Tactics of resistance: occupations and sit-ins

Workers will need an array of tactics to fight redundancies and attacks in the coming economic crash. In part one of a series looking at distinct tactics for winning battles in the workplace, Bob Carter explains workplace occupations and how to make them successful.

Workers rally to save Harland and Wolff shipyard, 2019 Keywords: workplace organising redundancies Covid job cuts layoffs
Workers occupying Harland and Wolff shipyard, 2019

Workers’ actions and struggles take many forms. Everyday resistance can be individualistic, secretive and unorganised – from working without enthusiasm to minor acts of sabotage – or can be open and collective – varying from working-to-rule to what is often described as the ‘ultimate sanction’ against employers, the strike. In terms of strategy, collective action is superior to individual action: the more collective – involving all sections and grades of workers – is more effective than isolated, individual action. But collective action can take different forms. In the 1960s, in strongly organised British engineering factories, where workers retained a great deal of control over work methods, some militants regarded striking less favourably than staying inside the factory and pressuring employers by imposing disruption of production schedules. Workers continued to be paid while employers suffered loss of output. Once outside the gates, workers lost control of the workplace and were much more exposed to police activity. This logic particularly plays out in situations where workplaces are threatened by closure: the lack of physical control of the factory makes strike action a weaker option than an occupation or sit-in, as these threaten the property rights of capitalist ownership and their ability to deploy assets – it is thus a move beyond the ‘ultimate’ sanction.

The likelihood of occupations growing in Britain is hard to determine. Historically, they have been more prominent in Scotland than in England because of a combination of industrial make-up and trade union organisation, the feeling that economic decisions about workers’ livelihoods are being taken by people remote from their experiences and concerns, and the related growth of Scottish nationalism that promises wider solidarity. Whether that promise is realised, however, is far from certain. Rather than location and national identity being decisive, the crucial factor in influencing owners and governments is working-class mobilisation and solidarity.

Occupations and sit-ins: some examples

Compared with conventional strikes, workplace occupations are comparatively rare. They happen most frequently in times of rapid recession when closures threaten the jobs and livelihood of workers with alternative employment possibilities almost entirely absent. But a threat of closure has not always the cause. One of the best-known historical examples of an occupation (combined with a strike, in this instance) is the sit-down strike at the General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan in 1937. Involving 2000 workers, it started over two sackings, lasted 40 days, and culminated in union recognition. Rather than being a defensive action it was part of a widespread upsurge in union organising. In 1937 alone there were 477 sit-down strikes in America covering a range of industries. By 1938, United Auto Workers membership alone had grown from 30,000 to 500,000.

The best-known example of a workplace occupation in Britain is that of Glasgow’s Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in 1971. It differed from the US experiences above in being firstly about closure and redundancies, and secondly in that it did not involve strike action. As Jimmy Reid, the most prominent of the union leadership, stressed: ‘We are not going to strike. We are not even having a sit-down strike. Nobody and nothing will come in and nothing will go out without our permission.’ The action took place in a context of a decline in British shipbuilding, an industry closely associated with Glasgow. Given the high levels of unemployment outside the industry there would be no alternative employment. It was also encouraged by the fact that the government were heavily implicated in causing the liquidity problems of the company, and were using these problems to rationalise the industry. The absence of major defeats of workers at this time, despite both Labour and Tory attempts to curb union power and to lower terms and conditions, had nurtured industrial militancy, and there was widespread support for the action which lasted until the summer of 1972 when the government agreed to a major cash injection.

There have been other notable occupations, such as Gardner diesel engine factory in Manchester in 1980 and Caterpillar earthmoving equipment factory in 1987 at Uddingston in Lanarkshire, the latter to some extent inspired by the UCS experience. The Gardner strike and occupation was less notable for its success (although it did stop a large number of compulsory redundancies) than for the manner of its organisation and fightback, with an emphasis on rank and file involvement and a degree of independence from the union officials. The strike committee, for instance, was separate from the formal union structure and open to all members across the unions involved and not just shop stewards, encouraging women and younger members to participate. This openness was aided by sub-committees that allowed co-option and not only covered the urgent issues of administration, picketing and safety , but also entertainment, resulting in the showing of films and performances by arts groups. The Caterpillar action mirrored the work-in at UCS, although there were only enough materials in the factory to complete one machine, but while three out of four jobs were saved at UCS, at Caterpillar neither the factor nor any of the jobs survived, the only concrete gain being an increase in redundancy terms.

Can occupations win in the present climate?

Any worker action, including occupation, stands more chance of success with mass worker involvement. As a Brexit and pandemic recession builds, workplace closures become more likely. In this context, with alternative jobs scarce, workers have little to lose by occupying a workplace to win demands. Whether or not a workforce responds to threats depends on a number of factors. The levels of class consciousness and confidence among workers – in their skills, in the social use of the products they make, in their workplace leadership, organisation and fellow workers – are important, as are the political context and developments elsewhere. But employer actions can also be significant: most disputes have been triggered by particular management actions and sometimes miscalculations that act as symbols that reveal the deep resentments about the way workers are treated – lack of consultation, shock, relocation of viable products and record profits, can all be the final straw. All these factors may be important in leading to occupation and they all affect potential success. Vestas workers produced wind turbine blades, products that are obviously central to reducing the dependency on carbon fuels, and ostensibly aligned with the then Labour government’s green policies. These factors were insufficient to save the Vestas factory, given the size of the occupation (25 workers), and its relative isolation on the Isle of Wight away from other centres of pressure, enabling the company to end the 2009 occupation following a possession order.

What this again shows is that winning depends on maximum involvement and solidarity: occupations must be turned into organising centres for action. This was demonstrated again in the successful nine-week 2019 Harland and Wolff shipyard occupation in Belfast against closure. They did not achieve their ultimate aim of nationalisation, but managed to hold out until the yard was bought by another company, illustrating the importance of confidence in their own skills to run the shipyard, their belief that they could make products needed for a greener economy, their internal organisational vitality and their ability to draw on external solidarity. Bombardier workers, located next to the shipyard, marched in support and accounts detail the visits to the occupation of footballers, musicians, comedians, writers and so on, as well as trade union delegations, from both the North and South, and support from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

Trade union organisation is necessarily central to the success of occupations, but the role of trade unions as bureaucratic organisations make their role less than simple in practice. The legal status of occupations and sit-ins is different from that of strikes, and that colours the way that trade union officials regard them. There is legal immunity for those who organise industrial action, but occupations do not fall within this definition. This opens up unions and workers involved in an occupation to be sued for civil wrongs or criminal offences such as trespass (hence the granting of the possession order at Vestas) or criminal damage. It is worth stressing that, although employers have always had recourse to the law, they are more likely to use the threat of legal action than the reality of its enforcement. The threat of legal action and trade union liability is enough, however, to ensure normally that union officials will have nothing to do with occupations, certainly once legal action starts, highlighting again the importance of independent action by workers.

The bigger the crisis of employment, the greater the need to take over the means of production and to utilise workers’ skills to make socially useful products. Climate change and unemployment demand a social and industrial transformation and, in Marx’s words, only the development of an ‘independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority’ can bring about that transformation.

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