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The people’s republic of south London

Guest editor NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear begins Red Pepper's trade union special with a celebration of the uniquely holistic approach to workplace, cultural and consumer activism of the Battersea and Wandsworth TUC. And the BWTUC's Geoff Martin describes how his organisation developed the Left Field at Glastonbury.

September 1, 2003
7 min read

The people’s republic of south London

By Jeremy Dear

The unions should be at the fucking centre of it, driving the movement for social justice, igniting the connection between global solidarity, trade unions and what goes on in your workplace and community. If we”re not doing that, what are we here for?” Geoff Martin, lead organiser at Battersea and Wandsworth TUC (BWTUC) is always passionate about the fight for social justice – whether it’s in the workplaces of south London, the sweatshops of Bangladesh or the towns and cities of Palestine and Colombia.

Geoff is part of a team that has dared to put its principles into practice, demonstrating a sense of innovation and campaigning zeal that led Britain’s original Thatcherite council, the London borough of Wandsworth, to dub the BWTUC “the real opposition”.

The BWTUC, my local trades council, is different. It established 20 years ago the Workers Beer Company, which mobilises 3,000 young people every year to work behind the bars at festivals like Glastonbury. It owns and runs the Bread and Roses pub in Clapham. It employs union organisers to run its high street organising centre in Tooting. It has worked with the GMB to establish the fair trade clothing brand Ethical Threads. And in the past two years it has launched Glastonbury’s Left Field – an attempt to bring trade unionism to a new audience.

Geoff explains what sets the BWTUC apart. “We have an advantage in that we”ve been able to use money from the Workers Beer Company, but more importantly we have ideas and commitment.

“Our movement is crying out for a way to engage young people, who often see us as dusty and boring. We”re proving there’s a different way.

“If someone has the principles to be buying fair-trade coffee, then surely they ought also to be a member of a trade union and taking those principles into their workplace. Our initiatives are providing a link between solidarity in the workplace, the community and internationally.”

Fellow BWTUC worker Aiden Grimes insists theirs is not a “freak operation”. “If the trade union movement diverted just 2-3 per cent of its resources down to building vibrant local organisations it would reap the benefits. In many ways it is a failure of imagination.”

The BWTUC can point to a long list of successes. It was the BWTUC that forced the council to build more affordable housing in the borough. Currently, it is seeking a judicial review of the failure of developers to provide sufficient affordable homes at the new Battersea Power Station development. It is the trades council that commissioned and publicised a major report into corporate killers (it picketed local employers as part of the campaign). Its Workers Beer server teams at Glastonbury and other festivals are increasingly made up of local activists. Many of these mainly young people go on to become active in other campaigns (such as the recent FBU solidarity group).

As Martin says: “It is not just about coming to Glastonbury but about getting involved. Who else mobilises 3,000 young people every year and exposes them to so many political campaigns? Once people have worked they are on our mailing list and are sent information about industrial disputes, the anti-war movement and so on. By working they have raised £2m for grassroots campaigns. Through all this we can prove the relevance of trade unions to younger people.

“There is a turnaround in the unions, with the election of more left-wingers, which shows we”re winning the industrial arguments, showing we understand it’s not about cutting deals with the bosses or government. But we”re missing a trick if we don”t roll that out into other areas – education, cultural, political activity.

“We are building this trades council into an effective political operation, building an activist base, helping educate people to take on a workplace and community role. We are giving people a sense of their own power to go out and effect change. In that sense anyone can do it.”

Saving Glastonbury from the music industry

By Geoff Martin

We set out to nail the lie that young people aren”t interested in politics and the trade union principles of collective strength and support. We saw ourselves as the heirs to the radical cutting edge of the Glastonbury Festival – an edge some cynics suggested had been lost in recent years.

This year was our second. Last year was about establishing the Left Field, this year about building on it. With the support of the Co-operative Bank and insurance groups and the Workers Beer Company, we were able to pump up the scale of the Left Field.

With Derbyshire offshoot Clause IV in the production hot seat we delivered what many regarded as the best presented area anywhere at Glastonbury. We”re proud we achieved this from within the ranks of the trade union movement.

Anti-Nazi League spin-off Love Music Hate Racism programmed the first night. The Left Field was jammed and got off to a flying start. The next day was filled with debates, visuals, music and the launch of the Roadcrew Provident Syndicate (RPS) – a GMB section designed to represent bands” roadies. The RPS was driven by Billy Bragg and Asian Dub Foundation tour manager Andy James.

Later that evening we screened the first ever showing of The Last Night London Burned, a film celebrating Joe Strummer’s last ever London gig, and a benefit for striking firefighters. Bill Spiers from the STUC and Davey Patton from the FBU came to speak and ended up immersed in the spirit of Glastonbury. Both have offered to come back as stewards next year.

At the base of the War on Want-supported Left Field tower, the union recruitment campaign was generating huge interest. The “My boss is a bastard because…” banner was filling up with workplace horror stories and, in many cases, good old gratuitous abuse at the bosses” expense.

Tony Benn made a triumphant return on Saturday, and was joined by Bianca Jagger for the “Blood for Oil” debate. Tony later performed his musical set – The Writing on the Wall – with Roy Bailey. Mark Thomas, Mark Steele and others helped punch the Left Field message home in fine style.

Mark Thomas homed in on the sex workers’ union banner, saying that he couldn”t wait until it pulled a national strike and the army were called up to stand in for them.

The deadly serious nature of union activity was reinforced by Francisco Ramirez from the Colombian Miners” Union. He spoke about the routine assassination of trade unionists in Colombia by right-wing death squads. And comrades from Justice for Colombia toured the Glasto site in paramilitary gear, explaining what was going down in Colombia.

Come Sunday, Asian Dub Foundation came over from the main stage to DJ for us and Billy Bragg gave it full throttle to the approval of a packed tent and the NUJ crew staffing the bar. The Ethical Threads outlet, selling nothing but shirts from ethical sources, sold out.

So what’s the message? It’s not just that we”re capable of running and programming a main stage at Glastonbury; it’s that there are ways the Labour movement can reach out to the young people that we need to take us forward into the future. We”ve shown it can be done, and there are ready takers who want to get involved. Young members’ sections in a number of unions are already working with us to develop the Left Field idea and spread it wider.

We need resources to take this on to the next level. The demographics of trade union membership are there for all of us to see. We need to address this issue.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
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