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The Red Baker

Sarah Woolley – the first woman general secretary of the bakers' union BFAWU – on the experiences that shaped her path into the trade union movement and why she's supporting Rebecca Long-Bailey to lead a Labour Party that fights for workers.

I’m a trade unionist for a very simple reason: I have always stood up for those who have been treated unfairly, who needed help, and who wanted to find their voice. 

From an early age, I knew that the collective was more than the individual. I know first-hand the impact of job loss on a family and the unfairness of the capitalist system. My dad had an accident at work which saw him released from his role, even though the company eventually, after a battle, accepted full liability – he unfortunately never worked normally again.

The system did not care about him, it decided that he was surplus to requirements but that meant by extension that I was too, and so was my family. There are numerous impacts of a job loss on an individual, and often ones which aren’t seen. I know – like countless others – what it’s like to scrimp and save; to survive with less than half the income, yet have the same outgoings. What plan did the system have for me? 

Today, the neoliberal consensus is accepted by most politicians. This means tax cuts for big business, acquiescence about select individuals being filthy rich, and the tripling of tuition fees – making education a commodity to be bought and sold rather than a human right. All these facets have one common theme: the pursuit of profit. As a young person, I saw that mountain of student debt awaiting me and said no.

So I decided, like so many people, to try to make a decent living in the precarious world of work. I started in Bakers Oven, which later became part of Greggs. I realised early on that if I did not have the fantastic support system I had, I most likely would not have been able to cope.

That’s why the state is so desperately needed to intervene and help people to realise their aspirations. It should not leave us to just survive. These experiences gave me an insight into struggle – though I appreciate that others have it a lot harder. It engrained in me at a young age the fact that I am working-class and that the balance of power is unfairly weighted against me and towards the big bosses. 

That’s why I became a shop steward for the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union (BFAWU). It’s a socialist, fighting union that represented workers like me in Greggs. After years of being a dormant subs member, I decided to take on the system and knew that BFAWU were in the trenches doing that. At 21, I began fighting for members on the frontline, and since then I have supported workers across Yorkshire and the North East in battles with their employers. I will now continue this fight as general secretary, a position to which I was pleased to be elected with the support of my comrades late last year. 

But my role isn’t just limited to the industrial world. The bakers are an organising union and we take pride in being an active part of the labour movement, fighting for a better society. We are affiliated to the Labour Party and come together with our sister unions to ensure that the democratic voices of trade unionists are heard within the Labour Party – the only vehicle that can bring the change we need.

The change we need, however, shouldn’t just be a little less worse than life under the Tories. It shouldn’t generate the same apathy in our class, nor should it see trade unions as an irrelevance or, worse, a threat. We need a Labour leader who sees trade unions’ role within society as integral.

That’s why we need Rebecca Long-Bailey as leader of the Labour Party. A working-class woman from Salford who gets us, who gets what the Labour Party is about and who gets why a socialist society is so desperately needed for millions in this country.

Following meetings across our regions it was agreed to support Becky, who has demonstrated her support for our aims and objectives as a union. The policies put forward by Becky will bring about real change and justice for all. She is the only candidate who is offering this vision and a clear commitment to unshackling our movement from years of anti-union laws. I want to keep the Labour Party as the voice of the working-class, which is what it was born to be.

Like me, Becky knows that places at the top table – in all walks of life – are mainly reserved for men, and this needs to change. The Labour Party hasn’t had a woman leader in the 120 years of its history, which is simply untenable. Now is the time for that to change.

Having a woman leader would inspire more women to get involved in politics and the labour movement at a grassroots level. They need to be able to see people that reflect them in leadership positions, rather than just old white men. Your politics and vision should, of course, be the most important credentials for this race, and that’s why we’re incredibly lucky that Becky has these by the bucket load – it’s very much a bonus that she’s a woman!

Since the election of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015, we have seen the direct impact that young people have had in our movement. You only need to look at the youth climate strikes to see how politicised young people are. I think we still have a way to go within trade unions, but Becky’s policy to kick-start a mass trade union membership drive will help us deliver for the future.

McStrike and TGI Fridays actions would simply not have been possible without young people being trade unionists. Becky understands the importance of not throwing away what we’ve gained over the past four years: the enthusiasm for a better quality of life that so many of us want to realise. 

Rebecca Long-Bailey is the standout trade union candidate in this race, let’s get her elected and put our movement into power.