Occupations, not Occupy!(Behind the News) (Essay)

Author:Gall, Gregor


Notwithstanding that strikes in Britain have historically been the most frequently deployed form of collective resistance in the workplace, the tactic of workplace occupation in industrial disputes with employers was a relatively well-used one by workers in the 1970s and 1980s. Occupations were particularly used to fight plant closures and mass redundancies because they offered the possibility of exerting more influence from inside the workplace than by walking out on strike, putting workers outside the workplace, from which trying to control the movement of labour, materials and goods by means of picketing is more difficult. This is due to the ability under occupation to control access to and from the workplace (from within with fewer numbers of workers than by organising mass picketing outside), thus, preventing the removal of assets or the entrance of blacklegs. However, the tactic was little used in the short run aftermath of the financial crash of 2007-2008 when many plant and other workplace closures took place (Gall, 2011), showing that the Observer (26 April 2009) vastly overestimated the number of occupations and sit-ins: 'Similar worker occupations [to the Visteon occupations] have been springing up all over the country'.

An occupation, accompanied by a work-in, was undertaken by hundreds of workers at BiFab (Burntisland Fabrications) in late 2017 in Scotland to successfully save their jobs. It serves as a useful prompt to reconsider the utility of the tactic and its frequency of usage as the size of the manufacturing sector and its workforce continue to contract and as public sector workplaces continue to shut in the enduring 'age of austerity'. Indeed, the BiFab case can be used as an appropriate lens, along with the deployment of mobilisation theory (see Kelly, 1998), to understand the specific contexts of when the process of undertaking an occupation can result in a positive outcome for workers. So, drawing upon media reporting, both mainstream and left-wing, this piece first details the BiFab occupation and the other known occupations since 2010 in order to build upon previous research on the frequency of occupations in Britain in the new millennium (see Gall, 2010, 2011). Six factors--collectivised nature of redundancy, immediate and unforeseen nature of redundancy, loss of deferred wages (pensions) and compensation, pre-existing collectivisation, and positive demonstration effect--were identified as being critical to explaining workers' willingness to undertake occupations (Gall, 2011). Thus, this article sets out an analysis of why and how the occupations took place in order to develop an assessment of why overall so few occupations have been used by workers in Britain to resist recession, austerity and neoliberalism.

BiFab occupation

For a week in late November 2017, workers at three fabrications yards (Burntisland and Methil in Fife, and Arnish on the Isle of Lewis) staged a work-in and occupation in response to BiFab announcing it was about to enter into administration (as a prelude to receivership) as a result of only being paid 40% for the 77% of work it had carried out for its client, Seaway Heavy Lifting (SHL), which had been contracted by energy provider, SSE, to build an offshore wind turbine farm. The workers faced both not being paid their due wages and mass redundancy. The workforce comprised 250 workers employed by BiFab and 1,150 sub-contractor workers, organised by the GMB and UNITE unions with over a 50% density. In order to put pressure upon SHL and SSE as well as the Scottish Government (which has a green energy policy and licenced the offshore farm), the workers agreed at the behest of full-time union officers (Red Robin, 2018) to work without wages with the purpose of continuing production of the turbine jackets while also taking control of the yards so that, in the words of a GMB Scotland organiser: 'Nothing will come and go without the say so of the action committee' in order to maintain control of their key bargaining chip, the jackets, and prevent asset stripping. The workers pledged to continue to carry out the occupation and work-in until Christmas and beyond if necessary to secure their jobs. In a joint statement, the GMB and UNITE then said: 'Make no mistake these yards would be closed today if it wasn't for the dignity and determination of the workers and their families in Fife and Lewis to save their jobs and industry. With their futures on a knife edge they worked for nothing, stayed strong and resolute and by staying united they have won their future'.

The work-in was used as a legitimatising tactic for the occupation, whereby the workers sought to show that they, the victims, remained willing and able to work. Management did not obstruct the occupation and work-in, owing to their temporary alignment of interests with the workforce, namely to gain payment from SHL and SSE for the work already carried out. A high-profile demonstration was held outside the Scottish Parliament, crowning extensive media coverage during the week. The unions, aided by the Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC), called for BiFab to be taken into public sector ownership if the company did enter receivership. These pressures forced the Scottish Government to intervene in order to broker a deal between SHL and SSE to resolve BiFab's liquidity problem with the effect that wages were paid and employment guaranteed until April 2018. The Scottish Government also pledged to provide commercial loans to BiFab if necessary.

Like many on the left, the Solidarity newspaper (24 November 2017) opined: 'The message from the dispute, short as it was, is: direct action works', the Scottish Socialist Voice (25 November 2017) ventured: 'It signals the truth of the old adage, 'If you stop running they'll stop chasing you', and The Clarion (issue 11 December 2017) stated: '[The] BiFab victory shows workers' power the workers...

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