Occupations that send a powerful message

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Three decades of the neoliberal project have wrought significant changes to British society, all with New Labour's unabashed aim of making Britain "the most business friendly environment in Europe".

The measures taken to make Britain a playground for the rich have left the country exposed to the forces unleashed by the global economic crisis. We are faced with the deepest recession in living memory with a package of cuts to match.

However, the character of resistance today is shaping up to be somewhat different from that experienced during previous recessions. The accumulated bitterness of three decades of neoliberal counter reform has resulted in Edwardian levels of inequality. Many years of war have given birth to a significant anti-imperialist movement in British society. These political currents have fused with the anger felt by millions at the bankers' bailout and the recession. This mixture of anger at inequality, war and greed has led to the politicisation of resistance extremely quickly.

Socialists must have despaired recently at the announcement of the immediate dismissal of some 850 agency staff at Cowley's BMW plant. The tragedy was not that workers were not prepared to resist this ignominious treatment, but how deeply wedded the senior union reps were to the partnership agenda, ensuring the sackings went by without any resistance.

The increasing passivity of the trade union bureaucracy in front of this employers' offensive can, however, open up space between the leadership and the rank and file, and create an explosive situation. Action against redundancy or closures can take place in the most unexpected of places. Workers who have never before been involved in struggle are adopting the most militant tactics from previous periods.

Following the recent student occupations of universities across the country, and of Waterford Crystal in Ireland, Prisme in Dundee and schools in Glasgow, the struggle at Visteon has taken resistance a step further. Here workers were told that their jobs and plant were gone and once again, in a now all too familiar approach, there was no way to honour the redundancy packages agreed when workers transferred from Ford. The final insult to these skilled workers, many with decades of loyal service, was to learn that the company had filed for bankruptcy and claimed it couldn't even honour their pensions.

The Belfast plant went into occupation, soon to be followed by both Enfield and Basildon. Although workers at Basildon shortly left their occupation, the fact that two plants in the motor industry had occupied sent out a powerful message - they were a beacon of hope showing resistance was possible. Solidarity flooded in from across the country, in both the public and private sectors, with collections and workplace meetings taking place in car plants, hospitals and schools.

At the time of writing only Belfast remained in occupation, while the other two sites were mounting 24-hour pickets to stop Visteon taking the plant and machinery. Visteon demonstrates how, following decades of an employer offensive, the militant and illegal tactics of occupation, which go straight to the heart of capitalist property relations, are the most effective.

The task for socialists is to bend every sinew to generate the solidarity throughout the movement that is desperately needed to sustain this struggle. However, of greater significance in this situation, where redundancies and closures are a daily occurrence, is the need to generalise from these experiences and introduce workers in occupation to other trade unionists. The lessons of successful occupations must be assimilated into our movement for future battles.

The 16 May Unite demonstration for jobs in Birmingham must be seen in the context of this recovery in our movement that is beginning to shape resistance to the recession. The recent Put People First demo in London was the first significant demonstration called by the TUC in many years. Supported by a host of organisations, NGOs, environmentalists and tens of thousands of trade unionists marched together, giving an inkling of the forces which could be drawn into the movement this time.

The march in Birmingham has seen trade unionists across the movement booking transport for what should be a rallying call for all of those gearing up to resist. This includes students and school leavers who will likely face unemployment if Alistair Darling and the employers' plans remain unchallenged. Socialists and activists everywhere should be building the jobs protests throughout the movement with a view to shaping the emerging coalition of forces in the developing resistance.


Eddie Cimorelli is an engineer and senior Unite union rep