New forms of struggle necessary
New forms of struggle are necessary to meet the growing challenge and menace of the bosses. It's to be remembered that all great social movements in the history of the working class have first arisen from below. None ever came from labor consultants, bourgeois academic professionals or capitalist politicians. What's most important in all this is to recognize that the technological revolution has put the workers and their unions in a great crisis and is shaking them out of the old historic mold of labor relations in which they have been trapped.
The vast transformation which the structural framework of capitalist industry is undergoing makes new forms of struggle absolutely indispensable or the workers must become captives of management altogether. These new forms of struggle are an outgrowth and development of the older forms and an advance upon them.
What's needed is not to abandon the old militant methods but to recognize that the conventional, traditional weapons--including the indispensable strike weapon-- have to be refined and supplemented by new methods which include the right to seize, occupy, take over and operate plants, equipment and industry.
Such very important struggles as exemplified by the strikes at Brown & Sharpe, Phelps Dodge and Wheeling-Pittsburgh were not guided or prepared by a general, overall, national strategy or policy at the central leadership level of the AFL-CIO. Instead, they were conducted like small isolated skirmishes in a guerrilla struggle, when what was needed was a general assault policy including at the very earliest opportunity the struggle to seize, occupy and hold the plants.
Great changes in strategic and tactical approaches develop slowly. They are most often the product of a long line of evolutionary development which includes not only phases of slow growth but leaps and giant forward strides.
The first such struggle was for the right "to think unthinkable thoughts," to think of organizing the workers. It had been regarded as a conspiracy--any combination of workers to organize a union, even to conduct meetings, had been regarded as illegal.
That won, the next struggle was over the right to openly proclaim the need for organization and the right to strike. But the thing to remember is that the strikes came before striking was legalized. That's the lesson of the 1930s. The great sit-down strikes, which were the heroic age of modern labor organization, came first. Then came the law that validated collective bargaining, the Wagner Act.
It's relevant to go over here a few points concerning the great historical experience of the occupation of General Motors by the workers in the 1930s. This militant action rocked the country, fired the imagination of millions and determined the course of labor history for years to come.
Historians and scholars will always be at odds on precisely how, but that it succeeded all the world knows. At that time the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was already in existence and the workers had a right to organize and strike. But the company, the courts and a vast horde of public officials were opposed to it and denied the right of the workers, even though this right was very clearly and unambiguously stated in Section 7a of the NLRA.
The workers had seen how police and state troopers attacked strikers on a picketline. Fear of the power of General Motors, then as now the largest manufacturer in the world, inhibited the workers from taking to the picketline. So after discussion they tried to accomplish the same thing in another way.
In the weeks and months before the auto workers occupied the GM plants, there were many public officials and community leaders who met with union leaders and many promises were made to the workers, but nothing came of all this. However, when the workers finally made a break for it and occupied the plants, Michigan Governor Frank Murphy became one of the central figures mediating the situation.
Interestingly, President Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor at the time, Frances Perkins, defended the right of the workers to occupy the plants. She did so not before the occupation, but toward the end of it. She said that the workers had a property right because of their jobs. And that is correct.
It would be foolish, of course, to take this action as a literal example of what must be done today. But it is relevant and enlightening as a bare outline and guide to how the workers can fight today to extend their rights to include the right to seize and occupy the plants. It is a logical and inevitable phase in the struggle of the labor movement, as imperative a necessity and as vital to the existence of the trade union movement as any of the preceding phases in its history.
Seizure and occupation of the plants
There are means by which the workers can go beyond the established capital-labor relationship, that is, the framework of capitalist exploitation. They can seize and occupy the plants and thereby force a new and different type of crisis on the ruling class, instead of remaining in a narrow, often frustrating endurance contest between the employers and the workers.
A strike can strain the meager savings of the workers and weaken their ability to withstand such a prolonged struggle. Seizure and occupation of the plants and other facilities have the effect of hastening a crisis in the relationship between the employers and the workers. It can be a transitional form when the opportunity and objective conditions arise to stimulate a wholly different type of working class struggle, one that does not drain the energy of the workers but on the other hand has the possibility of posing the question of a workers' takeover of industry as a whole.
