Radicalising philanthropy at the grassroots

piles of pound coins
The Edge Fund aims to eliminate barriers to funding Images_of_Money, under a CC License

Activists from marginalized communities and radical groups often face barriers when trying to access funding for their campaigns. This can be because sources of finance are interwoven, to varying degrees, with existing power structures, or else because traditional charity fails to deal with the root causes of injustice.

A new independent grant-making body in Britain is hoping to tackle these issues by taking a different approach to funding grassroots activism. On Saturday 16 March the Edge Fund – an open body consisting of activists, donors and people in communities facing oppression – will give out its first round of grants to groups that challenge systemic inequalities.

The fund was created following a series of meetings involving 50 participants with experience of a range of issues, such as anti-racism, climate change, Palestine, migrant rights, disabled people, LGBTQ, Travellers and Occupy.

They felt that even well-intentioned funding bodies can inadvertently put up obstacles to those most affected by societal inequities, whether it be because applicants are not in the ‘right networks’, au fait with jargon, or due to language and literacy hurdles they may face.

Another troubling aspect of conventional, top-down philanthropy for people who believe in radical equality is the hierarchical dynamic it sets up, where the donor holds all the power and decides who receives what – and why.

In contrast, the Edge Fund’s kitty comes from a range of small and large donors with a membership of 25 individuals. The plan is to broaden the supply of financing in the future through crowd-sourcing in order to democratize how that money is distributed.

Rather than awaiting a decision made behind closed doors, representatives from the final 15 groups, whittled down from the 334 which originally applied, will meet with the fund’s membership on 16 March to be involved in the decision-making process.

Edge Fund launch party
The Edge Fund launch party in December 2012 Edge Fund

The aim is for each round of funding to have a pot of between £40,000 and £50,000 ($59,800 and $74,700) with maximum grants of £5,000 ($7,500), and three rounds to be held each year.

Those on the inaugural shortlist include Disabled People Against the Cuts, Million Women Rise, Foil Vedanta, Fuel Poverty Action and 8 April Movement, among others.

At the heart of the funding criteria are groups which are most affected by an issue and at its forefront.

‘This is because if we want real, long-lasting change it has to come from the bottom up and it has to be people taking back control over their lives,’ explains Joe Ryles, who has been involved in the Edge Fund since it was first conceived more than a year ago.

‘The idea is to be as open and transparent as possible, and to break down the power structures that usually exist between funders and applicants so that people are making decisions on an equal level.

‘We are offering a different model and vision which involves critical decisions being made collectively, by those who donate money and those who receive it.

‘So we are supporting groups which are grassroots-led and which do not suffer from the growing ‘professionalization’ of activism, where salaries from large charities and other organizations have diluted people’s politics and often distanced them from the grassroots.’

For more information, including how to make a donation or join the Edge Fund, go to their website.

‘Grow Heathrow’ could change housing law

Grow Heathrow grew out of resistance against airport expansion. Photo: Abby Lanes, under a CC License.

A group of squatters who transformed a strip of disused land in the outer reaches of London into a community garden will today find out whether they are to be evicted, in a case that could carry implications for the thousands of people living in precarious housing in Britain.

Standing on the site of a former market garden in Sipson village, West London, Grow Heathrow was set up three years ago when climate activists and local residents opposed to the planned expansion of nearby Heathrow Airport took over the derelict land and removed 30 tonnes of rubbish.

Where once stood mountains of junk and discarded car parts, there are now refurbished greenhouses teeming with organic produce, a bike workshop, free shop and art space that visitors are invited to get involved with. A homemade wind turbine spins above huts and tents, generating electricity for the group of around 15 occupants who hold a programme of regular events and courses on food growing, metal work and sustainability.

With Sipson lying directly in the path of Heathrow’s proposed third runway, there is broad support among the local community, for which the site acts as a base to organize against the threat of bulldozers. Chillies grown in the gardens go to a local curry restaurant and even the local Member of Parliament is on board. ‘We have a real sense of community here thanks to Grow Heathrow. If they had a legal standing they could do a lot more, such as invite schools down for workshops,’ says Tracey, a youth worker and mum of two who lives in the village.

