zaterdag 7 september 2013

Factory Occupation: The history of a new form of Industrial action

The subject of this article is factory occupation as a form of action in industrial conflicts. More than hundred-twenty years ago, mines were occupied in Poland by the workers. From this moment workers have kept using this means of action.

It attracts attention that the use has been concentrated in a number of waves (the most imported are): 1917-1920 in Italy and 1936-1937 in France. In these periods a recurring question that arose was wherever the actions sparked off a social revolution, or at any rate meant a step towards an industrial democracy. Or was it only a case of a tactical alternative for a strike?

The Italian actions took place during a wage-dispute in the metal industry, in the first instance in the cities of Milan and Turin. Here it was the metal trade union F.I.O.M. that took the initiative for these active occupations, The uncertain political and economical situation in which Italy found itself in the first post-war years, the wait-and-see policy of the government, the revolutionary atmosphere that was also created by statements of the socialist party leaders, and the great distance between the trade union management and its members; these factors must be considered responsible for the escalation of the conflict.

In France, in 1936 and 1937, the first actions took place in the aircraft industry; a branch of industry which was in a fair good economic position as a result of large government orders. The occupations were of a different nature than the 'grèves-sur-le tas' (a “sit-in” strike), a means of action frequently used by especially the metal workers in the Paris region. The election-victory of the Populair Front parties had stimulated the workers to using more radical forms of action.

After the coming power of the Blum-government an explosion of actions, occupations as well as strikes, developed.

One of the most remarkable conclusions is that occupation as a means of action was most frequently chosen in areas where strike-proneness was relatively low in previous years, whereas occupation-proneness was low in regions with a high strike-frequently. Not until the end of 1936 did the old geographical pattern of militancy return. The quick successes of the first actions, the little experience in agitating and a form of behavioral contagion explain as it appears more their massive character then the degree of organization of the workers.

A comparison of these two waves shows both differences and similarities. In Italy 1920 and France 1936/37 they were short eruptions, the last wave was longer as compared to the other one. There were clear differences with respect to the stake of the struggle ranging from wage disputes 1920, to fight for trade union rights in the enterprises 1936-1937. The role of the Italian trade unions in 1920 was in sharp contrast to the other one.

Political speaking – arriving at the similarities – there was a situation in each of the two cases where the authorities thought it fit to adopt a wait-and-see policy and even sometimes a pro-workers attitude. Also with respect to the international development of theses two, one observes parallelism.
In these two situations similar actions preceded the occupations an the first factory occupations can mostly be explained by the indignation of the workers concerned about what they saw as unjust decision by the management. The quick successes of these actions and the attitude of the employers and authorities led via a form of behavioral contagion to imitation on a large scale.

The view as if the use of factory occupation were only to be considered as a tactic, rational use of an available means of action – in the sense of adequate adjustment of means to aim – must be rejected. The change in targets, the diminishing news value in the course of a wave and the fact that the use has not been restricted to times of economic depression, are important arguments for this.

Is factory occupation the a revolutionary phenomenon or at any rate a step towards industrial democracy?

The general acceptance of the means – even official trade unions placed it on their action repertoire – pleads against this. The fact that occupation has lost its revolutionary potency does not, however, imply that it has become a means like any other. The concentration in massive waves of industrial disputes to which in general a radical nature is ascribed and the fact that it was especially those workers who had little or no experience in taking action and who dared to overstep the borders of legality underline the radical nature of factory occupation.

It remains to be seen whether the ever increasing spread of the phenomenon of occupation in this century points to a growing industrial democracy. The development of the demands and the long-term results would give rise to an affirmative answer. On the other hand it has bee established that experiences in previous waves have not been made use of by workers and trade unions in later situations.

The occupations have apparently not achieved the task of a school for workers' self-management. So it was not without reason that factory occupations was again called a new form of industrial action in each period.

Exactly in the spirit of Gramsci's working-council movement in Turin (Italy) in 1919/20, the factory occupation MUST be a school for working class self-management. A learning school for a upcoming socialist society ruled by the working class!