Inside Freedom: Corporate Watch

Part of a new series on the groups inside the building at 84b Angel Alley — aka some of the folks who are benefiting from getting Freedom’s rebuild sorted! 

How did CW originally get together?

Corporate Watch grew out of the anti-roads direct action movement of the 1990s – the same handful of companies kept turning up, and everyone needed information about who these companies were, how they operated and where their weak points were. A group of people started finding this information (which pre-universal-internet was a lot harder), which then directly informed the protest tactics and strategies.

Soon protesters took the campaign to the builders’ doorstops and occupied their offices rather than just waiting for the companies to come to them. Corporate Watch’s first publication was a booklet called DBFO — Destroy! Burn! Fell! Obliterate! — it was written in May 1995 and uncovered the companies, lobby groups and government departments behind the Design Build Finance & Operate road building schemes of the mid-1990s.

 How has the organisation changed over the last 20 or so years?

Corporate Watch has been through several different phases. After the road protest period Corporate Watch came back as a bi-monthly magazine. The first issue was out in September 1996 and included articles on the bigger corporations just then coming under concerted attack — McDonalds, British Aerospace (now BAE Systems), RTZ (now Rio Tinto group), as well as a DIY Guide to researching corporations (which we updated in 2014). At this stage Corporate Watch was still unfunded and no one was paid – the magazine was photocopies and hand stapled. All in all the Corporate Watch magazine ran to 12 issues between 1996 and 2000, going online from 1997. In this period Corporate Watch also produced the GM-info website featuring an interactive map of the UK GM crops industry, field trials and all.

It was through working on particular issues in depth like this that prompted CW to slim down the magazine to a more frequent newsletter and to focus attention on the website and thematic reports. These provided analysis of more structural issues, often neglected by activists and the mainstream media, including the legal structures of corporations, the public relations industry, supermarket dominance and techonofixes to climate change. CW has continued to produce thematic reports (and now books) since this point. It was during this period that CW also produced its online corporate profiles — in depth examinations of the key companies in particular sectors including arms, biotechnology, food, construction, pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, privatised services and the public relations industry.

In 2008 CW moved to London as the old office in Oxford was scheduled for demolition — to make way for new eco-homes! In 2009 it moved to a small but cheap office above the Freedom bookshop, where we are now. Around this point the news project was once again transformed, and CW resumed the thematic quarterly magazine format. This meant we could produce both emerging news stories and comment online, as well as the more thematic investigations on a diverse range of topics in print. From this point the magazine was edited collectively by the whole co-op rather than being the responsibility of one single editor.

Since then we have decided, given the context of falling magazine sales, to concentrate our energies on publications and articles, and so no longer produce a magazine at all. Instead we have revamped our website to ensure that our material — whether news or analysis — is easily located by theme. And we now produce longer books, handbooks and online articles, as well as maintaining a monthly email update to keep our readers updated.

Overall there have probably been about 35 Corporate Watchers, five offices, three websites and three libel threats (all dropped)!

Any of the original team still in touch?

Not really but the current generation are still in touch with some of the previous generation (from 10 plus years ago) and with people who’ve left over the past 8 years. We also have former members on our advisory group, which provides some useful organisational memory. Some of the founding members went on to denounce grassroots activism in favour of electric cars and the like!

How was it funded in the early days?

For the first few years CW didn’t get any funding or donations or anything. Then in 1999 Corporate Watch became a workers’ co-operative, putting ideas of non-hierarchical organisation and consensus decision making into practice. CW already had a reputation for high quality research, and focusing on themed projects were able to receive some grant funding, first to cover office rent and printing costs, and then, as it became increasingly difficult to conduct this work without an income or on the dole, for subsistence wages for all staff. Of course, Corporate Watch’s readers have always supported us through donations and purchases, but we have always made sure our work is available for free online, so are unable, currently, to support ourselves through sales and donations only (but this is our dream – and if you can help us out please do! (Donations here)

What were some early scoops?

Corporate Watch was instrumental in providing information and analysis on the GM industry to campaigners and activists, from the first stirrings of grassroots resistance to GM crops around 1996 through to Bayer CropScience’s decision to abandon their plans to grow GM crops in the UK in 2004. Corporate Watch’s work on GM crops included magazine and newsletter articles, over 20 briefings and corporate profiles, a website listing the locations of all the GM test sites and corporate infrastructure in the UK, and a family tree poster of the biotech industry.

