Worker Ownership in North Ayrshire

Joe Cullinane from North Ayrshire recently announced his plans to introduce a scheme to increase worker owned businesses in the area as part of a community wealth building strategy.  In this article we’ll take a look into what worker ownership means and why this could be good for North Ayrshire.

Worker ownership can mean a lot of different things; it can be a business where every employee gets a vote on decisions the enterprise makes, or it can be a business were the management is elected by employees to make these decisions. The structure is variable, but the basic principle is that every worker gets a say in how the business is run. This turns the workers into worker-owners.

The basic central idea is that people doing the job generally know the job the best- if given the chance to make choices in their work the people at the coal face will know the best course forward. We’ve all had managers that knew nothing about how the workplace actually runs, leaving you to try your best to cover for their (ahem) “hands-off” management style. Worker ownership avoids this awkward and annoying occurrence by making it so that management is more accountable to the workers, and not the other way around.

On top of this worker co-ops have a proven record of success; a taxi company in Texas was able to compete with and then drive out of Austin companies  like Uber and Lyft, at a time when taxi companies structured like more traditional businesses are struggling to keep their head’s above water. This isn’t a one off example either, a study by former professor of Economics at the University of Leeds Virginie Pérotin showed that worker co-ops were able to compete with traditional firms and that many are in fact more productive. This is largely because workers tend to be more motivated when they have a say in how their labour is used. Professor Richard Wolff, an american economist suggests that a combination of the fact that co-ops are more productive and its workers are more motivated is why these organisations stay in business at a far higher rate in their first year compared to more traditional business.

This system is not only beneficial for the businesses themselves. The Emilia Romagna region of Italy has taken the concept of worker run businesses to heart, with nearly two thirds of its population members of a co-op, producing about a third of the region’s GDP. The north of Italy has always been a very economically strong place and the fact that co-ops can and have taken such a large claim to the local economy speaks to the strengths of co-ops.

Italy has another interesting policy in support of co-ops, namely that instead of taking their regular unemployment benefit, people can choose to take a sum of money up front and use this as start up capital towards a co-op. So rather than being unemployed and on the dole, you and a few friends can come together and start your own business. This helps keep unemployment low and means that instead of layoffs leading to mass unemployment, it leads to the nurturing of enterprise.

At the time of writing we don’t know that much about Joe’s own plan to introduce worker co-ops to Ayrshire, but what we do know is that it would likely be a lot less radical than the policy in Italy. Joe specifically spoke out about introducing co-ops to Ayrshire at a meeting discussing family business succession. Family run businesses form a large part of the local economy, unfortunately these don’t tend to last forever- eventually someone in the family decides they want to do something different with their lives and this, along with other factors, leads to many of these businesses not surviving past the second generation. Joe’s plan would give the workers a chance at running these businesses and could prevent them losing their jobs. While the specific details are not available at the time of writing, the policy is being worked on by the Community Wealth Building commission in North Ayrshire.

It’s no secret that North Ayrshire and Ayrshire as a whole have a long running issue with unemployment and an economy that lags behind the rest of Scotland, plans like this to revitalise the area are more than welcome in my opinion, and I will be watching for the CWBC’s final draft of the policy keenly. Looking at studies by Professor Wolff and Pérotin, as well as a working example in Italy my only worry is that this policy may not be radical enough.

Photo by Guilherme Cunha on Unsplash

Universal Basic Income: Why It’s a Bad Idea

Recently there has been talk of trialing a Universal Basic Income programme in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Fife and, more importantly, North Ayrshire. I’m going to look into what UBI is, why people think it’s a good idea- and why it would be one of the worst economic disasters to happen to Scotland since the Darien venture.

Universal Basic income is actually an older argument than you might think, with similar ideas being suggested as far back as the 1500’s. UBI is the idea that to relieve the effects of poverty we should, instead of building complicated support structures and organisations aimed at helping the poorest, just give everyone a set allowance on top of any wages they get. Sounds smart enough, and- I say this without a hint of irony- one of the best cures for being poor is money. This would give people at the bottom of society a safety net to rely on, to build up from and make sure their needs are met. Everyone else would get a little extra cash in their pocket to make the world a better place, a chance to patch the 9 to 5 and do what you really want to do, maybe start a business or go back to school.

