‘Women Are the Key to Worker Power’: Roz Foyer on Rebuilding the Union Movement
In February 2020, long-time union organiser and Glaswegian Roz Foyer was appointed General Secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress – the first woman to hold the post.
Her first year in office has been marked by a series of challenges, from growing debate over Scotland’s constitutional status to a worldwide pandemic that has left many workers destitute or worse. But these challenges have also made the need for a strong workers’ movement clearer than ever, and provided unique opportunities for workers to demonstrate that it is them—not the billionaires—who keep the world running.
Here, Roz speaks with writer and activist Stella Rooney about her priorities for the Scottish labour movement, how to avoid a repeat of austerity, and the world we need to rebuild after Covid.
First of all, I’d like to congratulate you on being the first woman to hold the role of General Secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC). What do you think the significance of a woman leading the Scottish trade union movement is?
Women have always been at the heart of our movement, but the time has come to have more women in leadership roles. When we look at women’s position in the labour market and at some of the key battle lines of this pandemic, women are often on the frontline. The majority of key workers during Covid have been women.
The chronic poverty pay of key workers and the way women’s work is valued in areas like care are linked, and it’s something our movement must address and fight for. We need women at every level of our movement to be front and centre of what we’re doing, if we’re going to be successful at building workers’ power and in the current day and age.
It isn’t always straightforward for women to become involved with trade unions. What was your induction into the trade union movement like?
My journey as a trade unionist started with an experience of sexual harassment in the workplace. At the time I didn’t have a union organisation behind me: I was in the civil service, and—not shockingly—no one had asked me to join the union. I was naturally someone who would have joined, but almost felt as though it wasn’t for the likes of me.
I took the decision after several months to leave that role and go to another role in a different government department, and at my new workplace I was asked on the first day to join a union. I joined happily, but I also really wanted to understand whether there were any women reps.
I started asking the shop steward a lot of questions: if someone was to have an issue with sexual harassment here, what would they do about it? How would they help people? Luckily, I had a shop steward and a local branch that recognised that I was looking to get involved, and I became a rep.
I was about 19 and working in a part of the Benefits Agency that was being privatised at the time. I ended up becoming the convener and representing workers across Scotland. So I had a very formative experience of running a campaign, and of being on strike.
When people become involved in a campaign, do you think that practical experience of struggle serves as a political education?
I think it does, and I was a bit of an exception to the rule in those days. The only reason I was allowed to become a rep and ultimately the convener was that none of the established reps in my branch were getting privatised. I was one of the only reps they had in that area.
I was given an opportunity to step up, and partly due to my lack of experience, I didn’t automatically think that we had to cave in and accept being privatised. Instead we developed an inhouse bid and we kept the work in the public sector.
More recently, some of the campaigns we’ve developed in Scotland around Better Than Zero and more non-traditional areas of trade unionism have given younger campaigners that formative experience.
The activism that was born out of the first independence referendum means we’ve have seen a lot of young people in Scotland who became very engaged with those campaigns, and have eventually become very active in the trade union movement. That experience of being part of a movement in your formative years is a great political education.
Over the years the trade union movement has faced decline, and today we face some real obstacles to organising. What do you think are the challenges facing the trade union movement? And how do you think we go about reversing the decline?
First, I’d say that we need to stop giving ourselves such a hard time. In the face of the global neoliberal dogma of the past 40 years, the fact that trade unions in the UK have survived at the level they have is testament to a lot of hard work.
There is no doubt that there’s been decades of political bias by the ruling classes aimed at destroying and breaking down trade unionism – and breaking down society and collectivism more broadly. But we’re still here, one of the biggest membership organisations in the country, making a huge difference for workers.
Austerity has destroyed jobs, particularly in traditional areas, and that decline must be halted. We cannot depend on politicians to deliver the sort of economic change that workers need to get a fair share of profits, or to address inequality. It will take a strong movement making demands and putting pressure on politicians to deliver that change. That’s down to us.
I have no illusions about the size of the challenge that lies ahead, so my top priority is that we grow as a movement. We can make the best arguments in the world and do all the lobbying we like in the corridors of power, but that’s not going to make a blind bit of difference until we can show we have the people power on the ground to demand lasting change.
Covid has demonstrated just how important workers are for keeping us safe. What are some of the key demands from trade unions while the pandemic is ongoing?
There are a million battles on a daily basis, but I really think that we need to pay tribute to our shop stewards. Shop stewards, safety reps, and other key activists—many of whom have been dealing with their own pressures and their own personal tragedies—have fought hard for their members on issues like PPE, on testing, on access to health and safety advice and support. These are the sort of issues that have made a real difference to people on the ground.
Now that things are beginning to return to normal, the challenges are changing. The lauding of key workers will subside, and politicians will return to the language they were using ten years ago when we were told we all had to tighten our belts for austerity. But this time we know better – this time we have to stand up and say no.
As we all know, workers can’t afford a repeat of austerity politics. At STUC’s annual Congress this year, trade unions in Scotland supported a People’s Recovery programme. How do these policy proposals differ from what the Tories are offering?
We need a recovery that’s going to benefit everyone, not just society’s richest. When we talk about recovery, we don’t mean going back to how things were before – we’re talking about recovering the income, wealth, and collective power stolen from working-class people over generations. In Scotland, one in four children grow up in poverty, and gap between the rich and the poor is growing. That can’t be allowed to continue.
