This article is also published at www.counterfire.org
A few thoughts about the current occupations - most significantly Vestas, but also the Thomas Cook occupations in Dublin and the south London care home (see my previous post).
1. It is important that workers are willing to challenge the law, including in a number of recent cases (e.g. Visteon) the anti-union laws, and take unofficial action which is, to a greater or lesser degree, independent of the union bureaucracies. It doesn't yet represent a substantial rank and file movement (sadly), but it does at least give a powerful glimpse of the potential for independent rank and file action.
2. The willingness to take unoffical and illegal action stems in large part from desperation and raw working class anger at the impact of the recession. Job losses are the most visible, direct and acute expression of economic crisis. While in general the recession is seen as an unalterable, alien force, there is always potential for resisting job cuts or workplace closures - they make tangible the notion of 'resisting the recession'.
3. Occupation is an increasingly appealing tactic because there is simply no alternative response to an announcement of a workplace's closure. A strike or demonstration won't work in that context, hence the turn to occupations.
4. It is significant that Vestas workers are non-unionised. It is a reminder that in economically unstable times the most militant workers are often NOT those with long and strong traditions of union organisation. Indeed, such traditions can be an obstacle, due to a combination of conservatism in the rank and file and the role of the union leaders in pursuing compromises.
5. At the same time the solidarity from the union movement, most notably the RMT (in the case of Vestas), is crucial. There will apparently be a letter about the Vestas dispute in tomorrow's Guardian signed by 14 union general secretaries. At grassroots level the Vestas occupiers have captured the imaginations of many activists across a range of unions.
6. The Vestas occupation has put nationalisation to save jobs firmly on the agenda - this is a political issue being discussed beyond the usual circles of socialist activists. The left only stands a chance of shaping a response to the economic crisis if it can champion concrete solutions to the effects of recession. It is especially useful if the forces clearly exist to fight for demands like nationalisation - this is what we can see happening on the Isle of Wight. This is also noteworthy because it's a refreshing sign of progress since the construction walkouts several months ago, when poisonous politics ('British Jobs for British Workers') tempered enthusiasm for a revival in rank and file struggle.
7. The Vestas dispute raises wider issues, most importantly climate change and economic planning. It therefore has a highly political dimension - furthermore, the logic of events leads people to radical solutions about how we tackle climate change, e.g. greater public control of the energy sector, which clash with the priorities of corporate power and the capitalist system.
8. Following on from this, it is fantastic to see green and anti-capitalist activists forging connections with workers in struggle. It is a manifestation of the 'Teamster-Turtle' alliance of trade unionists and environmentalists famously on display at the Seattle anti-WTO demonstrations a decade ago. This process encourages climate campaigners to see workers' collective action as essential to taking action on climate change.
9. For a number of reasons the last couple of weeks have been a breakthrough, as my comments indicate. However, we should also be vigilant and realistic about the limitations: there hasn't yet been an occupation which has successfully triggered a wave of occupations elsehwere (or solidarity industrial action), the rank and file more generally lacks organisation and confidence to act independently, and the recession is still widely seen as something that can't be fought. The coming months are fairly unpredictable.
10. A key task for socialists now is to strengthen the links between different issues and groups, e.g. the relationship between trade union supporters of the Vestas occupation and climate campaigners. The last fortnight has shifted the prospects for a renewal of anti-capitalist activism in this country, with a dynamic and exciting example of workers' militancy connecting closely with the big issues about how we run society. We need to push forward the political solutions, e.g. economic planning, as a left-wing response to the broader economic crisis. These tasks are vital, as is the buidling of solidarity everywhere with those workers who take militant action. And solidarity will be strengthened greatly if we nurture networks - way beyond the modest ranks of organised socialists - capable of promoting every occupation against job losses that emerges.