Not so keen, however, is the landowner, who is taking action to have the members of Grow Heathrow, who are technically trespassers, evicted. The squatters say they tried to negotiate to lease or buy the land but were met with no response, even after a lower court instructed the owner to enter discussions.

Now a judge in the Court of Appeal, England and Wales’ second-highest court of law, will decide whether their argument – which focuses on the right to a home and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights – has merit.

‘At question is whether there should be an assessment of whether the landowner’s move to evict was proportionate, or if other actions should have been considered first,’ says May Mackenzie, a member of Growth Heathrow.

They are appealing as to whether an eviction should have been served immediately by the court, and highlight the impact that the removal of Grow Heathrow could have on the people who consider it home and the local community.

This could fundamentally change housing law: if successful, it could mean that all private landlords would be held to account on this requirement, whereas at present it only applies to public authorities, explains Jayesh Kunwardia, Partner in the Housing team at Hodge Jones & Allen, which is representing them.

At a time of rocketing rents and recession, the squatters’ case draws a link between the staggering number of empty buildings and the acute shortage of housing in Britain; in essence a challenge to laws that prioritise a landlord’s right to leave a property vacant. With 710,000 homes lying empty at last count, this is especially pertinent after it was made a criminal offence to squat residential properties – even if left unoccupied for years – in 2011.

No matter how distant the prospect of a legal victory may be, Grow Heathrow is confident it will be celebrating its third birthday this March, assures Mary Mackenzie: ‘There’s a long time before we will be leaving the land and a lot we can do for the community. The implications of the hearing reach way beyond this site.’

‘Mockery’ made of London cleaners’ living wage

Protest outside Société Générale. Photo: Valeryus Theofanidis, reproduced with permission of the IWGB.

London is one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in – especially if you are on low wages. So there was a sense of relief when cleaners working night shifts at the British offices of Société Générale, France’s second-largest bank, were granted a ‘living wage’ at the start of September.

Yet just three weeks later they learnt that their working hours would be cut in half – effectively cancelling out the pay rise. For the workforce of seven, this is not simply a case of giving with one hand and taking with the other. At a time of recession, with jobs hard to come by, they fear it will push them into poverty.

Libia Avellano says she cannot accept the altered shift times as they would interfere with her other daytime job: ‘I work 15 hours a day. My husband has heart problems and hasn’t been able to work for two years. I support him and my children as well as sending money back to my parents in Ecuador. I don’t know what I will do.’

Industrial Workers of Great Britain (IWGB), the union representing the workers, believes the move to slash hours is linked to the award of the London Living Wage – an hourly pay rate of £8.30 ($13.32), higher than the national minimum wage of £6.19 ($9.93), in recognition of the expense of life in the capital. Recommended by the Mayor of London as making ‘good business sense’, it is not, however, legally binding, so companies are free to choose whether to pay it or not.

Initial Facilities Services (IFS), the cleaning contractor which employs the workers, strenuously denies the union’s claim and insists the new working system is an industry-wide standard aimed at improving efficiency. The bank, meanwhile, emphasizes that it is not the employer and says it has encouraged IFS to provide additional hours for those affected.

But a briefing document from earlier in the year indicates that the pay rise and alteration of working hours – the shift times being changed from 9pm-5am to 7pm-11pm – are integral parts of a new system requested by the bank in order to make ‘cost savings’.

In response, the cleaners have taken their grievance to the street with demonstrations outside Société Générale, highlighting what they say is ‘hypocrisy’ on the part of the bank for promoting activities aimed at reducing unemployment through its Charitable Trust Fund while ‘impoverishing low-paid workers even further’.

Yet the protests have landed them in hot water: IWGB claims that three of the workforce have been suspended as a result. IFS refutes this, saying that some have taken voluntary redundancy, and adding that the new system is proof of the ‘the availability of flexible working hours’ for families with children.

The union is now calling for the workers to be reinstated on full hours. And following the success of similar ‘bread and roses’ campaigns for dignified wages and conditions in the capital, they are hopeful. Otherwise, says IWGB general secretary Chris Ford, it means the cleaners will be ‘even poorer than before’ and it risks ‘making a mockery of the Living Wage’.

