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International Socialism, October-December 1972


[Roger Rosewell]

Sit-ins: The Experience


From Survey, International Socialism (1st series), No.53, October-December 1972, pp.8-11.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Sit-ins in Britain have been primarily used as a defensive method of fighting unemployment, the major exception being the engineers’ wages struggle. The defensive struggles arose because of a rapid growth of unemployment, a large rise in the number of redundancies an increasing level of class struggle and the various difficulties that workers encountered when trying to resist the sack. [1] A recent report on the effects of the 1965 Redundancy Payments Act [2] has shown that legislation, far from benefiting workers as was claimed by the Labour Government and Trade Union leaders, at its introduction, actually contributed to the undermining of militancy and the capacity of shop stewards to lead opposition to redundancy. It noted that: ‘The Act had made it easier for many employers to discharge workers, largely because it enabled them to dismiss men with an easier conscience and reduced costs and argument.’

Secondly it revealed why trade union officials frequently refused to seriously oppose redundancies: ‘About half of the officers thought that the redundancies among their members were “entirely unavoidable” both in the short and long term’ and that most of them only thought that there: ‘were some [my emphasis – RR] circumstances in which workers were justified in opposing redundancy’.

Finally it demonstrated that the number of strikes about redundancy had declined. This was thought to be one of the Act’s achievements. The report showed that although the number of redundancy instances had sharply risen, the average number of working days lost each year through redundancy strikes had dropped from 161,774 in 1960-5 to only 74,473 during 1966-9. This was an opposite trend to the average number of days lost each year through all strikes, which had risen from 3,137,000 in the period 1960-5 to 4,205,000 during the period 1966-9.

In 1971, however, a movement started to oppose redundancies in a more determined manner than had been seen for many years. Beginning in the final few months of 1970 a heavy flow of redundancies was announced and in 1971 it grew progressively stronger. In January 11,600 were recorded in the national press, in February the figure had risen to 13,600 and by March the figure had almost doubled to 23,850 thereby making a total job loss of nearly 50,000 for the first quarter alone. These 50,000 lost jobs were by no means spread equally across all industries and all parts of the country.

Scotland has been particularly hit with 6,500 sackings and the national rise in unemployment was particularly savage in that region.

In the single year April 1970 to 1971 the unemployment among men in Glasgow rose 40% as compared to 33% for Scotland and just over 21% for Great Britain as a whole. The deterioration in the city was proportionately nearly twice as high in the country as a whole.

It was against this background of rising unemployment, fewer job opportunities and the enormous problems associated with successful struggles against redundancy, that the 8,500 workers of the five Glasgow yards of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) heard of their Company’s bankruptcy on 14 June 1971.

The UCS Shop Stewards Co-ordinating Committee responded to this threat by organising the now famous work-in on 30 July.

The reason that this tactic was chosen has been partially explained:

The problem facing the leaders of the UCS workers was to devise a new technique of struggle which would achieve their objective, to prevent redundancies and closures, in what was bound to be a tough struggle. A strike could play into the hands of the employers when they were set on closure anyway. A sit-in would have been difficult to maintain for long enough. It would have also given the employers a good excuse to attack the workers by arguing that the sit-in made it impossible to fulfil any contract and aggravated the bankrupt situation. This could have helped the Tories to alienate public opinion from support of the UCS workers. [3]

Instead of mobilising a mass struggle against unemployment and the threatened UCS closures the Communist Party dominated shop stewards directed the emphasis of their effort towards a publicity campaign. Essential to this was the need to present an acceptable image and impression. Jimmy Reid, the chief spokesman of the work-in, developed this in many ways. Chief of these were boasts about improved productivity and virtual warning of how the threatened closures of the yards would damage the ‘higher productivity’ movement.

One eye-witness reported: Jimmy Reid has often pointed out in speeches: ‘How can you go and argue with the British workers that the solution to the economic problems of Britain are “That You Shall Increase Production” when they can turn round and say, “You told that to the UCS workers, they responded, and you put the boot in and butchered them?”’

James Ramsay, the Clyde district full-time official of the Boilermakers Society, made a similar point:

‘We gave them (UCS) interchangeability, flexibility, mobility, we sat on production committees that, at one time, trade unionists would never have agreed to sit on. The UCS demise could easily send them back to the days of insular solidarity defended by demarcation lines.’ [4]

Other parts of the campaign included a Scottish Peoples National Convention, churchmen on the platforms, no mention or demand for nationalisation and, most important of all, no attempt to direct the tremendous support that they received into a struggle against the Tory Government and the economic system that bred unemployment. The UCS struggle ended in August 1971 when only 6,500 of the original workforce remained and a four year no-strike agreement was signed with the new owners of the Clydebank yard. The work-in, together with the victorious miners strike and the political repercussions of adding to the already million unemployed, shook the Government and forced it to retreat. Nevertheless it failed to fully grasp the opportunity with which it was presented.

