What happens when a strike goes viral?

At the end of the second week of UCU strike action, Melanie Simms, UCU member at Glasgow University, looks at how to build on the brilliant success of the action so far.

As we come to the end of the first phase of the UCU strike action, I can honestly say I am amazed. I have been on strike a good few times about a good few issues over my 22 years in academia. But I have never experienced anything like this.

The support and solidarity is astounding. As someone who has been a union member and activist since the day I started work and who researches and teaches on the topic of trade unions and employment relations, I am delighted to be able to share my enthusiasm for and confidence in the power of collective action. The employers are deeply divided and there is real scope for movement around the core issues.

The thirst for understanding the technical details of pensions valuations, collective bargaining, industrial action laws, the role of ACAS and conciliation and many other highly specific details of this action is impressive. Fortunately, as a union, we have experts in all of these within our ranks and they have been doing an astoundingly brilliant job on social media and on picket lines around the country to raise awareness, answer questions and generally up the collective game.

There is a real enthusiasm to spend the time well. Picket lines have been extraordinarily well attended and people have used the remaining time to organise fun activities and placards for the following day, arrange art installations, bake, give blood, and very importantly, rest and spend time with their families and friends.

Support and solidarity hasn’t just come from others involved in the strike action. Students, campaign groups, other staff and international groups have undertaken huge acts of solidarity. We’ve had non-human support in the form of #DogsOnPicketLines and the dinosaur of solidarity (@of_dinosaur). Students have brought coffee, baked cakes, signed petitions, occupied buildings, and generally been the awesome people we know they are.

This strike has been a turning point in higher education. I thought it would be difficult to explain nerdy details about pensions valuations to a wider audience and build support. I was wrong. People have ‘joined the dots’ in this strike and have clearly understood how the attack on pensions is a related to the wider marketisation of education in general and higher education in particular. Just because Scotland doesn’t charge undergraduate fees to most students doesn’t mean marketisation isn’t a very real dynamic. The casualisation of staff is rampant. Punitive performance management of all staff is embedded in managerial practices. The involvement of commercial companies in the student accommodation market means a large-scale transfer of public money to the private sector. All of these issues are being discussed and debated every day and it is clear people are angry.

This leaves us with a challenge ahead. The announcement on Tuesday evening that ACAS has been asked to be involved in the talks is excellent news. ACAS has some of the best trained conciliators in the world. They are trained to help parties that find it difficult to agree on anything move towards an effective outcome. But inevitably the focus of the talks will be on the very specific details of the dispute, rather than the wider issues. The challenge will be to use the solidarity and momentum built up during this action to continue to challenge marketisation in the sector. It’s clear there is an opportunity to do that. We now need to work out how.

Fight for a Fair Future: Students Support the Strike

On day two of UCU action, Adam Strømme, Economics and International Relations Student, sets the record straight on why all students should back the strike.

The story which has bought St Andrews to strike action, alongside 60 other universities, is defined by a confusing melange of apparent contradiction, cohabiting alongside outright absurdity. To get the facts straight is, then, a crucially important task. At present, most of the student body is vaguely aware that there is a strike, they might know it involves pensions, and it might mean that they don’t have class. What they don’t know is that the lead up to this stand-off is years in the making, it comes in response to an aggressive attack on faculty pensions, and that it is widely expected to be “the most extensive strike action ever seen on UK campuses”.

This article hopes to set the record straight on this critically important issue.

Who are the players?

The main actors involved are the University and College Union (UCU), the union responsible for collective bargaining on behalf of over 120,000 university employees across the UK, the Universities United Kingdom (UUK) a board of 24 members, of whom our very own Principal Sally Mapstone is a member, responsible for bargaining on behalf of 136 universities, and the university pension, known as the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS), which has over 184,000 contributors.

Alexandra Weiler’s motion of support was backed by the Student Union

What is the problem?

Arguably, there are three problems. The first, which largely goes unstated, is that the real wages of professors and staff have been cut by almost 20% in the last decade. This has taken place despite rising revenues for universities across the UK, especially in St Andrews (see page 8 of their FY2017 financial state), largely financed by increases in tuition rates. This disconnect between teacher remuneration and tuition can be traced to the increasing commodification of higher education to attract students, which has seen universities investing in flashy new attractions over the less-than-flashy principle of proper remuneration of staff. Here St Andrews leads the charge, having found £10 million for a new aquarium, while also leading the charge against pensions, to be discussed below.

