The elephant in the factory?

Daniel Ozarow Middlesex UniversityIn the wake of the Tata Steel crisis Senior Lecturer in HR Management Dr Daniel Ozarow examines the concept of workers’ self-management as an alternative post-crisis production model.

The recent proposed closure of Tata Steel’s Port Talbot plant in Wales prompted much debate in the media and among analysts about the kind of industrial policies that are required in the ‘post-crisis’ milieu.

Ultimately, only two solutions were given serious consideration – including one from the trade union movement itself. One was that the British government should support domestic industry and save thousands of local jobs by intervening to nationalise the company, as it did when it bailed out the banking sector in 2008-09. This proposal was endorsed by the unions, many of the workers themselves, as well as by two thirds of the public.

The other is what is actually happening and was somewhat more predictable. A sell-off to private investment firms which, even if the plant is saved, will ultimately lead to asset-stripping and the loss of a large proportion of the 4,000-strong workforce. Government intervention has been minimalist, acting more as a mediator in the sale and, at best, purchasing a minor stake in the new business. When cases of worker bankruptcies occur today, the same pattern of policy proposals and solutions repeats themselves.

Port Talbot - Photo by Ben Salter (Creative Commons 2.0)

Port Talbot steel works – Photo by Ben Salter (Creative Commons 2.0)

A third option

However a third option exists that was never explored. It barely appears in the collective memories of most of Port Tabolt’s workers or as a possible repertoire of action to counter their redundancies: the idea of the workers themselves taking over the factory in order to run it without bosses.

Now, if we think back to the mid-1970s when Secretary of State for Industry Tony Benn proposed the Alternative Economic Strategy, the idea of workers’ self-management was very much at the forefront of how industry could and should be run. Today we hardly hear anything of this at all, in spite the fact that there are plenty of practical examples of how workers themselves are ‘recovering’ their bankrupt plants, including well over 1,000 cases in Europe since the 2009 economic crisis alone which have gone under-reported. These are also proving to be remarkably resilient and successful business models. As the European Confederation of Workers’ Co-operatives reports, the cooperatives that have been established since 2009 were up to three times more likely to survive the economic crisis in Italy than other forms of enterprise and 50 per cent more able to do so in France.

While in Europe these cooperatives are usually established amicably in the form of worker buyouts (a solution proposed by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell earlier this year), during the waves of recent uprisings alongside other social movements, sometimes these takeovers have occurred in a more politicised form, such as those worker-recovered companies which have been formed in Greece (like its Vio.me building materials factory in Thessaloniki), Italy (recycled electric components plant in Milan) and other western European societies. In such cases workers have recently occupied, recovered and reorganised their bankrupt workplaces to function without bosses as a means to end their exposure to increasingly precarious work practices and to regain their livelihoods.

Several barriers exist within our sociological imaginations which must be overcome.

Meanwhile, other inspiration can be found in Latin America where thousands of bankrupt workplaces have been occupied and then ‘recovered’ by workers. The model has come to represent a credible alternative vision of industrial organisation and one that challenges the circuit of capital in private hands, instead distributing surplus for social ends.

Indeed, evaluations of Argentina’s movement, perhaps the most widespread of all national examples, suggest that ever since their formation in 2001 the vast majority of its several hundred ‘worker-recovered companies’, involving thousands of workers, have been found to have maintained their values of worker democracy by institutionally embedding horizontal decision-making structures, ending the alienation experienced by workers, implementing near-equal wages, restoring workers’ dignity and creating work spaces that have become sites of autonomy and self-realisation. Ethnographic studies suggest that work has become re-interpreted as “a dignified free act” and collaborative cultures thrive. These successes have occurred despite the 2008 global economic crisis, legal and financial pressures to adopt capitalist practices and management structures, the risk of market absorption and state attempts to co-opt, demobilise and depoliticise the movement.

So what are the prospects for such a model to thrive elsewhere and even to have a transformative impact upon society? Before moving on to the practicalities, several barriers exist within our sociological imaginations which must be overcome.

Moving beyond criticism of ‘the crisis’ 

The notion of ‘crisis’ suggests temporality. However, there is a conceptual problem with using such a term because, under capitalist labour relations, the struggle that workers face to overcome their own structurally exploited condition and achieve subsistence is permanent. Workers globally are only one redundancy notice away from a crisis in their household economy as labour rights are stripped away, social security is cut and the threat of outsourcing or offshoring looms. So, in order to resolve this ‘crisis’, we need to address the entire relationship between capital and labour.

Creating islands of socialism amidst a sea of capitalism (to quote Rosa Luxemburg) through workers cooperatives is all very well, but the state subsidies and then autonomous solidarity economy that recovered companies have relied upon for survival could be attacked by a future neoliberal government. To end the ‘crisis for workers’, work without bosses is necessary, but is incompatible with capitalism. This is why, when discussing the sociology of work, it becomes imperative to also reignite the Institute for Workers Control-led industrial sociology debates of the 1970s about the need to also transform the system away from capitalism.

While capitalism itself was deemed to be ‘in crisis’ following the collapse of Lehman Brothers only a few years ago, the notion of post-crisis societies being ‘in transition’ is also commonly discussed. But we must also challenge the meaning of this term ‘transition’. A transition from what to/what? Modern capitalism has endured several cycles of crisis, but governing elites have always managed to reconfigure their power and maintain its hegemony.

The crisis of neoliberalism in Europe and North America since 2008 has been met with austerity and more neoliberalism.

In Argentina autonomous and highly radicalised unemployed workers movements and the worker recovered companies movement that posed a challenge to the status quo (even though they were not distinctly revolutionary as property relations were never disputed) were co-opted, depoliticised and demobilised by the corporatist state apparatus which created thousands of state-run cooperatives so as to create jobs but dilute the idea of autonomous ‘workers-self management’ from spreading to the broader labour movement.