Despite this, however, the UCS work-in nationally demonstrated that closures and redundancy need not be passively accepted and that alternatives existed. In the months that followed the commencement of the work-in, the idea of resistance spread. Workers at Plesseys in Scotland, Fisher Bendix in Liverpool, Allis Chalmers in North Wales, occupied their factories and plans to follow suit were drawn up in many other.

In March 1972 the tactic spread to Manchester and at one time over 30 factories were being occupied – not defensively against unemployment but as part of a district pay campaign in support of a £6 wage rise, a 35 hour week, equal pay and longer holidays.

Despite these developments, however, and other occupations associated with the engineering pay claim and a work-in at a London printing factory, Briant Colour Printing, the general impact of sit-downs in Britain has been less than expected. It would, of course, be quite wrong to simply compare these with the American example of the 1930s and then attempt to draw certain conclusions, for in that experience millions of workers were unionised for the first time ever and the violent response of the employers produced immense struggles. The energy and enthusiasm that built the CIO was a particular phenomenon, the spirit and methods of which cannot be abstractly and unhistorically transposed to Britain today. However, this in no way means that there are not lessons that can be learnt from this period and applied to Britain today. One American writer has listed some of the sit-down’s advantages

US workers found the sit-down to have many advantages over the traditional forms of strike. It prevents the use of scabs to operate a factory, since the strikers guard the machines. It is harder for the company to oust men from inside a plant than break through an encircling picket line. Bosses are more reluctant to resort to strike-breaking violence, because it directly endangers millions of dollars of company property, vast assembly lines and unfinished products.

In a sit-down the workers’ morale is heightened. They are inside and therefore know for certain that scabs are not operating the machines; they are really protecting their jobs and this leads to a higher degree of solidarity and militancy. The men are protected from the weather. They are never scattered, but are always on call at a moments’ notice in case of trouble. The basic democratic character of the sit-down is guaranteed by the fact that the workers on the line, rather than outside officials, determine its course. [5]

The largely defensive role of many of Britain’s sit-ins and work-ins have negated some of these advantages, for although under proper conditions, the sit-down is the most effective strike tactic ever devised, this does not mean that it is entirely free of dangers.

Because a sit-in does not need the traditional forms of picketing and does not rely on the same kind of regular mass meetings to organise itself that a strike does, it can easily slump into demanding less activity, commitment and democracy than a normal dispute.

When this attitude is compounded with a carefully controlled absence of apparent employer and police hostility, an absence of any campaign for solidarity and a predominantly defensive character defining the whole struggle, then the actual level of militancy can be lower than a normal strike. This development has already emerged in some of Britain’s sit-ins and work-ins. There is, for instance, little doubt that it was the absence of any sharp activity at UCS that spread demoralisation to the extent that, although over £400,000 was donated to the Shop Stewards Fighting Fund, 2,000 workers nevertheless left the yards and sought other employment at a time when the total unemployment was rising to over a million. This feeling was of course indirectly encouraged by the tactics of the shop stewards committee. Because they essentially relied upon propaganda and publicity to win their case, active numbers involved in the ‘Save UCS’ campaign were remarkably few. The role alloted to the rank and file was overwhelmingly passive. Thus whilst the leaders spoke, travelled and argued, the workers were only required to work wait, and attend occasional mass meetings that were themselves more a part of the publicity campaign than a democratic assembly which could decide between alternative tactics. The policy of the Government was also important, for it decided that at no stage in the crisis would they precipitate a showdown, and in this it was considerably aided by the shop stewards committee’s refusal to increase the tempo of the struggle. The management were still allowed disciplinary powers; no shops were seized and then held until firm guarantees about the future of the yards were forthcoming and not one single meeting of West of Scotland stewards was convened in the yards in defiance of capitalist trespass laws. In truth, neither party wanted a showdown and the efforts of each to avoid one both complemented and re-inforced the circumstances by which it was prevented. The problems of tempo and initiative have also shown themselves in some of the other occupations that have occurred. This has been especially apparent in defensive struggles against factory closures and unemployment.

Clearly if an employer intends to close an establishment he has little need for it to be used as a productive unit and therefore its value, apart from the plant and machinery, is less than before. Under such circumstances, and with a policy decision not to attempt forcible eviction, there is a grave danger that an employers’ strategy of adopting a superficial patience and then relying upon the apparent lack of progress, and such factors as boredom, routine, and financial hardship to sufficiently weaken the workers’ resolve will either allow a sudden eviction or a negotiated settlement that only applies to a minority or largely reduced percentage of the original workforce.

The example of the long occupation of Plesseys in Alexandria, where only 70 workers finally remained out of the initial 150 made redundant, demonstrates that such a policy can achieve a limited success even in an area of staggeringly high unemployment.

Instead of workers just occupying a factory and then waiting for something to happen they could occupy the financial and administrative centre of the company concerned and then appeal to other trade unionists for support. Alternatively, as was occasionally suggested during the Fisher Bendix occupation of earlier this year, another and more important factory could be taken over instead of one that by the very decision to close it, has obviously less value to the company.