Not so much a scoop but a really important piece of our early history — Squaring Up to the Square Mile (1999) was an activist’s guide book and map to the City of London and the how the finance sector works. It was produced in collaboration with London Reclaim the Streets and formed an integral part of the preparations for the J18 Carnival Against Capitalism that stopped the City of London in 1999. This is a topic we have worked on in much more depth since – with our guides to understanding the financial sector and report on the Eurozone crisis.

sqmi.jpg
Similar example of the poster from 2009

What would you say have been CW’s best moments in your time there?

Of course it’s great when we get stories in the mainstream media which we do regularly, but only because we think it might lead to some tangible action. We love it when people contact us after reading our work with further information (as did several carers recently who weren’t being paid travel time) and when they use the information we’ve uncovered in their own campaigns and actions.

The goal is to help people make strong and informed challenges – be it to the state, corporations, their employers or whoever! Personally, I’m really proud of the research I did into property companies with PEACH (People’s Empowerment Alliance for Custom House), which led to an action in East London, all of which stemmed out of our magazine on housing in 2011. And our work exploring more theoretical issues have sparked interesting much-needed discussions around those issues, such as the Managing Democracy Managing Dissent book, our work on the financial sector and our A-Z of Green Capitalism.

Corporate Watch A-Z of Green Capitalism (cover).jpg

And of course probably the most immediately practical impact has come from our research training programme – including both the DIY guide to researching companies and more detailed workshops – through which we aim to give people the skills and tools they need to conduct their own investigations.  

Are there any impacts from CW work that you’re been particularly proud of?

Recently, IWGB (Independent Workers Union of Great Britain) bike couriers from three companies won a pay-rise, in part through using Corporate Watch research into the companies’ use of off-shore tax havens.

We love hearing about people who have used our work in their own campaigns, or to learn how to do their own research. But we hope that also our research is part of a wider picture, involving many other projects, of providing more radical, anti-capitalist perspectives than the mainstream can incorporate, which do not always translate into neat ‘impacts’.

Any former CWers go on to notable deeds?

PhDs, lecturers, parents, other co-ops, NGOs, freelance research, graphic design and one is now promoting nuclear energy and capitalism!

Have you ever been attacked by your corporate targets and if so, how?

We’ve been threatened with libel but each time the these were never pursued. People have been stopped and searched under terrorism legislation when crossing borders partly because they worked at CW.

How does CW get by nowadays?

We apply for funding for our projects from the small number of charitable funders who will consider us, given our strong political stancesuch as the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. While these are dependent on each particular funding application we really appreciate the more regular and reliable funding that comes from our supporters, via donations, ‘Friends of CW’ (who receive our publications), sales and benefit gigs. We don’t accept any money directly from states or companies, even ‘green’ or ‘ethical’ companies and we have a stricter approach to this than many other similar projects. So if you can spare any dosh, please… you know the rest!  

What sort of projects are you working on at the moment?

At the moment we are working on investigating the internalisation of border controls into everyday life — in hospitals, schools, and housing provision. The government’s aim is to produce what they unashamedly call a “hostile environment” to push out or deter “illegals” by making it impossible for them to live a normal life. This even involves supposedly caring charities — we recently exposed homelessness charities providing immigration information on homeless people they encountered to the immigration officials.

We are also busy developing and expanding our anti-corporate research trainings, as well as working with people who come to us with information or leads to produce a story (such as our recent piece about Hyde housing association). We have a few other projects in the  works — including one to follow up on our successful Managing Democracy, Managing Dissent project  – and are also delivering workshops and discussions based on our popular A-Z of Green Capitalism. In fact, we have an event coming up on this in London – on 8 May at City University

From humble beginnings, Corporate Watch has grown into a well-established professional research organisation. But our allegiances remain firmly with the grassroots activist networks which we sprang from.

 

Fundraising December update

It’s been a few weeks since we launched our Big Rebuild campaign and laid out a plan to stop Freedom from slowly dissolving in the rain, making nine campaigning and support service groups homeless. So it’s high time for a roundup!

In short we’ve made at least some progress and there’s been some good news in the form of donations and pledges, but there’s also some worries and shortfalls.