This disconnect between teacher remuneration and tuition can be traced to the increasing commodification of higher education to attract students.

The second problem, connected to the first, is the rise of zero-hour contracts within academia. The British economy has developed a particular taste for them in the last few years, expanding more than 20% across the UK economy since 2015 alone, and within St Andrews University zero hour contracts are the rule for perhaps 40% of the teaching-only staff and a third of the research staff. In the context of academia, where connection to an institution is vital, this has led to increasing demands on teachers above and beyond what is formally required. For example, teachers in St Andrews are paid the equivalent of a mere 20 minutes for each 2,000 word essay they grade, and an hours wages for the preparations they put into each tutorial. This, quite frankly, is ludicrous, and it is difficult to imagine it even remotely resembles the reality. As a result, negotiations made by the UCU have sought to reduce this practice and give all academic staff the security of a fixed contract.

The UUK has done its best to ignore them.

The final problem, which understandably proved the last straw for the UCU, was pensions. Crucially, the issue around pensions has been subject to an incredible amount of distortion, which has left many students understandably confused or driven to apathy. Perhaps the greatest distortion to be addressed is the idea that the pensions are in a state of crisis at all. In particular, those who oppose the strikes often do so because of a statistic touted by the UUK which claims that the funds assets, despite having grown by over £9 billion in 2016 alone, are still nonetheless £17.5 billion short of their liabilities. Curious, then, that by the UUK’s numbers (and, tellingly, nobody else’s) a £60 billion pension could have accrued £26.5 billion in new obligations in the span of a few short years. These two statistics sitting side by side ought already prove a cause for suspicion, but on this front there is even more cause for confusion.

First, USS pensions have already been cut twice in the last decade alone— first in 2011, and again in 2014— in order to shore up the presumed long-run structural deficit. Second, notwithstanding the grossly misleading email circulated by the university claiming that the funds “investments have fared badly” having suffered “a series of crises”, the pension has actually outperformed projections to the tune of over £1.1 billion last year, suggesting that the “deficit” is perhaps not as cut and dry of a fact as the UUK (and St Andrews) claims. In fact, the deficit statistic of £17.5 billion, so often used to bemoan the status of the funds, does not exist— rather, they reflect projections which the UCU has consistently argued, and the record since 2008 has vindicated, are far too pessimistic.

This brings us to the source of the misinformation campaign. The university has claimed that in order to make the pension ‘sustainable’, two things need to happen. The first involves ‘de-risking’, seeking to move the USS away from supposedly “high risk” investments into safer, but lower return ones, while the second involves changing the payout structure. But here’s the kicker: the UUK’s constant pursuit of ‘de-risking’ is in fact the single greatest factor driving the pension towards a deficit.

So why do it? Simple. It lets universities reduce their commitments to their workers retirements by tying them to the stock market. The result is a drastic reduction in benefits: 40% to be exact, penny pinching from workers’ retirements to the tune of £200,000 each.

Absent these prerogative, it is inexplicable what would be driving one half of the negotiating table to so aggressively pursue policies which hurt the long term financial stability of the fund. How else could one explain St Andrews’ ‘concern’ for the deficit when its own pursuit of de-risking alongside the UUK is estimated to cost the fund £11 billion over the next 20 years? And how else is one to believe St Andrews’ claim that the fund is “not sustainable” when the USS’ assets have grown 12% per annumover the last five years, have assets to match 114% of its entire outstanding liabilities, can pay out pensions for the next 40 years even in the absence of any more investments, and are likely to be £6 billion in surplus in 2037 absent another round of ‘de-risking’? Truly, it is the UUK’s ‘de-risking’ which is the risky move, and it stands to gain substantially from doing so.

Truly, it is the UUK’s ‘de-risking’ which is the risky move, and it stands to gain substantially from doing so.

Another of the UUK’s brilliant policies to make the pension ‘sustainable’ involves moving the USS from being a collectively-based defined benefit system—  in which all beneficiaries agree to pay in 8% of their annual salary, to which the university matches 18%, in exchange for a guaranteed fixed income upon retirement— to an individually-based defined contribution plan, in which teachers are “free” to contribute as much or as little to their pensions as they want, with no minimum contribution required. This in effect shifts the burden (and all of the risk) of financing the pension onto workers, encouraging the increasingly cash-strapped teachers to privilege present spending over the health of the fund, while also reducing the health of the fund by constraining the flow of investable funds for the future. If the UUK is ostensibly trying to protect the USS, which is only as good as the benefits it can provide, then moving to cap the flow of investable funds into the fund by turning it into a defined contribution scheme is perhaps the most bizarre move possible.

