PLANT OCCUPATION IN KITCHENER ENDS:
How fast things move in galaxies far, far away. Despite vows to "stay as long as it takes", just as Molly was writing yesterday's article on the occupation of the Ledco Ltd. plant in Kitchener Ontario a court injunction was being passed declaring the factory occupation illegal. Workers occupying the plant decided to obey the injunction, and filed out from the plant yesterday afternoon. They were later allowed back in, accompanied by police, to retrieve tools and other personal effects from their lockers.
Not that this was a totally senseless decision. The occupation gained the support of perhaps 100s of community members over the days that it took place, but this is hardly reassuring when you have to look at the blunt alternatives of "losing by agreeing" and "losing by not agreeing while at the same time being beat up and criminally charged- all the way to assaulting a police officer's fist with your face, known in the legal trade as "resisting arrest". Hundreds are fine and comforting. Thousands are more effective. No doubt there were, as well, a few subtle hints dropped by the union reps that legal support from the union executive would not be overly generous. Very few people except the "summit-hoppers" amongst my mad comrades think that fighting with the police is "fun", and even fewer are under any delusions that losing such battles (as the summit-hoppers always do)actually accomplishes something.
The Canadian Auto Workers have maintained a picket outside the plant gate where they hope to talk to truck drivers contracted by the receivers to empty the premises of anything valuable. The union has said that the drivers will not be physically prevented from entering the plant, though there will be no help given in locating products presently stockpiled inside. Union head honcho Buzz Hargrove showed up at the factory gates the other day to try and offer some consolation and hope. He argued that big customers of Ledco such as GM, Ford and Chrysler have a moral obligation to cover the cost of the $1.2 million in severance pay that the company owes to the workers. In Canadian bankruptcy law such obligations take a distant place behind other creditors of a bankrupt. In at least one other case of a plant shutdown the CAW did indeed negotiate payment of severance on the part of the clients of the plant.
As Molly remarked in her previous blog on this occupation the takeover of plants is an important tactic in a long term struggle to change public perception of who actually "owns" a factory. In manager-speak those may be referred to as "stakeholders" even if they don't have legally protected property rights at this time. Law follows custom. Plant occupations may not always, or even usually, win their demands, particularly as they are too often taken as last ditch methods in the face of such things as closure of an operation. Carried out in other, less dramatic, situations they may prove even more effective than they have to date. They will be most effective, in the beginning at least, in the proverbial "company towns" where the average person in the community can see their own role as a "stakeholder", along with the workers at an enterprise, in a clearer fashion than many in larger centres can see it. Yet it is important that such actions be imitated, not because each and every one will result in success but because they build a climate of opinion where such things are increasingly seen as legitimate. Build this climate and the law will tail along behind it.
In many European countries such occupations are quite commonplace. Even in Germany the recent 'Strike Bike' takeover(see articles in this Blog's archives for Jan 6, 2008, and Oct. 20, Oct. 4 and Sept. 21 of 2007 for more info on 'Strike Bike')inspired such international solidarity that many others will be likely to imitate it in the future. Here in Canada there have been a number of such actions. The oldest that Molly can find, in the last two decades, is the occupation of the offices of PC World in Toronto in 1997. The most dramatic was the occupation of the Alcan plant in Arvida, Quebec in 2004. this was notable because the workers at that plant, like the Germans at Strike Bike, resumed production under self-management. Just last year there were numerous instances of such occupations, including the First Ontario Credit Union, the Colins and Aikman plant in Scarborough, Ontario, the Masonite Manufacturing premises in Mississauga and the Hamilton Speciality Bar (a metal working plant). These were initiated by various unions, and none of them went so far as the people in Arvida did in resuming production without bosses.
So why do these actions if they aren't guaranteed to win ? First of all because they raise the "threat level" in union/management negotiations, and their very possibility strengthens the hand of workers vis-a-vis the boss. It is also the case that, if played right, they can be virtually "costless" to the workers involved. They may not win, but neither do they contribute to a loss. They also serve to bind the people involved together in a much more obvious community than taking shifts on a picket line does. There is also the matter of the "long view". Though factory occupations are almost unknown in the USA today the time when "sit-down strikes", factory occupations in all but name, were common (the 30s, for instance) led in the long term to building the sort of unionism that won many of the gains for American labour that have been slowly eroding over the past two decades. Perhaps it's time to learn from the grandfathers and grandmothers.