Continuing Rebel’s Power in a Union series, James O’Toole explores the history of workers’ occupations both as a radical and effective tactic to win individual disputes but also as laying the basis for a different type of society – one based on direct democracy.
“Occupy!” the shout went out, as Kieran Shorthall ran upstairs to the offices on the first floor of the Thomas Cook shop on Dublin’s Grafton Street. The rest of the staff stood still for a moment and then as one, they ran upstairs and locked themselves in. The managers, who’d flown over from Thomas Cook in Britain to sack the staff, were left standing in the empty ground floor shop, stunned. Moments earlier they’d been explaining how all the staff were being let go by the travel agents.
When we arrived to support the workers they were busy kicking the senior managers out of the shop – they left with the laughter of the workers and chants of “the workers united will never be defeated” ringing in their ears. The workers contacted the other shops and soon there was a second store occupied on Dublin’s Northside. The occupied Grafton Street store became a hub of activity – an organising and communications centre. There were collections outside with passing workers donating money to help the occupation.
Beyond the union leadership
The workers were members of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) union, they had protested against the impending closures the previous Wednesday with staff dressed as Abba and singing “Manny Manny Manny” to the tune of “Money, Money, Money!” Manny Fontenla-Novoa was the wealthy CEO of the company in 2009. The TSSA was supportive of the occupation but was reluctant to support breaking the court injunction against it. The general secretary and the union lawyer both spoke against defying the courts at a mass meeting.
But the workers, with strong support from left wing activists, like future TD Richard Boyd Barrett, voted to carry the fight forward. Richard remained in the shop with staff until the police came.
The occupation lasted 5 days until the company used the court injunction, which was enforced by the police, to evict the workers at 4am on the last night of the August bank holiday weekend in 2009. The occupation had whipped up such national attention that the judge had to let the workers go. How could the state jail a few dozen, mainly women – one of whom went into labour as the police were going about the removal?
It would have been hugely politically sensitive in the context of the jobs massacre that followed the bank bailout. The workers had won decent redundancy payments. They’d gone up against a massive company and come out with a victory.
Occupy – a powerful weapon
Workplace occupation is one of the strongest weapons in the arsenal of the working class. An occupied workplace is much easier to secure than a picket line. It’s really difficult for the company to organise scabbing, it’s impossible for them to organise a lockout and it puts the bosses on the defensive.
In the case of redundancy battles, the company can’t remove equipment and stock. If they own the premises they will want to put it up for sale. Capitalism requires ‘constant capital’ – machinery, tools, stock and other equipment. Capitalists want to re-use or sell off the constant capital to pay off liquidators and everyone else but the workers.
The occupation holds that capital hostage, becoming key leverage for the workers.
It is also very difficult for the police to move an occupation. Workplaces are easier to secure, whereas a picket line can be outflanked or moved. Workplace occupations have often transformed unilateral action by the boss into a mediated settlement.
The workers can also put it up to the state – “hey you bailed out the banks to the tune of €64 billion, so why can’t you step in and save our jobs?” In the Debenhams strike the worker’s pickets are there to prevent stock removal. It’s a testament to their perseverance that the company hasn’t succeeded. Imagine if the workers could have occupied the stores?
Even the initial successful act of occupation gives workers an immense moral boost and acts as a lightning flash, garnering national attention. The occupied workplaces become an organising centre. A hive of activity around the clock. Workers can make collective decisions about how to take the strike forward, while solidarity actions can take place outside. With COVID-19 sparking a global recession, it’s hugely important that all workers see occupation as a vital tactic to resist pay cuts, sackings, or the closure of the company.
A history of workers’ occupations
Ireland has a proud history of workers taking over their workplaces, not only the actions North and South in response to the banking crisis but also during the Irish Revolution. In 1921 workers took over workplaces at the Knocklong Creamery in Limerick and its 12 subsidiary depots, including Buree which were owned by the Cleaves family.
The workers declared a ‘soviet’ and put up a banner that read: ‘We Make Bread not Profits’. The workers ran the enterprise for 9 days. Dozens of occupied workplaces were only evicted when the Free State army swept across the country.
In 1982 workers at Clondalkin Paper mills began an occupation against the company going into voluntary liquidation. The workers had already agreed to many of the company’s terms, like redundancies and pay cuts, but when the company announced they were to fold the workers had had enough. The latter met in a local sports hall and voted to occupy, climbing over the gate and taking over the factory.
Working class democracy flowered in the occupation with workers having weekly mass meetings, as well as forming sub-committees to deal with things like the media, watching for scabs and contacting other workplaces.
A national protest movement evolved from solidarity with the mill workers. They were visited by delegations from dozens of workplaces including DeLorean workers who came down from Belfast. “We’ve got to keep the pressure up”, said the workers. “Getting the purchase by the state is no good in itself. We’ve got to still make sure they agree to proper manning levels”, said Brian Nolan, the PRO of the Clondalkin Workers Action Committee.
The mill was re-opened with 70 workers and continued in operation; by 1987 there were 234 workers employed. None of this would have happened without sustained struggle and occupation. The workers had won another five years of employment before the mill was eventually closed down.
From occupation to direct workers’ democracy
The occupation of a workplace is more than just an effective tactic in an industrial dispute. It also points to the type of direct democracy that socialists want to see replace the rotten stunted democracy we have under capitalism. In the short term, workers can demand that the state step in and save their jobs; or that there is a legislative change to protect workers, for example not leaving them at the back of the queue as creditors of the company are paid off during liquidation.
But workers’ occupations go further than the demand for those immediate ameliorating measures. The bosses own the ‘means of production’ – an old way of describing the factories, office and machines. They control production. That’s a sacred law of capitalism. The occupied workplace confronts capitalist ownership and control of production. It puts the producers of the wealth temporarily in control of the workplace. That’s terrifying to the bosses.
In Italy during the ‘two red years’ (1919-20) hundreds of factories were occupied. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci in his popular worker’s newspaper ‘L’Ordine Nuovo’ argued that the occupied factories and the committees elected by workers from below should link up, forming the basis of a socialist democracy. If each workplace was occupied, called mass meetings which elected representatives, then those representatives could unite to form a worker’s parliament. The seed of that direct democracy is there as potential in every workplace occupation.
Socialism from below
As James Connolly explained, “Socialism properly implies above all things the co-operative control by the workers of the machinery of production; without this co-operative control the public ownership by the State is not Socialism – it is only State capitalism.” It’s this direct democracy in the workplace that distinguishes real socialism from ‘state capitalism’. The united assemblies of workers need to form the basis of a new state. Without a strategy for challenging the capitalist state occupied workplaces can be evicted by the police or army.
Even if the workers hold on and run the workplace as a cooperative, without challenging the state they end up surrendering to the same economic pressures as any other company and slot back into the capitalist economy – often forced to cut their own wages or downsize the company. You can’t build socialism in one workplace. Occupation has to be the basis of a strategic objective to replace the state.
The Russian Revolutionary Lenin once said that in “every strike there lurks the hydra of revolution” – you could add that in every workplace occupation there lurks the potential for the democratic socialist future, envisioned by Connolly.