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INTERVIEW From Bakers Oven worker to trade union leader

New bakers’ union leader SARAH WOOLLEY talks to the Star about her route into the movement, the need to get better at working together across unions – and getting more union-based storylines in soaps

“THE trade union movement needs to move away from a model where we look to other forces to help us, and towards one where we’re focused on winning on our own strength.”

Bakers’ union BFAWU general secretary-elect Sarah Woolley is frank about the fact that unions need to up their game in the face of Labour’s defeat last year.

“We need to concentrate on building our unions and serving our members,” she says. “We’ll always support the Labour Party. But they are not going to be in power for five years. 

“And even if Jeremy Corbyn had got into power, we would still have had a job in front of us. The trade unions can’t take their foot off the pedal. We can’t rely on Labour to empower us, we have to do it ourselves. That’s even more true given the defeat.

“I spoke to trade unionists from Australia who told me that was their biggest mistake — taking their foot off the pedal because Labour were in power. When Labour lost, they paid for it.”

Woolley was elected to succeed Ronnie Draper at the head of the BFAWU last October, though she will not take charge until July. 

She’s not from a trade union background herself. “Controversially, my dad was a policeman — but when I got a job at Bakers Oven as a Saturday girl, the first thing he said was ‘join the trade union.’

“BFAWU was the recognised one, so I joined it, but for years we didn’t have an active branch. It wasn’t until Greggs took over and the branch secretary and one of the senior shop stewards came to my shop.

“I mentioned to the branch secretary that I’d clashed with the area manager, challenging her on this and that, and he said: ‘Have you thought about becoming a shop steward?’

“After my first case, I wanted to give up. The woman I was representing said she was only being targeted because her manager hated her. I went into the meeting and began talking about how she was being bullied. 

“The manager said hold your fire and turned a laptop round. You could see this woman shoving £20 notes out of the till down her bra. I rang the branch secretary and said, I can’t do this. I can’t represent people — she’s lost her job.

“He said look, you can’t save everybody. There’s not a right lot you can do if someone is pinching money on CCTV. You can make sure people are treated fairly. You asked the right questions and you went in with the right attitude. You’ll be fine.

“I use that with training for new shop stewards. And tell them to make sure they read everything before they go in!

“When I went on the shop stewards’ course, I walked in and it was all blokes, I was the only woman and the youngest there by 15 or 20 years. I thought: ‘What am I doing here?’ 

“But they treated me like a daughter, because I was young enough to be their daughter, so I got a lot out of the meeting. They were sharing their knowledge a bit more than they would have done.

“I thought, I can do this — I can make a difference. As my other half says, you can’t go out and change the world for everybody, but if you can change it for one person at a time, that’s worth it.”

Woolley is convinced that workers now get a worse deal than they did when she began at Bakers Oven working Saturdays as a Year 11 schoolgirl.

“I suppose I’ve got more exposure now than then, but I remember going for a job interview at Pizza Hut and another at Toys R Us before getting the Bakers Oven job, and I don’t recall that there were zero-hours contracts.

“I was on a weekend contract and there were contracts with more or less hours, but now with the zero hours, it’s definitely worse.

“I also get the impression there’s more aggression — for people working behind the counter, you get aggression from more customers. It’s a result of austerity. For a person stuck behind the counter dealing with that is a massive part of your day.”

The growth of casualisation and precarious work has come alongside a long-term decline in trade union membership and power since the 1970s. Before Jeremy Corbyn became leader, the Labour Party too was shrinking, as political participation was in decline across the spectrum, both in terms of party membership and voter turnout. 

Those trends have been bucked, first by the Scottish National Party and the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, then with the massive growth of Labour under Corbyn and the very high turnout in 2016’s EU referendum. 

But a growing Labour Party hasn’t sparked a major revival in trade union membership.

“Politics is always on the television. You see Labour on TV and its statements in the media.

