Roz Foyer: Equal recovery won't happen 'without a fight'
I’m early for my meeting with Roz Foyer, so duck into Glasgow Women’s Library to wait. It seems a prescient place to prepare for an interview with the first female general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress.
The STUC moved to Glasgow’s east end in August, but for now the building remains empty as staff are still working from home. Foyer is happy with the move – she believes it’s the right place for trade unionists to be, in the heart of working class communities in Glasgow, not the “leafy west end”.
Bridgeton and neighbouring Calton are among the most deprived communities in the city, but they are also home to the People’s Palace and the Calton Weavers (the group who led the earliest major industrial dispute in Scotland, predating trade unions). This sense of place and history is important to Foyer.
Born and bred in Glasgow, she grew up helping on her parents’ stall in the Barras (also not far away) and seeing the realities of poverty first hand. While her own family never struggled (her dad had a “good, secure job” as a train driver while the Barras kept her mum and gran busy), poverty was “all around me and I’ve seen the devastation it causes”.
“I’ve always lived in Glasgow. It’s a working class city with a proud tradition of trade unionism and socialism,” Foyer says. “And I think that I’m absolutely shaped by my life experiences, but also having lived, having seen with my own eyes the impacts of the high drug rates and things like that. I’ve lost friends. I’ve lost family. These things shape all of us, don’t they?”
The deadly impacts were driven home at age 11, when a friend died from glue sniffing. She won’t say much more on that formative experience, other than: “I think that just gives that pattern of, you know, that’s life, that’s normal life in Glasgow.”
Despite all of that, Foyer says she wasn’t particularly politically engaged as a teen. Her dad was in a trade union, but when she started a job at the VAT offices in Glasgow after completing her Highers, she didn’t sign up. “I never joined the trade union because nobody asked me to join. I was vaguely aware that there was a union, but I wasn’t sure if it was for my grade or my age or I wouldn’t have known who to approach to ask about it,” she says.
It wasn’t until she was sexually harassed at work, which prompted a job move – “I didn’t feel empowered to do anything about it, the most empowering thing I did was move to a different government department,” she says – that she became a trade unionist. At the Benefits Agency she was asked on day one to sign up. And after repeatedly questioning her local branch about help available to those who experience harassment, she herself became the new support officer.
This wasn’t the only experience at the Benefits Agency that stuck with her. “What really started to politicise me was answering the phone to 700 people a day who hadn’t got their giro and who were living in abject poverty,” she says. “People who are on their last coin in the phone box, and the giro hasn’t turned up and you can hear their kids in the background and they’re saying ‘I have no food, I have no heating’.”
After spending time as the workplace union representative, she made the move to the Graphical, Paper and Media Union as a trainee organiser. From there, she moved up the ranks of the movement in a variety of roles.
Then, in that small window between the 2019 general election and the start of the pandemic in the UK, Foyer was appointed the general secretary of the STUC. Her first day in the job was the day the Prime Minister urged everyone to stop non-essential travel and contact. A week later, the UK went into its first lockdown.
“That was real sort of panic mode and emergency mode, and obviously we had huge issues with workers. We didn’t have a furlough scheme in place yet, there were huge issues with workers who were being forced to go into work that we did not think was essential work. It was straight into the frying pan really,” she says.
Like many of us, the pandemic also had a huge impact on her personal as well as professional life. Her two teenage daughters were suddenly home schooling and she also had to step in to help care for her elderly parents, especially her mum, who has dementia.
But in some ways, the pandemic helped her settle into the new role. “I think as women we often get that whole imposter syndrome type thing, and we berate ourselves [...] I didn’t have time for any of that to be honest. I was so busy just flying by the seat of my pants that I didn’t have time to worry about it,” she says.
As the first female general secretary, she joins a wave of women coming to the fore in the trade union movement. Now, all three of Britain’s trade union congresses are led by women, as well as the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (which covers both Ireland and Northern Ireland).
Foyer believes this will help to tackle the stereotype of unions being only for blue-collar men. She says: “I’m not just the general secretary of the STUC. I’m a mother with two daughters to look after, that I had to support through the pandemic and sort out their home schooling. I’m a daughter who has parents and when the care system collapsed at the beginning of the pandemic, I had to make sure that I was round there looking after my parents. This is a common life experience that many other women experience.”
