Factory occupations – a long line, now spreading fast
Carl Roper has blogged here about two examples (from the Isle of Wight and Dublin) of workers occupying their workplaces in reaction to threatened closures and layoffs. Dave Osler, always good value, has written about some other recent cases (Visteon and Prisme) as well as giving some historical and international reflections. The TUC has also been involved in supporting the unions involved a really brutal confrontation in South Korea recently, and during the US Presidential transition late last year, even Barack Obama became involved in a Chicago factory occupation. Such occupations are daily occurrences in China and there was a lot of coverage earlier in the year when French workers at several plants held their bosses hostage.
So this is a global tradition with a long track record. Some portray these events as a challenge to the ownership of capital – but what all these occupations have in common, of course, is that they are generally a last-chance attempt to save jobs or, often more pragmatically, improve redundancy terms.
They are often partly successful – especially in terms of improving redundancy arrangements – not least because they are often struggles that popular opinion backs. Unlike strikes, they rarely inconvenience anyone but the workers concerned – who can be shown to be investing serious pain in their struggles – and their employers: the company’s customers have usually already ceased to benefit from the service or product because of the impending closure of the facility. The workers have usually clearly been unfairly treated, and the desperation of their struggle eradicates any suggestions of bully-boy tactics that are so often flung at strikers (whatever the justification) – the bullying is almost always left to the employer or the state. In South Korea, that meant refusing medical assistance and dropping liquid tear gas into the factory ventilation system!
Trade unions do have some problems with the tactic of factory occupations, not because we are right-wing sell-outs, but because the actions are always prima facie illegal (even if the courts sometimes bend over backwards to reflect popular support for the action), and someone has to sort out the negotiations. Thus, in South Korea the national confederation is slamming the Government for brutality and human rights abuses while the car workers’ union is now hailing the deal they did to resolve the conflict with some benefit for the workforce. But as TSSA’s support for the Dublin Thomas Cook workers showed, and TUC support for the aims of the Vestas protesters show, unions are broadly sympathetic, and put their efforts into delivering some sort of win for the workers involved.
As more and more workplaces close down around the world as the recession continues (those green shoots of recovery can just look like weeds if your workplace has closed down!) factory occupations will continue, and continue to demonstrate that something is rotten in the global economy.