Occupation or strike?

Gregor Gall examines the effectiveness of different tactics used by workers to resist redundancy

Occupation – alternatively known as a sit-in or a sit-down strike – is historically a well-known, if rather infrequently used, response of organised workers to militant employers. The Flint car workers’ sit-down strike of 1936-1937 in the US is one of the best known examples of this while the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in of 1971-1972 in Scotland is another. In times of recession and restructuring, the occupation tactic is potentially a powerful tool to resist redundancy through workplace closure for reasons of providing leverage against employers than strikes cannot. Yet, the global recession of late 2007 onwards has witnessed very few examples of workers deploying this tactic – certainly far fewer than might have been expected given the depth and extent of this recession and when compared with other recent global recessions.

This article seeks to understand the paucity of frequency of this form of worker resistance in the current period by examining the conditions and characteristics of those occupations that have taken place in order to understand their social and political dynamics. Drawing on an array of media reporting, occupations were examined in Britain, Eire, France and the US. From this, a series of grounded factors is developed which can help account for action rather than inaction. The choice of countries allows both comparisons and contrasts to be made for there is a similarity in labour market regulation and union traditions in all the countries other than for France which experiences more regulation and direct action traditions of workers.

The argument is that a micro-level approach is more productive than a macro-level one which would emphasis general factors such as decline in worker consciousness, union presence and union combativity in an ungrounded and abstract way. However, because the research for this article is not based on primary research – that is direct interviews with the participants of occupations at the time of these occupations – there is a limit to how far the article can explore what is regarded as an important variable in accounting for action or inaction. This is the social psychology of the workers, by which is meant the cognitive processes by which individuals deploy ideas and interact with each other in discussion and possible pursuit of ideas. Nonetheless, the article can provide a valuable role in flagging up this aspect.

In responding to redundancies involving workplace closure – whether through divestment (like offshoring and outsourcing) or outright closure – being in control of the plant and machinery is a strong card to play. Thus, the tactic of occupation is superior to that of the strike because the strike is predicated on the resumption of work taking place after the strike. Moreover, striking has traditionally been defined as not just a withdrawal of labour at the points of production, distribution or exchange but also walking off the job – which in turn means leaving the workplace. In a situation of closure, striking puts workers on the outside of the workplace and this means putting themselves in a weaker position. Thus, striking means standing outside the premises, and 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 to physically bar entrances, the employer is likely to be able to vacate the premises with their property without too much trouble. So striking allows the initiative to stay with the employer. Indeed, striking often plays straight into the employers’ hands because striking is a civil breach of the employment contract. This means employers can effectively let workers sack themselves and do so without receiving any pay off.

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 or raw materials, ii) plant and machinery, and iii) land and buildings. Again, and compared to striking and picketing, physically it is easier to prevent asset removal because the workplace can be barricaded in from the inside. Occupation allows the initiative to stay with the workers, requiring the employer to break into his or her own workplace.

So occupation can allow effective action against employers – which is preferable to ineffective action like striking as well as to accommodation and passivity. However, it should not be assumed that occupations are a silver bullet for they can raise the costs of closure and doing businesses elsewhere but not necessarily prevent this. For the latter to occur would require either state intervention or effective solidarity action from the employer’s other workers elsewhere. Moreover, an additional aspect that concerns occupations is that there are a much more demanding activity than striking for they are ‘24/7’, they involve challenges to the property rights of employers and require much more planning and organisation (cooking of food, washing facilities, entertainment and so on).

Since late 2007, the numerical roll call of occupations has been thus: Britain (7), Eire (7), France (28) and the US (1). While these are absolute numbers, it is worth bearing in mind the relative context of the size of the labour forces of each of these countries in order to give a more balanced perspective on the frequency of the occupations. Respectively, these are 31m, 2m, 28m, and 153m. An overwhelming percentage has concerned factories rather than office workplaces in public or private services. This is indicative of the greater availability of resources like machinery and stock which has a more valuable and manifestly physical nature and lends itself more to capture than information and data which is not necessarily physically embedded in a single workplace.

We can presuppose that the foundations for occupation are aspects of consciousness, primarily, anger and organisation. Anger at being at the end of the line with nowhere to go and wanting to do something about this: social organisation allowing something collectively to be done about this. This contrasts with other facets of worker consciousness such as a fatalism and resignation that nothing can be done, and that the workers themselves have no power of remedy (even with social organisation). But this is insufficient to explain action compared to inaction. To flesh out the issues, the main characteristics of the stimulus to the occupations to date are recounted. These are i) total redundancy of all workers and closure rather than downsizing of part of workforce; ii) timing of closure announcement: immediate notice of immediate redundancy and closure; iii) no severance pay and loss of pension rights as a result of bankruptcy (genuine or otherwise); iv) unionised workforces; and v) previous high profile examples of occupation in recent times

Taking these in turn, the fully collectivised nature of the redundancy helps create a critical mass while the immediacy of redundancy provides for no period of consultation or dialogue with the employer and, thus, a greater shock to the system. This grave sense of procedural injustice is heightened by the substantial justice of no compensation and loss of deferred wages.

