What Fuels Overseas Sit-Down Strikes?

Roger Bybee

Former employees of U.S. car components firm Visteon on the rooftop of the factory shortly before ending their occupation at the Enfield plant in north London, on April 9, 2009, in compliance with a high court order. Visteon, which used to be a major supplier to Ford, sparked anger by announcing 560 job losses blaming massive losses.

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In sharp contrast to the brass-knuckled capitalism of the U.S., workers in Western Europe enjoy legal protections that corporations must follow before they close or relocate production.

Under the WARN Act,” which was a major leverage point for workers who occupied the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago in December 2008., U.S. workers are merely owed 60 days advance notice of a factory closure. The lack of job protections has allowed employers to shift millions of jobs to the low-wage U.S. South, and increased corporate leverage to ratchet down union wages in the North.

DEPRIVED OF SHIELD — AND SWORD

Not only does U.S. 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. 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 Britain, Germany, and Sweden — has helped to reinforce the notion that workers’ needs 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.

A WAVE OF TAKEOVERS

Workers’ sense of economic rights has fueled a wave of factory takeovers since the Wall Street meltdown in the fall of 2008, which sent shock waves throughout the world economy.

While only at Republic Doors and Windows did U.S. 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, a CUNY Brooklyn professor who recently returned from Argentina where he met with workers in occupied plants, focuses on two worker sit-down strikes as particularly significant:

VISTEON IN THE UK: 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 last spring, resulting in Vesteon agreeing to keep the operations open for several more years, albeit with fewer workers. (Visteon went on to declare bankruptcy in June.)

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.

The workers’ action made CEOs fearful. It threw a lot of fear into the financial sector in UK, U.S., bad beyond.” Ness told WorkingInThe​se​Times​.com. For example, the management journal Per​son​nel​To​day​.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.”

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,” Ness says. The strikers faced down police on horseback firing their weapons. The critical element is community support, the public’s identification with the struggle,” he concludes.

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.’ This [the wave of occupations in Argentina] is probably the most important example of a working class insurgency today,” Ness says. (These occpuations are also covered in The Take, a film by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein.)

LOST, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN: A BROOKYLN SIT-DOWN STRIKE

In my recent piece on the hidden history of post World War II sit-down strikes in the U.S., I neglected to discuss the American Safety Razor (ASR) 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 WorkingInThe​se​Times​.com.

The 1950s, he noted, was 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 ASR 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 U.S. 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, Va.

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,” Montgomery said. Consequently, the strike received considerable support from other local unions, despite the attacks then being leveled against the UE.” He continued:

In fact, the city administration was reluctant to move strongly against the plant occupation.

Before long, however, the company to [got] 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…

The strike had been lost.

Lost, but not forgotten: American Safety Razor workers sit-down endures as an example of U.S. workers’ direct action to protect their investment of years of labor power into their jobs.

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Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education.Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus.More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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