In conversation with Gary Owen
Wales Co-operative Centre Business Succession Project Manager Rhian Edwards joins playwright Gary Owen to discuss the benefits of worker co-operatives. With Dr Who and Torchwood writer Helen Raynor, Gary has created and written the hugely successful BBC Wales drama Baker Boys.
Rhian manages a project which works with business owners and employee groups, like those in Valleys Bara, exploring employee ownership options and forming worker co-operatives.
We’re really interested to find out why you decided to write a drama about worker co-operatives?
Gary Owen: Looking around when we were coming up with the idea, we felt there were a lot of great TV shows set either in a fantasy/science fiction world, like Dr Who and Merlin, and a lot of shows set in a heightened version of the real world (things like Spooks, Mistresses, Shameless). But there wasn’t much original drama dealing with gritty reality as most people experience it – and yet everyday life is full of drama! So that was our first thought, to write something that dealt with the drama of everyday life. Then within that real world, we wanted to write something that would be hopeful and optimistic. When you look at TV shows that are described as ‘aspirational’, often they’re about glossy people owning nice things and leading glamorous lives. And obviously owning nice things is great – I love my iPad! – but nice things aren’t what really matter. What matters are things like having a roof over your head, a way to put food on the table, being able to make sure those you love are safe and happy, and feeling you have a bit of control over your life. And with those ideas in our heads, it was actually Helen who thought of Tower Colliery, and came up with the idea of setting a drama in a factory which had been bought out by the workforce and run as a co-operative.
Rhian Edwards: We’re really pleased that the Baker Boys is helping bring the worker co-operative model into the mainstream. Through our project we’re promoting the worker co-operative model across business sectors and Baker Boys will help spread the message that a worker co-operative is a business model that can safeguard jobs and can give people the opportunity to become business owners and directly benefit from what they put into the business.
Gary, now you know more about the model, what do you think are the advantages of a worker buy-out or a worker co-operative?
GO: I think there’s statistical evidence to show that productivity is usually higher in co-operatives than in other kinds of business, because people know the extra effort they put in will come back to them, rather than just boosting profits for whoever owns the business. And a business that provides a service to the public and a living to its workforce is a perfectly viable if run as a co-op; that business might not be considered viable by a corporation who are also looking for it to generate them a profit, and who might then just shut it down. Co-ops will have different priorities to profit-maximising businesses in other ways, too. I think I’m right in saying that the safety record at Tower Colliery was exemplary – because, of course, a worker run co-op is going to put the highest possible priority on the safety of the workforce.
RE: I agree. People are at the heart of worker co-operatives. They give employees an opportunity to steer the development of the business. There is evidence to show that during periods of economic down turn, worker co-operatives are more resilient than conventionally structured businesses because the employees have a stake in the business and there’s more collective effort. From the owners point of view, an employee buy-out gives the business owner a viable option to consider when planning their exit from the business. Many of the business owners we’re currently working with have looked at third party sales, but didn’t feel confident that the buyers would protect their employees. For lots of owners this is a major concern and an obstacle to the sale. An employee buy-out gives the owner their desired exit route while putting the business into the hands of the employees who are people who know it the best.
Given that you feel the model has many advantages, how relevant do you think this approach is in the current economic climate?
GO: I think it’s incredibly relevant! There’s been a lot of talk since the financial crisis began about ‘the market being broken’ – but I don’t think that’s quite right. It’s not the mechanism of the market itself that has caused our problems – it’s that there are incredibly powerful corporations acting within the market system which exist only to maximise profits, and which have little incentive to worry about environmental or social damage they cause. Co-ops and other organisations that exist to fulfil social goals can work perfectly well in the market system, and could make markets serve society rather than wrecking it.
RE: That’s right. Co-operative business models are more than just about short termism and quick profit. The co-operative principles include member economic participation, education and concern for the community. Co-operatives are about empowering those who work for them and also about keeping valuable services within our local communities. Worker co-operatives help safeguard jobs which is very significant to the local and national economy in the current climate.
No business is without its dramas, and your drama picks up on the challenges of running a worker co-operative – what do you think are the biggest challenges a fledging worker co-operative would face?
GO: From research we’ve done, it seems there a shift of mindset involved in getting people from being simply employees of a business, to thinking of themselves as being co-owners. I remember reading in ‘Local Heroes’, David Erdal’s book about how the Loch Fyne oyster business was turned into a co-operative, it took a while for some people who had previously been ‘just’ workers on the shop floor to get used to standing up in finance meetings and questioning the decisions of the management.
RE: Yes that’s definitely one of the key challenges the employees face, the transition from being an employee one day to owner the next. It’s really important that everyone involved in a worker co-operative fully understands their role and responsibilities as employees and their rights as owners. And, it’s very important that the two don’t get blurred. Our business succession service works directly with employees to give them detailed training and support through this process as we think this is crucial to help establish a solid foundation for the business moving forward. Funding the co-operative is also a challenge. Providers of finance won’t lend to a business just because its structured as a worker co-operative. The employees need to show that the business is a viable business and it has real potential for growth. We work with employees to help them put together realistic business plans that will secure the necessary start up investment and get the business up and running.
Are there any real life examples that inspired you to write the drama?
GO: First and foremost, Tower Colliery, as I’ve already mentioned. And then in a more rural context, we knew that lots of villages were forming co-operatives and managing to re-open pubs and post offices, after they’d failed as purely commercial enterprises. And the finally we looked at the Mondragon Co-operative in the Basque to find out how a co-op might respond when it hit hard times. And I’ll stop talking there, for fear of giving away the storyline!
RE: The worker co-operative model is prevalent across the UK, Europe, USA and South American, and as you’ve pointed out, the Mondragon Co-operative and Tower Colliery have both become leading lights. In Wales, we’ve got some excellent examples of successful viable businesses structured as worker co-operatives. Primepac Solutions Ltd, Aber Instruments, and Science Workshops are all examples of businesses that have employee ownership at their core while being successful businesses in their respective fields.
Gary, many thanks for talking to us today. You’ve given us a real insight into why you wrote Baker Boys and we hope the series will be a huge success and will inspire more people to think about employee ownership as a credible business model. We’re looking forward to catching the first episode of Series Two on Thursday.
To speak to someone from the business succession team at the Wales Co-operative Centre, please call 0300 111 5050, email us on email@example.com or visit the Wales Co-operative Centre website via this link.
To follow our blogs on Baker Boys as the series progresses, follow the hashtags #Bakerboys and #walescooperative and check our blog https://walescooperative.wordpress.com/
The Wales Co-operative Centre was set up thirty years ago and ever since we’ve been helping businesses grow, people to find work and communities to tackle the issues that matter to them. Our advisors work co-operatively across Wales, providing expert, flexible and reliable support to develop sustainable businesses and strong, inclusive communities.
Baker Boys Series 2 Episode 1 is scheduled for transmission on BBC1 Wales on Thursday 24th November at 9pm. The episode will be available on iplayer here after broadcast