So, let’s review the game plan. First, push for yet another round of ‘derisking’ on an already highly hedged portfolio in order to put pressure on its returns, claiming the USS is making bad investments with peoples’ futures. Then, when the returns fall, point to the rising ‘deficit’ projection as a sign the system is ‘unsustainable’ and in need of reform. Finally, assuming the weakness of the UCU or the apathy of the general population, gut the entire scheme by turning it into an individually-based 401K with no fixed obligation from the university to provide a secure retirement to its employees, correctly predicting that the same pressure being put on wages will reduce their ability to invest in their own retirement, and by extension the university’s obligation to their own employees.

Voila, you’ve managed to shirk a £200,000 promise to every single beneficiary of you workforce. Profit.

What can I do?

Here in St Andrews over 90% of teachers who voted voted in favour of strike action. If the above has not conveyed the full extent of the problem, contact the UCU or even your own lecturers to learn more. This affects them directly and substantially, so to plead, as the University has in its recent email, “that our colleagues who decide to take part in this national action are able to exercise their rights in ways which minimise any disruption to you, our students” is an incredibly belittling gesture. It also sidesteps St Andrews’ own role in this ongoing problem by trying to paint it as a ‘national’ problem: as if the local is somehow not a part of the national. Ultimately, the point of a strike is to force the administration to sit up and take notice, not to mumble with placards while life goes on as usual. Conversely, to argue that students should seek reimbursement, as some have done, is noble to the extent that it gets the university back to the table, but absent that suggests a strikingly self-centered indifference to the problem. A strike is always a matter of last resort, so in looking for a culprit, look to those sending out polished emails, not those desperately defending their futures out on the streets.

A strike is always a matter of last resort, so in looking for a culprit, look to those sending out polished emails, not those desperately defending their futures out on the streets.

Other actions which can be taken include staying out of public spaces like the library on strike days, contacting your lecturers to let them know you support them, joining them on the picket, donatingto the strike fund, and writing (physically as well as by email) to Sally Mapstone, demanding she get the UUK back to the table with the UCU.

Fight for a fair future. Defend your teachers. Support the strike.

This article was first published on the St Andrews Economist

Collective Power for Inclusive Growth?

This week’s employment stats showed Scottish employment falling in the last quarter and unemployment and economic inactivity rising for the first time in two years.

What’s more average pay is still lower than it was a decade ago.

Coupled with low economic growth rates and falling productivity trends, the outlook for workers and the wider economy isn’t great.

While much of the action to address this sits at a UK level, the Scottish Government have put inequality and inclusive growth at the heart of their economic strategy.

So how could the Scottish Government ensure more inclusive growth, which combines greater equality, shared prosperity and does so within environmental limits?

Well a good place to start would be to prioritise actions that promote trade union membership and collective bargaining.

There is a strong body of evidence to show that high trade union membership and collective bargaining is associated with lower levels of economic inequality.

This can be seen historically in the UK where inequality, particularly at the extreme end, has risen at the same time as trade union membership and collective bargaining have fallen.


The relationship can also be seen when we look at collective bargaining coverage across Europe.


There is also a strong body of evidence to show that high levels of trade union membership are associated with increased productivity.

Research from NIESR into the response of employers to the recession found that ‘there is no evidence that workplaces have benefitted from Britain’s “flexible” labour market… on the contrary, workplaces with increasing unionisation appeared to benefit in terms of improved workplace performance’.

Similarly, longitudinal research from Norway has found that ‘increases in union density lead to substantial increases in firm productivity and wages’.

With output per worker in Scotland having increased at an average of 0.5% a year since 2007, and falling 3% in the last year, it defies logic to believe that the growth in precarious work practices and insecure employment is unconnected with a decline in productivity.

Trade unions are a crucial counter to low-road growth strategies based on precarious work and perform a crucial role as a countervailing force to the top 1%, reducing over-reliance on financial services and short-termism that inhibits sustainable investment.

If governments are concerned about inclusive growth and shared prosperity then they should be concerned about trade union membership. A good first step for the Scottish Government would be to have a target for increasing collective bargaining coverage within the National Performance Framework.


What has been won could soon be lost

On the first day of UCU strike action, Jeff Hyman, Emeritus Professor, University of Aberdeen and Honorary Professor, University of St Andrews writes about what is at stake in the proposals for massive pension cuts.

