Workplace Occupations and the Remploy Dispute
Seldom is it convincing to say that one single event can transform a wider situation. But in the case of the battle to stop the closure and sell off of the Remploy factories, this is the case. Specifically, if the threatened workers had occupied their factories, there is good reason to believe not only would have this created considerable leverage over the government but it would have also popularised the tactic of the workplace occupation in the battle to save jobs.
Since twenty seven of the 54 factories were earmarked for closure by the government by the end of the year, putting 1,700 disabled workers on the dole, and the remainder faced an uncertain future of either closure or being sold off, there has been an impressive battle fought by the workers and their unions, primarily the GMB and Unite.
It has involved strikes, high-profile demonstrations and one short occupation of the company’s HQ by less than ten workers. But there have been no workplace occupations. It is far from clear that the actions so far have created leverage over the company and, mostly importantly, the government.
If the most immediately affected workers had occupied their workplaces, the impact would be considerable. Not only would it have stopped the process by which the factories are wound down and shut but it would also create a media storm. It would not be hard to get good, and extensive, copy on a story of ‘victimised and downtrodden disabled workers fight back against a nasty government’.
The extended nature of an occupation means this would not be a flash in the pan. And, a counter-attack against a government which is best by internal in-fighting and external unpopularity would be widely welcomed. Solidarity would, no doubt, have poured in to sustain the occupations.
For sure, occupations require more organisation, determination and commitment than do strikes but, in the case of Remploy, it would certainly deliver more bang for your buck than the strikes have done so far.
Being on the inside, in control of the building, finished goods, machinery and supplies is a far stronger position to be in than standing outside the gates picketing.
Yet despite all this, since 2007 when the present economic and political crisis began, Britain has seen only ten workplace occupations against redundancy and closure. Meantime, Eire with a workforce fifteen times smaller has seen more than 15 occupations and France with a similar sized workforce to Britain over 100 occupations.
What explains the difference? It cannot be the level of union membership. It Britain, union density is 25%, in Eire 28% and France just 8%. It also cannot be differences in the processes of making redundancies as these are regulated by common minimum standards across the European Union. Equally too, property rights and the management’s right to manage is also uniform across the three countries.
There are differences in the levels of strike activity and the structure of collective bargaining. France is more strike prone than Britain as is Eire. So it might seem that Irish and French workers are more militant than those in Britain. But, if anything, the prevalence of strikes can be seen as an obstacle to using the occupation tactic because it dominates the response of workers to attacks on their jobs and conditions.
Bargaining in Britain has been decentralised downward from industry to company and organisational levels over many years. The opposite has been true in Eire where national level social partnership at the national level has been true for the public sector although the private sector is dominated by decentralised bargaining. In France, the structure of bargaining is more like than in Britain. Occupations would be more likely to occur under decentralised systems of bargaining where workers in individual workplaces can respond in any way they see fit to redundancies and closure without regard to how workers elsewhere are responding.
Both Britain and France have had some history of occupations going back over the last forty years. For example, the UCS shipyard work-in of 1971-1972 was matched by the Lip watch and clock factory work-in of 1973-1974 and 1976-1977.
But what seems to stand out as the most convincing explanation for the difference in the number of occupations is the tradition of protest in each country. Most obviously, workers and citizens in France have a rich and deep tradition of direct action. In particular, the tactic of the occupation is not only part of this repertoire but one that is in the living memory where workplace occupations were used in France in the 1990s and 2000s.
But the case of Eire indicates that such a tradition can be begun to be learnt and learnt quickly. What would make the difference in Britain would be if leading union officers of the major unions – not just the general secretaries – publicly advocated the use of the tactic.
At present, some union officers say they will support workers if they choose to occupy. Good as though this is, workers need to be convinced of the need to do so by others so that the tactic gains legitimacy and credibility. Only then could we see the tactic becoming an everyday part of workers’ armoury in Britain in the fight against austerity in both the public and private sectors.
Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Posted in: Blog Posts |Tagged with: gmb, remploy, unite