“We’re key workers feeding the nation, we deserve more” – fighting talk from new BFAWU general secretary

It’s been a baptism of fire for new BFAWU general secretary Sarah Woolley.

The 33-year-old from Wakefield in Yorkshire has taken over the reins from Ronnie Draper in the middle of a global pandemic in which food workers are key workers; her first priority is the safety of her members.

“Not all employers seem to care about their workers’ safety,” she tells union-news.co.uk. “We’ve got some very good ones, like Greggs, who have worked with us, who are talking to us about their plans to re-open, then we’ve got the other extreme where one employer knew someone who had the virus but didn’t tell staff.

“The food industry has heightened food hygiene and food safety, so if it can’t get it right, what chance to other industries have? We have hand-washing as standard practice, but you still have employers who are putting workers at risk.”

Sarah started working at Bakers Oven as a 16 -year-old ‘Saturday girl’, working at weekends. She joined the union, but played no part in it until, aged 21, Bakers Oven was taken over by Greggs and she was transferred from managing a large store with a weekly turnover of around £20,000 to a smaller one with a £6,000 weekly turnover.

“At that point I’d used the union for representation but not really thought about getting more involved,” she recalls. “Then I met the branch secretary who invited me to become a rep. The first person I represented was sacked, so I thought ‘I can’t do this’, but she was accused of thieving and they got her on CCTV, so there wasn’t a lot I could do.”

She became more involved in the union, going to conferences and winning the Young Reps Award. She was elected onto the executive aged 27 and became a full time official in 2016.

“I’d been working for Greggs for 13 years, which felt a long time to then jump into something else, but the branch reps around me encouraged me, and I was elected – the rest is history,” she says.

She was fast gaining a reputation in the trade union world, having being elected onto the executive of the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) and later onto the regional executive of the TUC’s Yorkshire and Humber region.

“When Ronnie said he was retiring, I thought about standing,” she says. “My old branch and others encouraged me. The support from the reps in my branch has been astounding, They said ‘You can do, it we believe in you’, they gave me confidence.”

She was elected the union’s first woman general secretary in October last year and took office on May 1.

“I live in the area of the country where we have the most members,” she says, “and I want to go out to meet members in workplaces and at reps meetings. I don’t want to just be talking on platforms and hiding in an office. I want to be there, listening to their problems and understanding them.”

The BFAWU is a small union, with just 16,500 members, and has recognition at Greggs (where members are furloughed on 100% of their wages), Warburtons, Hovis, Allied Bakers (Kingsmill)  and two Sisters (Foxes Biscuits, ready meals) to name a few.

“The main issues for us are low pay and precarious work,” Sarah says. “There’s a lot of worry about the fast food side McDonalds and the hospitality side, Wetherspoons, – will they have jobs to go back to? – but it’s also very much tackling crap terms and conditions. We’re a very small union in a very large industry.”

The union has made headlines with strikes at McDonalds and Wetherspoons.

“Yes, we’ve had some significant wins, but we have to mirror those wins in other areas of the industry. We have to find ways to engage the membership in other branches and workplaces like we have with McDonalds and Wetherspons, which we’re starting to do.

“We’re key workers and we don’t want low pay and poor terms and conditions. People are recognising we’re worth more than the minimum wage. We feed the nation.”

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