As I approach my 75th birthday, relatively relaxed in the security of my USS pension, I reflect on memories stirred by the current impasse over university provision.

The first is a newspaper advert of at least 50 years vintage, possibly by the Prudential (or the “Pru” as it was affectionately known), detailing a worker’s career history. The first image shows a young man accepting the job, with the paraphrased throwaway comment that  “they tell me the job has no pension”, through “I wish that I could look forward to a pension” to finally, the grey-haired and desperate: “I dread retiring without a pension”.

A second image is of research conducted nearly forty years ago on the positive contributions of employee representatives as trustees on occupational pension boards. Following the collapse of proposals for worker directors on the main boards of companies, it seems remarkable today that legislation was passed in the 1970s which allowed for parity representation by employees or their nominees over pension funding and allocation decisions.

This progressive approach links with the comment made a quarter a century ago “that it is generally conceded  …  that working people should have a right to participate in the making of decisions which critically affect their working lives” (Bean 1994).

Both pension fund participation and participative rights generally only flourished following determined and persistent trade union efforts over many years. These advances are now threatened.

The prospect of an uncertain or reduced pension not only undermines the working conditions and lives of thousands of current and prospective university academics, but the capacity of universities to attract and retain those on whom a modern and civilised society depends.

For an older generation which naïvely assumed that working conditions would continue to improve in a wealthy society, the call to take collective action to defend advances made years ago is not one taken lightly.

Yet we owe it to present and future generations that they should not “dread retiring” without a secure pension equivalent to the one which I and my retired colleagues continue to enjoy. Or that hard-won employment rights be overridden by management diktat.

So solidarity and strength to you in the struggle!

Fire & Rescue Service: The Politics of Change(s)

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is proposing huge changes to the role of a Firefighter, which could have significant implications, including safety, not to mention the impact on the other emergency services which we reply upon.

Over the past few weeks, the STUC has been speaking to firefighters about these proposed changes and what it means to the people who actually deliver the services rather than those who strategise from above.

You’ll probably have seen somewhere in the media over the past few weeks that firefighters are to receive a 20% pay rise.

For that pay rise we have to expand our role and accept job losses and station closures. The Transformation package, without the monetary value of the pay rise or any detail on anything, was launched a number of months ago.

The Service and the FBU have been in talks for months trying to get our terms and conditions sorted (after 4 years of being a single fire and rescue service we’re still effectively on different rates of pay due to allowances, extra payments for extra skills, etc). Just as those talks were coming to a head with the final proposal being given to the union, the Service produced the big offer. And sent it straight to the firefighters, after no talks with the union. The first sight the FBU had of it was the Monday lunchtime.

This really isn’t how you should do things. This Transformation package and the vision it sets out is huge. There are so many aspects that need to be clarified and discussed before going to the workforce, because they’ll just ask the exact same questions and be in disbelief that all this hasn’t been thought out before now.

And, there are long established trade union relationships to be respected, there’s a Working in Partnership document that states that there will be a “no surprises culture” and that all communications should be open and transparent. And that “All collective agreements that regulate or change contracts of employment are arrived at by negotiation between the relevant parties exclusively”.

 That’s what should have happened.

 The next day things really kicked off. The STUC wrote a letter to the Justice Secretary, Michael Mathieson, saying that the Service’s actions amounted to “union busting”, the GMB (who represent Scottish Ambulance Service members) also wrote to the secretary saying that they had just heard on the news that firefighters were going to be going to medical calls, and that shouldn’t they (the ambulance service) be doing that? Why isn’t more money going to try and help them out of the dire straights that they’re in?

Then Annabelle Ewing, under who’s remit the Fire Service sits, had to take an urgent question in Parliament. Brought forward by Liam Kerr (Conservative). Here’s what he said…

“The public will understand the rationale for changing the fire service but, as I have said before in the chamber on similar occasions, they will have legitimate concerns that the proposal is a way to implement cuts by the back door. The chief fire officer has told firefighters that there will be a small reduction in whole-time firefighter posts. Will the minister confirm exactly how many full-time equivalent posts will be lost? Will she explain how the service is expected to respond more quickly with fewer firefighters, given that the average time taken to respond to house fires has increased in almost every council area in Scotland?”

This is how bizarre everything has become, the Tories are worried about cuts to the public sector.

