Sunday, September 02, 2007

Workers Vs Workers Beer Company

Servers who work at events with the Workers Beer Company have set up a union, in an attempt to protect ourselves from the creeping further influence of profit margins on our conditions.

For those who don't know, the Workers Beer Company was set up by Battersea and Wandsworth TUC in the mid-1980s, as a fundraising arm for campaigning activities. Since then, the company has grown to a large size, and provides workers for Glastonbury, Leeds and Reading (Carling Weekend), Tolpuddle, and various other festivals.

On the surface, it seems like servers have a decent deal. You get free entry, some free food and drink, and free camping space. The organisation you come with (I go with Merseyside Hazards & Environmental Centre, but unions, campaign groups and others are represented) gets £6.50 per hour for your labour, which is better than many bar workers are paid. But there are drawbacks. For a start, the average festival server is worked far harder than they would be in a pub, and we are entitled to only twenty minutes breaktime in a six hour shift. Or at least we thought that was an entitlement...

The essential contradiction behind the WBC is that it's based entirely on the exploitation of workers! The more servers are exploited, the more money is raised for campaigning against the exploitation of workers! Add a layer of paid bureaucrats to this mix and you get a structure resembling the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' in the Soviet Union! But hey, you get to see some bands, so it's just about worth it.

This year, however, it seems the screw has been tightened significantly.

On Thursday, 23rd August I arrived at Leeds festival to set up for the weekend, and already there were grumblings among servers who'd been at Glastonbury in June. I discussed the issues with a fellow server from Liverpool, who complained that there had been a serious health and safety lapse, and that following an incident where one group had openly touted for tips, we would ALL now have to hand our tips over to the WBC's Clause IV fund. I was disgusted to discover that the money was earmarked for the building of a school in Gambia. Now obviously I want children in Africa to be educated same as anyone, but then so does the entire western ruling class. There's nothing radical about that. With a postal strike on, I wondered aloud why the money wasn't being donated to the strikers. Anyway, fuck that, I wanted my money, to do with as I pleased (including paying £4 per stodgy meal in the WBC compound)!

At breakfast time on Friday, I was approached by my colleague from Liverpool, who had a bundle of leaflets explaining the situation to our fellow workers. I distributed a few dozen of them, and was quickly collared by a WBC manager. He asked me lots of questions in an aggressive manner, disputed my right to hand out leaflets containing info about an incident I'd not seen (therefore undermining the whole basis of trade unionism), and warning I was making myself "look like a tit".

I was on late shift, so I and a few others shuttled round all the beer tents, talking to individuals from each one, and asking them to provide a delegate to report on their conditions to a meeting on Saturday morning. As we passed each other in the fields, us troublemakers encouraged each other by shouting things like 'all power in the hands of the workers'. By evening, rumours were circulating that the managers had come to an agreement over tips, so I was able to enjoy Nine Inch Nails and Smashing Pumpkins satisfied that I'd put in a good day's activism.

Saturday morning bright and early saw the first meeting of the servers' union, with about ten people present. We discussed problems that had arisen from Friday's shift, for instance that some managers were refusing their workers the twenty minutes break, which they claimed was not officially part of our contract. Someone noticed that our staff t-shirts (normally provided by the WBC's own 'Ethical Threads'), were now being supplied by notorious union-busters Fruit Of The Loom. What's more, we'd been promised an announcement on tips by 9.30, and that time had been and gone. We decided that we would openly keep the tips, and force the WBC's hand on the issue.

We had our final Leeds meeting on Sunday, the main point of which was to organise for next year's festivals and getting an internet group going. There were about twenty of us this time, the word having got out further over the past twenty-four hours. It had even got out to our colleagues serving at the Reading festival, but because the server activists were in a tiny minority there, they'd reportedly been threatened with the police! Even at Leeds, some managers had STILL been giving servers grief over the tips! Someone pointed out that legally the WBC didn’t have a leg to stand on, because if someone gives an individual money over and above what they are paying, it is up to that individual what they want to do with it. We resolved to spread the word to all server groups who work for the WBC at any festival, so they can all send one delegate to meetings in the future, and therefore we will be setting the agenda rather than responding to the WBC's diktats.

With many of the servers being Thatcher's children, it was a first taste of workplace activism for some of us, so that was really positive. In fact, it was one of the highlights of my festival, but then most of the music wasn't up to much.
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