Last autumn, at the height of the movement against the law on the ‘Liberties and Responsibilities of Universities'(1), 36 universities were ‘disrupted' (in the journalists' terminology) by picket lines, blockades or occupations. These methods have often provoked long and passionate debates inside the general assemblies. (GAs). Let's leave to one side the groups who oppose any ‘disruptions' to the colleges, and who actually support the planned reforms of the government, in the name of sacrosanct ‘individual liberty' and the ‘student rights'. Much more interesting for us are the discussions between the students who won't accept the attacks without putting up a fight and who are trying collectively to decide the best methods of the struggle for them. Blockading the college? Totally? With picket lines? Do we turn it into an occupation?
These questions aren't just a matter for young people and students. As struggles develop, the same questions are posed more and more by the whole working class: how do we conduct our struggles? Do we need a picket? What kind of picket? Should we occupy the factory?
We won't pretend we can answer all these questions with a ready-made, magic recipe applicable to every new case of struggle, with its particular conditions and the choices it has to make! But by examining examples of blockading and occupation, we can better understand that it is absolutely necessary to extend the strike and, on the other hand, show how isolation is always a death trap.
Unity and solidarity are the main concern of the students
In the movement against the CPE in the spring of 2006, the issue that was omnipresent was the blockade. Indeed this type of movement depends on some disruption to the smooth running of the universities. If students don't attend lectures - even on a large scale - would anybody be bothered? Would anyone worry if the lecture theatres were empty? Probably not, not even senior lecturers!
However, over and above this simple imperative, in the blockades of the colleges in 2006 and in 2007, some students expressed a profound sense of solidarity and need for unity: "We are not blockading the university for the fun of it or because we are bored with our studies! The strike is the best way for us to make ourselves heard. Striking breaks the accepted logic of work and allows us all time to organise ourselves together democratically. But if the strike is not to be an isolated action carried out by a small group of people, the blockade is quite important. It enables everyone to miss lectures and hence to find time to join in the mobilisation. In addition, the blockade lets students escape from the pressures of their studies or their exams and actively participate in the movement without being penalised for it. The blockade is the democratic means that makes it possible for everyone to get involved!" (Read the blog: http://antilru.canalblog.com/archives/le_blocage/index.html). For example, by preventing lectures from taking place, grant-holding students are able to participate in the GAs and the demonstrations without worrying that their grants will be withheld for ‘non-attendance', which is what one student stated openly to Libération journalists on November 12th 2007: "If there isn't a blockade, there won't be any movement. Otherwise grant-holding students just wouldn't demonstrate."
We have heard many times over the odious accusations from respected university governors, broadcast across the media, calling the students who participate in the struggle ‘Khmers Rouges' and ‘delinquents' The bourgeoisie may spit venom, but behind the blockades, there wasn't a powerful minority trying to impose its views (physical force, moreover, lay more with the governors, as is clear from the number of injuries suffered following the CRS incursions) or to imprison students in ‘their' colleges. Quite the opposite; the students demonstrated a clear and collective desire for the struggle to broaden out by calling for as wide and lively a discussion as possible. Hence, much more than the blockades themselves, the attitude behind them is what provided the movement against the CPE in particular with all its vitality and its strength. As we have already written in May 2006 in our ‘Theses on the students' movement': "the strike in the universities began with blockades. The blockades enabled the most conscious and combative students to show their determination and above all to attract large numbers of their comrades to the general assemblies where a considerable number who hadn't understood the significance of the government's attacks or the need to fight back were convinced by the arguments in the debates."
The extension of its struggle is vital for the working class
The power of the working class is exposed to the broad light of day when it develops a clear sense of its unity and solidarity. This is why all struggles must be animated by a concern for extension to other workers. After a long struggle in 2006 and 2007, the workers in the big spinning and weaving factory complex, Mahalla al-Kubra's Misr, situated in the north of Cairo, Egypt, finally succeeded in achieving a victory. An episode from this struggle shows clearly the workers occupying their factory to protect themselves from the fierce repression of the Egyptian state.