It can change the form of the struggle, take it out of its narrow confines and impart to it a broader perspective. In truth, it brings to the surface a new working class perspective on the struggle between the workers and the bosses. It says in so many words that we are not tied to a one-dimensional type of struggle with the bosses at a time when they have the levers of political authority in their hands. The struggle, except in periods of capitalist prosperity, is much too unequal.
Even capitalist courts have at times recognized the inequality of that type of struggle and it is from that point of view that government concessions have been made to the workers in the form of unemployment insurance and other benefits, which incidentally came also as a result of struggle. Of course, plant seizures are one of a variety of methods of changing the relationship of forces.
Workers' control is a unique form of struggle in that it holds out the possibility of breaking up the sociological scheme of the capital-labor relationship. It was originally conceived as a transitional form toward the overthrow of the capitalist system and the building of a socialist state.
It was also first brought up during a period when capitalist society was in grave crisis and the working class was resorting, at least in some parts of the world, to revolutionary means to solve its problem. Workers' control was not expected to be a protracted state of affairs.
It should be stated that workers' control in the present state of the working class movement is merely a demand within the framework of the bourgeois system, but it has the possibility of overturning the capital-labor relationship in a huge plant or preferably, where it might be more successful, in an industry.
There are periods in the course of a struggle with a company when the workers initially go out on strike. Then it is seen that the company is bent on strikebreaking in a very real way and has unquestionably made plans for such an eventuality.
In such a case a protracted struggle could prove counter-productive for the workers. Occupation and seizure of the plant can be the best way to not only cut down casualties but prevent strikebreaking.
This is the lesson that should come out of the experience of the Brown & Sharpe strike, which as of this writing was over four years old. The picketlines have been withdrawn, but the struggle continues in the courts. However, a great number of scabs have taken over and company-provoked violence has resulted in many arrests.
This was certainly a case when the plant should have been occupied. It would have been easy after the first few weeks. The seizure of the plant and its occupation would have provoked a political crisis. Given the formidable membership and assets of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) and the solidarity which it might have created on a mass scale, the strike could conceivably have been won.
Even more instructive is the case of the Phelps Dodge copper strike, which started in July 1983 and has also lasted for several years. There, too, it became clear after a period of time that the company was bent on strikebreaking and unionbusting; it was utilizing its vast international resources and the hundreds of millions in its treasury. There, too, scab-herding on the part of the company was clearly on the horizon in the early stages of the strike. The company had its eye set on stimulating racial antagonisms, pitting white workers against the Latino and Indian workers.
It is one thing to try to expose the company's links to banks, insurance companies and so on, and to put pressure on them with demonstrations, etc. Some of this was done very well in the Phelps Dodge strike, particularly the activities organized in New York City and Boston to get solidarity support and awaken the broad mass of the public to the danger of strikebreaking.
But it is an altogether different matter to rely upon this form of struggle as a fundamental lever rather than on the strike itself, on the picketline and rallying mass support. Worse still is to rely upon persuasion or slick approaches to the management of banks and insurance companies as a means of winning the workers' battle as the steel workers' union did.
On balance, these two very important struggles, Brown & Sharpe and Phelps Dodge, lent themselves far more to plant occupation and seizure of the properties as the best form of struggle under the given historical circumstances.
Bankruptcy and workers' control
Often a case presents itself to the workers where a legal possibility for workers' control seems to be ready made. That is the case of bankruptcy. There are hundreds of thousands of bankruptcies that take place during times of prosperity as well as times of recession.
In bankruptcy the legal ownership of the corporation or company is cast into doubt by its creditors. For a time at least the employer is incapable of exercising the right of exploitation in his or her own name unless the court or the creditors agree.
This is an ideal opportunity for the workers to intervene on the basis that they are the principal creditor, on two grounds. One, they are indispensable to production. And second, they are truly the most important creditors to the employers because they alone advance something of real value--their labor power--before getting paid. Few if any employers ever pay workers before they submit to exploitation, whether that be for a day, a week or a month.
