occupations: the way to win?

by Professor Gregor Gall, University of Hertforshire

Day-after-day, week-after-week, redundancies continue to come thick and fast. And it’s not just a case of job cuts, but closures of entire workplaces and whole companies.

But still there seems to be no obvious resistance from workers or their unions. From their leaderships, we have words of condemnation in the media but no instances of tangible action to roll back the employers’ offensive. And while lobbying and campaigning for new regimes of economic and social regulation will take time to bear any possible fruit, in the meantime, the deployment of industrial resistance to the try to stop jobs massacre is needed. Saving jobs cannot rely on waiting for some future re-regulation of the economy.

Twenty to thirty years ago, the tactic of occupation was used by workers in a relatively widespread manner as the most effective way of resisting factory closures and mass redundancies.

The most obvious and successful version of this was the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) work-in in Scotland in 1971-1972. It represented an attempt to not only stop the closures of the yards by seizing the assets and making a political hot potato out of doing so but also to show that the workers could run the yards more efficiently themselves than conventional management.

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. Manchester’s engineering industry, for example, witnessed a series of occupation in the early 1970s. And over the years since there have been one or two occupations per year in Britain until the late 1990s.

Looking around and surveying the outcomes of the experience of other workers’ resistance, these workers deploying the tool of occupation have deduced that strikes are not the best way to respond to the mass job cuts and closure. The destruction of capital is clearly a particular situation, requiring a more specific response from workers for a strike (as a tool of collective bargaining) is premised
on the resumption of work taking place after the strike. The destruction of capital, represented by closure, retrenchment and so on, means that this is not on the agenda.

Striking has traditionally been defined as not just a withdrawal of labour but also walking off the job – which in turn means leaving the workplace. Sit-down strikes, strikes as canteen occupations and the like are not – and have not been – common tools in the armoury of workers in Britain.

Thus, striking puts workers on the outside of the workplace and this means putting themselves in a weaker position. Striking means standing outside the premises, trying to stop goods, machinery, plant and so on leaving the premises. Restricted by what is lawful for picketing, and the practical difficulty of sustaining mass pickets, the employer is likely to be able to vacate the premises with their property without too much trouble. Striking allows the initiative to stay with the employer.

Alternatively, the workplace occupation offers the possibility of maintaining control of the employers’ assets from the inside. The leverage created revolves around seizing the assets which may include i) stocks of goods because orders may still have to be delivered upon or because this stock still has a marketable value, ii) plant and machinery which can be either transferred to another part of
the employer’s business or sold, and iii) realising the value of the land and buildings by selling them on. Occupation allows the initiative to stay with the employer, requiring him or her to break into his or her own workplace.

Being able to stop machinery being dismantled and then being taken away by locking it 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 outside the gates. Any picket would have to be a mass and continuous one – a huge feat to achieve as the industrial battles of the 1980s graphically highlighted. By contrast, doors, gates and exit points can be locked and barricaded shut by relatively few workers so long as there is a support network outside (see later).

Indeed, 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. And now, because of changes in the law on unfair dismissal, employers can simply afford to wait out the time until workers have no statutory protection from striking lawfully.

So while it can be difficult for workers to raise the costs of doing businesses elsewhere like India or Poland (by helping raise wage rates through unionisation), 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.

That is why the recent examples of Simclar electronics workers in Ayrshire in early 2007 and those at motor parts manufacturer, Calcast, in Derry in late 2008 are so important as DIY lessons in resistance to other workers. They stand out as beacons compared to the alternatives of short-time working and/or pay cuts. Take the example of JCB, manufacturer of earth moving machines. Last year, workers there agreed to short-time working (and reduced wages) to lessen the number of redundancies but within weeks more redundancies were announced by the company.

Both Simclar and Calcast occupations were short and did not stop the redundancies but they did make sure that the terms for redundancy were improved. The anger of workers was sparked not just by the redundancies themselves but also by the way in which they were announced and carried out.

But before we begin thinking that occupations represent some kind of magic bullet for workers, we need to have an appreciation of what they require to be effective as well as their limitations.

Occupations need to be both planned and spontaneous. Planning is required in order to establish the supplies and their supply lines to keep the occupiers in food, electricity, (market) intelligence, entertainment and so on as well as how to organise the protection of the employers’ assets from the employer and police. The spontaneity is needed in order to have the element of surprise over the
employer by starting the occupation which is also the point at which management – the agent of the employer – need to be expelled from the premises.

Occupations which have any chance of overturning job losses – rather than just getting better severance terms for the job losses – are invariably going to have to be of a sustained nature. This even more starkly highlights the need to have supply lines on the outside. The recent example of the occupation by workers at the Republic Windows and Doors company in Chicago indicated that it is possible to quickly establish widespread networks to support such occupations.

But being able to sustain occupation for a considerable length of time is not guarantee of success for most individual occupations do not record much success above and beyond gaining some better severance terms.

The possibility of successfully preventing job losses hinges upon the tactic of occupation becoming sufficiently widespread as to force a recalculation on the costs and benefits of employers facing them down. So the time when occupations were able to gain better than moderate outcomes pertained to the periods of the 1970s and 1980s.

The benefit that the occupations of that period had was to have emerged out of a period of sustained growth in the degree of heightened working class conscious and action before recession began. This made the creation of solidarity networks much easier as well as giving the idea of occupation a much greater purchase. By contrast, today we face a situation of the inverse.

Workers are facing a recession having experienced both a sustained period of the falling back of their class conscious to very low levels and this has been accompanied by (and part of) a some of the lowest levels of working class struggles (strikes, extra-workplace struggles) on record.

By virtue of this alone, examples of occupation are not only gold dust but there is an even greater role for socialists to carefully and sensitively proselytise for the use of such tactics within a wider framework of helping to create grassroots community political campaigns to both support the physical maintenance of the occupiers and make their occupation into campaigns which put political heat on the company and government. That was the lesson of the UCS work-in. It helped precipitate a political crisis of both government, society and economy in Britain, potentially opening up room for further workers’ advance.

2 thoughts on “occupations: the way to win?

  1. Exactly. There’s no good having these one day demos and protest strikes, even the “left” bureaucrats like Serwotka aren’t doing anything to resist the recession but just talk and talk. At UNISON conference Prentis even quoted Marx!

    Occupy workplaces under threat of redundancy and put them under workers’ control. They should have done it at Woolie’s


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