The crisis of neoliberalism in Europe and North America since 2008 has been met with austerity and more neoliberalism. Even in Latin America, neoliberalism became so institutionally embedded that its left-leaning Pink Tide regimes manifest distinct continuities with many aspects (encouraging greater foreign investment rather than mass nationalisations, deepening agro export-dependence and social policy targeting of poorest sectors rather than broad wealth redistribution). As such these regimes have come to be defined as post-neoliberal.

For that reason, the aftermath of the crisis that we are currently living through – as understood as moving from one economic or political system to another – cannot qualify as a ‘transition’. At a global level the uprisings against neoliberalism and representative democracy (of which the worker-recovered company movement is one; the Indignado or Occupy Wall Street protests are examples of others) are contesting the rationality behind the economic principles it advances and the deeply flawed nature of its remedies for dealing with the deepening debt crisis. However, these movements are unable to fill the political vacuum with a new social and political order. Instead their radical demands eventually only condition the rehabilitation of the capitalist state as they are translated into law and policy despite the fact that their original demands are often untranslatable.

Rather than a ‘transition’ from neoliberalism to something substantially different, we can understand current process as what Heike Schuamberg describes as an “intermezzo”. That is to say (borrowing from the musical analogy), a bracketed interlude between two acts of the same piece.

Occupy Wall Street demonstration, September 2012 - Photo by Paul Stein (Creative Commons 2.0)

Occupy Wall Street demonstration, September 2012 – Photo by Paul Stein (Creative Commons 2.0)

Developing our sociological imagination as a form of social critique

The study of concrete alternatives to the organisation of work such as worker recovered companies itself requires imagination of the many-sided possibilities inherent in workers’ self-activity. This is in itself a sort of social critique because both as academics and as workers through our day-to-day life experiences we internalise the status quo and have started to accept the inevitability of the wage-labour relation under the capitalist mode of production ourselves. It’s important that we do not lose our sense of the possibilities but the sociology of work is already travelling in that direction.

We must remember that the potential for workers-self management to have a transformative impact on society was a central theme of industrial sociology in the 1970s when numerous factory occupations occurred around Europe. At this time, drawing on a long and continuous co-operative history within their own labour movements, theorists such as Hyman, Miliband and Poulantzas were among those arguing that capital’s power also had to be openly challenged. When it became clear that the self-management project was not explicitly seeking to shatter existing capitalist relations, it ceased to be a tool of worker collective action deemed worthy of Marxist analysis. Outside of Sitrin, Azzellini, Ana and a small number of scholars in the global north who have written specifically on workers self-management, such debates about its broader transformatory impact are presently confined to the global south.

Workers self-management has receded in workers’ collective memories and repertoires of action in the British labour movement. Yet historic episodes of rebellion dating back to the Clyde shipbuilders or Tower Colliery workers occupations were repeated during the recent crisis, when the Vestas and Ford Visteon car parts workers took over their factories in 2009 in an attempt to save their jobs and pensions. Those of us who research the sociology of work have an obligation to help restore the possibility of such collective actions in workers’ consciousness.

Limits and possibilities of workers self-management as an emancipatory model

A key limitation that some argue may constrain the possibilities for the emancipatory potential of workers’ self-management to develop as a form of critical theory relates to whether its successes are confined territorially today. It is reasonable to pose that the possibilities for such alternative production models to thrive outside of Latin America are restricted because national cultures are different, less collective, involve weaker organised labour, lower levels of militancy or mobilisation, property ownership is protected more by governments and challenges to it face greater legal sanction. We therefore face the danger of framing the debate as if it were something that happens ‘there’, not ‘here’ (in the UK or Europe). So let’s end by asking how can the sociological imagination be stretched so that alternative models might also exist as possibilities ‘here’?

First, when thinking about the limits of the possible, many of us in the sociological field tend to have rather amnesiasic tendencies, a sort of ‘presentism’ if you will. However, we can broaden our sense of possibilities by also expanding our stock of historical comparators. In our case, worker cooperatives under capitalism are a long-standing phenomenon – as much in Europe than anywhere else.

Argentina’s example has become a beacon for the idea that workers can take over and successfully operate businesses themselves.

Secondly, there have been over 1,000 worker-recovered companies in Europe since the 2008/09 crisis. Although these are mainly more legalistic, less politicised ‘recoveries’, more militant companies like Vio.me in Greece and Riflow in Italy mentioned earlier, are a growing force among them. Interviews with workers in these organisations confirm that they have not only learned from Argentina but decided to emulate the model where they are regardless of the barriers.

Thus, the notion that worker recoveries are territorially confined within the sociological imagination is no longer applicable post-crisis. The ‘dignity’ that has been recuperated among workers in Argentina’s worker-recovered companies has undergone what John Holloway describes as “resonance” –vibrating in other workers’ dignities to spark a ‘unity of dignities’ among workers in other parts of the world.

Pan-Latin American conferences of worker-recovered companies in the late-2000s have been followed more recently by the first European and Latin American recovered factories encounter in 2014. We are witnessing the emergence of a new ‘workers’ international’ perhaps. In that sense, Argentina’s example has become a beacon for the idea that workers can take over and successfully operate businesses themselves, without being dependent on trade unions or sympathetic political parties to represent them. Workers emancipation has moved a step closer in the sociological imagination.

Dr Ozarow presented his findings at the monthly Middlesex University Interdisciplinary Labour Studies Group seminar, which he organises with his colleagues Nico Pizzolato, Richard Croucher and Janroj Keles. The next will take place on 7 June and will feature geographer Asli Odman and historian Gulhan Balsoy speaking about ‘Factory History: perspectives from Turkey’. Register here.

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