The important part would be that this money isn’t means tested, so Barry who works at the cafe 20 hours a week and Davey who runs an international business would get the exact same UBI at the end of the month, even if Davey is bringing home twenty times Barry’s wage. This is for two main reasons; if everyone is getting the same UBI, everyone has the same jumping off point. What you make of yourself after that would be, theoretically, up to you. Another more subtle reason everyone would get UBI is that unlike Job Seekers or Universal Credit, everyone would be invested in UBI. Whether you’re working 40 hours a week or 4 you are not going to argue against an extra 5K a year.

This all seems like a really radical idea to be discussing, a complete change in the way our society works and something that seems more Starfleet than Department of Work and Pensions. The fact that this is being discussed seriously or at all seems to many a sign of a dawning utopia. But what pressures are driving this conversation into the spotlight?

Basically put, the world is changing, and for working class people its not changing for the better. Automation is set to take more and more jobs, and not just manual work like manufacturing, there are AI’s currently on the market that can replace middle managers, design buildings and direct air traffic control. When people really start losing jobs over automation it’s not going to be just you and me in the breadline, it’s going to be architects and maybe even your gaffer.

Another reason that we might need UBI in the future is something that politicians are even more uncomfortable discussing than mass unemployment: wealth disparity. In the UK, the difference between the folk at the top and the folk at the bottom is astronomical, and set to keep growing. Unfortunately for the wealthy however, they need the folk at the bottom to have enough money to buy things, or at least pay rent. Without some money moving about, the economy will come to a stand still and everything collapses.

These are issues that certainly need addressing rapidly, but is UBI the answer, and who is making the case for its implementation?

Interestingly, it’s not easy to split proponents into left or right wing. While it was Labour councillor Matt Kerr that argued for UBI in Glasgow City Council and Labour Councillor Joe Cullinane that argued for it’s trial in our own North Ayrshire, it’s not just Labour that are pushing for it. People from across Scotland’s parties have shown an interest in the scheme. Even Nicola Sturgeon has in the past expressed support for UBI. While the Scottish Conservatives in parliament have criticised the SNP and Labour for supporting UBI, there has been support from individual Conservative Councillors.

Joe Cullinane, in a facebook post, stated that on top of applying to the Scottish Government for the £250000 grant to research the practicalities of UBI, North Ayrshire had raised an additional £200000 to support the study. Joe argued that “If we are not bold, and offer an alternative to Tory welfare policies such as their Tax Credit Rape Clause and disability cuts, then we will be letting down families and children”.

But it’s not only Joe Cullinane- who sees UBI as a means of reducing poverty-who is making the case, and this conversation is not confined to the UK alone. Andrew Yang, a contender for the Democrat presidential nomination, argues a system like UBI is the only way to make sure the average person can benefit from automation, and not be left behind as the economy continues to change the makeup of the economic workforce.

It seems clear then that Universal Basic Income is something of a solution to impending and irreversible societal change, and one with an increasingly broad appeal at that. But before we rush headlong into a brave new world where everyone gets free money, let’s stop for a moment to consider a few things.

Because UBI, when examined more closely, has some serious and glaring flaws. In almost every model, UBI would not be an addition to the safety net of the welfare state, it would be a replacement, effectively kicking the chair out from under millions of working class families who are likely to find themselves worse off. While some on the left argue that this would not be the case, that UBI would be a supplement the current system, those on the more moderate centre and right wing like Andrew Yang are blunt in the reasons behind their support of UBI. The welfare state is expensive, and from their point of view, it does not work.

Without a proper welfare state it would not just be Job Seekers and Universal Credit that would be confined to the history books; Child Benefit, Working Tax Credits, Housing Benefit  and maybe even the NHS would be for the scrapheap. Instead of a structure around us that’s there when we need support, we would get our monthly pocket money and be told to fend for ourselves. Governments would be more readily able to shirk their responsibilities to their citizens, and the most vulnerable among us would undoubtedly suffer the most.

I use the word ‘citizens’ deliberately since citizenship rights will likely be the foundation of UBI. this would definitionally exclude non-British workers and migrant communities, and if mass privatisation follows, services like the NHS and local councils would likely disappear, and these workers and communities would suffer more than most as a result.

If this wasn’t enough, UBI will lead to staggering levels of inflation. That £500 you get at the end of the month might not be worth £500 at the end of the year when every business realises everyone has a bit more spending money. Prices for food, utilities and luxuries would go up, and worse still, what would happen to your rent? Say you’re not lucky enough to live in a council or housing association home where there are checks and balances to stop rent going sky high, what’s gonna happen to your rent when the landlord knows for a fact you have exactly £500 more in your pocket a month? Rent prices are going to go up. After UBI replaces every other support system we have in place there won’t be much recourse, we’ll be left with expensive food, high rent and maybe not even healthcare, all for the low price of £500 a month.

