In most countries, political leaders and bosses are using the global economic crisis to once again unleash an attack on workers and the poor. As part of this, we have seen corporations around the world trying to make workers pay for the crisis by retrenching tens of millions of people. In the most extreme cases, workers arrive at their companies in the morning and are told they no longer have a job. With all these retrenchments, corporations are not just taking away jobs but they are also attacking people’s dignity. They are literally throwing people into a very uncertain world where it is getting harder and harder to even get the basics of life such as food and shelter. Of course, the corporate elite are not worried if people starve or live in misery, what they care about is their profit margins and bottom lines. Through retrenchments, therefore, the elite are waging a war on workers and the poor in the name of corporate survival and profit prospects. Fortunately, workers around the world have started resisting. Strikes against retrenchments have occurred from France to China and from Greece to South Korea. In some cases, workers have even kidnapped their bosses and occupied factories and offices to stop being made ‘redundant’. It is through this type of direct action that the workers involved are winning concessions from the elite. Indeed, workplace occupations seem to be one of the most effective ways for people to win their demands and reclaim their dignity back from the elite. For this reason, factory occupations – and in some instances even worker-self management – seem to be creeping back onto the agenda of a growing number of workers.
Worker occupations are spreading
Perhaps one of the largest recent instances of workers using direct action to try and save their jobs has come from South Korea. Over the last few weeks, workers in one of South Korea’s biggest car manufacturing companies – Ssangyong – have been occupying the corporation’s factory at Pyeongtaek. In February, Ssangyong was placed under receivership and as part of ‘rehabilitating’ the company it was announced that over 2 600 people – or 36% of the workforce – would lose their jobs. To put a halt to this callous plan, thousands of workers decided on the 21st of May to occupy the Pyeongtaek plant through staging a sit-in. As part of this, they have said that they would not allow management to return to their offices until they had guaranteed that they would scrap the planned layoffs. Ssangyong initially responded in an extremely harsh manner towards the workers’ occupation. They at first indicated that there was absolutely no room for negotiations around reducing the retrenchments and threatened to unleash the riot police on the occupiers. At the same time, the Ssangyong bosses stopped anyone from entering into the building. Due to the rising tensions, one of the occupiers inside the building – a 41 year old man – sadly died of a cerebral haemorrhage. Recently, however, the Ssangyong management have begun backtracking slightly and have stated that they would now be willing to negotiate around retrenchments if the workers stop their occupation.Clearly, the occupation is starting to have an impact and the workers are taking back their dignity.
In other parts of Asia, such as Turkey, there have also been factory occupations. Workers in Turkey have been hit extremely hard by the current economic crisis with over 500 000 people losing their jobs since September 2008. In order to stem this, workers in a number of factories – such as MEHA textiles and Sinter Metal – embarked on workplace occupations. The Turkish state, however, has reacted ruthlessly and used security forces to drive the workers out. Nonetheless, the workers then camped outside of the factories and their resistance has continued. Recently, the workers at Sinter held a celebration to mark their 100th day of resistance.
Despite being under the yoke of an extremely repressive government, workers have also embarked on direct action to save their jobs in China. In December last year, almost 1000 workers at a computer factory in Shanghaistaged a sit-in. They had taken this action because they had failed to receive over-time payments for 6 months. By the second day of the sit-in, the police were called in and they cordoned off the protest. They then followed up this action by taking a number of workers into custody. Clearly, the Chinese regime was attempting to send a message to workers that occupations would be dealt with severely. Despite this, however, shortly after the Shanghai occupation, workers in Guangzhou also occupied their factory along with blockading a nearby highway. They were demanding that their contracts be renewed in order to ensure that there would be no retrenchments in the New Year. Reportedly, after only two hours their demands were met.
Right across continental Europe, factory and workplace occupations have also been taking place. When the current crisis first struck, in late 2007, workers at Frape Behr in Spain occupied their workplace to stop retrenchments. As part of this, community activists and supporters surrounded the building and protested in solidarity with the workers inside. At the same time as this was occurring, workers in Serbia were occupying their factory, Shinvoz, to prevent it being privatised. Earlier this year in the Ukraine, 2300 workers also occupied the administrative buildings at Kherson Engineering and demand that their wages, which they had not received since September 2008, be paid.
Perhaps the epicentre of workers resistance in Europe, however, has been in France. Earlier this year in Nantes, workers at Goss International – which manufactures newspaper printing machines – occupied their factory to prevent it being completely closed. In their case, they had success after 5 days when management assured them that the plant would not be entirely shut and that most jobs would be saved. In other parts of France, workers under the threat of retrenchments have also charged into the offices’ of their bosses and held them hostage until their demands have been met. For example, at FM logistics 125 workers invaded a managers meeting and held the bosses hostage. The reason the workers did this was because the company had formulated a plan to retrench over 470 workers due to the current economic crisis. After only one day of ‘captivity’, the managers of FM logistics agreed to re-examine their retrenchment plans. Similar ‘bossnappings’ have also occurred at the French holdings of Sony, 3M and Cattepillar. The majority of the French public have supported these ‘bossnappings’. This support has meant that the French state has not been able to move against the workers involved.