The good news

There’s been some income, and many thanks to everyone who’s donated! So far we’ve had:

  • Cheques and donations worth £1,014
  • Pledges worth £3,000
  • £153 pledged online

Total: £4,167

Which makes our year one targets look something like this:

Freedom-Fund-2911.jpg

One thing keen-eyed building project types will note about this list is that the repointing (fixing up the bricks and mortar so that they’re protecting against leakage and damp) is a big chunk of the money, but isn’t a massively skilled job — there’s even people in the building who already have some experience of doing it. And this is true. In theory, we could save a big whack of the necessary money by getting in volunteers to do the work.

However, as anyone who’s run a volunteer-led rebuilding project will tell you, what people will promise to do and what actually happens is not always one and the same. If we spend £2,500 on scaffolding for a month but no-one shows up to work it’s just a massive waste of funds. So we’re playing this one safe. We need enough money to make sure that when the scaff goes up, the job gets done regardless. If people then show up to make the job cheaper that’s all good  — we have another £30,000-worth of works to be done which isn’t so immediately pressing like fixing the windows, the stairs, the inside walls etc. This is a multi-year project and all the money will get spent on things that are needed.

What we’re doing next

Various kind people have helped put together graphics and print runs for other bits and pieces, some of which you may have seen at this year’s anarchist bookfair, including a range of tote bags, T-shirts and stickers which can be picked up either from the Freedom shop, or bought online.

Following on from this, we’re looking at setting up a gofundme campaign with some interesting tweaks on what you can get hold of. Author-signed merch, that sort of stuff. When we have more details on that we’ll pass ’em straight on.

There’s also been a couple of very welcome offers to put on gigs, which if they come off will help both to raise funds and get the campaign noticed — as we also have a year two and year three to sort out at some point that’ll be no bad thing!

And of course along with running this blog soliciting people like you for cash we will be needing to send off funding applications to various grants organisations, and good old begging letters to people who we think might be able to  get our totals looking a bit less daunting.

The worries

Essentially our main worries at the moment revolve around the very ordinary problems of long-term volunteer organising. The Freedom Building user group has nine member organisations (more on them another time), but all are typically quite stretched doing useful stuff like investigating corporate malpractice, or helping people to not lose their homes, or sending books to prisoners.

So while we have various people seconded to the fundraising group it’s quite difficult to, for example, be volunteering at a group in a core capacity, working to keep heads above water and running quite time-intensive fundraising campaigns.

So we could very much do with a hand if there’s anyone out there who is enthusiastic and/or skilled at:

  • Letters asking folks for a bit of money
  • Writing grant applications
  • Organising fundraising events
  • Coming up with good ideas (and acting on them!)

You can get in touch via freedombuildingcollective@gmail.com or via the shop.

How you can pay in

This is the bit where we ask you to put in a few quid to get rid of all the red on our building graphic (hmm maybe we should reverse the colour scheme so you can add red…) Any donation no matter how small helps us get to our target. A handy paypal button is at the top of this page, or you can send a cheque payable to “Freedom Press” to 84b Whitechapel High st, London E1 QX, or call the shop to get details for a direct transfer on (07952) 157-742.

We’ve got a unique resource in central London to bring back to its best, a building that has been in the hands of the anarchist movement for nearly 50 years providing space and support for innumerable libertarian projects and which today provides a home for many important organisations. We hope you can join u in making it ready for the next few decades!

2015: The Bug

In 2015 the Freedom Collective was treading water financially, dependent on book donations and in the longer run publishing new books of its own at low cost. This however marked an improving trend over previous years, as even before the death of former editor, proprietor and leading Collective figure Vernon Richards in 2001 a dependence on legacies from friends and fans of the press had made for an unsustainable long-term position.

In an effort to find its feet and move beyond mere subsistence, the Collective undertook a major re-organisation, splitting the finances so different parts of the operation were semi-independent, and aiming to be self-sufficient, while reporting back to the collective at the monthly meetings. It also, working with other groups within the building, set up the Building Users Group (Bug) to bring about a consensus-led approach to running things, as it was felt an “anarchist landlord” scenario would be against libertarian principles.

The Bug set its own rates at the April AGM, with groups coming to a consensus on reasonable payments bringing in all cash needed for utilities and business rates, plus some extra for contingencies and small works to be done. All groups at Freedom are non-profit, and all work on a shoestring budget, so each group gives what it can afford — essentially practicing a “from each according to their means” approach.

Late in the year, a survey commissioned by members of the Friends of Freedom, a “dormant company” which holds the building in trust for the Collective, found a number of works that needed to be done to secure the building in the long term, which has since provided the focus for the founding of the fundraising group which runs this website.