Denise Christie is a member of the FBU living in Glasgow. Often known for her official role within the trade union movement, here Denise writes in a personal capacity. This is her workers’ story.
I had committed to my trade union sister that I’d write an article for The Workers Story Project right from its inception and nearly 12 months later, I’ve finally got round to it.
I suppose it’s been representative of a lot of other commitments I’ve given that have been placed on the back burner as work involving the response to COVID-19, representing FBU members, was always a priority.
I said I wanted to write an honest and open account of my experience of being a trade union official during COVID-19, the expectations of that including priorities, pressures and responsibilities and hoped that others in similar situations could relate. It’s a very personal experience about working during a time when there was also a period of loss, grief and an urge to reflect on all of that.
This is probably the first time I’ve written in this way. Articles I usually write are predominantly highlighting industrial issues for my members and the wider trade union movement. The important issues firefighters face, the cuts to my profession, the investment required to support our public services and public service pay as well as the politically motivated attacks on our class. These have all been key features of past contributions to my political writing in Scotland. Whether that’s been articles in the Morning Star, Scottish Left Review or for the Fire Brigades Union.
The above four paragraphs were started as my introduction to The Workers Story Project. I thought about deleting them and starting a fresh as I didn’t think they would make sense to what will follow next with this article. I felt it would have taken away the moment where my thinking, on what was a priority to write, had changed.
That priority changed at the time where an outpouring of grief, anger, and activism was happening as a response to the death of Sarah Everard. It stopped me in my tracks to see such an overwhelming expression of anger that united so many women from all walks of life. Very personal stories that had never seen the light of day before were now all over my social media pages and in my phone messages as women found the strength and courage to share their experiences of misogyny and sexism. It felt like a pressure cooker was about to explode with an eruption of emotions and I thought, we need to organise the hell out of that if we are truly to make a dent in changing the systemic oppression and violence towards women and girls.
So my contribution to The Workers Story Project has taken a sharp turn from writing about my COVID-19 experience as a lay trade union official representing firefighters to now using this platform to highlight the accounts and activism of sisters in our movement, which at times, moved me to tears. I asked a sister whose experience is quoted below to write the title of this article. Her control and agreement of the content was important. She came up with this. “For Sarah… for all of them.” And this is for them.
“I want patriarchy to know that feminism is rage unleashed against its centuries of crimes against women and girls around the world. We must declare a feminism that is robust, aggressive, and unapologetic. It is the only way to combat a patriarchy that is systemic.”
“He claimed his permission to violently determine the value of your life. The women wept for you and the men came to violently silence them, distinguish their quiet and peaceful rage. Your life, grown & birthed by a mother who could not keep you safe from men”
“I was strip searched aged 16 years old by Strathclyde police. Arrested for peacefully protesting against nuclear weapons at Faslane, stripped in front of 7 male police officers at Clydebank Police station, police violence & abuse targeting women protesters isn’t a new tactic.”
“Text me when you’re home”
“I’m home now xx”
“Me: Mum, what would you like to do today?”
“Mum: Go for a walk.”
“Me: How come?”
“Mum: For Sarah. I want to go & walk for her & your aunt Ruma & just all of them.”
“Me: Shall we go to the park?”
“Mum: No. Let’s just walk the streets.”
“As a woman I’ve lived for 12 months under the fear of Covid. I’ve lived for 33 years under the fear of male violence & harassment. Out of the two it’s the male violence pandemic that is the bigger threat to my life- and there’s no vaccine for it.” #ReclaimTheseStreets
“I cannot remember a time before I had seen violence against women. I was born bruised. I spent months in refuges. As a 5 year old I was sexually assaulted by a teenage boy who had already learned that women were a commodity and he had power over our bodies. I witnessed hundreds of violent attacks on my mother in my home. I witnessed calls to the police go unanswered. I saw police come, do nothing and leave us terrified. I saw the police restrain my mother with force when these attacks drove her mad. Police officers looked the other way when a grown man groomed me and had a 5 year “relationship” with me. Robbing me of any teen years or hope for any sort of normal. When I reported the times I was raped to police officers I was dismissed… it went nowhere. I respect the police. I have friends who are police officers. I work closely alongside them. That doesn’t mean I can’t point out that there’s an issue. That there is CLEARLY a lack of convictions and too many women left dead. Pointing out the issue isn’t an attack on police officers. It’s just asking for change.”
“So many angry and motivated women. We need to organise the hell out of that. We talk about turning points in the movement – this needs to be one of them.”
I could have written for weeks on end with the amount of brave, passionate and unapologetic messages that portrayed the experiences of women and girls. That final statement has to be the strong message that our movement must grasp. A rallying call that this cannot and must not be withered away like a dying flower or plume of smoke.
We have more than half of the population that are outraged due to being oppressed, silenced, exploited, beaten, controlled, abused, harassed, undermined, overworked, and underpaid and we are angry and motivated. That needs to be seized and harnessed into an organising machine to not just reclaim our streets but to reclaim our rights, our voices and our liberty.
So this is a message for our sisters and brothers, specially those in positions of power and influence, whether it’s political, in the trade union movement or in our workplaces. Be brave, be bold, be outspoken, even at times when it is not the popular thing to do but the right thing to do. Use your privilege and power and influence and let this be a turning point to support the campaign against the many decades of systemic oppression and violence towards women and girls. If you believe in that, let’s hear your voice.