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.


14 thoughts on “Workers Vs Workers Beer Company

  1. Jim Y.

    Adam, instead of starting a union from scratch have a look at the IWW’s website, and see if that will suit you and your workmates – are a union run by our members, no careerist officials, no connection to the TUC, or the Workers’ Beer Company. We’re small but we’re growing while others are shrinking.


  2. Southpawpunch

    That’s excellent activity Adam. I hope it goes wellMy view is to join the union that organises the majority of bar staff that are organised – I don’t know who that would be, but a TUC one – and to do this despite the bureaucrats that run it so that you are in with many fellow workers, rather than just a very small number of activists.


  3. Anonymous

    Adam, I totally agree with you – the WBC servers need a union. We’re in a very unique position as volunteer servers that other trade unions would have trouble representing.I was at the meeting that eventually occurred at Reading regarding tips and I was pleased to see management give in over something so utterly ridiculous.Keep us posted (and if you’re on Facebook, there is a WBC servers group)


  4. Anonymous

    Hey Adam,I was involved in the server action at Reading, where the managers were going to throw out Workers’ Liberty servers for collecting our tips for the postal workers, but following a mass meeting involving 60 of us back down on all counts and accepted the right to collect for whatever we want.We should definitely get going on pulling all this together.Get in touch if you want:


  5. Anonymous

    As usual rumour and rubbish take presidence over the truth. Nobody is ever interested in what actually happened. With regard to Reading it was only one group threatened with eviction from site and this was left for them to decide. I also notice nowhere has it been mentioned that the WBC manager actually appologised both to the group in question and generaly to all those present. I suppose it would not do to mention that would it. As a final aside given I know the person he was put in an incredibly difficult position,not being helped now with all the name calling going on but then people were never going to know the truth. not that I’m sure it would make a difference even though he said sorry


  6. Anonymous

    Can I point out that untill it was removed a blog on the AWL site said there tips from reading would be going to Radical Hation Union Batay Ouvrye not the CWU as stated. Any explanation especially as to why this dissapeared from the site ?


  7. Katy

    The health and safety situation is a tricky one. It’s outdoors and in a temporary structure with no taps, so is never going to be as good as your average workplace. Compared to the burger vans and recycling compounds on site it’s good, compared to a wetherspoons it’s bad. If I felt that the conditions were unsafe or that I was being badly treated I’d just quit my position until it got sorted. I’m not sure if a WBC servers’ union would be able to offer us much more than that tbh. What would you do?


  8. Adam Ford

    Jim: personally I might be in favour of afiliating with the IWW. It remains to be seen what others would think of that. However, I’m anticipating theoretical objections to IWW from some of my fellow servers.Reading peeps: congratulations on your action, it sounded horrible from our end! I might join Facebook just for that group.‘rubbish and rumour’ person: it was left to this ‘only one’ group whether they were chucked off site? That’s got to be one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard! Talk about doublespeak! Face it, you’ve become what you used to hate, and that’s all there is to it. But this isn’t about individuals – who might otherwise be ‘nice’ people or ‘apologise’ after they’ve acted like a dictator. This is about the profit system that the TUC have long since accommodated themselves to.Katy (as in THE Katy?): I don’t think it particularly matters whether other employers are worse in terms of health and safety, it’s about organising wherever you can to improve things. For me it was the tips that were the main issue, but there was apparently a problem at Glastonbury where a girl was forbidden to leave the site and get the medical treatment she needed. If something like this happens again, all servers need to walk out and take the person to hospital. Then we’ll see how big and scary the bureaucrats are with thousands of angry punters on their tail.


  9. Adam Ford

    Oh, and if anyone wants to read more comments on that, visit my < HREF="" REL="nofollow">Indymedia post<>.


