Scotland – now Wales. Sarah Murphy knows well the power of being in a union and how together with Labour, lives can be changed for the better. Hajera Blagg reports
For Unite member Sarah Murphy, who is standing as a Welsh Labour candidate for the Bridgend constituency at the Senedd election, hard work and trade unionism are in her blood.
Her uncles and grandfather worked at the Port Talbot steelworks, and both her mother, a social worker, and her late father, a teacher and shop steward, were ardent trade unionists.
“I’ve definitely grown up in that environment where working hard and giving back to your community through public service were valued. I grew up in the labour movement – my parents were both in the Labour Party, and my dad was a community councillor growing up,” Sarah told UNITElive. “They both said to me when you start working you have to join a trade union.”
Sarah joined Unite when she was just 21 in one of her first jobs as an administrator in the Welsh Labour office in Cardiff, and over the years her sense of a trade union’s value has evolved.
“At the beginning I saw trade union membership as protection – the idea that someone has your back in the workplace, which in itself is very valuable,” Sarah explained.
“But over the years as I became more immersed in Unite and the trade union movement – through for example going to the Unite training school in Durham – I’ve come to realise you join the union for so much more than that. You meet new people, you make friends, there’s this real sense of togetherness, of solidarity.”
Over the last decade, Sarah has worked in various roles for Welsh Labour, in Parliament, in the Senedd and now as a university researcher in data, ethics and justice. Currently, she’s working closely with Unite and other trade unions researching workplace surveillance.
Sarah said she was inspired to stand as a candidate back in 2018, when she was on her way to a trade union hustings for the next Welsh Labour leader.
“The hustings was in Wrexham and I remember I had to get up really early to get the 5 am train. And on the train up there, I just had this epiphany. I think many people do this – women in particular – where you go through all the reasons in your head why you would never do it. You have a voice in your head saying what about this and what about that.”
Sarah had attended the hustings in support of Mark Drakeford, now leader of the Welsh Labour Party and the First Minister of Wales.
“In the face of a wide range of questions, Mark was unflinchingly honest and transparent, and comfortable with being himself,” Sarah said, recounting the hustings. “It inspired me to feel that I was good enough, and I just had to be true to myself and my values, and not worry about trying to please everyone.
After the hustings, any doubt she had about ‘going for it’ melted away. With the vital encouragement of mentor Mary Williams, Unite’s head of political strategy in Wales, within a year Sarah was selected as the Welsh Labour Senedd candidate for the Bridgend constituency in October 2019.
Two months later, the Conservatives would win a landslide victory in the general election. In the months weeks and months after, Sarah recalled a deep sense of defeat.
But even in the midst of this devastating defeat, there was hope.
“There was a lot of negativity surrounding Labour at the time and how we were being portrayed was so inaccurate – it was really frustrating. But then I thought to myself, I’m just going to get back to doing what I do well and what we do well – and that’s just being a force for good. We’re going to show people that we’ve always been here and always been a force for good.”
And ‘a force for good’ was precisely what communities up and down the country needed as the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March, followed by the UK’s first national lockdown.
“Over that weekend before the lockdown restrictions came in people panicked. You saw people desperately trying to find necessities like baby formula and nappies. That’s what inspired me to set up the Bridgend Coronavirus Support Group on Facebook. Within a half a day we had 3,000 members.”
Over the next several months, the group, which has now grown to 12,000 members strong, would successfully go on to raise money for various food banks and other local organisations, while helping connect individuals with necessities and any support they needed.
“From the very beginning we kept the page positive and also apolitical. It was all about supporting each other. We had this idea if everyone in the group, which at that point had grown to more than 8,000 members, could donate £1 each, then we could raise a large sum of money and in doing so we demonstrated socialism in action. A little adds up to a lot when we come together.”
Through the Facebook group, Sarah helped facilitate a large donation of protective visors from workers at the Ford factory in Bridgend, which was then in the process of closing.
“Unite Ford Bridgend convenor Andrew Pearson got in touch with us saying in the last few months as they were closing down the plant, the workers there had made 8,000 visors and they wanted to donate them to the community to anyone who wanted them,” Sarah explained.
“I met the workers and we filled up our car boot with visors and delivered them on the workers’ behalf across the community. This was at a time when there was a severe PPE shortage so it was vital donation and I was so pleased to help facilitate that.”
Only 34 years old, Sarah says it hasn’t always been easy on the campaign trail as a young woman, but she’s learned to embrace the challenges.
“My opponent in particular has tried to portray me as being inexperienced – the word ‘novice’ gets thrown around a lot,” she said. “But my mum says – and of course I know she’s just being my mum –‘people often underestimate you, and there’s always a moment that people realise they’ve underestimated you’.”
“I don’t say this to be arrogant – I feel this can apply to a lot of young people and young women in particular. People underestimate you at their peril. I’ve come to embrace that as a strength.”
Standing as a Unite candidate, Sarah hopes to join a strong group of Unite MSs in the Senedd this year and bolster this group that’s dedicated to fighting for working people.
“Our first port of call will always be to the workers, to find out what is really happening on the ground – that’s the approach I’ll be taking with all workplaces if elected,” Sarah said. “I will build that sense of mutual respect to where they feel that they can get in touch with me, they can call me whenever they need me. I’m never going to go into a workplace and tell people what they should be doing; you tell me how I can help you.”
Sarah urges Unite members in Wales to vote for Welsh Labour in the upcoming elections to continue to build on the good work that the party in government has already done. She cites the Trade Union (Wales) Act 2017, which protects trade union members in Wales from the anti-union attacks by the Tory government in Westminster.
She also points to how the Welsh Labour government has committed to protecting its own Wales Union Learning Fund (WULF), at a time when the Tory government has only just recently scrapped the Union Learning Fund (ULF) in England.
And although it’s been delayed because of the pandemic, the Social Partnership Bill is another vital piece of legislation introduced by Welsh Labour, which will hugely benefit trade union members and give them a stronger voice.
“The only chance of the Social Partnership Bill becoming law is if we elect a Welsh Labour government. We are a strong, dedicated group of Welsh Labour MSs, trade unionists, who if elected will absolutely work our guts out for Unite members and for Labour members.”
If you live in Bridgend and Porthcawl and want to help Sarah you can find out more about her campaign here. To help out generally in your region contact the Unite Wales regional office and ask to speak to the regional political officer.
Wherever you live if would like to help Unite candidates in your area or to find out more see here
By Hajera Blagg
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