Background notes for readings on "occupations, workers' control, and workers' government"

Submitted by AWL on 28 July, 2009 - 5:01 Author: Martin Thomas

Notes on the readings:

FLINT 1936

Excerpts from an account by Genora Johnson Dollinger, who was a leader of the Women's Auxiliary. The occupation was decisive in winning union recognition in the US car industry. Genora Johnson Dollinger was a left-wing member of the Socialist Party USA who became a Trotskyist.

* What happened. The car industry in the USA (and elsewhere) had been a bastion of non-unionism. The car firms paid relatively high wages but policed their workers fiercely. Ford had an internal police force, and also monitored workers' lives outside work. Henry Ford sympathised with fascism. GM was not much different. The union movement was relatively weak and only looked after better-paid, white, male workers in more skilled trades. The Great Crash in 1929 was followed immediately by a further lull in the labour movement. With a slight temporary economic recovery in 1933-34, workers' struggles began to erupt. Some unions split off from the main American Federation of Labor (AFL) and started (November 1935) building a new union centre, the CIO, based on organising the mass workforces in the big industries. The Flint occupation was a high point of the CIO organising drive, and opened the way for union organisation across the car industry.

* Preparation. Genora Johnson stresses that lots of talks on labour history and socialist theory helped educate and train the leaders for the mass struggle. What is done in the "dull" period before big struggles is important as well as what happens in the struggles.

* Politics. What she doesn't mention in these particular excerpts is that it made a difference which left party did the preparation and recruited from the struggle. The Communist Party played a big role. But at the same time the CP was justifying the Moscow Trials and the Great Terror in the USSR: it was progressively demoralising its militants. In the USA, it blocked moves to form a workers' party based on the unions and instead pushed workers to back Roosevelt. In World War 2 it would oppose strikes. As for the Socialist Party - Genora Johnson was part of a revolutionary minority in it who were eventually forced out, forming the Trotskyist Socialist Workers' Party. It made a big difference which of the various left parties predominated.

* Defying the bosses. In Flint as elsewhere, the US bosses used much harsher tactics than we are used to in Britain - beatings, shootings, etc. Yet the workers, with sufficient organisation and confidence, were able to defeat them.

e. Women's organisation. The women played a crucial role, including in breaking the violent threats. They spoke and organised as well as helping with food and the like. Women are a majority of the working class, and that they become confident and assertive is vital to working-class strength.


Excerpts from "The Transitional Programme", written in 1938 by Leon Trotsky. Trotsky was a leader of the workers' revolution in Russia in 1917, and then of the working-class opposition to the Stalinist bureaucracy. His words sum up a vast experience of working-class struggles in many countries in the 20th century.

* What happened. Italy 1920 was the first big wave of factory occupations, and it was followed by another wave in the USA in the 1930s. Later waves of workplace occupations include France in 1968, Britain in the 1970s, and Poland in 1980.

* The ruling class. We describe the owners of the big corporations, their top managers (who are usually big shareholders themselves), and their friends in top positions in the government machine (who often move over to top positions in business) as the ruling class. How do they rule? The power of wealth - the "dull compulsion of economic relations". The force of habit (helped by the power of the media and so on). And the power of the state machine - top civil service, armed forces, police, judges.

* Shaking the power of the ruling class. The power of the ruling class seems solid, and is solid, as long as workers are atomised as individuals or in relatively small groups. When workers organise collectively and confidently, the power of the ruling class begins to shake. Their wealth is no longer the same source of power if workers occupy the workplaces. If workers say that the fact that the workers produce all new value, that all the bosses' wealth is simply the accumulation of the proceeds of previous exploitation, means that the workplace is "theirs" more than it is the bosses'... Trotsky calls this "dual power" - there are two rival centres of power in the workplace, and one or another must prevail.

* Business secrecy. Who knew what the banks were doing in the run-up to the financial crisis? Not many people. Who knows what Vestas's real financial calculations are about their Isle of Wight sites? The ruling class also rules by limiting information. If the workers begin to get information, then that in itself begins to shake the power of the ruling class.

e. Workers' control. Workers' control extends, through a process of struggle, from simple rights to information through a situation of strong union organisation in workplaces through to full "dual power" in an occupation to "direct workers' management" after workers can win political power. It is always dependent on struggle. It is difficult to sustain isolated pockets of workers' control - generally, over a period of time, workers' control is either spread or defeated. Big example: Catalonia 1936, where the workers had fairly full control in the factories but got defeated because they left political power in the hands of the Popular Front government.


Further excerpts from Trotsky's "Transitional Programme".

* What's happened. More or less extensive state ownership has often been a feature of capitalism from early days. From the late 19th century up to the end of the 1970s it looked as if state ownership was growing gradually and inexorably within capitalism as it advanced. Then came the era of privatisation.

* Socialist nationalisation and capitalist nationalisation. It is possible for an "ordinary" capitalist country to have a high level of nationalisation without becoming any less capitalist. Austria, for example, had state ownership of the electric and electronics, chemical, iron and steel, machinery and most other big industries until the 1990s. In some poorer capitalist countries, high levels of state ownership have gone hand in hand with political despotism: Burma, or Saddam Hussein's Iraq, are examples. Trotsky indicates the critical issue here: nationalisation is socialistic only if linked with "the question... of seizure of power by the workers and farmers" and the "political overthrow of the bourgeoisie". State ownership is socialistic only if the state is a workers' state.

