“The workers moved unfinished car bodies in front of all the entrances, forming a barricade. They welded a steel frame around every door and placed bullet-proof metal sheets over every window, drilling holes into them so the nozzles of fire hoses could be screwed in.”
This is the start of the 44-day sit‑down strike at the Flint car plant in 1936, as told by Dave Sherry in his new book, Occupy! A short history of workers occupations.
This is not just a book about history – it is about a tactic that has made a sudden comeback over the last year. As workers have been hit by the recession, many have started to turn to occupations once again.
So last February workers at Waterford Glass in southern Ireland occupied against closure.
In April, workers at the Visteon car parts plants in Enfield, Basildon and Belfast occupied to demand redundancy money they were owed by former owner Ford.
Then came the occupation of the Vestas wind turbine plant on the Isle of Wight last summer – a struggle against closure that clearly raised the question of what kind of ridiculous system we live in when a green energy factory can be shut down.
Dave writes, “We are witnessing the return of a militant form of collective action associated with some of the great, mass struggles of the past – a form of action that many thought had vanished along with the 1970s.”
As the book shows, occupations have a long history in the workers movement. Dave recounts a series of struggles.
In Italy, after the First World War, a wave of factory occupations in Turin became the centre of what was known as the “two red years”.
And occupations played a critical role in France in 1936 and 1968 – not just as the most militant part of the struggle, but as a focal point in the argument about how it can go forward.
Both times the upsurge of strikes and factory occupations reduced the French bosses and their state to a shambles.
Occupations inspire other groups of workers. When they spread, the struggle can quickly shift from a defensive local fight to a wider offensive.
As Dave points out, “Successful occupations extend the frontier of working class control and raise the general level of workers’ self-activity.
“They can quickly alter the balance of power between capital and labour.”
This was true of the struggle in the US car plants in the 1930s. The background to the fight was a countrywide struggle to build unions across the car industry.
In December 1936 workers occupied General Motors (GM) car plants in Flint, Michigan. It was part of a wave of new unionisation sweeping the US at the time.
Many had believed that car workers could not be organised into unions – but now they were suddenly and dramatically proved wrong.
When the occupation came under attack, plants across the city shut down. Some 20,000 workers left work to go and defend the workers in Flint.
GM bosses surrendered after less than two months. They signed an agreement recognising the union. In the next two weeks, workers organised another 87 sit-down strikes in Detroit alone. Unionisation spread across the car industry.
In response, the revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote, “Sit-down strikes go beyond the limits of normal capitalist procedure. Independent of the demands of the strikers, temporary seizure of the factories deals a blow to capitalist property.
“Every sit-down poses in a practical manner the question of who is the boss of the factory, the capitalist or the workers?”
Of course, raising a question is not the same as answering it. While occupations can raise the issue of workers’ power, they can also open up the possibility of alternative methods of running a factory in a narrower sense.
One is the idea of making the firm a going concern by workers turning it into a co-op.
But Dave argues that, “The occupation of a factory is a tactic of class struggle – not an experiment in workers’ control. Workers’ control cannot exist in a single factory.”
He uses the example of a shop steward who wrote a letter to Socialist Worker in 1975 explaining why.
“The co-op means workers are landed with the responsibility of making the place a going concern,” the letter reads. “It means lowering wages and increasing productivity.
“It absolves the government and the employers from responsibility and it solves the receiver’s problem. Labour has tried to turn workers away from demanding nationalisation – the co-op formula allows them to do this and sound radical.”
This is why the book argues that occupations are not just about spontaneity – they raise the question of leadership. How can we both offer solidarity and also intervene politically?
The last big wave of occupations across Britain in the 1970s was sparked by the occupation of the UCS shipyard on the Clyde.
But at that time, as the book argues, “The revolutionary left had grown but was too small to counter the influence of reformism on the working class movement.”
The book brings together the history of a range of important struggles to create a useful tool in organising and deepening resistance today.
Whether it’s education cuts, council job losses or factory closures, we should occupy – and fight for a “bailout” for workers not bankers.
Occupy! A short history of workers’ occupations