By comparison, if a bank advances an individual a loan for a thousand dollars, the bank collects its interest before any of the principal is considered paid back. It is otherwise with the workers. They advance credit to the employers by virtue of the fact that they advance their labor power for a period of time prior to getting paid. No other creditors do that, only the workers.
Marx commented on this state of affairs in Capital: "In every country in which the capitalist mode of production reigns, it is the custom not to pay for labor-power before it has been exercised for the period fixed by the contract, as for example, the end of each week. In all cases, therefore, the use-value of the labor-power is advanced to the capitalist: the laborer allows the buyer to consume it before he receives payment of the price; he everywhere gives credit to the capitalist. That credit is no mere fiction is shown not only by the occasional loss of wages on the bankruptcy of the capitalist, but also by a series of more enduring consequences. Nevertheless, whether money serves as a means of purchase or as a means of payment, this makes no alteration in the nature of the exchange of commodities."1
The important thing Marx showed is that the status of the worker as a creditor is not a fiction but a reality.
Take factory workers, as one example. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average factory worker makes $246 a week. That's a $246 loan from the worker to the company until payday. Since the BLS says that there are almost 17 million factory workers in the U.S., that amounts to over $4 billion a week. When the wages of all the other workers are added to this, it is an astounding sum.
It should also be noted that the workers have a claim on interest on the credit they have advanced. This becomes lost because of the timidity of the position that the workers are restricted to mere wages. But the wages concept has to be broadened to go beyond just that part which has been won by the workers over years of struggle.
The workers' legal right as creditors in bankruptcy has never been asserted by the trade unions. It is high time that they do so, particularly at a time when bankruptcies are on the order of the day. This may strike some as a novel and out of this world idea, but so was union organization many years ago when it was considered a conspiracy, restraint of trade and illegal. What made it legal was that the workers asserted themselves. There is no reason they cannot do the same with this.
The United Mine Workers, for instance, introduced a new concept in bargaining when they demanded portal-to-portal pay--paying the workers from the time they arrived at the top of the mine shaft to when they got down to the mine face. How many hours do workers waste in getting to work? Why is that not compensated? The miners have won it only because they have put up a fight for it. Otherwise, no one would have listened to this impressive and necessary argument.
Leading workers in bargaining committees and elsewhere have to be educated on the question of workers' control. There are many unanswered questions when dealing with a hypothetical case that lend themselves to reasonable explanations once they are applied to a concrete situation.
It cannot be over-emphasized that workers' control is not a socialist measure. It is a democratic measure, a transitional form of struggle against capitalist management.
The Wheeling-Pittsburgh bankruptcy
When a company is about to go bankrupt, what should the union do? It is hazardous to disregard the bankruptcy threat, since companies are continually bringing it up.
The solution for the union is straightforward. Because the company has chosen the bankruptcy route, the union can insist on and has the right to become the trustee in bankruptcy and to operate the plant in the interests of the workers. When a company files for bankruptcy it is no longer the legal owner; it surrenders its title. The union, as the principal creditor of the company, is therefore the de facto owner on behalf of the workers.
The Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Company is a classic case where it was not only possible but probable that the union could have come out with a victory if it had seized and occupied the plant under its rights as principal creditor of the company which had entered into bankruptcy. There was no possibility whatever of strikebreaking as in the case of Brown & Sharpe or Phelps Dodge. There was no imminent danger of liquidation and the dismantling of the plants; this was altogether a phony threat.
Wheeling-Pittsburgh, with 8,200 workers, is one of the top seven steel corporations in the country with some of the most modern facilities. The union knew that whatever happened at Wheeling-Pitt would have a profound effect on all other steel workers.
The company had inspired a campaign of fear over many weeks, utilizing inner company struggles. It typically set up a good guy-bad guy situation in management and a quick fight among stockholders where the "good guys" won out over "bad guy" Dennis Carney, whose outlandish demeanor earned him the eternal hatred of the workers but to whom the union had made three wage and benefit concessions. Another group of stockholders under the leadership of a multi-millionaire named Allen Paulson with varied interests in other multinationals was set up as the "good guy."