So, then Mrs Ewing responds in politician’s fashion, but has clearly been caught off guard. They have a little back and forth about the VAT issue and Liam Kerr then says…

“There are aspects of reform that we can welcome. In particular, I praise the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service for its successful trials of responding to cardiac arrests—I understand that a number of lives have been saved thanks to that effort. However, the Fire Brigades Union has said that its members have been given no specific detail about the roles that they will be expected to take on. We understand, for example, that firefighters will take on youth and social prevention work and inspection and enforcement responsibilities. Will the minister outline the specific duties that will be included in the definition? Further, will the Government publish the methodology that has been used to calculate the proposed pay rise?”

We’ve been asking this since the summer.

Then Gillian Martin from poor Annabelle’s own party asks…

 “Will the minister give a guarantee that those who take on enhanced responsibilities as a result of the new contract will be given comprehensive training and the necessary resources to carry out their new role effectively?”

Been asking this for ages, too. The Service have stated, categorically, in their letter that we’ll be given all the training, equipment and time required. But, as we’ve talked about before, how can we have any faith that this will be the case when our training has suffered so badly over the past 10 years and especially since the move to single service.

Daniel Johnson (Labour) then came in with this… 

“Will the minister therefore confirm whether, ahead of yesterday’s announcements, she was aware of the scale of the reductions in firefighters, stations and units? If so, given the scale of the change, why did she not feel that it was worth revealing to Parliament directly? Finally, does she share my concerns and those of the FBU that it did not receive prior sight of the details and that national pay and bargaining mechanisms have, in effect, been bypassed?” 

Liam McArthur (Lib Dems)… 

“Simply relying on the good will and hard work of staff on the front line to get by is not a long-term sustainable strategy, and an important part of protecting the fire service is paying workers properly and preventing their living standards from falling. To follow on from Daniel Johnson’s question, was the minister informed specifically of the offer before it went directly to staff? How does the enhanced role that is envisaged for staff in respect of terrorism, medical emergencies and community engagement differ from what staff already do? Will it to any extent formalise or recognise existing practices?” 

Then John Finnie (Greens) weighed in: 

“I welcome the minister’s comments about collective bargaining. As a former full-time official of a staff association, I would have been raging if the employer had bypassed agreed procedures. That is not an operational matter, so will the minister direct the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to adhere to the collective bargaining procedures, not only for the benefit of future negotiations for the fire service but to send a clear message to others in the public sector?”  


There’s not much point in me listing what the minister had to say as it pretty much revolved around things being operational matters for the SFRS, and being encouraged that the FBU are still willing to enter into negotiations. And that she wasn’t aware of the letter being sent to employees. I’ve not seen many politicians take a cross party kicking like she did very often, if at all.  

So, political scoring from the opposition parties, for sure. But it’s pretty easy to do when the Service bypasses the recognised trade unions, and launches a vision for the fire service that has so many blatantly obvious questions that need answered before any real talks can proceed. The Service has obviously been unaware of the links that the FBU has forged with politicians and the other unions over the past couple of years. The Service have huge resources, a media team, and a LOT of management to call on to get their message out, these new alliances redress that disparity.

For me, it was really encouraging to see the speed and weight of the response from those outside the job. It shows that there are a lot of people watching what’s happening with us, perhaps as a barometer of what’s coming across the rest of the public sector in Scotland, or maybe people still value us and share our concerns about what these changes could mean for the communities that we live in.



What is our strike?

On the eve of the industrial action by UCU members, Dr Kendra Briken describes why the strike has already started at Strathclyde University.

Strike action does not start on the picket lines. Strike action starts the moment the ballot paper is on your desk. It starts with the first discussions over coffee, in the corridors, or on the streets, and with your colleagues. The questions emerge, evolving through different iterations: What is your strike? What is our strike?

Going on strike means to collectively withdraw labour, to cause a disruption, and to become visible in our demands, but to exercise this leverage in the education sector is challenging. Going on strike in academia, if it is to be visible, necessarily includes to withdraw our labour from our workplace: from lecture theatres, libraries, IT, open plan and other offices.

Our becoming visible means to intervene into the space we most care about: education. In doing so, we will ultimately impact the ones we most care about: our students. We act against our own impulses, and we know that our demand has to be translatable to the ones we do impact in this strike action. So that is why.

Our strike is an open invitation to education. Over recent weeks the call for strike action has opened up a new space, an opportunity to reconstitute collectivity, and to enhance general levels of sociability. Our strike is a social strike in that we started talking, organising, and even more importantly listening carefully to each other’s anxiety, fears, and exhaustions.

