and Shaqiri demolished it. Credit:Eddie Jim

By the end of it, the only apparent concession was the flying of a union flag on the site. The union did not co-operate with police.

Setka’s links to Gatto seem to work to keep people quiet. (One source mentioned it nervously on why they would not speak publicly). It’s a mix of myth-making and reality that the union harnesses in other ways too, or as Setka’s late mentor John Cummins used to say: “This job is 90 per cent bluff and 10 per cent bullshit.”

Everyone likes to say the union is tough. It suits the agenda of the union itself as well as employers and the Liberals who use it as a bogeyman. But in many trades such as plastering, underpayment and exploitation of migrant labour is rife. Afghan or Chinese workers can labour alongside union members on a fraction of the rates.

Strikes are rare (made extremely hard by restrictive laws) and the union’s membership and coverage in parts of the industry is weak to non-existent and has been falling, according to a recent shop stewards meeting.

Yet when faced with this reality, Setka – whose attitude towards internal enemies is unrelenting – can play a smarter, more subtle game when he needs to.

CEO of the Master Builders of Victoria Rebecca Casson.Credit:Scott McNaughton

Rebecca Casson, head of industry group Master Builders Victoria, said the relationship with the union had been “very combative”, with a “long turbulent history”. But when the pandemic hit Victoria, that all changed. Instead of confrontation, co-operation became the byword to work with government, workers and employers to keep the industry open.

“Very much in our conversations, John has always treated me with respect and we have had some very robust discussions. We agreed very early on that the biggest thing would be for us to talk.”

Casson has welcomed the rapprochement, which allowed construction to tick over even during Melbourne’s long second lockdown. “Fair play to John,” Casson says. “It was the first time in history we’ve got that level of trust, and it enabled us to be agile and to do things that no other industry was able to.”

Times changing?

Maybe even a decade ago, John Setka would not have faced the same intense pressure to quit. Domestic violence was still often regarded as a private matter, but that has changed after decades of feminist advocacy and social, legal and political change.

Unions have played an admirable role. In 2010, Surf Coast Shire Council in regional Victoria became the first place in the world to offer staff paid domestic violence leave. That entitlement has now spread throughout much of the workforce.

A typical unionist now is more likely to be a woman and a nurse – the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation is by far the nation’s biggest union – than a burly bloke on a building site. Kruschel says if the male-dominated CFMMEU had a different gender balance on its national executive, maybe things would have been different.

Kruschel draws on a broader narrative of why that gender balance matters. “Women think about all the women we know who have been murdered, raped or abused.”

For decades, the union has survived concerted attacks from conservative governments and big business. There’s been royal commissions, police charges and special industrial regulators. It endured all that was thrown at it. In the end, though, it has destroyed itself in a climate of payback, deep paranoia and a failure by some of its leaders to adapt to changing social mores or to stand up.

Mining division chief Maher says the union has been destroyed by the ambition of some and the personal vendettas of others. “The CFMEU will probably go down as a worthwhile experiment but probably a failed one,” he says.

Yet if Setka had resigned two years ago it is almost certain the union would have survived. Instead, one man’s will to power and refusal to bend has now brought it undone. In 2019 he told hundreds of activists that he wanted to confront the scandal swirling around him head-on. “I was going to call a media conference today, get all the media here, sit down and they probably expect me to say … I was resigning,” Setka said in secretly recorded comments. But that was not his real message.

“Listen. I just want to say I want to tell everyone to get f—ed.”

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