Instead of surrendering to layoffs, pay cuts, and factory closures, workers in a growing number of countries are occupying their workplaces and defying court orders and threats of police violence to fight to preserve their standard of living.
On the Isle of Wight in Britain, workers at the Vestas wind turbine plant occupied their factory for 18 days following an announcement in July that the plant would close, despite government commitments to a green jobs program.
Vestas was closed solely because the owners of the factory thought they could make more money if they outsourced the work, even though it is the only factory in Britain that manufactures wind turbines.
A coalition of workers, community, and environmental groups (including the Socialist Party of England and Wales, a section of the Committee for a Workers International) built an encampment around the factory to support the struggle. Though police ultimately broke up the occupation, environmental groups and trade union activists are still collaborating to fight for a green jobs program in Britain.
Just days later at Thomas Cook (a travel agency in Dublin), several dozen mostly women workers occupied their business when they were suddenly told they were losing their jobs. Against the advice of their lawyers and union, the workers defied a court injunction demanding they leave.
After 5 days, police broke into the shop with a battering ram, arresting 28 workers and supporters, including one who was over 8 months pregnant.
Those arrested included Dublin City Councilor Matthew Waine of the Socialist Party of Ireland (CWI). Waine explained, These workers were left with no option but to stand and fight for their livelihoods. This company is projected to make over 400 million this year. The CEO recently received a 34% pay rise and a 7 million bonus. This was his reward for boosting profits by making over 2,000 low-paid Thomas Cook workers in Britain redundant.
Meanwhile, in Milan, Italy, after their owner decided to close their scooter factory in May 2008, INNSE workers began a 15-month occupation to keep their jobs. Workers initially even continued production during their occupation, proving that their boss was unneeded.
Once the police removed them from the plant last September, they launched a massive blockade to make sure that the company did not remove the machinery. Ultimately, the workers, trade union movement, and community won the battle. Forty-nine workers will keep their jobs, guaranteed for 16 years, showing that workers who occupy their workplaces can and do win victories!
This trend is not merely isolated to Europe. In China, tens of thousands of steelworkers are refusing to allow the government to privatize the industry, waging successful, militant actions to maintain public ownership and keep their jobs. Over 30,000 people went on strike at the Jilin steel plant alone. Less than a month later, another 3,000 workers occupied corporate offices in Henan province to stop privatization.
In South Korea, hundreds of autoworkers waged a 77-day occupation after the automaker Ssangyong announced massive job cuts. In an effort to force them out, the company and police cut off water, gas, and food supplies to the plant, which only strengthened the workers determination.
The main trade union federation, the KCTU, called a 3-day general strike in support that brought thousands onto the streets and galvanized workers across the country who are also facing attacks on their job security.
Three thousand heavily armed riot police were finally sent in to break up the occupation, backed by water cannons and helicopters dropping liquid tear gas on workers. Yet even this was not enough, as embattled workers heroically defended their position, launching firebombs and improvising catapults to hurl nuts and bolts at police. In the end, workers saved half the jobs at the factory.
While many of these struggles have only resulted in partial victories or even defeats, they are an important precursor to coming mass struggles. It is only through mass, militant action, alongside solidarity from the broader working class, that workers will successfully be able to fight back against the efforts of the capitalists to make us pay for their crisis.