Work intensification, competition, performance management, and casualisation is something experienced by both university staff and students. We realised and discussed how this has changed our social relations at work, how we barely talk to each other anymore outside of the lecture theatre. Our encounter is more and more transferred into the two dimensional spaces of standardised feedback forms, rankings, and ratings.

Going on strike will allow us to further discover collectivity and to gain a much better understanding of our experiences, what divides us now but can be shared in the future. We made visible the hidden potential of solidarity with staff – those on different contracts, from other faculties, in between professionals and academics – and most importantly, with our students.

Strath support
 Strathclyde students are organising a teach-in on day two of the strike.

In this, our strike is a demand, and at the same time it is the careful search for alternatives. Teach-ins, music sessions, fundraisers, going to a bookstore or having exchanges over coffee, these activities are far from disrupting education. If learning is based on making new experiences, the strike is an offer to our students to join us in a different form of education. We disrupt and withdraw our labour but we are still at work, and create while we disrupt; we too are learning as we go.

Our strike doesn’t start at the picket lines. Our strike has started already. The overwhelming and immediate support of the students’ unions is one obvious dimension.

On Thursday, we will meet at the pickets, and our strike has long begun. Our strike action is an open invitation to education. This is our strike.

The UCU strike starts on the 22nd February and will take place over the following weeks. For more information about the strike visit the UCU website. Strike demonstrations will take place in Glasgow and Dundee on 22nd February, and Edinburgh on 26th February.

Cordless Drills and Unplugged Gaps – Warning Stories from the Fire Station

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is proposing huge changes to the role of a Firefighter, which could have significant implications, including safety, not to mention the impact on the other emergency services which we reply upon.

Over the past few weeks, the STUC has been speaking to firefighters about these proposed changes and what it means to the people who actually deliver the services rather than those who strategise from above.

Plugging gaps

As for plugging gaps as ancillary paramedics and support workers. Plugging gaps? The question has be asked about why the gaps are there in the first place? Then, what kind of training are we going to get on this? It sounds a pretty casual, ad hoc, sort of thing, which I think belittles the people who do this job already and says a lot about how we’re seen. It takes a lot of training to become a paramedic and I can tell from experience that being in an emergency situation with someone dying on you, while you try to do the best you can with limited knowledge is not pleasant. Certainly, it deserves to be classed as something much more than plugging a gap.

FBU work with us

When introducing their proposals, the Fire Service tried to override negotiating processes. Read the STUC’s open letter to the Justice Minister in response.

Support Workers

Support workers? What does this mean? Again, what training will we get? And why us? Are we a good fit? My mum get two care visits a day and the workers that do these are fantastic, but they do things that I’m not sure I could, or would want to do. Like showering an older person after they’ve had an accident, or wiping their bum, or cooking their tea and feeding it to them. So I didn’t go into that vocation.

And conversely, they say they wouldn’t want to drag somebody out of a fire in a house, or have to cut people out of cars who have sustained horrendous injuries, or cut dead bodies out of cars and get them into body bags while pieces of brains fall out of the hole in their forehead. So they didn’t join the Fire Service.

I’m not being overly dramatic here, these are things I’ve done this year.

Cordless Drills

There’s a definite case for us expanding our role into some kind of emergency medical response, co-responding to out of hospital cardiac arrests, for example. A successful trial scheme was recently rolled out and independent research, commissioned by the FBU, suggested that there might be a good fit and could make a life-saving impact. However, due to the breakdown in pay negotiations we halted all the trials as we felt that we’re not even being paid enough for what we do now, let alone taking on extra roles that require more skills and training and that would ultimately save lives and save millions of pounds across the board.

We’ve been asking for a cordless drill for five years to help when we’re fitting smoke detectors in people’s houses and been continually knocked back.

Training Facilities

On the subject of training, prior to moving to a single Fire and Rescue Service, the area I worked in was Lothian and Borders. We had a really good training facility in Gullane, with buildings to do hot fire training (moving around in hot, dark conditions, rescuing dummies etc), fire behaviour training (think Backdraught – the movie), there was a road section for doing multi-car road traffic accidents, we could train for hazmats incidents and we regularly ran courses to train officers to deal with the command aspects of a whole range of different incident types.

There was another hot fire training facility at Fillyside by Seafield in Edinburgh, and another at McDonald Road in the station yard. These were used successfully for years and provided me with the training that led to me being a well-trained, professional firefighter, then Crew Manager.