For some there is little choice but to return on reduced hours. One worker, who has been with IFS for four years but did not wish to be named out of fear, said they would work the new shift – but ‘under protest’:  ‘I will do it but I do not accept it. I have no other choice: I have a family to feed. [IFS] are trying to get rid of us and replace us with people who can be exploited more easily.’

John Lewis’ cleaners fight back

John Lewis’ cleaners in London, fed up with trying to survive on the minimum wage, balloted for strike action on Wednesday. Ninety per cent voted 'yes' and the strike will take place on Friday 13 July.

When the UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said that employees should be able to own the firms they work for to ‘create happy employees and successful companies,’ the model he had in mind was that of department store John Lewis.

In essence a huge co-operative, the company consists of 77,000 ‘partners’ who all have a say in its running and a share in the profits. Despite the economic downturn it has continued to grow and for these reasons its admirers cite it as an example of ‘responsible capitalism’.

Behind the shiny image, John Lewis’ spirit of fraternity does not extend to everybody working in its shops. Inside its flagship store on London’s Oxford Street, the city’s main shopping boulevard, are some of the country’s lowest-paid workers: cleaners, who earn the minimum wage of £6.08 an hour.

Now half the team of 28 is facing redundancies, while the remainder could see their working hours cut by 50 per cent. They are resisting this move and at the same time demanding to be paid the London Living Wage, a non-binding standard of £8.30 per hour that reflects the high cost of living in the capital.

In the process their campaign has called into question the practices of one of Britain’s supposedly most ‘ethical employers’, while bringing to the fore the army of ‘invisible’ workers without whom London could not function.

‘We are being treated as second class citizens,’ says cleaner Elkin Acevedo. ‘How am I meant to bring anything home to my family after my hours are cut?’

The reason this can happen within such a vaunted co-operative is because the cleaning work is outsourced to a subcontractor. As a result the cleaners enjoy none of the rights or benefits of the John Lewis partnership. Instead their employer is another company, Integrated Cleaning Management (ICM), which says cuts are necessary due to economic conditions.

Chris Ford, organiser of the cleaners’ union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), points to John Lewis’ £353 million profits and the fact that ICM is now owned by the world’s largest catering company, Compass. He believes the cleaners are being squeezed because the subcontractor bid purposely low in order to win the contract and now cannot make ends meet.

‘They expect the cleaners to do the same amount of work with half the workforce. It is a false economy,’ he said. ‘ICM has cleaned the store for four years and there was no problem before’.

Yenny Arias, a single mother with three teenage children, has cleaned toilets in the building for ten years and spoke of a sense of ‘betrayal’ by John Lewis.

‘I spend £42 a week on a transport pass and it is a struggle already,’ she says. When my kids are on holiday they have to stay at home and I cannot afford luxuries for them. It is sad that John Lewis doesn’t care about the cleaners’.

Despite negotiations last week, the union says that ICM and the company to which it is contracted, MML, refused to offer anything other than 24p extra per hour with no agreements on redundancies. For their part, MML and ICM say it is ‘incorrect’ to say that no new deal was brought to the table. John Lewis meanwhile insists it has no part to play.

Buoyed by the recent successes of the IWW Cleaners’ Branch, which has won the Living Wage and prevented job losses at other sites in the city, the cleaners are now being balloted for strike action. Whatever the outcome of the dispute, the ideal of co-operative capitalism in the UK comes out tarnished.

Move Your Money campaign launches

Outside the branch of Barclay’s bank in Holborn, central London, there is a queue of people snaking around the building. As they wait for it to open on this cold morning it is reminiscent of the scenes of panicked depositors who in 2007 caused the first run on a bank in 150 years, as the stricken Northern Rock became the first major casualty of the credit crunch.

But the while the 50 or so people are here to withdraw their money, it is for reasons other than fears over the bank’s solvency.

Bank protest
Photograph by Tim Hunt

Billed by organisers as a 'Better Bailout', this is the launch event of the Move Your Money, a campaign calling on people in the UK to abandon major financial institutions. The aim is to encourage individuals to use their collective consumer power to build a better banking system by withdrawing their money and placing it in an “ethical and socially useful alternative”.

