At the monthly meeting of Battersea and Wandsworth Trades Union Council in spring 1980 there was a discussion as to how we should respond to a call from the national TUC to mark the first anniversary of the election of Margaret Thatcher’s government. The consensus was that the unions should be prepared for a long haul and that marching and street protests would not be enough to get a change of course in government economic and social policy. It was decided to stage a free concert on Clapham Common to rally the anti-Tory forces in the area for a day of fun and politics.
Peter Clay and I were allocated the job of organising a bar at the festival. This was the political genesis of what five years later led BWTUC to set up a separate company wholly owned by the trades union council. I was elected to chair a volunteer committee to oversee the operations.
What can be easily missed from this history is the extent of the defeats and setbacks the labour movement endured in the 1980s. Some five million manufacturing jobs migrated to China and other low-cost nations, leaving millions of UK trade union members out of work. The miners’ union was defeated and most of the mines closed. Bastions of the movement like the printers were wiped away by ruthless newspaper owners armed with new technology. Local councils and hospitals outsourced ancillary services, which were de-unionised.
Numbers attending meetings of BWTUC dwindled as the factories on the Thames and the Wandle closed and council services were de-unionised. It was not obvious that the organisation set up in 1894 would survive. There can be no question that without the decision to set up a trading arm to raise funds, it would have gone the way of neighbouring trades union councils that have not survived.
Running the bars was always a means to an end. The purpose was to raise funds to stop the decline in the unions in the area and to re-unionise the outsourced services. This has been done. The 30th anniversary is a tribute to the tenacity, drive, passion, courage and stamina of the volunteers who kept going against all the odds.
One aspect of the Workers Beer Company is its impact on the working lives of people who volunteered. Many who in their day jobs had run-of-the-mill roles were given responsibility for bars with dozens of staff serving thousands of customers. These workers were able to use the confidence gained to progress in their careers.
I would like to place on record our sincere gratitude to all those who served on the Management Committee, those who worked in the office, all the servers and volunteer managers in the bars and the suppliers and contractors who helped us to become one of the premier festival bar operators in the UK and Ireland. We thank the organisations that supply the servers year in and year out.
We owe a big thank you to Michael Eavis, who gave us the break 30 years ago and has continued to have faith in us, to Melvin Benn, a founder member of WBC now head of Festival Republic, to Vince Power of Mean Fiddler, and to Denis Desmond at MCD. Without support from these music promoters the company could not survive in what is a highly competitive commercial environment.
For the future, BWTUC is looking to help develop technology to enable millions of workers in free trade zones around the world, manufacturing merchandise on sale in UK high streets, to unionise their workplaces to improve their living standards. The technology should enable shoppers to establish conditions of the workforce in the supply chain of UK retailers.
We should not forget that in 1979 there were 120 million trade union members worldwide and the numbers have grown to nearly 170 million now. Workers Beer Company is an innovative part of this international movement for economic and social justice.
I am proud to have served as the volunteer chair of the Management Committee and as a member of the Executive Committee of BWTUC over the 30 years. Our Tony Benn Tower in Glastonbury is a beacon of hope for the continued success of this international movement.
Workers Beer Company