How the Working Class have Revitalised Occupation Culture

This post was written by Jacob on April 18, 2009
Posted Under: Class,Education,Protest,Public Sector,Revolution,Socialism,Trade Unions,Uncategorized

“Dirty hippy layabout scum, taking the taxpayers’ money and wasting it, not interested in politics as much as his own image or where the next spliff is coming from.” Such is the common description of any student on an occupation. Always seen a illegitimate because they don’t have proper jobs. Always seen as not really understanding politics because they’re too young or too idealist. These words are reserved for students on occupation, as those in student unions are being “socially useful” (I believe the reverse to often be the case.) But in the last weeks we’ve seen examples of occupations by people other than students. Workers at Visteon car part plants have been staging sit-ins, and this week parents and carers went into Easter holiday occupations of two schools in Glasgow because the local council is looking to close down 13 primary schools and 12 nurseries across the city. Often, yes, occupations are made up of students who have greater flexibility in their time, but occupations have a longer history and one which is often forgotten. Before anyone ever dreamed of 1968, anarcho-syndicalists such as Tom Brown were theorising “stay-in” strikes. He writes:

Consider what happens in an orthodox strike, general or particular. The strikers, who had the means of production in their hands one day, on the next hand them over to their class-enemies in a nice tidy working condition and go home. The railmen and bus and lorry drivers hand over the vital means of transport, without which modern capitalism and the State cannot exist. The electrical engineers hand over the power stations; the gas workers the gas producers; Dockers, ware-housemen and food factory workers surrender millions of tons of precious flour, bacon, meat, butter, rice and fruit. Engineers vacate arsenals which might be used to arm Fascists. Then they go home to sit by grates which gradually become fireless or at tables with a lessening loaf or go out on to the streets to be battened upon their defenceless heads.

How much better to stay at work and do your striking there. Naturally, to many workers this will seem a strange idea, they are used to striking by leaving the job, not by staying on it, least of all to continuing at work and striking at the same time. But stay awhile, all fruitful ideas must have sounded startling at first hearing, as startling as the first steam-locomotive to a stage coachman.

Instead of starving, we eat as we have never feasted before, instead of being clubbed, shot and imprisoned we retain the means of defending our lives. The employing class will be without petrol, heat, electricity, communication or servant. Such a General Strike has been often called The General Lock Out of the Capitalist Class. Perhaps that is a more appropriate term.

Whilst I’m sure that many of those on recent occupations may not go as far as Brown, the reason why these protests have shown themselves to be so successful is that they do scare the state, they do scare the owners of the factory, or the high-up administrators of the institution. The student movement has, for all intents and purposes, reinvented the sit-in, but the working class using tactics such as these can produce real changes. In some ways the student movement has reinvigorated that old structuralist notion of power in space, an the fact that this is being taken on by fresh campaigns, and by people who one would not normally associated with hippydom, mummy and daddy funding their idiosyncrasies, or an over-reliance on trance music, must be seen as a positive step. It has been made clear that whilst we march on Westminster every other month, sometimes more often, we are rarely listened to. It has been made clear that the petitions we sign are never read. People, now, who wish to tackle an immediate social issue (whether that be loss of public provisions or loss of a job) are being forced to look for other means not to simply express themselves (this was never what marches, protests, and petitions were about anyway), but to create change.

I’m sure a lot of the readers will have been following what’s been going on with Visteon, but I thought I’d go into a little more detail about what’s happening in Glasgow schools. Glasgow Council is currently looking at closing 13 primary schools and 12 nurseries in an attempt to save some money. The result is that kids will have to travel miles to school, often at great inconvenience to their parents, and possibly at danger to themselves. The study that the council has done has been poor, and in one case it completely ignores the fact that one of the schools has a special unit for autistic children. The numbers don’t add up, and where they do, it is at the expense of local people. Parents have been occupying Wyndham and St Gregory’s schools for the last two weeks (they finally ended their occupation today, but the campaign is continuing.) For people wanting to follow the campaign, there are the following resources: a bebo page, a blogger blog, a wordpress blog, and a facebook group.

Maybe one day we may see what Tom Brown envisaged, but for the moment it seems that occupation is being used in a strong and pragmatic way, and the old complaints about students need to be thrown away – rather than being frivolous, those who occupy have shown themselves to be deadly serious.

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Reader Comments

Great article Jacob. I think Brown is a bit excessively negative about strikes in the passage you quote, though that’s in part rhetorical, but there’s no doubt that the occupations by workers and ‘grown-ups’ are an incredibly important phenomenon.

It’s particularly interesting to see how these things developed, and how this tactic is being spread. At Visteon the first plant to occupy was the Belfast one. In Enfield the workers had actually already left the premises, when they were phoned by the Belfast convenor and told ‘we’ve occupied, what are you doing?’ They then managed to sneak back in. The Belfast workers were, it seems, following the model of the Waterford Glass occupation which only ended a week or so earlier.

It’s impossible to overestimate the value of having these concrete examples, because there will be many, many more workers facing the same attacks.

Written By Dan on April 20th, 2009 @ 10:50 am

BTW – another occupation has been happening at Lewisham Bridge School – see

Written By DavidR on April 27th, 2009 @ 6:49 pm

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