On the day it announced quarterly profits of £5.9bn and a bonus pool of £1.5bn, Barclay's has been chosen as the first target due to the implicit £11bn guarantee it enjoys courtesy of the taxpayer – while public services are cut across the country.

Louis Brookes, 25, who works in community finance, helped organize the event. He says: “We are here because we believe the banking system doesn’t work in the interest of ordinary people and communities. We are calling on people to take their money out of the big banks and put it in more ethical alternatives, such as credit unions, small building societies and ethical investment banks such as Triodos”.

Some say they are here to close their accounts or withdraw savings in protest at what they see as the Barclay’s complicity in triggering the economic crisis.

For others, it is a question of what the bank does with their money. Molly Solomons, 26, who works for a housing charity, has been a Barclay’s customer for six years. She says she is removing her money to make sure that it wouldn’t “be used for [investment in] environmentally destructive practices like tar sands [oil] extraction”.

Student Portia Roelofs, 22, was one of the many people who, although not a customer, came to deliver a letter of complaint to the Barclay’s branch. This letter set out her discontent with its activities that include investment in the arms trade, involvement in food speculation and its alleged support of oppressive regimes such Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

She says: “It is a story that everyone knows but no-one is taking responsibility for. The banks are responsible for the economic crisis. We have got to say that we have had enough and this is a good way of doing it.”

Organisers are hoping to emulate the success of a similar campaign in America, which has resulted in $57,210,999 being moved from targeted institutions. They cite the success of historic boycott campaigns such as that which lead Barclay's to withdraw from Apartheid South Africa.

With anti-bank sentiment still running high in Britain – public outcries have led to the former head of the part-nationalised Royal Bank of Scotland Fred Goodwin being stripped of his knighthood, while current chief Stephen Hester was pressed into forgoing a bonus payment – there is scope for the rage to be converted into action.

This could prove a further boon for alternative and community finance, which has expanded in recent years. Credit unions, which are financial co-operatives democratically owed by their members, saw growth of 40 per cent in membership between 2007 and 2010.

Molly Solomon sums up the sentiment: “Why should you keep all your hard-earned money with a rotten bank like Barclay’s when you can keep it somewhere better?”


A few of the 25,000 London marchers.  Photo by Michael Pooler.

On Wednesday more than two million public sector workers brought public services to a standstill in the largest single strike that the country has seen since 1926.

Workers including teachers, physiotherapists, nurses, librarians, and weather forecasters took to picket lines and demonstrations in a confrontation with the government over cuts to pensions. The proposals would see workers pay more but receive less with the retirement age raised, as the government finds ways to lower the structural deficit.

The effects were widely felt: two thirds of schools were closed, 6,000 non-urgent hospital operations cancelled, bins left uncollected and transport disrupted. Hundreds of regional marches and rallies were held up and down the country with large turnouts.

Outside the gates of Lewisham Hospital in London, drivers beeped their horns in support while many passers-by and patients stopped to wish strikers well.

Pyschologist Jo McKay, 58, said the strikes are about protecting the quality of public services: ‘Many jobs in the NHS involve physically demanding work. What the government forgets is the long-term implications of being in front-line jobs. Would you really want a 68-year-old, who may be older than you, loading you into an ambulance when you've had a heart attack?’

At the 25,000-strong London march there was a lively and buoyant mood. Notably present were many who will not be directly affected by the reforms.

Helen LeBeady of Lambeth Pensioners Action Group was out ‘as a former worker showing solidarity.’

‘We support fair pensions for all,’ she says. ‘There are already many pensioners suffering poverty and we don't want that for the generation to come’.

Talil, a 16-year-old college student, was marching with his friends. He said: ‘We want to have jobs in the public service when we are older – as nurses, radiographers, in local government – so we are here to support its future.’

In the run-up to and aftermath of the event a media war was launched by the government to discredit strikers, repeating the slogan that ‘we are in all this together’ and painting public sector workers as greedy.

But contrary to the education minister’s accusation that the strikers were ‘itching for a fight’, for many workers it was their first time taking industrial action. Professions such as head teachers, chiropodists and podiatrists had never before voted to strike, indicating their reluctance to take strike action as a last resort due to what many see as government intransigence.

