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A Woman’s Place Is in Her Union

BFAWU’s first woman leader Sarah Woolley describes the crucial role of women in the trade union movement – and why unions need to move on from the days they were seen as the preserve of men.

Sarah Woolley, the first female General Secretary of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU).

My name is Sarah Woolley, and I am the first female General Secretary the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) has ever had. I’m the first female national officer, in fact—which isn’t great for one of the oldest trade unions in the UK, but is a situation much of our movement has faced. That’s why even now, it’s still seen by many as a movement for older white men.

I joined the union at sixteen when I started working for Bakers Oven. For years I wasn’t active. But when Greggs took over I met my new branch secretary, and that all changed. He thought I would make a good rep, so I agreed to try it—and the rest, as they say, is history. I caught the bug. I worked in a predominantly female environment in Greggs shops, so the branch, certainly in the retail side, had some amazing female reps. It still does—one of them is now the branch secretary.

While I am privileged to have unconditional support from my partner, my son, and my family, Ruth, the new branch secretary, and Ange, one of the senior shop stewards, are my sisters. There’s no other word to describe them. They showed me the ropes in the union, pushed our old branch secretary to nominate me for the union’s youth award, and encouraged me to stand for the female executive council position and later as a regional full-time official, and then general secretary, even when I questioned whether I could do the roles.

I’ve done that a lot over the years, but they told me I was born to do it. When I’ve had issues in the roles, they’ve been my ears and my support—and when our old branch secretary Keith retired, Ange and I encouraged and supported Ruth in breaking tradition in our branch and becoming the first female retail branch secretary. Previously they had been from the bakery and male.

I’m honoured to be able to lead our union in its next stages, and I hope that my work in the position of general secretary will help inspire other women to stand for positions and make their voices louder in our union. I want more Ruths. We need more Ruths.

We want women leading strike action, like Debbie did as the branch secretary of Pennine Foods in Sheffield a few years ago. We want women leading negotiations with companies, representing members, and highlighting the issues they face, just as the retail partnership forum group do with Greggs. We want to empower women to speak out on sexual harassment, just as our members in McDonalds have done. And we want women breaking tradition in their branches, just like Ruth did in ours. Because those are the discussions we should be having, and the changes that need to be made.

Sexual harassment and violence, period poverty, pensions, menopause, domestic violence—these conversations must be had openly and honestly with our members. We need to give branches the tools to negotiate around them: paid time off, for example, if someone needs to escape a domestic violence situation; free sanitary products in workplaces; a clear reporting system for sexual harassment, with accountability; and a process to ensure that when risk assessments are completed, the symptoms of menopause are taken into account.

Putting these topics at the front of our discussions with members and their employers shows that we are serious about the issues women face and will encourage more women to engage in our movement as a result. What we tend to find, though, is those discussions are uncomfortable for our male colleagues, and consequently get pushed down the agenda—which is infuriating, and puts women off raising concerns or even joining the union in the first place.

Instead, we need to make sure that talking about things like menopause isn’t shied away from, just as talking about green issues isn’t; we need to make sure that we are the people that our members can turn to if they are experiencing domestic violence, too, and that we have our houses in order when it comes to sexual harassment. We need to continue to utilise the digital methods that have worked so well over the last couple of years to break down barriers and ensure we don’t go backwards and end up preventing women and others from being involved again.

The pandemic means we are now at a crossroads. We don’t have to go back to how things were pre-Covid: why should we? Thanks to some brilliant female leaders at all levels, we have a massive opportunity to change our movement, and I, for one, am excited about that.

It is not going to be easy. It is not going to happen overnight. But it can be done by empowering our sisters throughout the union movement and making sure their voices are heard. We need to work on removing the imposter syndrome so many of us have, too: I suffer from it, and that’s why it’s important to have a good support system in place.

After all, we deserve to be here. We work hard to get to the positions we reach—harder than our male counterparts, because we have to break through the barrier of ‘how it’s always been’. We shouldn’t be made to feel like we have to apologise for it by anyone.

I know that I’m in a very privileged position, writing this as General Secretary. I’m incredibly proud of that fact. I’ve worked hard to get here: it’s not been easy, and at times I’ve questioned why I ever left Greggs. But if I can reach this point as a teenage mum from Wakefield who didn’t get to university, and didn’t really know what she wanted to be when she grew up, anyone can. And if I can do anything to help or support you, please get in touch. It’s no good me being here alone and saying ‘women have made it’: we need to lift each other up.