On 7 December 2006, 3000 women workers, protesting at the non-payment of the bonuses they'd been promised, crossed the factory to their male colleagues who still had their machines running. The women were singing out loud: "Where have all the men gone? There are only women here". Little by little, 10,000 workers started assembling in the Mahalla's Tal‘at Harb Square located right outside the entrance to the factory. The Egyptian bourgeoisie didn't lose any time: anti-riot police were quickly deployed around the factory and in the town. Facing the threat of repression, small groups of strikers decided to occupy the factory. 70 workers could have been trapped. Confident in what it was doing, the state decided to place the anti-riot police outside the gates that same night. With 70 against the whole police pack, there could only be one winner. But these workers knew that they weren't really on their own. They started a loud banging on the steel barriers.
"We woke up everyone in the company and town. Our mobile phones ran out of credit as we were calling our families and friends outside, asking them to open their windows and let security know they were watching. We called all the workers we knew to tell them to hurry up to the factory...
The children from the junior schools and the students from the senior schools close by take to the streets in support of the strikers. The security forces were paralysed. Finally, after the factory had been occupied for 4 days, the government officials panicked; a bonus of 45 days pay was offered and assurances given that the company would not be privatised." (See https://en.internationalism.org/wr/304/egypt-germs-of-mass-strike)
So, by deciding to occupy their workplace, these 70 workers could have been expected to feel themselves cornered and at the mercy of the security forces. However, this handful of workers who had locked themselves inside the factory did not attempt to make this a siege, fighting alone against the odds and with no chance of winning. Just the opposite, they used the occupation as a rallying point, calling on their class brothers to join them in the fight. Several weeks of struggle demonstrated that class solidarity was being built little by little, that links were being established and that they would therefore be able to rely on the support of 20,000 fellow workers. Having built up this confidence, the workers were bold enough to call to all the workers they knew "to tell them to come to the factory straight away". The factory occupation was only one of the means of carrying out the struggle; it was the general dynamic towards the extension of the struggle that was the decisive element.
Isolation is always a death trap
No method of struggle in itself is a panacea. Blockades and occupations can be quite unsuitable, depending on the circumstances. Worse than that! When they are under the control of the unions, they are always used to divide the workers and to lead them to defeat. The strike of the miners in Great Britain in 1984 is one tragic illustration of this.
At this time, the oldest proletariat in the world was still one of the most militant. For many a year it had a record number of strike days. On two of these occasions, the state was forced to withdraw its attacks. In 1972 and in 1974, the miners had actually created a balance of forces in which the working class had the upper hand, departing from the logic of sectoralism and corporatism and instilling the strike with the dynamic of extension. In small groups or in hundreds, they drove to ports, to steelworks, to coal depots, to company headquarters, to erect a blockade or to convince the workers they met to join in the struggle. This method of struggle would be famously described as ‘flying pickets' and symbolised the strength of workers' solidarity and unity. Hence, the miners were able to paralyse the whole economy, bringing production, distribution and the burning of coal, the most common source of energy in the factories at the time, to a near total halt.
After coming into government in 1979, Thatcher was determined to inflict defeat on a working class she considered too combative for her liking. The plan for doing that was simple: it would entail isolating the miners in a long, drawn-out strike. Over several months the British bourgeoisie prepared for battle. Stocks of coal were built up to prevent shortages. In her memoirs, Thatcher states "It was the responsibility of Nigel Lawson, who was made Energy Minister in September 1981, to - continually and without any provocation - build up the coal stocks that would allow the country to hold out. We would be hearing the words ‘hold out' a lot in the following months." When things were finally ready, the brutal announcement of 20,000 redundancies in the coal industry was made in March 1994. As expected, the miners' reaction was electric; from the first day of the strike, 100 pits out of 184 stopped working. The unions immediately erected a ring of steel around the strikers. This strategy aimed to prevent any risk of ‘contamination'. The rail unions and seamen's' unions platonically declared support for the strikers, but otherwise the miners were left to cope alone. The powerful dockers' union settled for calling strikes, but at a later date, one for July when some pits were closed because of holidays, and the other in the autumn which was then cancelled only a few days later! The TUC refused to support the strike at all. The electricians' union and the steelworkers' union came out against the strike. In short, the unions actively sabotaged every possibility of a joint struggle. But it was the miners' union (NUM) in particular that rounded off this dirty work by keeping the miners locked up in sterile and interminable blockades of the coalmines and coal depots (for over a year!). Having amassed large stocks of coal, the bourgeoisie didn't need to worry that production would become paralysed. It would only worry if there were an extension of the struggle to different sectors of the working class. It was necessary at all costs to avoid the miners deploying flying pickets everywhere to discuss and convince the workers from other sectors to join them in the struggle. The NUM uses all its energy to contain the strike in the mining sector. To avoid flying pickets being sent to the gates of the neighbouring factories, the mineworker's energies were directed towards blockading the pits and the coal depots. With the heavy policing put in place, the NUM was able to lead the miners into set pitched battles and violent confrontations with the armies of well-equipped police, and the biased media reporting meant that this becomes both an obstacle to and further distraction from the need to extend the struggle to the other sectors.
