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The Alex Ferry Foundation

The Alex Ferry Foundation is a new charitable foundation, formed in 2018. The creation of the Foundation is an interesting story, as it came about as a result of an industrial dispute in 1989/90 – the campaign for a 35 Hour Week.

The campaign was led by the Confederation of Shipbuilding & Engineering Unions (CSEU), whose General Secretary at the time was Alex Ferry.  The 35 Hour Week campaign was a national effort to shift the dial on working time in engineering and manufacturing, which at that time worked a 39-hour week.  

The CSEU decided to take targeted strike action at key companies to try and win shorter working time in the hope that this would establish a new norm across the industry.  To support workers taking strike action at the target companies, a national fund was established – the 35 Hour Week Campaign Fund. This was built into a pot of millions of pounds as around 200,000 workers across the country donated an hour’s pay each week. The money was then used to pay strike pay for the workers taking strike action.

The campaign went on for months, with some factories out on strike for 18 weeks. Eventually, one company conceded a shift to a 37-hour week and this caused an avalanche of agreements across engineering and manufacturing, making 37 hours the new standard for the working week.

At the end of the dispute, there were millions of pounds left over, but contradictory rules led to it being locked in trust until a High Court decision in 2018 to donate the entirety of the fund to the Alex Ferry Foundation.  The new Foundation’s mission is to benefit workers, former workers and their families in shipbuilding and engineering communities in the UK.

The Foundation has very broad aims, allowing us to focus on the relief of poverty, support education and training, improve health, safety and welfare, carry out research and to run campaigns.  The Board is unique in that it is almost entirely made up of trade unionists, drawn from the membership of the CSEU.

As a result, the Foundation has concentrated its efforts in offering Community Grants to charities that work in and benefit people in shipbuilding and engineering communities across the UK. We have also started a Research Grant programme aimed at supporting the concept of good work, with all that entails. This has led us to fund a wide variety of projects looking at a just transition to a green economy, dealing with automation and artificial intelligence, enhancing workers’ voices in facing huge changes in our economy, and using investment policy to support trade union organising across the world. A key aim is linked directly to our DNA and that is a focus on working time.

When the Covid crisis hit, we rapidly shifted our focus in our Community Grants programme and tried to support charities that were either directly responding to the crisis, or that were particularly adversely affected by it. We gave grants to Unemployed Resource Centres supporting workers made redundant due to Covid, Legal Advice charities supporting furloughed workers, asbestos related organisations, food banks and a wide range of other charities. Our work was supported by advice from the CSEU’s district committees, giving us a direct link to local communities and the interests of our beneficiaries.

Covid was also reflected in some of our research projects, particularly looking at the impact on working time and patterns of work to see if lessons can be learnt from changes in the way people have adapted to working from home or working in Covid-safe workplaces.

This year, we want to focus on the COP26 event in Glasgow in November, amplifying the voice of workers in responding to the challenges our planet faces in light of climate change. We also want to build a Working Time Alliance, bringing together organisations with diverse views on the subject and hopefully creating something greater than the sum of its parts.

We hope to publish a report soon on the issue of using investment strategies to support workers.  Ethical, social and environmental concerns are now a key part of investment policies across the economy and particularly in the charity sector. However, there is very little sign that this approach extends to measuring the way in which companies treat their workers.

We believe that a concerted effort to disinvest from companies with a poor track record in the way they treat workers and their trade unions could drive a huge shift in behaviour.  All the evidence suggest unionised workplaces are safer and better paid. Supporting union organising efforts through the tool of active investing could have a massive impact on standards of living worldwide and we hope that this will be a cause the ACO and its members would support.