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International Socialism, December 1974


John Deason

Redundancy, Closures and the Sit-in Tactic


From International Socialism, No.73, December 1974, pp.9-10.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


SIT-INS AND occupations have become a common tactic within the labour movement. Although commonly associated with the fight against sackings we now even see these tactics employed on the wages front. But often the sit-in is purely seen as a tactical improvement on conventional striking. ‘It’s warmer sitting-in, rather than picketing outside’ is the much repeated sentiment. Such a view of sit-in strikes is dangerously narrow. Besides the immediate advantages of comfort any sit-in strike necessarily challenges property rights. However temporary, it does represent a seizure of ‘company property’ which is then held ransom until the workers’ demands are hopefully met. But for the moment the employers have learnt how to dampen the potentially explosive nature of such situations. Generally they ignore the illegality of occupations. By playing it cool they prefer to sweat it out. Thus the sit-in has become quite respectable, but at the same time passive. And it’s that passivity the employers prefer.

During the 1972 Manchester engineers’ sit-ins (in retaliation to lock outs over the national pay claim) this passivity, encouraged by AUEW officials, cramped rank-and-file attempts to spread the dispute. With the exception of a few of the more militant plants like Ruston Paxman the vast majority of the 30 occupations even allowed management daily access to the plants. Often the workers occupied the cold shop floor while management and staff continued working in the offices. The passivity of such token occupations lead to boredom and demoralisation, until, finally isolated, plant by plant settlements broke the back of the movement.

Of course no employer likes the idea of having his or her property seized, of having his or her plant used as bargaining power. But if the occupation is token, quiet and unlikely to spread, why risk confrontation? Only in a few very small occupations have there been management instigated evictions.

During the Manchester Engineering sit-ins, the 25 occupiers at Sharston Engineering were physically evicted by bailiffs, following a court order. But the court made it clear that it would not issue similar orders for larger institutions. While the legality of a small 25-man occupation might be challenged, greater numbers require a higher level of confrontation than the authorities are, for the moment, prepared to meet.

It is no coincidence that unlike the quiet sit-ins we do see the police and courts used against the more active flying pickets. Sitting-in by itself is not necessarily enough. The occupation must be used as a centre for organising support, sending out pickets, arranging and blacking. The seizure of the factory thus not only threatens the immediate plant and stock but provides a bass from which it’s possible to organise the extension of the struggle. M. Marks’ account of the first Fisher Bendix occupation is a testament to such organisation and militancy.

HOWEVER any form of working class struggle is never simply a tactical problem. The confusion of ideas, the tendency to accept management thinking, is central to the problem. Particularly in the fight against sackings and factory closure the prevailing ideas and attitudes of the workers involved largely determine the tactical development of the struggle.

The 1950s and 1960s generally saw an acceptance of the inevitable when it came to facing redundancies. Militants felt helpless against the massive rationalisation, especially in the nationalised industries such as mining and railways. The introduction of Redundancy Agreements and Redundancy Payments Act focused the struggle on redundancy terms rather than against the sackings themselves. Increasingly the best that militants pushed and hoped for was preserving union organisation, preventing victimisation and securing better redundancy payment terms.

The demands ‘last in, first out’, ‘voluntary retirement’, ‘natural wastage’ reflected the defensive approach. Rank and file tactics reflected the same mood. Conventional strike action appeared inappropriate – overtime bans, departmental go slows were the order of the day. Trade Union leaders, far from leading any fight against redundancies, actively negotiated phased sackings. Productivity dealing further committed unions to the acceptance of rationalisation, efficiency, of in our terms, the dole.

The drastic increase in unemployment in 1970, with particularly hard hit regional pockets, plus a decline in alternative job opportunities began to shake up rank and file complacency. Despite the increased unemployment confidence and fragmented militancy on the wages front remained. But the re-emergence of the sit-in strike in the fight against factory closures represented more than a mood of confidence. It represented a change of attitude that did not accept redundancy as inevitable. The UCS work-in raised the expectations of thousands of militants. ‘The right to work’ became a slogan translated into action, rather than a moralising appeal to some hoped for sense of fair play. UCS was followed by sit-ins and work-ins up and down the country – Plesseys, Fisher Bendix, Dun Steelworks, British Leyland, BAC, BSA and so the list went on. Fisher Bendix in particular showed the full potential of a militant occupation, rather than the propaganda exercise of a UCS type work-in. In four weeks not only did this occupation set Merseyside alight, it terrified employers and government alike.

Of course not every redundancy situation is fought by a complete occupation. Butthe strategy remains the same, adopting sanctions to force the employer or the state to guarantee five days’ pay. Lay-offs and short time were often resisted by sporadic departmental sit-ins. Other new tactics emerge. At Standards Triumph Liverpool, recent lay-offs were partially countered by some sanctions. When instructed to clock off the men refused and continued working unpaid on the line until materials ran out.

However, on being called back at the end of the lay-off the men blacked the part completed cars until paid for the time they’d spent on them. At Ruston Paxman, Wigan, one night shift, laid off at midnight, locked the night shift superintendent in the lodge office, forced him to call in a member of senior management, who on arrival was also locked in the lodge office until the men were guaranteed payment for the complete night’s shift. Attempts by management to trim work forces can sometimes be countered by union enforced four day work sharing. The fifth day being department guerilla strikes, disrupting management intentions until five days’ pay is guaranteed. Other similar tactics can include selective blacking of key profitable lines or products, while on three or four day work sharing weeks. But the emergence of such tactics depends on the ability of militants to win the ideological battle. The boss controls, the boss makes a profit, when the boss is in trouble we’re not paying the price. It’s his problem, not ours. Such attitudes must lead on to the adoption of militant sanctions to force the payment of five days’ pay. If the immediate employer can’t pay then it must be a fight to force the state to take responsibility. The force then necessary is the bargaining power of the full seizure if factory and plant, plus the development of the occupation into a campaigning base for solidarity.

