Occupy the Workplace

Against the Current, No. 162, January/February 2013

Norm Diamond

Ours to Master and to Own:
Workers’ Control from the Commune to the Present
Edited by Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini
Haymarket Press, 2011, 443 pages, paperback $19.

IN THIS CENTENNIAL year of the great Lawrence textile workers’ strike, let us remember that the “roses” they fought for in addition to “bread,” referred to dignity and control on the job, in the workplace, as well as in the rest of their lives.

It goes almost without saying that workplace organizing is difficult, all the more so when the objective is to generate motion from the workplace toward larger social change. In my early experience decades ago, the range of issues we raised, both in union and not-yet-union workplaces, was broader than organizers typically are able to now.

While talking up the union, we talked also about converting manufacturing facilities away from war-related production to socially-useful products. We talked about workers playing a role in deciding what the products and services should be and how the work should be organized. We fought for worker-controlled health and safety committees, and promoted union-sponsored conferences about issues like who should have a say in introducing new technologies.

At stake in those discussions was far more than questions of economic equity and how to distribute the surplus between workers and bosses (the 99% and the 1%). We were talking fundamentally about capitalist relations of production and how to replace them.

A Global Discussion

The same conversations were happening in the 1970s and 1980s in advanced capitalist countries and beyond. In Italy workers at Pirelli Tires, with minimal negotiation and creative direct action, successfully reorganized job assignments and imposed slower work rhythms. In Great Britain, the shop stewards at Lucas Aerospace prompted a national discussion linking anti-militarism to workers’ control. In Belgium, elected stewards mobilized, insisting on their right to veto layoffs.

Rank-and-file movements in North America and abroad reclaimed issues that centralizing unions and national pattern bargaining had left behind: the pace of work and weight of workload, job assignments and classifications, punitive discipline and discharge of militants, technological innovation, capital mobility and runaway shops.

In a 1973 essay, Ernest Mandel viewed some of the inequities in distribution as already solved in the advanced capitalist countries. Workers increasingly were getting a better deal in strictly economic terms. Thus he thought he saw class struggle shifting to issues of how work is organized, in fact to capitalist relations of production.

For whether it is a matter of contesting the boss’s right to determine the rhythm of the assembly-line, or his right to choose the site for establishing a new factory; whether of objecting to the types of product made by a firm, or of trying to oppose elected leaders to management-appointed foremen or ‘managers’; whether the workers are trying to prevent redundancies and a declining volume of employment in an area, or trying to calculate for themselves the rises in the cost of living; whatever they are trying to do amounts, in the last analysis, to one and the same thing: Labour is no longer willing to let Capital be in control of industry and the economy. It no longer accepts the logic of the capitalist economy which is the logic of profit. It is trying to reorganise the economy on the basis of quite different principles — the socialist principles which correspond to its own interests.(1)

That same political optimism occasioned a 1972 collection of essays explicitly on growing workers’ power. The editors introduced the subject by observing that “industrial unions such as the United Auto Workers have shown an increased interest in moving beyond the traditional limits of collective bargaining to issues associated with workers’ control, such as pricing policies and production processes. Several major Canadian unions, such as the Pulp and Paper Workers’ Brotherhood, are moving in the same direction.”(2)

The statement strikes an odd note — accepting as “traditional” what had actually been a relatively recent narrowing of union focus, and seeming to credit official union initiative. What we experienced at the time, and has become even clearer in retrospect, is that union officials were responding, often reluctantly, to pressures from their rank and file. But the statement is accurate about the expanding range of issues and their political direction.

High Points of Struggle

Sometimes, especially early in that era, the politically promising issues were implicit and channeled into “traditional” paths, but nevertheless bubbled beneath the surface.

At the St. Regis paper mill near Spring­field, Ohio, a 1969 strike was ostensibly about local discipline, in itself an interesting issue. But the workers’ anger extended to the workplace atmosphere in which carton dust was so thick as to inhibit breathing. Brought surreptitiously into the plant, I was unable to see machines or people through the haze beyond about three feet away.