Since 2013, all three of these have closed and for the past couple of years the only facility in the East of Scotland is at Thornton in Glenrothes. Not that handy for anyone but especially anyone south of the city bypass. If the wind’s blowing the wrong way we can’t even have a fire burning due to the smoke travel to the neighbours. Honest.

A Workers’ Observatory: a new tool for gig workers?

The media’s lens will swing back to the gig economy this week as the UK government gears up to deliver its response to the Taylor Review. But many details of conditions and contracts in areas like couriering, delivery, care, and hospitality gig-work remain unobserved. An observatory into the collaborative economy could be a vital educating, agitating and organising tool.

Last week the Scottish government published the report it had commissioned to generate ideas for ‘reshaping’ the collaborative economy. The report insists that gig workers must have an effective and collective voice (following principles of the Fair Work Framework), and points to the importance of self-organising and trade union presence in the gig economy. It also proposes that government should support workers’ self-organising and fund skills-development. These recommendations prove the importance of having top-level union voices on key government panels.

But the authors, drawn from unions, businesses officials and others, also admitted that darkness still conceals so much about the collaborative economy. Confronting malpractice depends on a sharper and more detailed view of conditions and changes in the sector. And above all it depends on the kind of information-sharing and collaboration that is lacking across most new platform-based systems: collaboration between workers themselves.

Mapping the Gig Economy

The collaborative economy is the fast-expanding sector of goods and service exchange, arranged via online platforms like Uber, Deliveroo, Amazon and eBay. The name suggests the each platform works like a hive of cooperative activity – but for many workers in the sector, the work is neither cooperative nor collaborative. The term ‘gig economy’ is a better reflection of the worker’s viewpoint. Each gig is a demand for a discrete service or good – food, home care, a taxi – that a worker can in principal choose to deliver or not. This means the sector is based on horizontal contracts of individual ‘contractors’. These platforms are typically one-way tracks between workers and apps, which often conceal a system of control and coercion.

Gig economy workers have conducted inquiries into platforms like Deliveroo, which have established that the extent of choice and control workers have is close to nil. Such workers’ inquiries have found that many apps have functions to nudge and coerce workers into committing to shifts without knowing what they will earn for that shift. To refuse a gig carries the risk of being refused future gigs, and for many who rely on platforms to make a living this is not flexibility, it is false freedom.

But it is hard to build an accurate map of the gig economy, because the rosters of workers, the data about local demand, and the algorithmic managing codes are uncharted and unobserved by almost everyone. Apart from the platform providers only privileged bodies can request it – such as the Scottish Affairs Select committee which in March obtained evidence that most Uber drivers earn most of their income from the platform, despite insisting on its model benefitting ‘flexible’ workers.

An Observatory for the collaborative economy

Encouragingly, the report fully recognised how much remains hidden in the computers and accounts of platform owners. One of its potentially ground-breaking recommendations, in an understated box on page 10 of the report, aims to penetrate this darkness. It recommends that government sets up:

‘an observatory into the collaborative economy … [to] collect, aggregate, analyse and publish a variety of datasets that show the ongoing impact of collaborative economy platforms in Scotland. This would be a new way for platforms (local authorities and conceivably workers) to agree to share certain data and would address the clear data and evidence gaps that exist in order to track activity and impacts.’

But workers themselves should not be placed in parenthesis. If the concentration of information and data is all with the employer, or even the government, then workers are in the dark while employer surveillance observes their every move.

The benefits of a workers’ observatory: educate, agitate, organise

It is easy to think of benefits flowing from this kind of insight. It could give access to the information workers could use to understand the practices and policies that control their schedules and wages. With a better picture of their sector, workers could arrange courses and skills-development relevant to their field of work. Workers could develop the skills and tools to keep a check on the company they work for (with systems like turkopticon, ‘a place for workers to help one another with information and their experiences about employers’). And workers could develop education that would allow them to create truly collaborative enterprises where workers are in control of their pay, schedules, and work.

A workers’ observatory would also provide a tool to expose malpractice, through reverse surveillance of platforms that could bring to light instances of discrimination or breaches of employment law. With an observatory, workers could identify issues locally, and start to coordinate action together. This could be the basis of agitation and other activity to improve conditions and contracts.

Finally, an observatory could allow workers to access the kind of information that will help with self-organisation to link up and form union branches to secure their rights and build power. Information such as pay-rates, the number of staff, the ratio of part-time to full-time reliance on systems, and other information form the basis of any organising strategy.