Even in Britain and Northern Ireland, where Thatcher’s brutal attack on the coal miners in 1984 left lasting scars amongst workers and the poor, workplace occupations have occurred. When the car parts manufacturer Visteon informed workers that the company would be shutting its doors, the workers decided to occupy the company’s plants. They were furious as they had only been given 6 minutes notice and a severance package that was paltry. For over a month, the workers occupied Visteon’s buildings despite the threat of arrest. In the end, even though they could not save their jobs, they won a severance package that was worth ten times the original offer. In the process, the Visteon workers regained their dignity, which the management had so ruthlessly trod upon. Similarly, when workers at Prisme Packaging in Dundee were told that the company was shutting its doors, they staged a 51 day sit-in. They had decided that they were not willing to lose their jobs and said that they wanted to re-open Prisme as a co-operative under self-management. For them, victory came when they managed to secure funding for their co-operative venture.
Similar stories of workplace occupations have also occurred in the Republic of Ireland. Earlier this year, workers at the Waterford Crystal factory were informed by the company’s liquidators – Deloitte and Touche – that they no longer had jobs and that they would not even receive severance pay. The workers decided to defend their livelihoods by staging an occupation. In response Deloitte and Touche sent in a private security force to threaten and intimidate the workers. Eventually, however, 10 million Euros was made available for a severance fund and negotiations are now underway for some of the workers to keep their jobs.
Africa too has not been immune to factory occupations linked to the economic crisis. In Egypt during May more than 3000 workers occupied the Adrama Textiles factory in order to demand their annual bonuses. Similar action was taken at the Wabariyat Sammanoud textile factory in 2008 when 1 300 workers occupied the plant in order to insist that their food allowance be doubled. Most of the workers were women and some even slept on the factory’s tile floors for days with their children. The occupation was a complete success and within a week the factory’s owners had given the workers what they wanted. This was an important victory for the people involved in the occupation as the current economic crisis means that the effects of the food crisis in Eygpt have been exacerbated.
North America has also seen a string of workplace occupations. Due to the collapse of the auto industry in Canada, workers have occupied 4 different plants because they had been refused any compensation. Reportedly, the workers were occupying the plants in order to prevent machinery being removed by the liquidators. In fact, they were using this tactic to force the bosses and the liquidators to the negotiating table. Likewise, in the United States, there have also been a number of occupations. The most well known was the Republic Windows and Doors occupation. The occupation occurred because the workers at the plant were given just 3 days notice that it was to be shut. To add insult to injury, it turned out that Republic was closing because the Bank of America – which had received billions of dollars of public money in bailouts – refused to extend the company’s credit. Again the occupiers received massive public support. Subsequently, the workers won severance pay and the company has opened under new ownership – meaning some jobs, but certainly not all – have been saved.
With the current global economic crisis, Argentina has once again been taking the lead in occupations and turning occupied factories into worker self-managed institutions. Under the threat of downsizing and pay cuts, 10 factories have been occupied in Argentina since 2008. The workers have taken this action to stop the owners from declaring bankruptcy. Indeed, it has been reported that the Argentine business elite use crises to declare insolvency, then fraudulently liquate assets and suddenly open the business under a new name a few months later. A number of the newly occupied factories have also received major support from the older self-managed factories. Already, workers at some of the occupied factories have elected to take-over the factories permanently and operate them on a democratic basis. For example, at one of the occupied factories – Arrufat Chocolates – workers have already gone into production using generators and are turning the factory into a viable worker self-managed operation. As part of this, important decisions regarding Arrufat are now being democratically made in a weekly assembly, and all workers are paid the same wages. Of course, the old bosses of these newly occupied factories have tried to snuff out the initiatives of the workers. In most cases, the old bosses called in the police and tried to have the workers evicted. Nonetheless, the struggle for workers self-management is well and truly continuing in Argentina.
The current economic crisis has seen corporations unleash a series of attacks on workers. This has included retrenchments, wage freezes and in some cases closers. In many parts of the world, workers have responded with their own actions. These have included workplace occupations and even in some instances complete factory take-overs with the aim of embarking on self-management. As such, these workers are finding their own solutions to the crisis. Hopefully, these actions will inspire many more workers to begin debating, adopting and adapting the idea of factory occupations as a viable way to save jobs, and to reclaim the dignity that the bosses are trying to take away from them. What we are also perhaps seeing through the occupations, take-overs and self-management is a glimpse of what a post-capitalist world, created by the workers and the poor themselves, would look like. Indeed, hopefully the factory occupations that we are beginning to see are an embryo of a different world – a world where there are no bosses, where workers manage themselves, where the economy is democratically planned through worker and community assemblies, where there are no hierarchies, where the environment is not raped, and where the goal is to meet peoples’ needs and not make profits. For various reasons, including the fact that we now live in the most unequal and environmentally damaged society in human history, we are desperately in need of such a new and different world.
 Trigona. M. Argentine factory in the hands of the workers: FASINPAT a step closer to permanent worker control. www.upsidedownworld.org/ 27 May 2009