While the benefits of UBI seem enticing on the face of it, before you just ask yourself, do you trust your landlord to not put up your rent?

Photo by Colin Watts on Unsplash

Interview: Better Than Zero

by Alex Osborne

A few weeks ago I wrote an article on the Gig Economy in Glasgow, and talked about the spreading practice of treating employees as independent contractors to avoid giving workers their rights. Another practice that is part of the Gig Economy that I did not explore in depth to explore is the increasing amount of workers that are being kept on zero hour contracts. Employees on these contracts can be treated incredibly poorly by employers, and can be dismissed with little to no warning. These contracts also compound the effects of other forms of maltreatment by bosses, like wage deductions and management taking a portion of tips from service workers, putting workers into an even more precarious position where they are not guaranteed a job tomorrow and not guaranteed a proper wage today.

One group that is working to fight against this type of precarious work is Better Than Zero. They do this by helping to educate workers on their rights as well as more direct means of protest targeted at employers that abuse their employees. I was lucky enough to interview Sarah Collins, one of the founding members of Better Than Zero to get a bit more information on the group.

How did Better Than Zero first get started?

Better than Zero was launched in 2015 in an attempt to address the decreasing youth membership across unions and increasing precarity in the workplace and lives of young workers.  It was inspired by the Fight for $15 campaign, resourced by the SEIU union in the USA which employed grassroots greenfield social movement organising tactics.  With the aim of eradicating zero hours contracts (ZHCs) in the workplace in order to stabilise young workers’ livelihoods and lives, including by ensuring young workers know their rights in work and how to enforce them, the campaign’s overall objective is to increase union membership in under-30s, create workplace leaders, and encourage union activity  within precarious non-unionised workplaces. The campaign uses stunts and flash mobs to highlight the use of ZHCs, and other problems at work, including deductions in wages, safety at work and other discriminatory practices.

Better than Zero is a solidarity network that builds union action in non-unionised sectors including hospitality, fast food, and customer services in Scotland. It has a solid core of activists and a fluid community of 14,000 Facebook followers, who help to compose a real-time chronicle of day-to-day working life by sending accounts of exploitation every day.

What have been some of the biggest hurdles the group faced in its earlier days?

BtZ began by challenging Scotland’s biggest hospitality employer, G1, through the use of creative stunts and direct actions, due to them not paying the minimum wage (after uniform costs etc).

A lot of employers think they are too big to be challenged; but we met with HR director of G1 who said their staff turnover was 161% in the past year so they had to change! We worked with him to stop zero hours contract but then he left the company.  Big employers aren’t scared of being taken to tribunal, but when they are they face bad publicity – https://glasgowguardian.co.uk/2015/09/05/g1-employees-stage-protest-on-ashton-lane-against-alleged-exploitation-2/

 – and we can win anyway! https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/16595240.scots-workers-win-unfair-dismissal-cases-against-g1-in-landmark-case/

What made you, yourself, invested in the fight against zero hour contacts?

I was involved initially as one of two Better than Zero organisers in 2015. I was already a member of Unite the Union and had previously had experience of working in hospitality where I organised against a big employer in Ayrshire to stop them from taking our tips over Christmas time. Zero hours contracts, for me, was just a further method of exploitation that had to be challenged.

The campaign grew from a few activists organising their own challenges to having hundreds of messages coming in every few months requesting help or advice with their employer. More people were directed to join a trade union, with Unite setting up a hospitality branch, cinema workers joining Bectu and fast food workers joining the Bakers’ Union.

What achievements are you, personally most proud of?

I’m a member of staff for the union so the thing I’m most proud of is that it’s been 8 years since I was working in hospitality, and at that point I couldn’t see any way for unions to take hospitality organising seriously. But through us starting BTZ we have ensured that hundreds of hospitality staff know their rights, have collectivised and joined a union, organised walk outs – https://www.reddit.com/r/glasgow/comments/7p5t1i/the_evening_times_on_twitter_boss_of_dows_bar_at/

and protests – https://www.facebook.com/UniteHospitality/posts/611056332627356 (Ayr) all over the country.

There’s still a lot of work to be done for precarious workers but at least their voices are beginning to be heard again.

Better than Zero has launched a new campaign – cat calling it out – against sexual harassment.

Zero hour contracts are becoming more and more common, with over 1.8 million contacts of this type being in use across the UK in 2017, and having grown since. What are some of the actions workers could take to turn the tide?

