After the banking crisis hit fully in late 2008, throughout 2009 there was a spate of occupations as working-class people resisted job losses and threats to services. Though this flurry did not reach anything like the levels of the 1970s and soon died down, it was not a flash in the pan. Occupying as a tactic has re-appeared again recently, and, of course, in the meantime, the “Occupy” movement has given the word wide currency, even if it has diluted its meaning. Vicki Morris looks at some recent examples of occupation to draw out some lessons.
Workplace sit-ins for pay and other benefits or to save jobs
Visteon: Workers in Basildon, Belfast, and Enfield occupied their factories for several days when car-parts company Visteon unexpectedly went bust in 2009, making 565 redundant at short notice with statutory minimum redundancy pay.
The Enfield workers consented to be “led out” of their occupation by their union Unite, but then picketed and blockaded the factories 24/7. Ultimately, Visteon and former parent company Ford agreed to better redundancy pay and to negotiate over pensions. Part of the workers’ leverage in this case was the threat to Ford of sympathetic action by other Ford workers.
Vestas: Twelve workers occupied part of the Vestas wind turbine blade factory on the Isle of Wight for 18 days in July-August 2008. They were protesting against the closure of the plant, with the loss of 500 jobs. At the time the Labour government was promoting investment in “green jobs” as part of the solution to climate change.
The occupation was partly inspired by the occupation at Visteon. Patrick Rolfe, one of the young socialists who went to campaign on the Isle of Wight, explained:
“We persuaded the former convenor of the Enfield Visteon plant, Ron Clark, to speak at a public meeting. Ron spoke about the experience and the tactics of occupation, telling the gathered crowds that physical control of the factory was the only way to bargain with the bosses. The experience gained by the Visteon workers, and their success provided an example of what can be achieved if workers take action and stick together.”
The Vestas occupiers were evicted but they joined a picket of the factory to stop the company moving out valuable equipment or the blades that still remained in the factory. Vestas managed to move the blades at the end of September, but only with the help of a major police operation. As in the case of Visteon, the workers sought to use their ability to control what the bosses could do with their property as a bargaining chip.
In the case of private businesses, occupations raise the question of who the workplace and the equipment in it actually and rightfully belong to. Is it to the bosses whose aim is to make profits, or to the workers who use — occupy — the workplace day in and day out, and whose livelihoods depend on it?
Occupations also teach us lessons about the state and who it serves. Ultimately, the bosses are often forced to deploy the forces of the capitalist state — the courts, the bailiffs and the police — acting on their behalf in order to exercise their ownership rights.
Community sit-ins to save services
There are many successful examples of service users occupying a building in order to protest against — and sometimes prevent — a service being shut down. These include:
l In 1993-4 a seven-month occupation by parents at Springdale Nursery in Islington, north London forced the council to reopen it (see “Saving a nursery” box).
l In 2009 parents successfully occupied Lewisham Bridge School, south London, against its planned closure.
As with any occupation — workpace or community — or political protest, people will have different views on what they are fighting for, what tactics to use, and whether they are prepared to compromise on their demands in order to win part of what they want if they believe they cannot win everything.
This is perhaps particularly the case with campaigns to save community services in the current political climate.
Big Society trap?
The government is promoting the semi- or complete privatisation of public services, often by encouraging “community groups” to take over running services, with little financial or logistical support.
This can be a trap for those who want to save, for example, a library as a building for the use of the community, but who do not have the resources to run a proper library service out of it.
Lewisham libraries: New Cross Library was occupied briefly in February 2011 as part of a campaign of protest against Lewisham Council’s plan to close five libraries. Lewisham has largely succeeded in getting non-statutory bodies to take over the libraries, as part of its own cost-cutting. The nett effect has been lower quality services.
Friern Barnet Library: Barnet Council closed Friern Barnet Library in April 2012 with a plan to sell off the building. They did this in spite of a strong community campaign to save the library. Campaigners hastily organised a sit-in on the day of closure, which lasted five hours and achieved considerable publicity. Had the occupiers been better prepared, they might have undertaken a longer occupation. Instead, they left the building but set up weekly open-air “Friern Barnet People’s Libraries” each Saturday on the green in front, and began a political campaign to re-open the library.
In September, some activists connected to the “Occupy” movement squatted the building. Although there was no connection between this action and the existing campaign, they quickly made contact with each other.
Before long, the occupiers and local campaigners together had re-opened the library, restocked it from donations, and have been running an impressive programme of classes and events in the building ever since.
There are debates about how to save the library, whether to accept to run it as volunteers, and under what conditions, or whether to insist that the council return to running the library service there.
Barnet Council now has a possession order against the occupation but the political campaign to save the library continues.
Occupying takes courage. It is easier to take the decision to occupy and to sustain an occupation if you know your community supports you.
The community can help in practical ways — supplying food, etc; mobilising wider forces when necessary, for example, to keep bailiffs at bay. Community support also helps to give an occupation political legitimacy.
Sometimes occupations involve people from outside the community; this should not be a problem so long as those defending the service feel they have political ownership of their protest — albeit taking the advice of “outsiders”, if they want to.
Sometimes occupations succeed in saving a service. Almost always, occupying is rewarding, giving those taking part and those supporting them a sense of power; people almost always are glad that they fought, even when they don’t appear, to their enemies, to win much!
Saving a nursery
In March 1994, the Labour council in Islington, North London, voted to reopen Springdale nursery after a seventh-month long occupation.
It was a small victory: the money involved was only about 0.1% of the council’s budget. But small fights offer a chance to build up experience in the kind of direct action and campaigning needed for bigger fights.
The occupation began in May 1993 with two nurseries — Springdale and Harvist — threatened with closure. Fearing for their jobs, Springdale workers accepted redeployment within a few weeks. But the occupation, run by workers at Harvist and parents at Springdale, continued.
The nursery workers’ union Unison, at national level, initially repudiated the occupation, but was forced to swing round after a vote at its national conference.
The campaign sent speakers to meetings in the area, collected signatures on a petition, and distributed leaflets. They contacted other local nurseries.
In August 1993 Harvist workers ended their occupation with an agreement to keep the nursery open on a voluntary-sector basis. The parents at Springdale decided to stay in.
Eventually, by winning votes in Labour Party ward branches, one by one, the parents’ campaign forced an agreement from Islington Council Labour group to reopen Springdale.