Demanding more than nothing

Launched last year, the ‘Better than Zero’ (BtZ) campaign is in its infancy. Despite the success and recognition which it has had within the Scottish labour movement, there remains a lot of work to be done in order to institute the aims of the campaign more broadly in workplaces.    better-than-zero

The campaign began in August 2015, funded initially by the STUC as an attempt to address the decreasing youth membership across all unions and increasing precarity in the workplace and lives of young workers. Inspired by the Fight for $15 campaign, which was resourced by the SEIU union in the USA and employed grassroots greenfield social movement organising tactics, as well as attempting to capitalise on the increased political consciousness which sprang from the Scottish referendum debate, BtZ is a construct of its time in that it is very much part of the union movement but is more akin to the global social movementism which has been a feature of the past decade.

With the aims of eradicating zero hours contracts (ZHCs) in workplace in order to stabilise young workers’ livelihoods and lives, including 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 concretise a political industrial consciousness within precarious non-unionised workplaces.

The campaign uses stunts and flash mobs to highlight the use of ZHCs, workers on less than minimum wage, discriminatory national living wage, safety at work and discriminatory practices. Targeting G1, Scotland’s largest hospitality employer, the campaign has gathered a plethora of anecdotal evidence of young workers across Scotland in various workplaces who have been left unpaid for an hour at the end of their shift, told that they need to pay for their own uniforms and staff training, sacked at whim for having one sick day, young women told they need to dress more seductively for customers and no transport home arranged for those workers serving drinks in nightclubs until 4am.

As well as highlighting these issues in mainstream media in order to publicise BtZ to those in non-unionised workplaces, recently leading to one employer at a famous Scottish festival getting in touch to organise a meeting with us about the issues highlighted, formal union campaigns and disputes have also called upon the campaign to send support. This is important because it provides a cross generational visualisation of industrial democracy which helps to counter the (sometimes self-fulfilling) narrative that young people are not interested in workplace struggles.

At the end of July, BtZ held its first birthday party with workshops on how to create political pressure with your campaign, using creative methods of campaigning and forum theatre as a tool for encouraging people to think about and act out what they would do in certain situations. Around 100 young people from a variety of backgrounds attended the event. Looking around the room at 10:30pm on a Friday night and hearing silence as everyone listened to an interview style Q&A with a young union organiser from Ireland, it is clear that this is one of the youngest and most organised social movement campaigns across Europe right now.

Social movementism, parliamentary campaigns and labour disputes don’t always appear in tandem. In fact, they hardly ever do. Nor do they always appear organically. This is why, before one part of that three pronged spear of struggle is blunted, it is important to be sharpening the others. We have seen the mass social movement of independence in Scotland, translated to a return to party politics, but for this generation we need a union model which resonates.

As well as upping the ante for the actions which BtZ undertakes this year, institutionalising the campaign across unions, making a mark on civic and political society, the campaign will also be working with the Unions into Schools project and the STUC youth committee via Scottish Union Learning to host workshops, a zero hours literary event and a leadership course fit for this generation of activists to lead our unions in the future.

So to end, I would like to make an appeal to all current union activists. You will know a young person, or know of a young person, who is in a precarious non-unionised working environment but who would not necessarily join a union if you waved a recruitment form under their nose. BtZ is the place for that young person to learn about workplace organising and power dynamics at a grassroots level. Please make sure to get them involved.            

Sarah Collins works with Scottish Union Learning to support BtZ (