Whilst zero hours contracts are not eradicated, and we have seen new forms of precarious working across lots of sectors, including a small growth in the gig economy in Scotland, more precarious workers now know where to turn for advice. However, more importantly, Better than Zero also trains workers through “take control” courses about their rights, and about how to stand up for themselves and others in the workplace.

In 2015 the Scottish Government railed against “unfair” use of these contracts and more recently in 2018 again called to end exploitative work, do you think enough is being done?

The Scottish government would not have announced a fair work first approach to procurement (including that contract bidders shouldn’t use zero hours) if it wasn’t for the work of better than zero and trade unions. However, enforcement always lies with the worker which is why it is so important that all workers  – regardless of where they work or length of service – join a trade union.

If an employee feels they are being mistreated under a zero hour contract what is the best way for them to contact Better Than Zero?

Better than zero on facebook @bebetterthanzero – message to contact us

A big thank you to Sarah for taking the time to answer our questions, for more information on Better Than Zero, take a look at their site here http://www.betterthanzero.scot/

Ayrshire and Unemployment

by Alex Osborne


Ayrshire has a long history of being affected by unemployment, putting a particular strain on younger people. The situation isn’t as grim as it used to be; Scotland as a whole is going through a period of record high employment. According to the Scottish Government’s figures unemployment is sitting at a national average of around 3.3%, lower than the UK average in 2019- but what does this mean specifically for Ayrshire?

Ayrshire was not spared the 2008 recession and its effects can still be felt today. We remain one of the regions in Scotland most affected by unemployment, with North and South Ayrshire coming first and second respectively in a 2017 government report into unemployment by region; a similar situation was reported in 2013 where Ayrshire declared one of the highest unemployment rates in Scotland, sitting at well over 8%. It is difficult to say exactly why Ayrshire was one of the regions that most bore the brunt of the 2008 economic crash- the fact that our industry was especially vulnerable to a global economic downturn, we were a region with historically high unemployment and had a lack of government investment, all more than likely played a part. Whatever the reason, it has left scars on our towns ever since.

Young people, between the ages of 16 and 24 are especially affected by unemployment, and while government figures tell a story where things are getting better it still doesn’t make for easy reading. In 2013 the youth unemployment rate reached a peak of over 20%, however since then things have improved for young people across Scotland and the unemployment rate has halved to sit at around 10%. Even so, young people are still nearly three times as likely to be affected by unemployment. While it is difficult to measure the exact impact of youth unemployment- the Scottish Gov doesn’t release figures on youth unemployment by region- Ayrshire is no doubt one of the areas most affected by the issue. There were even claims that during the recession Ayrshire had the dubious honour of having the highest youth unemployment in the United Kingdom.

The reasons behind Ayrshire’s long history of high unemployment are varied, complicated and difficult to define, however the effects can be easily seen. Low employment leads to low spending, this leads to our high streets turning into ghost towns where the only shops still left open are bookies and maybe a farm foods if you’re lucky. On top of this there are also a myriad of social impacts, crime increases along with social deprivation, all trickling down to an impact on a region’s mental and physical health. The Scottish Government is not ignorant of the difficulties facing Ayrshire. All the figures above come from reports commissioned by the government. So what is being done?

In December 2014 the government set itself the target of reducing youth unemployment by 40 per cent by 2021 as part of its youth unemployment strategy; in December 2018 North Ayrshire was named in parliament as a region with a particular problem with youth unemployment. As a result, there has been an increase in government investment in Ayrshire in the form of infrastructure projects and the Youth Employment Scheme (North Ayrshire) that was rolled out in 2018, which aimed to work with local businesses to address industrial decline.

This local investment has been met with its share of push-back. In March 2018 when Joe Cullinane, councillor for North Ayrshire, suggested an increase in council tax that would put Ayrshire in line with the government targets for the end of parliament and that would help create a hardship fund to support the 1 in 3 children in the area that live in poverty, he received heavy criticism. Joe defended this proposal, arguing that more funds were needed to make sure Ayrshire was able to properly address its social deprivation issues and unemployment with local investment rather as opposed to simply managing the decline.

Ayrshire as a whole is still a region acutely affected by the problem of unemployment, with North Ayrshire sitting at around 6.6% and East Ayrshire at 5.9%. These regions in combination sit at around double the national average, and well above the UK average of 3.8%. While things are improving across the country, Ayrshire still lags behind, and with economic turmoil forecast ahead Ayrshire will be one of the most vulnerable regions to any future downturns in the economy.