Government claims that the unions’ intent was to force ‘mothers to give up a day's work or pay for expensive childcare’ were rubbished by Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), who told the London rally that N30 represented the ‘largest ever strike of women’ in the country.

While the official reason of the dispute is pensions, the strikes are undeniably political in character. Against the broader context of deep cuts to public services, the strikes sound a note of challenge to the government's austerity drive to plug public finances – a contest on political terrain against the imposition of lowered living standards.

In the words of Luke Evans, a 27-year-old research assistant at Goldsmiths College, the strikes ‘can act as a lightning rod for all the general discontent against the government and the unions can be a framework for popular action.’

N30 also marked the first major mass outing of trade unions since the historic industrial defeats of the miners and print workers in the 1980s, which, coupled with draconian legislation, effectively ended the combative role of trade unions as a bulwark against capital. But now a new confidence seems to be flowing, matched by a strong grass-roots support and resonating in the fiery language of union leaders.

Prime Minister David Cameron dismissed strikers as ‘irresponsible’ and their action as ineffective. But whether cast as a ‘damp squib’ or lions flexing their claws, they have undoubtedly made a mark on the political landscape, with some polls indicating a majority public support – although how long this can continue when other workers are negatively affected remains to be seen.

N30 has ratcheted up the tension between a government intent on forcing through austerity measures and a workforce unwilling to pay for a crisis it feels it did not cause. With another recession on the horizon, and those on low incomes targeted by the chancellor's budget statement this week, the battle lines are drawn: expect to see more in the coming months.

Sparks rise up against pay cuts

It is 7.45 on a chilly Wednesday morning with winter approaching. The crowd of around 100 or so men – some wearing hi-visibility jackets, others with hard hats in hand, a few with placards – have already been here for more than an hour and are fairly quiet as they stand outside the entrance gates to the construction works site of Farringdon underground station in London.

What may look like a mass cigarette break is in fact what has become a weekly protest by construction sector electricians. Since the end of August, electricians working on large sites around the capital have downed their tools and staged walk-outs each Wednesday morning in opposition to a move by employers that would see their pay cut by up to 35 per cent.

The trigger came in May, when the so-called ‘Big Eight’ electrical contractors – including Balfour Beatty, NG Engineering and Shepherd Engineering – unilaterally decided to tear up a sector-wide agreement that had regulated pay and conditions for over 40 years.

In September around 1,700 Employees of Balfour Beatty were then sent 90-day notices of termination – leaving them the choice to either accept the new contracts with massive pay cuts, or be forced to 'surrender' their jobs.

Previously workers were paid rates according to their trade – both a recognition of skill levels and a compromise on the part of employers in order to avoid industrial strife. But this new deal imposed by the companies would mean differential rates of pay based on the type of work done.

Heads within the industry say that the changes come because of the need for ‘multi-skilled teams’, while reductions in expenses are due to changed travel patterns – even saying that some workers will see pay increases. Furthermore they have criticized the union for 'not negotiating'.

But crucially, it would see their current rate of pay - £16 per hour – reduced to £14 for connecting cables, £12 for wiring and just over £10 for metalwork. The organizing union Unite estimates that in total approximately 6,000 workers are to be affected.

For those involved in the dispute, pay isn't the only issue at stake.

‘This is also about deskilling,’ says Steve Kelly, Unite London Construction Branch secretary. ‘The employers want to get rid of skilled tradesmen for what they see as semi-skilled work. Under the new contracts they would be able to lay workers off when they decide that there is no work. We are trying to get other trades involved, as they are likely to be targeted next.’

In London over the past two months there have been walk-outs and road blocks on major construction sites including Kings Cross Station, Blackfriar's and Cannon Street, with the weekly protest rotating and drawing in at least 200 workers and supporters.

These scenes are now being replicated across the country, as what started out as a rank-and-file movement organized by local committees spreads to other large work sites. Regular protests are now being held at major sites in Manchester, Newcastle, the Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria and Ratcliffe power station near Nottingham.

