Members taking part in this year’s FBU women’s school had two anniversaries to celebrate. Helen Hague talked to them about what they get from the school (all photos copyright of Jess Hurd)
There was something rather special about the FBU women’s school in the union’s centenary year. Women in the union have been gathering at Wortley Hall near Sheffield to learn and network every year since the late nineties.
Now the school – which has done much to nurture activism among FBU women – was celebrating its twenty-first birthday.
A record 74 women arrived for an intensive weekend of workshops and presentations at the ‘Trade Union Stately Home’. The motto on the women’s committee banner in main sessions sums up the spirit of women’s school: “Ask for What You Want – And Be Prepared To Get It”.
Many women within and beyond the FBU cite attending an FBU women’s school as a starting point for getting actively involved in the union. The excellent crèche ensures mothers do not miss out.
Women from different ranks, roles and regions have always made up the school’s winning mix. But this year, there were many more “first-timers”. Sam Rye, FBU national women’s committee secretary, said it was encouraging that women “early on in their careers now feel confident to come”.
In the pioneering days it was not that easy – and there are still pockets of scepticism about why women need their own school. But in the age of growing outrage over the gender pay gap, #metoo, equality has certainly gone mainstream.
It was Islington firefighter Abigail Lagna’s first time at women’s school. She found it empowering and is keen to get more involved – glad she swapped retail management for firefighting 18 months ago.
She has found male colleagues on her watch encouraging and supportive.
Lisa Bear, another first-timer, works in human resources and is a retained firefighter in Shropshire and now FBU women’s rep for the county. She’s keen to counter the opinion that “the union only looks after wholetime”.
Monique Hollinshead, a costume designer and retained firefighter from Audlem in Cheshire, a women’s school regular, is now union rep at the station – representing eight male colleagues, including “three blokes called Steve”. She would love to see more women signing up “but without getting rid of any Steves, of course”.
Sherri Kitson, branch rep for control staff in Cheshire, works at North West fire control in Warrington. For the past four years it has handled all fire calls from Cheshire, Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Cumbria, fuelling fears of privatisation.
This was Sherri’s second time at women’s school. Returning frommaternity leave and meeting up with control colleagues first time round made her “realise I had to get more involved”.
She is now control rep for FBU Region 5, North West England – and was due to speak on “ensuring every control room remains under local fire authority control” at annual conference.
Last year Jo Foot, a firefighter from High Wycombe, spoke at conference for the first time, speaking out for the apprentice firefighters Buckinghamshire FRS and others have started to recruit. “They must not be brought in on the cheap,” she said.
Brigade organiser for the past five years, she has recently taken on the role of education and learning organiser for the Southern England region.
Sheffield watch manager Nicola Hobbs has played in goal for Barnet Bees in London – imagine the commute – but wants to play closer to home. Brigade rep and LGBT rep for Region 4, Yorkshire and Humberside, she says these roles play a vital role in shaping policies on maternity, and the menopause – and boosts confidence.
Brigade rep Kirsty Wright went to women’s school for the first time two years ago. She was back as women’s rep for South Yorkshire, keen to learn more on union courses to best represent members.
As FBU general secretary Matt Wrack told the school, women members are over four times more likely to access courses to help them represent colleagues and build the union than male colleagues (22 to 5 per cent.)
Women’s school has a history of nurturing activism – from improving life on station to campaigning against cuts.
Former firefighters and women’s school leaders Vicky Knight and Kerry Baigent were back to celebrate. Vicky, now a lecturer, is newly elected president of the University and College Union and chairs the TUC women’s committee.
Kerry, now an organiser with UNISON, is intent on getting a better deal for low-paid workers in the South West. National Women’s Committee stalwart Denise Christie is regional secretary of the FBU in Scotland and Sam Rye serves on the TUC women’s committee.
With the rising generation of new activists at women’s school, the FBU looks set to benefit from a fresh wave of engaged trade unionists. In these challenging times, active and engaged trade unionists are just what are needed to help get a better deal – for all members and, of course, the public they serve.