Who was John Smith?

by Alex Osborne

John Smith holds the interesting honour of being the only man from Irvine to join the International Brigade. John was born in 1907 in his parents’ home in Clark Drive, into a large family, having three brothers and five sisters. John himself would marry but lose his wife, along with their only child due to complications at childbirth in 1933.

On the 1st of January 1937 John would join the international brigade and leave Scotland for Spain to fight against the rise of Franco and his Fascism. Never far from the fighting, John would get wounded several times throughout the course of the war. On one of these occasions, while recovering from wounds sustained on the front lines, he would write home to his mother “If this does not make the Labour Party do something, nothing will”.

While Attlee, leader of the opposition at the time and future Prime Minister would visit Spain later that year and reaffirm his party’s commitment to support Republican forces, Attlee would not go into government until the Second World War and there would be no great international response to the Civil War from Britain. In fact, the British government would encourage France to follow the UK in its dedication to inaction. Only the Soviet Union and Mexico would provide the Democratic forces with direct support, while Franco would get support from both Germany and Italy.

In September 1938 John would give his life fighting for his beliefs in the climactic battle of Ebro.

This battle would see the Republican army crushed by Franco, supported both by Mussolini’s Italian fascists and Hitler’s Nazis and all but signaled the curtain call for democratic forces in Spain. The free air force would no longer operate as an effective fighting force and the territories loyal to the Republic were split in two. John was one of as many as 30,000 men who died during the brutal battle that lasted from July to November. After the battle Franco would go on to win the war and Spain would not return to democracy until the late 70’s, after Franco’s death.

While John’s story has a sad ending, John is far from forgotten. Listed on the roll of honour for the International Brigade he was also honoured by Cunninghame District Council in 1988 who would erect a plaque on the anniversary of his death at Irvine Library. More recently he would be remembered by the North Ayrshire Trade Union Council who would host a townhouse memorial gathering in 2017 and raise a memorial stone to John in 2018.

It is important to remember John’s story because he was an inspiration to many, both during and after his life. A hero who believed so strongly in the ideals of democracy and justice that he would take up arms at the idea that someone, anywhere would be denied either. John’s example would inspire his own family and his own brother would become a councillor in 1945. It is important that we continue to honour and remember his legacy in our community.

Glasgow Gig Economy

by Alex Osborne

We are currently living through the gig economy, a situation where more and more people are working freelance or on short term contracts for companies. Something that is being sold to us as a way of working more flexibly that, more often than not, boils down to a company that you work for withholding your workers’ rights.

A particular service that is becoming a hotbed of legal debate and industrial action is food delivery services like Ubereats and Deliveroo. Drivers for these companies are typically classed as contractors rather than workers so that companies can avoid giving them things ranging from holiday pay and sick pay, to simpler things like a guarantee of work the next day. This loose legal standing allows these companies to mistreat their workers with little to no recourse. In one particularly Dickensian example Deliveroo dismissed over a 100 of its drivers from across the country with no warning days before Christmas last year.  

Drivers for these companies have, however, started to organize. Poor pay and difficult working conditions, typical of the gig economy, has led delivery drivers in London to go on strike at the time of writing. This is not the first case of this to occur, similar strikes occurred in Plymouth last year and in our own Glasgow drivers from Ubereat and Deliveroo teamed up with the Industrial Workers of the World to form the Couriers Network Scotland in April of last year.

The CNS condensed their demands into what they call “The 3 W’s”. A guaranteed minimum wage, a reduction in the time wasted in between deliveries (which drivers are not paid for) and welfare for drivers in the form of adequate safety equipment. These demands may seem simple, a minimum wage and safety precautions at work, but this exemplifies the lack of support workers in the gig economy are provided.

The poor working conditions affect more groups than solely delivery drivers, nearly 3 million workers in the UK as of 2017 were classified as working within the gig economy, with work ranging to pretty much anything that would let an employer classify their employees as independent contractors.

I say employer’s rather than company intentionally, in October 2018 foster carers from both the Foster Care Workers Union and Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain protested in George Square as various local authorities were not providing their foster care workers with any protections to unfair dismissal, using the same arguments that exploitative for-profit private companies make use of.

While the legal and industrial battles still rage on to this day groups like the Couriers Network and Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain are fighting against the exploitative and precarious work offered by the gig economy. If you’re a worker in the gig economy consider reaching out to groups like the Couriers network and see what can be done in your area.

Photo by Artur Kraft on Unsplash