Even under the bankruptcy law as it presently exists the union had some important vehicles for mounting an offensive against the company. The union is in point of law and of fact the principal creditor of the company. In the case of Wheeling-Pitt, for example, the company owed 10,000 retired workers over $400 million in benefits.
The union's standing as the principal creditor can also and should be deduced from the fact that the workers have a property right in their jobs. No operations can be or have been conducted by the company without the workers. Their labor is indispensable to the operation of the company.
This fact, so patently clear to anyone who has his or her eyes open, must be made a part of the bankruptcy proceedings, which are in reality a political struggle. As principal creditor, the union has the right to be appointed as the trustee in bankruptcy, if bankruptcy is the route that the company seeks to travel.
What is a trustee in bankruptcy? It is a person or group of persons that a court must appoint to take charge of the affairs of the company because it has filed for bankruptcy or reorganization. The trustee's duties and obligations are to operate and run the business. Once the union has become trustee it would have the right to recall the workers and begin to operate the business on the basis of the original union contract.
But how can the union undertake this initiative? The workers and the union have to take concrete steps to perfect their de facto ownership by possession and occupation of the plants or their rights will be disregarded.
A separation of ownership from possession cannot long exist. And the question of possession is critical to defending the union's right to trusteeship as the principal creditor.
The workers might have seized the plants and held them in the very early stages of the struggle at Wheeling-Pitt. This would have created the conditions to protect their rights as the principal creditors and therefore de facto owners. However, the United Steel Workers of America didn't want to provoke a real struggle. Instead they drained the energy and patience of the workers so that it looked like there was no alternative but to give in and surrender a little less than originally demanded by the company. Nevertheless, these concessions constituted a 60% wage cut in the most modern plants in the industry in the name of "improving the company's competitive position."
One of the worst features of the Wheeling-Pittsburgh strike was that the USWA, notwithstanding the key significance of such a highly modernized plant, tried to bottle up the struggle within the confines of these small communities without enlisting the support of the workers and the mass of the population nationwide. It was nothing less than obscene that the union leadership spent many thousands of dollars for advertisements in the Wall Street Journal and the financial pages of the New York Times, with their limited readership. The union used these advertisements to try and persuade the banking community and industrialists of the justice of the steel workers' case, rather than utilizing its immense resources to appeal to the broad working class public.
Question of legality
Workers' control usually can start by the workers taking possession of their plant and equipment in areas which are characterized by a big industry. Aside from the bosses themselves, the greatest hindrance to any real form of workers' control is the prevailing conception of the union leadership, inculcated systematically by the bourgeoisie, that it is illegal.
The employers' legal conceptions of the relationship between capital and labor are sunk very deep into the consciousness of the workers. Thus, at the beginning it is very necessary to try to formulate ways and means of showing that whatever the workers are doing in the way of taking possession of the plants is in accordance with legal procedures and that the law is on the side of the workers.
Some legal form of approach is very necessary in order to overcome the initial ideological resistance of the workers. Where the strike struggle or the pre-strike situation has aroused the continued interest of the workers in shaping strategy, it is almost always possible to find a legal formula to take possession of the plants.
It is important to formulate the issues in such a way that they are devoid of class collaborationist schemes for co-ownership with the employers, as these ultimately turn out to be nothing more than schemes to transfer authority back to the employers in some indirect way.
Workers' control, once it becomes a reality, has the tendency to provoke a political crisis. Employers may be forced to retreat under the impact of the political consequences of workers' control. In other words, workers' control in and of itself will not solve the basic problem, but it will put the workers into a far more favorable position where they are able to determine for a period of time their own conditions within the framework of the bourgeois system of production.
Even if it remains merely a threat of overcoming the bourgeois system by breaking up the capital-labor relationship, a protracted occupation will nevertheless put the workers on higher economic ground than prior to taking possession of the plants.
Workers' control needs considerable planning. It needs a certain amount of cooperation with the technical, supervisory and engineering personnel of the company or even the industry. It initially needs a certain understanding of the relation between the suppliers and producers in the industries and of market conditions. Workers in a general way understand this much more than they are given credit for by the bosses. Under certain conditions where their interest has been awakened, they can show tremendous skill not merely in operating the equipment but in plotting the course of production.