IT IS IN this context of the fight for the right to five days’ work or five days’ pay that socialists raise the demand of nationalisation without compensation under workers’ control-as a means of securing that right. Such demands are not to be confused with Wedgy Benn’s trendy co-operatives.

Such gimmick solutions are on the increase – Triumph Meriden, Scottish Daily Express, Propitex. The rationale of Benn’s solutions is to implicate workers in attempts to solve employers’ problems. State injection of money into such projects is modest, but enough to buy off trouble. Workers in the Scottish Daily Express have also raised further capital from inside the labour movement. It’s like buying our own jobs! Saving the factory becomes a search for a viable formula that maintains profitability. It deflects the struggle from any politically charged fight for nationalisation. Nowhere is such deflection of militancy so tragically demonstration as in the second, recent struggle at Fisher Bendix (now IPD) against closure. The deal with King, after the first occupation bought off Fisher’s explosive militancy. But then stewards were gradually drawn into discussions of management problems. A joint feasibility study was set up. Eventually job security became fatally identified with maintaining a viable, that is, profitable business. Thus when King’s speculative venture finally collapsed, Fisher Bendix’s second occupation wasn’t a shadow on the excitement, creativeness and militancy of the first. It was a confused semi-work-in. Now, a so called workers’ co-operative has been formed – as explained by an AUEW member writing to Socialist Worker.

‘The co-op means the workers are landed with the responsibility of making the place a going concern.

‘This will probably involve the workers in lower wages and higher productivity. And it will absolve the government and employers from all responsibility for the situation.

‘It solves the receiver’s problems and also means the government will not have to pay redundancy pay and social security for those who leave.

‘It seems the Labour government has tried at all costs to turn workers away from any nationalisation demands.

‘The co-op formula enables them to do this and to sound radical while they’re doing it.’

As I write this article morale is so low in Fisher Bendix IPD. That the same workforce that has displayed such creative militancy in the past is now muttering about voluntary redundancy.

Many of the workforce, particularly those militants in the earlier occupation, cannot swallow the self-imposed sacrifices needed to make the place viable – they’d rather find a get out, some redundancy pay.

THE FATAL lack of leadership from TU officials (practically every sit-in, work-in or full scale occupation against redundancies has been led by shop stewards) in the fight against redundancy has and will be further exaggerated by kowtowing to the Social Contract. For the TUC and union executives, accepting the Social Contract’s wage restraint is the only means of keeping unemployment below the one million mark. The theory is that by practising wage restraint, profitability increases and thereby unemployment becomes unnecessary. Simple theories for simple minds! Reality is likely to mean increased rationalisation, productivity drives, factory closures and creeping unemployment. For the moment the employers are prepared to give Labour’s social contract a chance. They’ll put up with a few ‘workers’ co-operatives’ if the TU officials police rank and file militancy. They’ll avoid direct confrontation over factory occupations while they’re passive and respectable. They’ll even put up with doses of state intervention while TU leaders at present argue wage restraint. But the employers also realise the dangers of rank and file militancy that can brush aside the fumblings of TU leaders. They realise the potential of sustained militant fights against redundancy. They are already displaying the willingness to bring the full forces of the state – the law, the courts, police and army – to control effective picketing. How long before factory occupations receive similar attention? As the Economist stated on 14 September, 1974:

‘Some people believe that increased unemployment will lead to a muting of wage claims. The Economist believes that the first sign of mass redundancies – say, the expectation that some major manufacturing concern was going bust – would lead instead to sit-ins and worker occupations ... The sit-ins might increasingly be accompanied by violence. Surrenders to such violence would make any sort of incomes policy impossible.’

The lessons for the rank and file are clear. The fight against redundancies and closures will not be won by searching for answers to employers’ problems. Nor can we rely on TU leaders to lead fights that challenge to the very order of things. The 35-hour week won’t come through TUC resolutions. Jobs won’t be saved by patch-up deals with Wedgy Benn. Rank and file militancy must be extended, but militancy alone is not enough. The struggle for ideas, the political resolve not to accept sacrifices, the identification of the crisis as their crisis, recognition of the need for alternative leadership within the movement – these are the issues that will largely determine the effectiveness of workers’ actions. Token, passive occupations demoralise. Militant, active occupations that lead political fights for nationalisation can beat back the employers’ offensive.

No one should pretend that the raising of such demands as a means of defending jobs is easy. There is an understandable, but sceptical indifference towards nationalisation by many active trade unionists. Nationalisation has often been synonymous with redundancy, so why fight for it as a means of saving jobs? Under capitalism, government instigated nationalisation has represented attempts to rationalise the unprofitable sectors of the economy in order to provide an effective service for the private sector. But that is very different to forced nationalisation of bankrupt factories by militant occupation. Demands for such nationalisation must be coupled with the insistence of no compensation and the argument for workers’ control. No compensation reinforces the refusal to help solve the employers’ problems. It’s a twisted logic that reckons that an employer, because of his system, bankrupts, then seeks to solve his crisis by sacking workers, only to expect financial compensation in the event of those workers refusing to accept the sack! Workers’ control in this context can only mean the continued strengthening of shop floor union organisation. The sort of organisation that has the power to restrict management’s ability to manage. They used to call it restrictive practices! Thereby ensuring the ability to maintain full manning levels, working conditions and wages. It does not mean the participation of workers in their own exploitation.

Such demands are not calls for building socialism in one factory. It is a question of using nationalisation as a means of defending jobs. But in the course of such defence, in the organisational creativity of such rank and file militancy – they are the conditions in which workers not only ask total answers to the crisis, they find answers, our answers.

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