February 2012        

Explaining work-place sit-ins

A recent events at La Senza and Vita Cortex have brought work-place sit-ins back to the media’s attention, after an earlier wave in 2009: Calcast (Derry), Visteon (Belfast), Waterford Crystal (Waterford), Thomas Cook (Dublin), and 4 Homes (Cork).
     Work-place occupations have long existed as a tactic of workers’ resistance. In Italy after the First World War a wave of factory occupations in Turin became the centre of what was known as the “Two Red Years.” Work occupations played an important role in the spread of unionisation in the motor industry in the United States throughout the 1930s.
     Predictably, commentary on the phenomenon varies. One hostile strand tends to dismiss the tactic as being based on ill-conceived notions of economic necessity, or the product of Red agitators. On the other hand, favourable, inevitably leftist accounts portray occupations as real and symbolic actions of workers expropriating the means of production from which they have been alienated.
     Yet, standing aside from the romanticised tinted spectacles that occasionally descend on the left, an alternative tack might be to view occupations as a special form of bargaining or an extension of negotiation, of which the implications are no more, and no less, revolutionary than conventional strikes.
     In one sense, bargaining is basically a means by which each party to the bargain enhances its own interests by inflicting, or threatening to inflict, losses on the other party to the negotiation.
     In wage negotiations, a settlement may well be reached at the point where the union considers that the potential gains of refusing to accept what is on offer, and pressing for more, fail to offset the estimated costs of industrial action. Employers will wish to calculate the point at which agreeing to increased wages is less costly than the alternative prospect of risking a strike.
     Bargaining is conducted within a zone whose parameters consist of an upper limit beyond which employers will prefer strike or shut-down to agreeing to higher increases and a lower limit below which the union will opt for a strike rather than agreement. A core assumption is that of a continuing relationship between the parties, which invariably allows for the expectation that a settlement will at some point be secured.
     What each party needs to consider is how short-run losses compare with the possible longer-run gains of undertaking an attempt at coercion through industrial action. The expected future gains will depend in turn on each party’s assessment of the other side’s likely short-run loss and willingness to settle.
     Of course, where coercion through industrial action is settled upon, this simply represents the extension of bargaining by other means: striking typically rests on an assumption that work will resume after the strike.
     Yet applying such an understanding of bargaining to redundancy situations becomes problematic, particularly so when the threatened redundancies are “across the board,” as in the case of a factory shut-down. A continuous bargaining relationship cannot serve as a working assumption, given that the future existence of the relationship itself is uncertain. The threat of a strike in such a situation is inevitably a weak one, for if workers stop work at a site that the employer seeks to wind down, then, far from imposing any loss on the employer, they will be granting the employer’s preferences. The market power of the workers affected is by definition nil, as there is no demand for their services.
     For employers the threat of a strike consists in the temporary loss of profits on work that would otherwise have been completed. Where there is little demand for the company’s product, or where it cannot be sold profitably, the threat of a strike tends to become shallow. It is in this context that an occupation may represent a more direct form of economic sanction. In such a situation of closure, striking puts workers on the outside of the work-place, and this means putting themselves in a weaker position.
     Striking means standing outside the premises, and it allows the initiative to stay with the employer. An occupation, on the other hand, can disrupt the employer’s objective. In the first place it can prevent the transfer of assets, such as stock or plant and machinery, out of the work-place. Where the employer is in a position to use such resources elsewhere, or to sell them off, an occupation, like a strike, imposes some economic loss. This loss may also extend to the increased difficulties of selling off the work-place itself, or the site, if occupied by workers.
     A second benefit is that the tactic can serve as a type of protest, which imposes pressure on third parties to bring about a settlement more favourable than might otherwise have occurred. In practice this entails an element of pressure on the state to provide support in concluding an agreement. This may create an outcome that circumvents the workers’ lack of market power to obtain a total or partial revision of the management decision.
     This dynamic has the potential to shift the redundancy arrangement from a purely private settlement between two parties, marked principally by an employer’s unilateralism, to elevating the particular problems of one party—the firm’s workers—to the level of a public issue. The bargaining process is broadened to become a multi-party activity between the employees affected, their employers, and various state institutions and third parties. In the event of redundancies, occupations may become the only effective means left for employees to influence the outcome.
     A review of work-place sit-ins in Ireland suggests that the principal motivating factors are perceptions of procedural and substantive injustice. Specifically, the unilateral and abrupt nature in which redundancies occurred is an important source in shaping collective mobilisation.
     Perceptions of substantive unfairness among workers regarding redundancy pay or loss of pension entitlements is another factor. Usually such cases where sit-ins have occurred emerged where there had been an abrupt announcement of redundancy. The hasty nature of the announcement provides little option for workers to consult over alternatives for resolving grievances.
     The immediate nature of the announcement coupled with redundancies being effective from the time of the announcement creates a greater shock to the “system.” However, it is not enough for employees to feel aggrieved: they must feel that their situation might be mediated by collective agency.
     The fact that the compulsory redundancies are typically universal and cover the entiree work force appears to accommodate this possibility by allowing workers to coalesce into a group with a collective interest. Typically too there is a wider demonstrative effect. Occupations usually occur under the influence of other recent examples. The Waterford Crystal case occurred within weeks of a similar episode in Calcast in Derry, which also involved the same union, Unite.
     Then, in turn, the wide reportage of the Waterford Crystal case, as well as the partial success of the Visteon occupation in Belfast, may have been imitated by workers in Thomas Cook and 4 Homes in the hope of drawing attention to their plight and forcing the employer back to the negotiation table.
     Similar logic is likely to be at work regarding Vita Cortex and La Senza. Certainly Irish employers expressed concern about the potential spillover of occupations in 2009. The chief executive of the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association articulated a fear, subsequently seen to be ungrounded, that occupations like those at Thomas Cook and 4 Homes could trigger “copycat protests,” while legal firms could be found in late 2009 offering employers advice on how to deal with the action.
     Yet if work-place occupations offer economic and political sanctions that employees might use in the case of redundancy, the question might be asked why the tactic does not occur more frequently. Clearly many employees faced with redundancy choose not to occupy, and most redundancy cases reported are notable for the absence of the tactic.
     Despite the spate of redundancies since late 2008, there have been only very few internationally reported instances of occupation.
     The limited use of the tactic might be explained by the fact that the demands of organising and maintaining an occupation militate against its widespread use. It is a tactic likely to need comprehensive management, in the working out of rotas, organising publicity, raising and distributing finance, transport, meals, deputations, and so forth.
     Given the decline in unionisation, with about one in five private-sector employees now union members, it is not surprising that occupations rarely occur.
     Indeed an occupation is far more demanding than a strike, which principally involves inactivity, apart from those in negotiations or on picket duty. As a tactic, worker occupations are likely to require a degree of mobilisation, organisation, involvement and dedication from those directly concerned that may be difficult either to initiate or to sustain.
     Many employees may simply baulk at such tactics in the light of their legal status: in many countries occupations are unlawful forms of industrial action, infringing on property rights or failing to accord with the legal requirements for industrial action.

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