One merely has to examine situations in which society is temporarily thrown into disorder as a result of a natural catastrophe and see how spontaneously workers make plans and in fact carry out miracles in restoring the productive apparatus of the area. Once the creative initiative of the workers is unloosed, their capabilities are absolutely stupendous.
This is precisely why the employers seek to create an unbridgeable chasm between the production plans and the workers. Of course, the planning of the employers is strictly for profit, which is the fundamental reason why it is necessary for them to keep the workers out of it. But once it is conceived as part and parcel of the useful aspect of production, then the picture changes immediately.
Of course, it would be utterly illusory to feel that workers' control could become a stable, general economic phenomenon in the capitalist system without a profound change in the political consciousness of the workers. The two must go together. Workers' control can exist for only a brief period unless it is a move in anticipation of a general upsurge of the working class.
One of the basic reasons why workers would be opposed to workers' control, as we said, is the prevailing conception of bourgeois legality. Labor leaders are forever trying to exclusively confine their strategies to the accepted legal norms for conducting the struggle. Their bent is always in the direction of maintaining the same framework, which in effect means maintaining the capital-labor relationship, a relation of exploiter to exploited.
While it is absolutely necessary to construct some legal basis for a working class strategy, it is very important on the other hand to be on guard against creating illusions with respect to bourgeois legality, since the courts are traditionally the most conservative, reactionary elements in the capitalist government.
Struggle engenders new laws
Law is merely an adaptation to conditions. Progressive laws almost always merely ratify what has already been accomplished on the picketline or in other struggles. Once a forward strategy, a great leap forward to match the quantum leap in the technological revolution, has taken hold in the labor movement, laws will ratify the struggle.
The movement cannot remain in a sterile, static condition but needs a dynamic, affirmative offensive. Daring, boldness and determination must be put on labor's agenda.
Unions must learn how to utilize the so-called "custom and practice" legal theory of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence on which the common law of the U.S. and Britain is based. Custom and practice is recognized by all U.S. courts as the equivalent of law where one can show custom and practice exists. This is as applicable to the struggle of the workers as to any struggle in the business community, such as the continuing internecine struggles over commercial, maritime or corporation law.
The right to a job is a property right. The right to seize and occupy the plants is an accompanying right.
Doing it will make it lawful if carried out in earnest and on a mass scale. The great need is for a positive program. The labor movement cannot be confined to a one-dimensional strategy. It needs flexibility. The formulation of a no- concessions program must be linked to the primary struggle to reverse the anti-labor offensive of the bosses. Every worker will ask, as they did in Wheeling-Pitt, "If you're against concessions to the company, what do you propose?"
Of course, the trade union movement has to be selective in deciding where and when such a strategy is applicable, just as we know where and when to strike.
The Saturn plant agreement between the United Auto Workers and General Motors shows how perilously close to abandoning the basic elements of unionism the leaders have come. The technological revolution is taking its toll. Owen Bieber of the UAW said about the Saturn plant: "We hope this thing will work out, that all the pieces of the jigsaw will fall together. But it may not. The worst thing in the world we could do is to try to make it fit in traditional operations."
He recognizes that it is upsetting the traditional relations, but his answer is to go backwards. His conclusion is to abandon some of the essential elements of collective bargaining rather than find a new strategy to fight the deleterious effects of the scientific-technological revolution!
The brazenness of the bosses must be met with a new confidence and militancy arising out of a new program. It must be shown that plant seizures and occupations are a logical and inevitable outcome in the evolution of the workers' movement, which has gone from the old Luddite strategy of sporadic struggles to mass organization and strike struggles, and now must move further ahead with a new form of struggle in order to meet the danger.
In labor relations we must reverse the biblical adage, "In the beginning was the word," to read, "In the beginning was the deed"--mass action, a new revolutionary strategy. The legislative word will follow; it will be ratified.
References1. Marx, Capital, pp. 170-171.
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