Giving an observatory the tools and power to penetrate these platforms would give workers skills, put pressure on companies to stop malpractice, and shift power back to self-organised workers.



The collapse of Carillion and the spiralling situation of Capita and Interserve serve as reminders that multinational outsourcing companies are bad value for our public contracts. They act as debt laundering schemes, starving pensions and services of funds in order to fuel profits and dividends.

Following Carillion’s collapse, Capita, another outsourcing giant, saw its shares plummet on 31st January by 47%, their lowest value since 1998. Interserve, another outsourcer which has contracts to provide nurses and care assistants in Scotland, served a profit warning last year. On 1st February, their share value fell another 15%.

Why did Carillion collapse?

When Carillion collapsed just over two weeks ago, on 15th January, it had a huge pension deficit.

Essentially, the company had not provided enough money to pay workers’ pensions, despite paying shareholders dividends of £78.9m in 2016, exceeding the amount it generated in cash from operations. It paid a further dividend of £54 million in June 2017 – just one month before its first profit warning.

In 2012, outside advisers said Carillion had prioritised growing earnings and supporting the share price ahead of the pension scheme. For 10 years, the Carillion pension trustees tried to get the company to pay in more money to the scheme without success; so the profit warning in mid-2017 was not a surprise to those in the know. Hedge funds had been betting against them since 2015. Despite these concerns, its Chief Executive, Richard Howson, received a payout in 2016 of £1.5m. As its profits decreased due to low margins, Carillion took on more debt (to meet its day to day running costs) and stockpiled contracts from Government.

As others have said, Carillion was operating a giant Ponzi scheme. That they received £1 billion in taxpayer’s money, while known to be in huge financial difficulty, suggests the UK Government was complicit in maintaining an outsourcing system against the public interest.

The slide in Capita and Interserve’s share price has led to understandable comparisons and questions being asked as to whether another outsourcing conglomerate is about to fall.

out sourcing

What about workers and projects in Scotland?

Carillion had 1,169 workers directly employed in Scotland, with 112 working as modern apprentices. A number of other workers are not directly employed but are also impacted by Carillion’s collapse, including those working for sub-contractors on projects such as the Aberdeen bypass; railway work at Paisley, Shotts and Waverley Station; and various facilities management contracts with public bodies and Housing Associations.

The liquidator is attempting to secure a transfer of Carillion workers over to other companies – for example Balfour Beatty and Galliford Try in the case of the Aberdeen bypass – but has already announced 377 redundancies across the UK.

Capita employs an estimated 4,000 people in Scotland involved in financial services; human resources; information technology; life & pensions; property services; software; police and justice; and emergency services. They run the £325 million Scottish Wide Area Network (SWAN) contract involving the Scottish Government, NHS and more than half Scotland’s local authorities which aims to establish a single shared network and common ICT infrastructure across Scotland’s entire public sector.

How are Unions responding?

Unions have been warning about precarious work in the construction and outsourcing industries for decades, and despite union campaigns and even legislative change, public contracts continue to be awarded to the worst offenders. Bogus self-employment; umbrella contracts; a serious lack of health and safety standards; and the systematic blacklisting of workers – these are scandals which our procurement and outsourcing systems facilitate.

A clear audit of the workforce is desperately needed and the STUC will be working with other unions to attempt to develop this and wider research into the construction and outsourcing industries.

In Scotland, as across the UK, Carillion symbolises a decaying carcass of public service provision based on financialisation and outsourcing. Whilst wages stagnate, the cost of living rises, and austerity continues, workers and taxpayers are left to pick up the costs of outsourcing.

Surely we can do better than this? The STUC is calling on the Scottish Government to:

  • Bring Carillion contracts back in-house;
  • Map the impact of Carillion’s collapse and explore the impact of any exposure to Capita and Interserve. As well as direct employees, this exercise should consider the wider supply chain of agency workers, self-employed workers and those on umbrella contracts;
  • Place a moratorium on public service outsourcing while a root and branch review is carried out;
  • Commit to ending PFI and similar, Scottish specific schemes, and work with public bodies to minimise costs on existing projects including through buying out schemes where appropriate;
  • Establish a Scottish National Construction/Investment Company to take forward public infrastructure and investment projects.

The only way to win these demands is by ensuring that workers immediately affected are engaging with each other through their unions, and taking action to put them into effect.