“Unions are only in the media when we’re on strike and we’re misrepresented. If you have no knowledge of trade unions, the first thing you see is something negative, which automatically puts you off.

“People ask, why would I spend part of my wage, that I work my backside off for, on an organisation that I don’t understand?

“You have initiatives to try to counter that, like Unite in Schools, but we’re not on the curriculum, you don’t learn about unions in history lessons. It’s no coincidence, of course.”

I note that this erasure of unions from public consciousness is looked at in Len McCluskey’s Why You Should Be a Trade Unionist, where he talks of the absence of trade unions and trade unionists from soap opera plotlines.

“He’s got a point! They should be there. The characters in many of those programmes would be in unions.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do to make young people in particular realise that we are relevant. We’re not a ‘third party.’ We’re for them.

“One reason I think the McDonald’s strike campaign or those at Wetherspoon and TGI Friday’s have drawn people in is because they realise it’s they who are making the difference. It’s not me as general secretary-elect saying: ‘Let’s do this for the workers’ — it’s them standing together.”

Has it been a game-changer for the union?

“Not yet, no. We get these peaks where we take impressive action and lots of people phone up and join. But then it falls off. We need to be better at building on those peaks.”

Action the union is considering, in some cases in conjunction with trades councils, includes looking at franchises in localities where multiple big-name brands are actually be owned by the same franchisee, and targeting all their local franchises simultaneously.

She feels it is as important to reassert the relevance of trades councils as that of unions generally. 

“Of course, they struggle to get people to meetings. When people are juggling several jobs or have just come off a 12-hour shift, they’re not going to want to go to a three-hour meeting.

“But when the right issue comes up, then they become very relevant. Wakefield trades council has done fantastic work around climate change. Now there’s a just transition committee which has regular meetings. It’s separate from the trades council and actually has more people attending – but it was born from the trades council.”

Woolley is hopeful that with young people standing up and “shouting loud, for want of a better term, on issues like climate change and seeing it works, they’ll take that into their workplace. We’ll see a new generation of activists.”

But for all the increase in citizen engagement and the anger at conditions at work, Labour’s sweeping offer of change didn’t win it the last election.

“My own view is that that was about Brexit. We lost Wakefield [where Woolley lives] when we’d had a Labour MP since 1932. From what people were saying on social media, or a chat I had with a taxi driver a couple of weeks ago, if [Wakefield’s former MP] Mary Creagh had at least said to us: ‘I can see where you’re coming from, but this is why I’m taking the positions I am in Parliament,’ people might have tolerated it, but she didn’t. She acted like the big Leave vote from her own constituency was just wrong. 

“So now we’ve got a Tory. He’s not from Wakefield, he’s from Windermere. So how’s that better?

“We had someone who’d been around for years, who saved the walk-in centre, who’d done a load of work around the environment — don’t get me wrong, we didn’t always see eye to eye and I challenged her on things, especially on her attitude to Corbyn. But she was doing things for the community and she has been replaced by someone who had never done anything for our community but got in off the back of the referendum.”

But the fact that Labour was defeated because of Brexit doesn’t mean it will find it easy to recover. Woolley notes that Labour and the trade unions need to work to ensure they reflect the people they seek to represent.

“Our movement needs to be shouting from the rooftops – about everything from sexual harassment to zero-hours contracts.

“We need to get better at working together across unions. Asking ourselves, are we making change? Or are we sitting back on our laurels?

“Look at the stuff the CWU did [on the Royal Mail ballot last year — the union is now balloting for action again]. Yes, they were shafted [when the High Court ruled their strike action illegal, despite a 97 per cent Yes vote on a 76 per cent turnout], but you look at those videos, the excitement, the buzz.

“My postman told me at the time three people had said ‘good luck’ to him that week — people he hadn’t realised knew what trade unions are.

“We need more of that. We need more of those conversations. For every 10 blank faces, you’ll find someone who’s interested.”

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