Sense of economic rights fuels overseas sit-downs
In sharp contrast to the brass-knuckled capitalism of the US, workers in Western Europe enjoy legal protections which corporations must follow before they close or relocate production.
US workers, are entitled to no such consideration when an employer decides to close a plant, and are merely owed 60 days advance notice under the "WARN Act" passed in 1988. This has allowed employers to shift millions of jobs to the low-wage US South, where "right-to-work" laws severely limit the ability to form unions, and to high-repression, misery-wage nations like Mexico and China. This gambit then increase corporate leverage to ratchet down union wages in the US North.
DEPRIVED OF SHIELD, AND SWORD, TOO
Not only does US law leave workers without a shield, it also deprives them of one of the most effective swords in stopping shutdowns: the occupation or sit-down strike. The US Supreme Court’s 1939 Fansteel decision
unions engaging in sit-down strikes.
A vastly different situation prevails in Europe and elsewhere. The obligation to meet with workers and public officials to seek alternatives to a shutdown–most notably in Great Brittan, Germany, and Sweden (as David Moberg outlined in his 1982 "Shutdown" In These Times pamphlet-)—has helped to reinforce the notion that workers’ needs–not just the demands of big stockholders–are an important societal consideration. In turn, this
has contributed to European workers’ belief that they, too, have a claim on the resources embodied in a factory.
SENSE OF ECONOMIC RIGHTS
This sense of possessing economic rights has fueled a wave of takeovers since the Wall Street meltdown in the fall of 2008 which sent shock waves across the world economy.
While only at Republic Doors and Windows in Chicago did US workers take direct action and stage a sit-down strike, workers in at least 20 workplaces in Ireland, France, the UK, Canada, Australia, and Argentina, among others, seized their workplaces to in efforts to block
layoffs or plant closings, according to Immanuel Ness and Stacy Warner Maddern.
Ness, who recently returned from Argentina where he met with workers in occupied plants, discussed two of the worker sit-downs as particularly significant:
ï‚§ VISTEON IN THE UK: Workers at Visteon, a parts-making spinoff of Ford, tried to declare bankruptcy and claim that it no longer needed a plant in Belfast and two in England. Under Vesteon’s terms, the workers’ severance would have been limited to the government-set minimum, not at the level guaranteed in the labor contract. The workers responded with a seven-week occupation of the three plants, resulting in Vesteon agreeing
to keep the operations open for several more years, albeit with fewer workers.
Moreover, Ford agreed to step back in to pay severance and pension obligations, resulting in a settlement worth "ten times what people were being offered originally," as one union leader put it.
FEAR AMONG CEOS
"It threw a lot of fear into the financial sector in UK, US, bad beyond." Ness
told workinginthesetimes.com. For example, the management journal Personneltoday.com warned that the "Vesteon workers stand to set a very public and very dangerous precedent. …[T]he sheer determination of the workers surely stands as a testament to the lengths employees are now willing to go to secure what they believe as a ‘fair deal’ when they
have nothing to lose."
ï‚§ KRAFT FOODS IN ARGENTINA: Equally disquieting to corporate executives and bankers was a successful three-month worker takeover outside Buenos Aires, Argentina. Despite heavy policy repression that, in the words of strike supporter Silvia Pascucci, "cast a pall over the whole country," Kraft food-processing workers staged a sit-down strike that won higher wages and the rehiring of union militants, whose firing had ignited the struggle."There was a tremendous amount of repression from the police, but the workers prevailed with a lot of community support," said Ness. The strikers faced down police on horseback firing their weapons.
"The critical element is community support, the public’s identification with the struggle," concluded Ness.
Argentina has also been the site of numerous plant takeovers by workers who re-start production in situations where the employer has declared bankruptcy and ceased operations, or when the employer tried to move out machinery, Ness said. In some cases, a sit-down initiated to win back pay winds up escalating into the formation of workers’ councils to run production under worker management. "The spark might be trying to win
back pay, but then workers start talking, ‘maybe we can run it better on our own,’" Ness related.(these occpuations are also covered in The Take, a film by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein.)
"This [the wave of occupations in Argentina] is probably the most important example of a working class insurgency today," Ness stated.
DESPITE SIt-DOWN, AMERICAN SAFETY RAZOR
WENT FOR THE JUGULARIN SLASHING NY JOBS
In my recent piece on the hidden history of post World War II sit-down strikes in the US, I neglected to discuss the American Safety Razor struggle conducted by the United Electrical workers in 1954. Noted labor historian David Montgomery, an executive member of amalgamated UE Local 645, vividly recalled the battle to workinginthesetimes.com.
The 1950′s, he noted, were a period in which workers felt that they had real power on the shop floor, so they frequently engaged in departmental-level work stoppages where workers simply stood by their idel machines until a grievance was settled.
But UE members at American Safety Razor in Brooklyn, like those at Republic Doors & Windows 55 years later, took things a step further, staging a sit-down strike. As with many sit-down strikes both in the US and overseas, the sit-down at ASR was provoked by management plants to move machinery and jobs to a non-union plant, in this case, Staunton, Virginia.
"The union’s basic demands involved severance pay, not an outright attempt to keep the plant in Brooklyn," Prof. Montgomery recounted. In an era when a new wave of "runaway shops" were heading from the then-heavily unionized North, the UE members’ action produced an outpouring of support from other unions even though the leftist-led UE had
been expelled from the AFL-CIO during the Red Scare (ultimately, the strike became the topic of a Senate investigation on alleged Communist influence, chared by the notorious arch-segregationist SEn. James Eastland)
"Many companies were then moving out of New York," said Montgomery." "Consequently the strike received considerable support from other local unions, despite the attacks then being leveled against the UE.
In fact .the Democratic candidate for governor[also the eventual winner], Averell Harriman, I think…, made stopping runaway shops his major campaign issue, and the city administration was reluctant to move strongly against the plant occupation.
Before long, however, the Fansteel decision did play a mighty role, allowing the company to get an injunction against the occupation. Rather than fight a police assault in a battle to stay in the plant, the local decided to stage a dramatic and highly publicized withdrawal, complete with brass band and strikers marching triumphantly out of the factory, led by an old woman striker on crutches.
For the next few weeks massive pocket lines surrounded the factory, reinforced by many workers (like me) from other 475 shops, in an effort to block the movement of machinery out of the factory. That
phase ended the day after Election Day, when state police attacked the pickets in force, while other police waited to escort trucks carrying machinery out of the state, across New Jersey, etc., then into Virginia.
I forget how long it then took to empty the plant through the highly policed picket lines, though I think it was only a couple of weeks. The strike had been lost.
Lost, but not forgotten: American Safety Razor workersstt-down endures as an example of US workers’ direct action to protect their investment of years of their own labor power in their jobs