By Jack Robertson
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Occupy! A Short History of Workers’ Occupations

This article is over 12 years, 5 months old
Dave Sherry, Bookmarks, £6.99
Issue 345

The tactic of taking control of a factory and expelling the management until the demands of the workforce are met is one of the most effective forms of collective action workers can take. The first few months of 2009 were punctuated by a series of workers’ occupations in Britain. In each case the intervention of active socialists played a key role not only in convincing the workers involved that it was right to fight but also in showing the best way to go about it.

In this marvellous little book, Dave Sherry not only illustrates the value of factory occupations as a tactic but also explains their practical and theoretical importance in the development of workers’ organisation and the struggle for socialism. He details the way factory occupations played a critical role in the establishment of successful union organisation in the US car industry in the 1930s, and spotlights the revolutionary wave of occupations which engulfed the factories of Italy in the “two red years” of 1919-21, inspired by the Russian Revolution, and those which spread rapidly throughout France in 1936 and again in 1968.

In this country factory occupations did not really have any significant impact until the early 1970s. But the election of a Tory government in 1970, which hoped to use the whip of unemployment to tame the working class, provoked an unprecedented backlash which began with the “work-in” at four Clyde shipyards, known as UCS. Inspired by the UCS example, workers in other industries adopted the factory occupation as the tactic of choice. A staggering 200 different workplaces were taken over by their own workers between 1971 and 1974.

Factory occupations are effective: they can more easily overcome many of the legal obstacles designed to frustrate effective strike action; it is harder for the employers to organise scabbing (they can’t get in) and impossible for them to organise a lockout (you’re already inside). The bosses’ worries about the value of the machinery and materials inside the building put them on the defensive, whereas workers’ confidence is invariably boosted once they have taken control of the workplace.

Even better, the best factory occupations encourage a high level of participation by the workers involved – the workplace can become a 24-hour nerve centre for organising all the activities needed to win a dispute.

Along with the prominent examples in Britain, there have been important waves of factory occupations in Argentina, Chicago, Ukraine, Egypt, France, Turkey, South Korea and even China. It’s a tactic which particularly suits a period dominated by closures and layoffs. This book is designed to provide socialists and activists with everything they need to know about the value of the workplace occupation, and it succeeds admirably.

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