Occupy the workplace!
Occupy the workplace!
Workers have strategic power once organized
APRIL 29, 2012
Auto workers occupy their factory in the Flint sit-down strike of 1936-37. In the following months, the tactic spread across the country (see below).
Striking electrical workers at the St. Louis Emerson plants, 1937
Woolworth retail workers in New York City celebrate a victorious sit-down strike, 1937.
This article was published in the ‘May Day Means Unity!’ Edition of Liberation.
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On the surface, working people appear to have no power. The super-rich, the employers and the politicians—backed up by the cops, the courts and the jails—seem to hold all the strings, to control everything. On the national level, corporate bosses decide what will be produced, who will work and who will not. Their hired hands in Washington decide who gets bailed out and who gets sold out.
At the level of the individual workplace, the owners exercise the same sort of domination. Since we live under a legal system that above all recognizes the private property rights of individuals and corporations, owners are given absolute control over who gets hired and fired, how much to pay, the enforcement of arbitrary rules, the reviews of employees, the organization of the business, and when to relocate or shut down a business altogether. At work, the reality of this system—as a dictatorship of the capitalist owners—is clearly revealed.
Unions and the strike weapon
The main way that workers have typically fought the employers’ dictatorship is by organizing labor unions. As long as workers are not organized, they have no power. A worker either has a union and collective bargaining rights, or the worker is essentially reduced to individual begging. As the famous union song “Solidarity Forever” goes, “For what force on Earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one—but the union makes us strong.”
Unions allow workers to feel their collective power at the bargaining table and when they use their ultimate weapon—the strike. It is the workers who make society run and who can bring it to a halt. If the owners of a hotel or a factory or any corporation were not to show up on a given day, operations would be largely unaffected. If the workers don’t show up, operations stop.
In other words, the working class, which appears to have no power, really possesses the greatest power of all. If workers unite on a political or economic issue and withhold their labor, the power of the working class becomes instantly recognized.
One example was the 2005 strike by New York City transit workers, who were resisting givebacks demanded by the mayor and city government. The corporate media in the city, which fawns on the Wall Street looters, universally portrayed the workers defending their pensions and health care benefits as the worst kind of criminals. Despite huge fines and threats of jail for its leaders, the union showed that New York cannot run without the workers.
The opportunity now exists to advance the struggle, but it will require creativity and boldness.
Taking organization to the next level
Labor unions continue to be the largest organizations of workers in the United States, and have a vital role to play in the protection of workers’ interests. A chief task of any new social movement of poor and working people will be to defend and rebuild existing workers’ organizations and form new unions in the expansive service sectors where the vast majority of workers are unorganized.
But the unions have been severely weakened over several decades. Declining membership and subservience to the political program of the Democratic Party have left the AFL-CIO crippled as it tries to survive in the face of ruthless corporate assaults.
A chief factor that has weakened labor is the global mobility of capital. Capitalists tell workers that to remain “competitive” and keep their jobs, they must accept lower and lower wages. They threaten to shut down if workers dare to fight back. The message is clear: Resistance is futile.
While unions have given workers an opportunity to respond collectively, they generally accept the numberone rule of capitalism: The owner has the final say and ultimate control over production. Labor unions soften exploitation by fighting for higher wages and better benefits and working conditions, but accept that the factories, offices, machinery and decisions to employ are the exclusive property of the private owners.
To resolve the problems of global capitalism in the interests of working people requires as a major first step the advancement of a radical idea, backed up by radical action—that workers have a right to control their jobs.
Sit-down actions: The original ‘occupy movement’
In 1934, the Great Depression had been going for nearly five years, unemployment was officially over 20 percent and millions of people had become homeless. Nearly every attempt to organize unions had been defeated. Because of the high numbers of unemployed, those with jobs generally had less confidence to struggle for better conditions and pay. They knew they could easily be replaced.
But that year saw a remarkable and highly unusual development: In three cities—Minneapolis, San Francisco and Toledo, Ohio—there were general strikes. The strikes were led by truckers, dock workers and auto workers, respectively, but brought in workers from every industry.
This new surge led to the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1936, and then the historic 43-day Flint Sit-down Strike. When General Motors, anticipating a strike, attempted to move equipment out of a major auto factory in Flint, the workers seized first one
GM plant and then another, and courageously held both for more than a month. Communists played a critical role in leading these actions.
Up until that time, the huge auto industry had no recognized unions, and conditions on the assembly lines were extreme. But, following their victory, hundreds of sit-down strikes broke out in every kind of corporation from factories to hospitals, retail stores and more. During that year, 5 million workers joined unions, a 250 percent increase in the number of union members in the country.
The sit-down strike, the occupation of a workplace, was a new tactic for labor. If they had gone out on strike in the traditional manner, with picket lines outside the factory gates, it is likely that the capitalists and the police forces would have found it much easier to disperse them.
The opportunity now exists to advance the struggle, but it will require creativity and boldness. Popularizing the idea that workers have a right to control their workplaces, while remaining within the confines of the capitalist system, would still be a very significant step for the class struggle. Instead of accepting cuts, layoffs and shutdowns, workers can fight to assert their own “property right” to their jobs based on the extra value their labor has created beyond what they are paid in wages. If a business is going bankrupt, workers can assert their right to control it because they are its principal creditors who repeatedly “loan” their labor in advance of payment.
In fact, toward the end of the 1937 Flint sit-down strike, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins defended the occupying workers and declared that a job was a “property right.” It was only the mass struggle of the workers that led a high-ranking government official to make such a statement.
In 2009, the workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago revived the sit-down tactic when the company threatened to shut down and throw them out of work. The workers returned to occupy the same factory this year to press their demands again.
A battle over whose rights come first—those of the capitalists to their private property versus the rights of the workers to a job, housing, food, health care and so forth—has the potential to bring about a mass transformation in consciousness. That is exactly what happened in the course of the Flint strike seven decades ago, and it can happen again.
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