Our priorities within the People’s Recovery programme are pay, decent jobs, and building a care sector and a caring economy. That economy is going to be built on a national care service that will look after the most vulnerable in our society in a dignified manner, because that’s an important part of any decent society’s infrastructure, and we need to reimagine and revalue the work that the workers in that sector do.
In the period moving forward, we need to rebuild high-quality, unionised green jobs that are going to be fit for the new economy. That isn’t going to happen unless we’re really ambitious about the levels of investment that needs to be put in, and neither the UK or Scottish governments are talking about those levels yet.
The STUC produced a piece of research that shows that 367,000 jobs across Scotland could be developed, but that development relies on new models of ownership—public and democratic ownership—rather than on the whims of the market, and on going through sector-by-sector and making sure that the government is strategic about skills development. This is about a joined-up industrial strategy to rebuild our transport and energy infrastructure through good jobs.
Many of the workers who got us through this pandemic are paid poverty wages. It’s not the millionaires that matter: it’s the cleaners, the delivery workers, the food factory workers, the supermarket workers, and the health and social care workers. If we inject money into those workers’ pockets, they’ll spend money in their local communities, where it’s needed most, and help us rebuild an economy from the bottom up.
We also need to think about community wealth building and new forms of democratic ownership, which require serious levels of borrowing and investment, too – if done right, it’ll give future generations the chance to build a better society.
We’ve just had a Scottish election, and it’s clear that debates around what kind of democratic settlement Scotland should have—whether that’s more devolution or independence—will continue to dominate. Do you think that under current arrangements we have enough powers in the Scottish Parliament to deliver a bold economic agenda?
The very simple answer to that is no – absolutely not. We don’t have the powers to make the economic transformation we need. The powers that Scotland urgently needs are borrowing powers in order to be able to invest in our own economic development strategy. Employment law is another area that we would definitely look to devolve.
I worry that the debate around the constitutional issue has become very binary. We can see that our members in Scotland are split right down the middle in terms of the constitutional question, and just like many trade unionists here, neither being part of Tory Britain nor being part of the SNP’s neoliberal vision for independence fills me with any hope that we’re going to be able to create a more socially just Scotland.
Instead, the debate needs to shift towards the question of what powers Scotland needs to create the type of country we want. If you’re talking about independence, then what does independence look like? Does the type of independence being offered to us actually include financial, economic, and fiscal autonomy? And what does the status quo being offered by unionists give us? These are the things we should be asking now ahead of a referendum.
The Scottish trade union movement was central to winning a Scottish Parliament: in fact, in many ways, our movement made the argument for devolution before the politicians caught up. Though trade unionists may disagree on the national question, do you think that our movement can help to focus the debate on the interests of the working class?
The trade union movement in Scotland has a duty to play a role in this debate, particularly because we’ve got a proud tradition of leading on these questions in the past. As you said, we were one of the first organisations to call for a Scottish Parliament. We always said that that parliament should be a worker’s parliament – one that can build a more equal society.
It’s frustrating that the Scottish Parliament could do much more with the power it has, but instead Scottish politics remains dominated by the constitutional question. But we can’t afford to ignore that question or wish it away: people have voted for constitutional change to be on the agenda, so we must engage with that agenda. We need to engage with working people about what we need to build a fairer, more equal Scotland, and the time has come for workers to look at the different constitutional proposals and make their voices heard.
At the same time, we’ve consistently made the argument that economic recovery must come first, and we must look to the immediate issues of Covid recovery. We want to see our Scottish Parliament using all the powers available to it. They’ve got to support job creation, to set up a national care service, and to really address the poverty pay that too many of our workers are on.
COP26 will see the eyes of the world on Glasgow and Scotland. What role do you think the trade union movement can play in intervening in that debate and putting workers at the heart of climate justice?
Our priority is ensuring a just transition turns into a reality for workers on the ground. I’m afraid, despite years of positive rhetoric, that huge opportunities in the renewable sector have been lost.
There will be hundreds of offshore wind turbines built across the world, and then shipped at great expense to the environment back to Scotland. These could have been built in Scottish yards, if the government had got its act together. Workers on the ground see the jobs in the renewable sector going abroad, and we have to really grapple with that.
There are many other areas in which we should be making more progress, too, and in the run-up to COP26 we have an opportunity to make our demands heard. We want to see a massive retrofitting programme for housing, done through local authorities to create public sector jobs rather than more precarious or low-paid work. We also want to see improved and free public transport.
The good thing about changes like retrofitting and free transport is that they not only benefit our society through good jobs and renewed infrastructure – they also benefit the service users. We can tackle fuel poverty, build inclusion, and create jobs all at the same time.
As we emerge from lockdown, what would you like to see as the new normal for workers?
I want people to understand that it’s important to collectivise in our communities and workplaces to ensure that our voices are heard. That has to be the starting point. If we can get that right, then we can say with one loud voice: no, we’re not doing austerity again. We will not be paying for this pandemic the way we paid for the banking crisis.
After all of the sacrifices made by our class in this pandemic, we need to hold on to some of that anger. Many of these deaths could have been prevented. Our governments have failed us, but they’re not going listen unless we get organised and start to think like a movement, demanding the changes working people require. That means engaging on the ground, street by street, and workplace by workplace.
I’m optimistic. Young people in our society are politically switched-on, and that will help us develop the solutions that we need to take forwards. There’s a whole new set of areas of our economy to be organised: there’s precarious work, gig platforms, working from home. All this means we’re going to have to change how we operate as a movement, and I believe that as a movement we will be able to meet those challenges.
Roz Foyer is General Secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress.
About the Interviewer: Stella Rooney is chair of Unite Young Members Scotland.
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