  10. Kai Andersen

    I’ve been the server group organiser for the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) in Liverpool since 2003. I have kept my ears open to concerns over the past five years, spoken to numerous groups and servers, including the ‘Free Mark Barnsley’ campaign who I know were excluded in 2004, also to a few sympathetic and progressively minded tent managers too. As one of the union instigators (ie leaflet distributors at Leeds), along with a server friendly tent manager and a few other groups, I feel what we have in mind is absolutely essential. Of course there are practical problems.I raised the tips issue as I’d first heard about it from a union friend at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival (I go as a festival goer) the SLP don’t get invited as servers after we complained about WBC selling Coke Cola there in 2005, an example of victimisation. Selling Coke is another issue many are concerned with including those at the organising meetings at Leeds, along with ‘fruit of loom’ server T-Shirts, our team never got one, we got Jack Daniels shirts instead.The reactionary ‘tips’ decision of WBC, as contained in their server information sheets for Leeds/Reading, arose from the actions of an unknown three person team on the Mandela bar at Glastonbury (I was SLP team leader on that tent) they were touting/begging for tips, which should have been tackled on the first night by the tent manager, not tolerated for all three nights and then all server groups literally punished there-on from Tolpuddle to Leeds/Reading.I feel the ‘tips’ issue sums up the attitude of senior management towards servers, server groups and team leaders. It was also something on which we could unite as it’s something all servers, groups and team leaders would have an opinion on. When challenged by two senior management on site we said we want to keep our tips as server teams, which is as it always was, we said *they are legally ours. Even bar and restaurant workers aren’t deprived of the customer tips by their bosses. It’s quite obvious there is a communication ‘chasm’ between senior WBC management and server groups. Despite getting an agreement by senior management at Leeds that we keep our tips, this wasn’t communicated on-site at all. I left with ours (fully confident of *legality above) on Friday, Saturday and (after much nonsense from the bar manager that session) Sunday, they were divided up between our servers. The other server groups weren’t informed by management. I know we did try and inform as many server groups as possible.We were largely contained and controlled by management in terms of blocking our access to the microphone in the canteen on the Friday morning. We experienced the abrasive edge (true nature) of management. However because no single individual or server group at Leeds was left exposed in isolation management was on the back heel, that was our strength.I’ve just checked the IWW site, there’s an annual £12 even for unemployed members. I wouldn’t rule it out, it’s still an option. However for our servers £12 is half or a third of what the SLP pay as travel expenses to our once a year servers say at Leeds for example. We had servers at Glastonbury who weren’t at Leeds and vice-versa, most aren’t SLP members.I personally don’t want this initiative to slip by, I know it’s the quiet period between seasons, but a gathering in the early New Year would be a good move.There is a Yahoo message board for servers on the following link. So far only five of the 11 people who gave their email addresses at the Leeds meetings have subscribed. the issue alive and keep passing the message on. Kai Andersen


  11. brian

    I have eighteen years experience with the WBC and I am a Team Leader and Organiserfor ‘ Unison Kensington & Chelsea WBC Team ‘ and have worked at every possible event.I and my team was at Reading and I had a second Team at Leeds.I was also aware about the tip issue at Glastonbury but as this took place in a different tent I was not directly involved.I know everyone in the WBC Inner Council but for my own reasons I decided not to become a Manager.## by the way I have a full list { as accurate as it can be } of who is in the inner Council at are the people who decide on ‘ everything ‘Rather than dealing with Leeds I would prefer to make comment’s about Reading.{ 1 } there was a small meeting { 5 % } about the tips issue and three ‘ inner council Members ‘ did speak at the meeting.{ 2 } No one was ‘ threatened with the police ‘ and when you think about it the Police would not have become involved in the first place.——————Lets wind the clock back to Glastonbury and the reason why the whole issue of tips blow up.In one beer Tent a Team was spotted ‘ touting for tips ‘ which of course is not the same thing as a Customer offering a tip.The Team Leader was approached but he refused to stop the practice so the Inner Council got involved .It was the same Team who was ‘ involved ‘ with the meeting at Reading.—————The Inner Council will be holding a meeting later this year and the issue will be resolved.————————-I attend every WBC Organiser meeting held in London and the idea of a ‘ Server Union ‘ has been discussed over the years but lets look at this a bit deeper.If one was set up who would decide who should run it ?There is over two hundred Groups involved and new groups are taking on each year and other groups for various reasons drop out .If I or my Team has any problems I know exactly who to speak to and can get whatever sorted out in a flash and really every Team Leader/Organiser should know who to approach as well – if they don’t then they really don’t understand how the system works. The system is not perfect but really its a very good way to earn money for your good cause.Brian


  12. Anonymous

    The managers get a raw deal too, not just the servers.
    Will vent my spleen here once I have the final out come.


  13. Anonymous

    how come nothing has been said of the miners and all who have worked setting up for the WBC for years being told to accept a pay cut this year, and who consequently have all left and been replaced by cheaper labour?? this is a scandal from what i hear .. maybe i have heard wrong??


  14. Anonymous

    I've worked for WBC over the last 5/6 years and absolutely loved it at first. This year especially I've seen a deterioration in general atmosphere. I just didn't feel respected this year. I imagine the turnover will be huge now as many people said they would never go back after the way they were treated this year – in particular at Reading. Of course I will work for as long as they'll let me as I love the charity I work for and it's one of the only ways we make money. I'm just worried that joining a union would mean they won't pick us again – they just give me the impression that they have become that kind of company – exactly the reason I remain anonymous here.


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