The Manchester engineering occupations of March/April/May were in a different category to those caused by threatened mass redundancies. They followed from a decision of the Manchester District Committee of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions to impose a daywork campaign throughout the area in support of a national engineering pay and conditions claim that had been rejected by the engineering Employers Federation (EEF) in December 1971. The unions then decided to pursue this by local plant by plant claims and, although generally the response was poor, the Manchester workers decided to organise a major fight. The imposition of daywork in many factories quickly caused an immediate drop in production and this, combined with an EEF directive to provoke strikes in order to weaken the unions dispute funds, led many companies to effectively lock out or suspend thousands of workers. They in turn responded by widespread occupations and at the highpoint of the struggle over 30 factories were affected in this way. With one exception, a non-federated firm, none of the employers attempted to smash the occupations and in an interview that I had with the EEF national press officer he admitted that although the Federation was initially worried by the sit-ins events seemed to contradict this special concern and in all it all seemed ‘rather boring’.

This was partly a product of the fact that it was not until the final stages of the movement, and then only in a few establishments, that full scale occupations ever took place. The great majority always allowed full access to members of the management and never once sought to challenge property relations. They were occupations more in form than in content. Essentially however, the low-key nature of the fight was due to the deliberate policies of the Communist Party dominated leadership of the Manchester CSEU. Anxious to avoid a showdown with Scanlon and the other ‘left’ leaders of the Engineering Unions, they consciously restricted the scope of the struggle. They never called regular meetings of shop stewards, refused to organise delegations to visit other areas, and ignored several calls for meetings and co-ordination between representatives of the occupied workplaces. They never led any marches or demonstrations in support of the claim and so totally failed to mobilise large numbers of rank and file engineers. One consequence of this was that when the owners of a small factory – the Sharston Engineering Co – applied to the Preston Chancery Court for an order evicting their 22 sacked workers, little resistance was put up and finally the men were re-instated and allowed to return to work on the conditions that their pay and hours claim was dropped. Some weeks later the factory was entirely closed down and all the workers sacked.

Instead of using the sit-ins as organising bases that involved thousands of workers who could then be directed to picket anywhere in the area, the Manchester campaign allowed them to disperse and contribute very little.

In a period like the present such policies are criminal. The victory of the miners clearly showed that mass activity is essential if strikes are to be won and the failure to learn this has demonstrated itself in the Docks as well as at Cheadle. For the official leaders of the Trade Union movement the rise in the sit-in movement has caused problems. In the case of UCS the mass feeling that it produced compelled them to make some recognition of it and give certain support. Nevertheless they have constantly refused to fight for sit-ins and factory occupations as a tactic of the class struggle. Nowhere, for instance, at last year’s TUC did any speaker specifically demand the use of them.

The attitude of Harold Wilson when speaking about UCS is probably shared by many of them: ‘So far as the “work-in” is concerned I said don’t let anybody condemn them, who is not facing these anxieties – provided they act within the law.’ The growth in the number of occupations during the past year has presented new opportunities for working class struggle. At the same time, however, if led inadequately, their benefits can be few and actually reduce participation. Initiative, tempo, involvement, organisation, democracy and solidarity are the requirements for success. The failure to learn this reduces the impact of a sit-down and can effectively undermine all of its intentions.

In such a period as the present, socialists have a special responsibility to understand these factors and remember the words of Art Preis in his History of the American CIO:

What most disturbed the CIO as well as the AFL leaders about the sit-downs was the revolutionary implications of the workers’ seizure, even temporarily, of the means of production. The union officialdom, abject servants of the capitalist system, saw in the sit-downs a defiance of the dogma of the sacredness of private property and free enterprise. If workers could seize the plants to enforce their union economic demands, why could they not seize them as part of a more far-reaching social program? Why could they not eliminate the private owners altogether and organise production on the basis of social ownership? Such revolutionary ideas are inherent in the very nature of the sit-down. The workers of America, by the enthusiasm they displayed in grasping this weapon, showed themselves far less inclined than their leaders to hold private property in the means of production as sacred. They quickly understood where the heart of the owners’ power lay, and they put their hand on that heart when they took over his property. [6]

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1. For some discussions about these problems see International Socialism, Winter 1972. No.50, p.17.

2. Effects of the Redundancy Payments Act by S.R. Parker, C.G. Thomas, N.D. Ellis and W.E.J. McCarthy, HMSO 1971.

3. UCS – the fight for the right to work by A. Murray, Communist Party pamphlet 1971, p.11.

4. The Right to Work – The Story of the Upper Clyde Confrontation by A. Buchan, Calder & Boyars 1972. p.132.

5. The Great Flint Sit-Down Strike Against GM 1936-37 by Walter Linder, Solidarity pamphlet 1969, pp.3 & 4.

6. Labour’s Giant Step – Twenty Years of the CIO, p.65.

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