She openly admits that unions have an “image issue” but she also believes much of it is based on a “false myth”. “We need to not be too hard on ourselves, because ever since the 1970s, we’ve had successive neoliberal governments who have absolutely attacked trade unionism. They have attacked our rights to organise. They’ve attacked people’s rights to take action, they have privatised and outsourced and brought in methods of working so that precarious work has been on the rise […] I think the fact that we are still Scotland and the UK’s biggest membership organisation – in Scotland we’re sitting at nearly 600,000 members – I think that is a force to be reckoned with.”
The next big mission for the STUC is ensuring a worker-centric recovery from the pandemic. Foyer believes trade unions have never been more relevant.
“I have no doubt that our governments will now start to talk the language of austerity to us and tell us we’re all in this together and we have to start paying for all the outlay,” she warns. “I hope that people will think about some of the lessons we have learned from this pandemic, because what we’ve learned is it’s not the billionaires that got us through this. It’s our NHS workers, it’s our delivery drivers, our supermarket workers, our care workers and our local government workers that got us through this pandemic.”
I ask what she makes of the UK Government’s levelling-up agenda. Without pause, she replies: “I think it’s just spin. I don’t think there’s any agenda to level up.”
She’s proud of recent efforts to improve the lot of workers, most notably the ScotRail and GMB strike threats in the run up to COP26. But she was deeply frustrated by some of the response.
“What I won’t take is any lectures from government or local authorities who try to suggest that we were being irresponsible or shaming Glasgow or Scotland by using the leverage of the COP to demand a fair pay deal,” she bristles.
“We have been highlighting for a long, long time now the lack of investment in our public services, the need for more progressive redistributive taxation, in-work poverty and the endemic low pay that far too many of Scotland’s workers are facing.
“I think trade unions need to use whatever leverage is at our disposal to get our members the best deal and the fairest share of the country’s wealth that we possibly can. We’ll make no apologies for the pressure that was put on in that period.
“If anything, I think it’s necessary to see more actions from trade unions and more of a fighting back spirit, because if we’re going to rebuild our economy so that we create a people’s recovery where more people in Scotland get a fairer share of the country’s wealth, we’re not going to do that without a fight.”
Equally, she was disappointed to see the strikes cast in a constitutional light. Some workers were “accused of being part of a Unionist plot to undermine the SNP local authority,” she says.
Indeed, Foyer has concerns about the question of Scottish independence overshadowing other issues. “My members are split right down the middle about whether they would prefer Scotland to be independent or whether they would prefer Scotland to be part of the UK. I think that does affect people’s ability to get behind each other and fight back as a class, and I think that’s a major problem for us.”
But she doesn’t have a particular solution, other than perhaps to “have the debate and move on”.
For her part, neither the SNP’s vision of independence nor the Conservatives’ idea for the Union excites her. She believes the debate often excludes working class communities. “We really need to make sure that if we do end up with another constitutional debate, that we look at the type of recovery we need to build, we look at the need to invest in our public services, we look at the need to create a local homegrown supply chain for renewables manufacturing and a whole range of other things that we as workers need to make Scotland a fairer economy. We need to look at whether the different constitutional options put on the table give us the powers that we need to make the changes that will favour working people.”
As well as Covid recovery, the other big issue is climate change. But Foyer says the just transition in Scotland has so far been “an abject failure”.
“Our just transition approach needs more investment and that’s not a Scottish Government issue only, that is on the UK Government to a great extent as well. The Scottish Government can only do what they can with the funds they’re given, but at the moment Boris Johnson’s government [is] only putting in £180 per head of UK population into green jobs and into making this transition happen. If you compare that with the Biden administration in the US, they’re putting £3,000 per head of population into making this transition happen, and they’re also saying that licenses for green energy companies need to be dependent on those companies supporting union recognition and allowing access to trade unions and taking a much more positive approach. We need to see that level of a commitment and action if we’re going to see a proper just transition.”
But as much as the UK Government rankles, Foyer is also critical of the Scottish Government. “What really angers me, in some ways, is that we talk the talk here in Scotland, you know, we talk about a wellbeing economy. We love to talk about fair work. We talk about the need for a just transition. […] We need to stop talking the talk and start walking the walk towards a fairer economy for Scotland’s people and the only way we’re going to get there is by people joining together and getting a bit angry about it and making their voices heard, because that’s how we’ll make our decisionmakers in the parliament act.”