* Why we advocate nationalisations of particular industries or enterprises. Trotsky argues that even under capitalism we can "demand resumption, as public utilities, of work in [individual] private businesses closed as a result of the crisis" with "workers' management", and also demand nationalisation of individual key branches of industry or of banks. The general background to such specific demands is a political regime of parliamentary democracy, under which state-owned industries, though still capitalist, can have their running seriously influenced by public pressure. Thus in Britain nationalisation of the coal and rail industries did not stop them being capitalist, but did allow a serious improvement in workers' conditions there. Union membership is much higher in publicly-owned enterprises. A nationalised wind turbine industry would find it harder to trash jobs than Vestas does.

* The banks. Trotsky advocates a specific demand for public ownership of the banks, to create a single public financial service. This is a precondition for serious economic planning and crisis-avoidance; even under capitalist parliamentary democracy it opens space for public pressure to influence economic decisions; if linked to a political struggle for workers' rule, it can allow planning in the interests of the working class.


Further excerpt from Trotsky's "Transitional Programme".

* Why Labour governments aren't socialist. Ever since its foundation the Labour Party has been dominated by a combination - in varying proportions - of trade-union officials and middle-class parliamentary politicians. Their political horizon has never stretched further than reforms within the system in tune with the left end of the spectrum of established bourgeois opinion. At some times - the 1945-51 Labour government - that has meant serious reforms, though coupled with anti-working-class measures. At other times, especially those of capitalist crisis, it has meant scarcely any reforms at all.

* This New Labour government: it is something worse than previous Labour governments. The old Labour Party, from 1900 to 1997, never had a democracy sufficient to overcome the inertia of the Labour and trade union leaders who were oriented to working within "safe" capitalist limits, but it had a relatively open structure allowing real working-class input at least at the level of protest and pressure on government and local government. Since 1997 Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have largely blocked off and cemented over those channels of democratic input; they have "hijacked" the Labour Party on behalf of a crew of unashamedly "pro-business" politicians.

* Labour is still not the same as the Tories. New Labour is not the same as old Labour, but it is still not the same as the Tories. The unions do still have 50% of the vote at Labour conference, the effective right to change Labour's internal rules when they want, a big vote in the selection of Labour leaders, the right to send large numbers of delegates to local Labour Parties, and leverage as important sources of finance for the party. It has been made harder for unions to use their potential public political input, and on the whole the union leaders have chosen to go the easier way of lobbying behind the scenes for small concessions; but the lid is not yet quite nailed down.

e. Workers' government? In the 1920s revolutionaries called on the reformist workers' parties to unite with them in fighting for immediate working-class interests, and at certain points to take that unity forward into forming a joint "workers' government" to enforce those interests. It was a tactical demand. Either the reformists would refuse, and the revolutionaries could use the fact to enlighten radical-minded workers who believed in the reformists; or they would accept, and the ensuing "workers' government" would be an unstable formation, but possibly a stepping stone to full workers' rule. Today we call on the labour movement - essentially, the unions - to unite to fight for a government accountable to the unions and as loyal to the working class as Thatcher, Blair, and Brown have been loyal to the bosses. The fight for that "workers' government" proceeds both through agitating in the affiliated unions for them to combat Brown within the Labour Party and through independent socialist political initiatives.

ITALY 1920

Excerpts from two articles written by Antonio Gramsci, one at the start of the great wave of factory occupations, the other at the end. Gramsci was an Italian socialist, later jailed by Mussolini's fascist regime.

* What happened: After the Russian Revolution of 1917 there was a strong revolutionary mood among workers in Italy. In August 1920 Alfa Romeo in Milan locked its workers out as a gambit in contract negotiations. Workers occupied the plant and 280 others around Milan. In September workers in Turin and other cities joined the occupation movement. Production continued under the supervision of the workers' factory councils. Prime minister Giovanni Giolitti said there should be compromise. The Socialist Party leadership referred a decision to the union confederation, the CGL, which in turn called a referendum of its membership on the rigged choice, "negotiations or revolution". A small majority voted for "negotiations". The movement wound down. The bosses quickly sought revenge. Mussolini formed a fascist government in October 1922.

* "Dual power". Without using the same words, Gramsci expresses the same idea as Trotsky: occupations create a "dual power" in industry.

* Gramsci's initial attitude. Gramsci's first article reads as if to suggest that a socialist revolution could be made just by extending workplace occupations. But factories are not the whole of society. Workers also need to deal with the bourgeois machinery of government. If that is left intact, then workers' control in the factories will eventually die. (Also, Gramsci offers little answer to the problem that peasants were at that time more numerous in Italy than industrial workers; a socialist revolution could not have been made without the workers first winning over the peasants). The problem was that the Socialist Party in Italy was revolutionary in words but passive in practice.

* Gramsci's self-correction. By the time Gramsci wrote the second article excerpted here, he had come to focus much more on the issue of building a revolutionary socialist party which could lead a struggle across the whole of society and not just in the factories. The second article shifts the emphasis so much towards the necessary role of an activist minority that it can read as "elitist". But the essential point is that majorities are not just to be counted. They have to be made. And sometimes only bold initiative by a minority can create the confidence necessary to gain a majority for resistance.

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