occupation, occupation, occupation

Workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago won a large pay-off this week after an occupation of the factory where they worked. Gregor Gall argues that in the current economic climate, occupations should play a major role in the fight against mass redundancies.

A recession is well and truly here if you look at the newspapers and see the daily tally of redundancies and closures. Indeed, ITN has begun doing its daily count on its late evening bulletin – just as it did in the grim 1980s.  

Most economic analysts believe the recession will be long and deep, not short and slight. So there is agreement that the number of unemployed will be between 2m-3m by sometime next year unless there is a fight to stop redundancies.

It is not just the redundancies and closures that cause untold misery but the way in which they are carried out in terms of notification and compensation result in further heartache.

Faced with mass redundancies and plant closures, how should workers and unions best respond?

Short-time working may seem like one way of spreading the pain more widely but also more thinly so that workers remain in post but on reduced wages.  

But the recent example of JCB shows this solution does not work well. In order to reduce the number of redundancies, short-time working was agreed but within weeks more redundancies were announced.

Rather than allowing workers to succumb to the fatalism of sullen resignation and the feeling that ‘you can’t buck the market’, unions must look for any weak points in the employer in order to create leverage.

With leverage, redundancies and closure could be stopped or, at least, the number of redundancies reduced and severance terms increased.

The bitter lesson of the 1980s is strikes are not the best way to respond here. Striking often plays straight into the employers’ hands because striking is a civil breach of contract – this means employers can effectively let workers sack themselves and do so without receiving any pay off. The employer can simply afford to wait out the time until workers have no statutory protection from striking lawfully.  

And striking put the workers on the outside of the workplace. But this does not mean rejecting militant options. Indeed, the best response workers can have is to occupy the workplace rather than go on strike because striking means standing outside the workplace while occupation means at least maintaining control from the inside can be used as a bargaining chip. This applies to whether the work is being transferred somewhere else or ended completely.  

Although it can be difficult for workers to raise the costs of setting up business somewhere like India or Poland by action with sister unions that does not mean they cannot raise the costs of leaving somewhere in Britain. So regardless of whether the work is being offshored, outsourced or ended, workers being in control of the building, the plant and machinery is a strong card to play.  

This is because orders will still have to be delivered upon, the employer will either want to transfer or sell the fixed assets as well as the land and buildings. Being able to stop machinery being dismantled and then being taken away by locking in inside the building and providing security to stop any removal is a far better strategy than trying to stop it leaving by mounting a picket.  

Any picket would have to be a mass and continuous one – a huge feat to achieve. By contrast, doors, gates and exit points can be locked and barricaded shut by relatively few in numbers.

The lesson here is workers have more power on the inside than on the outside. The tool of controlling the employer’s most valuable assets is an immeasurably stronger one.

The most obvious and successful version of this was the UCS work-in in Scotland in 1971-1972. But there have been other more conventional examples in Scotland like that at Caterpillar in Uddingston in 1987 and Lee Jeans in Greenock and Plessey in Bathgate in 1981.Of course, such occupations were not confined to Scotland alone.  

But if strike action is taken to stop closure and redundancy, the other lesson from the past is that it cannot just remain an economic strike. In other words, it must generate political heat so that the employer is put under pressure from government. It is not just a case of politicians condemning the employer as employers can live with that. It is about withdrawing public sector contracts and taking them elsewhere. 

Campaigns for consumer boycotts and direct action against other parts of the employer’s operations can be useful tactics to support occupations and strikes. But they cannot be used as substitutes because they cannot wield sufficient leverage.

So to those employers who threaten ‘relocation, relocation, relocation’ or ‘cessation, cessation, cessation’, workers should respond with ‘occupation, occupation, occupation’.