Two weeks ago Unite held a national day of action timed to coincide with a student march and London-based workers have linked up with activists at the St. Paul's Occupy protest.

The next few weeks will be critical in the next stage of the sparks' struggle, with the general strikes on 29 November bringing huge attention to the cause. A further day of action is expected for December 7 – the same day that the dismissal notices are to take effect – in what could prove to be a head-to-head battle in the sector.

Student protests: the return to the streets

Last November students set the capital ablaze when what was supposed to be a conventional march, organized by the moderate National Union of Students (NUS), turned into an explosion of rage against the coalition government's plan to withdraw state funding of universities and triple tuition fees.

Now, a year on, they are out on the streets of London again. On Wednesday around 5,000 students assembled in London in response to the call-out from the National Campaign Against Cuts and Fees (NCACF) in defence of public education and against the tide of privatization.

The day itself passed off largely without incident. There was the typically tickling display of placards, creative theatricality, dubstep-blaring sound systems and even a few dozen in black uniform who tussled with police and broke a few windows. In emulation of 'Occupy St Paul's' around the corner, there was also a brief attempt by scores of protesters to pitch up camp at Trafalgar Square which was met with swift and decisive force by police.

In the light of the protest movements that have shaken the globe this year, Wednesday may have seemed relatively timid. Certainly in comparison with the wave of student protests last winter, which saw turnouts of 50,000 in London and unprecedented mobilizations across the country, the numbers were disappointing.

Conspicuously absent were the droves of college and school pupils, who last year provided much of the raw impetus and energy at demonstrations. For many of them it was a radicalizing experience, for others just a good excuse to bunk off school. But as those who had the most to lose – both through Educational Maintenance Allowances and high university fees – where were they today?

The Metropolitan Police's media campaign in the run-up – warning of plastic bullets and distributing leaflets warning people of the potential legal repercussions of participating – may well have played a part in discouraging many from exercising their democratic rights to protest and assembly. 

Similarly the press were more than happy to go along with the scaremongering. The day before, the London Evening Standard devoted a double-page spread to that familiar bogeyman of the window-smashing anarchist intent on ‘unleashing a sea of rage’ – mentioning only an obscure blog as its source. The Telegraph, running a similar article, even admitted that officers had ‘no specific intelligence of violence’.

The Met's approach on the day was emblematic of the 'total policing' espoused by their new chief. A huge police presence almost dwarfed the protesters and accounts of plain clothes grabbing protestors, a section 60 order empowering officers to force the removal of masks (on pain of arrest) and a suffocating escort that decided when and where the march went were also conspicuous.

This was no doubt a reaction to the tumult of the summer's riots and disorderliness of the union-organized anti-austerity demonstration on March 26. But it was also a foretaste of an arguably tightening grip on civil liberties in the anticipation of more social and industrial unrest ahead.

Ultimately last year's defeat – marked by the passing of the measures – must be acknowledged as a factor that crushed spirits and means almost starting again from scratch. Yet despite the muted tone, Wednesday's event cannot be underestimated.

Most notably there was the presence of electricians involved in a dispute over a 35 per cent pay cut who, despite the police's best attempts to kettle them, eventually managed to join with the students. While this is only a beginning, it has the potential to lead to a greater solidarity and shared political identity between quite disparate sections of society – following in the footsteps of the alliance of anti-austerity activists with healthcare trade unions.

And not only were the terms of the mobilization much broader than those set out last year by the NUS, who showed themselves to be completely out of step with the pace and dynamism of the 'real' movement. Instead of merely negotiating a ‘fairer deal’ – crumbs from the privatized table – there is the start of an articulation of an ideological alternative.

The greatest achievement of political and economic elites over the past 20 years has been to convince us that policy is a technical area, only to be dabbled in by specialists and economists, not open to or comprehensible by the majority. 

But now, replacing the tiresome and meaningless mantra of 'free education', there is a vision – based upon principles of what public service is – that strikes a hammer at the heart of the dominant view of education as just another 'commodity'.

The 'Alternative Education White Paper', authored by lecturers' union UCU is a good starting point. And the next student mobilization – taking place locally on November 23 – will show what these ideas can translate to on the ground.

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