The NUM took great care to avoid calling a national strike, giving each region the chance to decide whether to join the struggle or not. Some pits continued working and were surrounded by cordons of police. The same NUM branded these working pits ‘the haunt of the scabs'. From March 1984 to March 1985, for a whole year, the life of thousands of mineworkers and their families was going to revolve around the single question of blockading ‘their own' pits, the coal depots and those pits that continue working. Blocking coal production and distribution became the one and only goal, a single-issue campaign for the union leadership. The flying pickets had their wings clipped; instead of ‘flying' factory to factory, they were rooted to the same spot, outside the same pits and depots, day after day, week after week, then month after month. The only outcome is worsening tensions between strikers and non-strikers: sometimes fights erupted among the miners.
This time the miners were isolated from their class and divided amongst themselves and they became an easy prey. Thanks to the union sabotage, to the sterile and interminable blockades, to the grounding of the flying pickets, police repression could be stepped up. The balance sheet of the miners' strike of 1984/5: 7,000 injured, 11,291 arrested and 8,392 put on trial. Much more seriously, this defeat would be inflicted on the whole working class. The Thatcher government was able to enforce a whole series of attacks in every sector.
There are evidently no simple recipes for the class struggle. Every method of struggle (blockades, pickets, occupations) can sometimes be useful for the struggles, and sometimes a cause of division. One thing is certain, the strength of the working class lies in its capacity for unity and in its capacity to develop solidarity and hence to extend its struggle to every sector. It is this dynamic of extension of the struggle alone that terrifies the bourgeoisie and allows us to draw out, in broad terms, essential lessons from the experiences of the proletariat's struggles:
- pickets or occupations should never be the source of any closing off or retreat of the struggle, on the contrary, they are a tool for its extension;
- in order to be able to extend, opening out is vital. An occupied factory must be a place where workers from other sectors, retired workers, unemployed workers... can come to discuss and participate in the struggle. The pickets, themselves, must create the opportunities for discussing and convincing non-strikers to join the struggle. Flying pickets must focus primarily on the idea of extending the struggle to all sectors.
- it's not possible to use every kind of action at every moment. Especially when a struggle isn't extending and is stagnating, clearly facing a retreat, it is almost always pointless if the most combative and determined individuals try to stretch themselves to the limits of their endurance (physical and moral) with somewhat desperate occupations and blockades. What counts in this situation is to prepare the new struggles that lie ahead.
- finally, when they use the actions of blockading, picketing and occupation, the unions are aiming to divide and isolate. Only by workers taking the struggle into their own hands can the struggle and solidarity develop!
Be that as it may, if we look beyond the role that occupying a factory or a picket line can play at any particular moment of a strike, it is in the street where the workers can assemble together en masse. It isn't for nothing that in May 2006, the steelworkers of Vigo, in Spain, who were occupying their factory and facing up to violent police repression, decided to organise their general assemblies and demonstrations in the streets in the town centre. Here, in the street, the workers of every sector, the retired workers, the unemployed workers, the workers' families... were all able to join the strikers and actively demonstrate their class solidarity with the struggle. Pawel (24 January 2008)
(1) This law aims to reduce the cost to the state of higher education by concentrating its ‘financial effort' on some elite colleges, hence making the other universities under-resourced and unpopular.