… the workplace occupation offers the possibility of maintaining control of the employers’ assets from the inside.

But even this first attempt to grapple with providing an explanation for action provides only limited illumination. First, not all the occupations had all these features. The only common one to all was the first. Indeed, in a number of cases workers became unionised in the process of an occupation so that social organisation preceded unionisation. And, second, there were many cases where all the features were present but no occupation was engaged in. This suggests that other factors, and assessments thereof, were at play. But before proceeding to this, it is worth noting that where occupation in both absolute and relative has been sparser – the US – the absence of any preceding occupations may help account for this. By contrast, in the other countries the precedent of occupation in the last five or so years has existed.

In this regard, key material factors for workers are, thus, the labour market situation and terms of redundancy. Some workers will believe that they have better or worse chances of finding other, alternative employment (at whatever level of pay) depending on the state of the local labour market and the technical and social skills they possess. However, it is not as simple as saying that workers with no sense of alternative employment are more likely to think of occupation than those that do for other factors have a bearing. Nonetheless, it can be ventured that this sense of no alternative employment is a necessary – without being sufficient – factor. That said, the terms of redundancy have an important bearing on this calculation for payoffs of certain sizes can blunt or delay the impact of redundancy. Some workers will calculate they have enough to ride out the hard times. But again, there are still cases where reasonable redundancy terms have not provided a bulwark against occupation.

In terms of explaining the predominance of France in the country rank ordering, the direct action traditions of unions and workers of here must be accorded a high significance. And this is despite a very low level of unionisation which is on a par (9 per cent in 2008) with that in the US (of 12.3 per cent in 2008). But one factor which can be dismissed relatively easily in the case of the US is the demonstration effect of other occupations. This is not so in the case of France, where the high media profile given to occupations in France, particularly where ‘bossnapping’ has been involved, is likely to have led to the tactic becoming part of workers’ lexicon there (especially as victories have been gained). Neither can the demonstration effect be easily dismissed in Britain and Eire, for in a couple of cases in each, occupation by workers in one workplace led to occupations by fellow workers at another site of the same company.

When it comes to the outcomes of occupations, very few have won outright victories in as much as neither all workers’ jobs were saved nor were substantial numbers of their jobs saved (or redeployment offered). Nonetheless, the leverage that has been created – along with the ensuing sensitivity to reputation – has facilitated redundancy payments or enhancements of these, lawful periods of notice of redundancy, extension of period leading to shutdown and the guarantee of pension entitlements. This has not varied a great in relation to the proportion of the workforce involved in the occupations, their duration or the extent of solidarity support raised for the occupiers. However, this does appear to have been more productive than the use of striking in comparable situations.

The article has sought to provide a grounded explanation of workplace occupation when faced with redundancy and closure. In doing so, it has gone beyond the ultra-left tendency of exhorting ‘Such and such workers have occupied their workplace – you should do it too, you can do it too’. This approach is mistaken because it fails to appreciate the complexity of social processes involving worker agency as well as the material foundations of concrete circumstances. This complexity relates to workers’ assessments of their situation and their expectations about whether occupation will bring useful leverage in terms of a cost/benefit calculation.

However, this article has not been able to delve into the important area of the way in which workers’ consciousness works. For example, in the case of the Visteon occupations in Britain in early 2009, it was not just the six minutes notice of immediate redundancy with loss of pension entitlements and no redundancy pay while the employer’s other businesses remained in profitable operation that led to the occupation. This is apparent because the Belfast Visteon workers responded by immediate occupation whereas the Enfield and Basildon Visteon workers left their workplaces and adjourned to the pub to discuss their fate. Clearly what is then needed is research through interviewing the respective groups of workers in order to investigate why three groups of the same workforce reacted in quite different ways. Lines of investigation would concentrate on the role of the shop stewards/union representatives and the nature of the workplace unionism within the setting of the three local areas. This is the kind of work that politically engaged sociologists need to conduct to be of good service to the labour movement. Without this level of detailed understanding, it will remain the case that the tactic of occupation will not become sufficiently widespread and powerful as to be able to force employers to recalculate the costs and benefits facing them down.