Sarah Woolley’s opening address to Conference

Conference opening speech

It is an absolute honor and a privilege to be able to address you today as the first female general secretary our great union has ever had and hopefully not the last! and I want to thank everyone that supported me in the election process especially my old branch 580 and those that have over the last 12 months, including my family, especially Tony and Paul because they are the ones that have had to deal with off camera Sarah, hitting the ground running in a new position in a global pandemic has not been smooth sailing I have gone through numerous hair dyes and bottles of Gin!!

and whilst its not the same speaking to little squares on a screen as it is being together in a conference hall the pride I’m feeling is still very much there, I’m conscious that we don’t have the same amount of time as we would normally do, so I won’t rattle on too long.

I want to start by saying how immensely proud I am of each and every one of you here and those members and reps that are back at your workplaces, for continuing to work throughout this pandemic, feeding the nation, putting yourselves at risk in factories with hundreds of people and serving the public daily, and fundamentally changing your ways of work in order to keep safe, you truly are collectively the key workers that we have always known our membership to be.

 You have done an amazing job challenging employers and making sure that safety measures that have been put in place are tweaked so that they are effective and haven’t impacted negatively on other health and safety aspects and that is why as a union we haven’t seen the catastrophic deaths levels that other areas of the economy and non unionized workplaces have. That isn’t to say we haven’t lost any members throughout the pandemic, we certainly have and our thoughts go out to all of their families, but because of the hard work of our reps on sites many more families have been spared the heart ache of loosing a loved one.

As an organization we have managed to continue to function during this global pandemic, through a change in General Secretary without the ability to have a proper hand over, with closed offices and staff working from home, we have had to adapt to meeting virtually due to restrictions and pulling off organising our first ever digital conference, complete with multiple fringe meetings open to the wider membership. Can you imagine us having that conversation 2 years ago, we would have deemed it impossible, yet here we are!

We have continued to run national campaigns such as the Right to Food campaign and raising Statutory Sick Pay which we will continue to build on as we are committed to improving our industry as a whole across the board.

 And Conference I couldn’t address you today without mentioning a few things, firstly our retirees, 2020 saw Ronnie, Steve and Dave retire from our union after decades of individual membership and hard work supporting members in their workplaces, at the beginning of 2021 Pauline and Grace from the offices also retired, again after years of supporting branches and officials, I have said this in print a few times but I know you will join me in wishing each and every one of them a long and happy retirement, its such a shame we aren’t together in person so that we can celebrate properly, but I’m sure once out of the pandemic when we are together again we will have the opportunity to do so.

We felt the loss of Dennis Nash in August, a shock to many of us and whilst I didn’t have the pleasure of working with Dennis, the stories I have been told about him have always been positive and full of admiration and of course without him we wouldn’t have the credit union we have today. Our thoughts are with Dennises family and those from his old branch and region that remained close to him.

Lastly the English learning project was cruelly taken away from us this year. We still very much have fantastic projects in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland that continue to flourish and support workers in our industry developing themselves, but it has left a wole in England, the team were fantastic and I know they have all remained members of the union, we thank them for everything they have done, certainly over the last 18 months through the pandemic and we are working on structures and support for the ULRs in England so that all the hard work over the last 20 years doesn’t fall by the way side because you are never too old to learn, no one ever knows everything and there always opportunities to try something new and develop yourself, education is a passion of mine, I have received a vast amount through my trade union membership and I want to ensure that members for generations to come can also do that.

Conference The food industry is the biggest manufacturing unit in the UK, we are the biggest contributors to the economy, yet are at the bottom of the pile when it comes to investment including in upskilling and education, but across the board, new technologies are bought by employers rather than the industry invested in by the government and we know throughout the last 12 – 18 months you have been the forgotten keyworkers recognised in name but hidden due to working behind the scenes producing the food everyone needs in order to survive. And me and Ian have been talking over the last few months about the way our industry is dumbed down and ill be honest it frustrates the hell out of us.

People talk about the food industry like it’s the place to go when there’s no where else, an industry that doesn’t need skills, doesn’t need a university degree so deserves low pay and precarious contracts.

Well I am proud to have worked in the food industry, I’m proud to have worked at Greggs – I wonder how many people can make 64 sandwiches an hour, knowing the recipes off by heart – I still do, well from when I was making them, I’m sure some have been changed slightly since then, I wonder how many know the correct temperature to keep sausages in a hot hold and for how long without putting customers at risk, what to do if a fridge or self selector breaks down, or  how many have the ability to crowd control queues of customers especially at Christmas where everyone’s grumpy because they are rushing around and nothings done fast enough.

I wonder if people knew the training that was required to be a mixer, to ensure the right ingredients are used and allergens that can literally kill people aren’t added incorrectly, or the physical toll standing on the end of an oven tipping bread out of hot tins takes on a person, how challenging it is to keep up with boxing fondent fancies or Yorkshire puddings, or putting cherries on top of a bakewell tart or having the ability to know a line isn’t running right just by the noise it is making, or having to clean down intricate parts of a machine to ensure that a new product can be made on it with no cross contamination, I wonder if they would still see our industry as unskilled.

Because I know and we all know that not everyone is cut out to do those jobs, and yes a university degree may not be needed, but one mistake can be catastrophic.

So going forwards we want to change the narrative about our industry, we want people to feel proud to work within it and the wider public to understand the skills that are needed and used every day to produce the food they eat,  and join us in putting pressure on the government to increase the standards in pay, terms and conditions and of course investment as a result. Because you deserve more. We shouldn’t be in a position where people in our industry are going hungry because they are paid too little to survive.

Conference I am not going to speak for much longer – you will hear enough from me over the next few days, I just want to end with this,

I am committed to this union still being here long after I have retired, but in order to do that we all need to work together, I am not the union you and the members are, we have to stop third partying the union and remember that we are powerful when we come together, we force change as a collective and the more in that collective the more change we force because we are the union. Just look at what has been achieved in the last month at Hovis in Belfast

We need to strive to get to 100% membership in our workplaces, its not going to be easy no one is pretending that it will be, but it is possible and we cant be afraid of trying something different because what we have always done has stopped working, membership is and has been for a while in decline and we need to turn that around.

There’s no magic wand to do that, one thing wont work in every workplace, and it will be hard. But if we want to remain an independent trade union for the next 100 plus years we must try. We have to share with each other what has worked well and what hasn’t and lift each other up, not tear each other down.

I’m going to end with an ask conference, engage with the branch mapping, engage with the many different digital meetings we will plan in to talk to you and your members about the issues you face, and engage with the different ideas that are generated from those, so that we can support you going forwards in local, regional and national campaigns designed to make your lives and our industry better.

Things will look differently going forwards, I’m not Ronnie, I’m not Joe and I stood on a platform of change, we have come a hell of a long way in 12 months, mainly because of the situation we have found ourselves in, but we have a long way to go.

I can’t wait to be able to come and meet those of you I don’t know yet and work with all of you to build our union together.

Solidarity and enjoy the rest of conference – and the fringe events.