The company obtained an injunction keeping union pickets far from the plant, intending to continue operations. We mobilized wives and student activists, stopped a freight train in a scene that could have come from “Salt of the Earth” [classic 1950s film about a strike in New Mexico — ed.], and shut the place down. Having won the strike and the support of their community, St. Regis workers went on to attack air quality in the plant a couple of years before the advent of federal occupational safety and health legislation.

Issues often escalated in a natural progression so that workplace power itself was at stake. There was the wonderfully archetypal history of the Renault factory occupation at Boulogne-Billancourt.

On the first day, workers hung out a banner demanding higher wages and better pensions. The second day they took that banner down and put up a new one demanding a joint Socialist Party-Communist Party-trade union government. On the third day they replaced it with the one that stayed for the duration: “For Worker Control of Production.” That was France in 1968.

In a nine-month organizing drive in 1989, workers at a migrant healthcare clinic in Cornelius, Oregon, went from being uncertain whether having a union would address their grievances, to arguing for worker representation on the Board of Directors, to taking control of worker-management meetings, to demanding that their own workers’ council become the administration.

Workers at Virginia Garcia Memorial Healthcare Clinic ultimately were not able to seize control, something near-impossible in just one isolated workplace. But they did oust the prior management and win an all-inclusive activist union for everyone from front and back office personnel through nurses and doctors.(3)

That era has by-and-large slipped away. Those fundamental underlying issues have receded in the face of the global race to the bottom. Some of our debates of a few years back ­— whether workers’ councils could be a means of fundamental social transformation or a model for how a better society might be organized, whether Gramsci drew the right lessons from the Turin factory occupations about the potential role of unions in the struggle and the need for a political vanguard — still seem exciting, but are mostly engaged in by movement elders.

Mandel, Hunnius et al and the rest of us did not adequately anticipate the financialization of capital, the drive toward capitalist globalization, and the ways in which that drive has both dampened workers’ struggles and returned them to more elemental issues of survival and distribution.(4)

Workers’ Control Still Alive?

The editors of Ours to Master and to Own, a new anthology on workers’ control, differ with such a bleak assessment. They see among workers a rising “optimism that had largely been lost under a system of regulated capitalism and state domination.” Too, they remark on “the increasing instances of workers’ control in the contemporary epoch,” and the “revival of working-class militancy out of the institutional framework.” (ix) Along with this book, they created an interactive website(5) and promise a second volume of essays.

A big reason for their hopeful view goes beyond their enthusiasm about present activism. They look also to history: the recurrence of workplace takeovers starting with the Paris Commune and the democratic administration of occupied workplaces by their workers. They are correct to find encouragement in this particular historical pattern.

My own list of inspirations includes the Russian soviets, the post-World War I German Arbeiterräte and Italian factory councils, the collectives and councils of the Spanish Revolution of the 1930s, the councils formed by Hungarian workers in the uprising of 1956 and Polish workers at the same time, and comparable developments in Portugal and Italy (again) in the 1970s, Poland (again) in the 1980s, and present movements in Venezuela and elsewhere. Most of these have at least one insightful essay devoted to them in the book.

The Need for Distinctions

For our own inspirations, however, to offer strategic guidance, we have to interrogate them rigorously. Not all workers’ councils have been created equal. Not all have embodied the political potential of those above. An enterprise abandoned by its owner and maintained in operation by its workers while they try to find a new owner is not, for instance, equivalent to an enterprise seized by workers who throw out the former owner, reorganize the labor process, and include the surrounding community in deciding what work outcomes should be and how profits should be distributed.

In both instances, workers may adopt the form of a workers’ council; the substance in each is quite different. Variations of both examples, with gradations between and beyond, are part of our history, but not all may belong together. Ours to Master and to Own is not much help in developing criteria to differentiate such diverse actions.

The book contains excellent case studies, along with some that are puzzling in a collection with “workers’ control” in the subtitle. But the problem is not this book’s alone. Confusion, even wishful thinking persists in much left literature on workers’ control.

To illustrate the problem more concretely, here is a quiz: Which of the following, only a couple of which are drawn from the book under review, are manifestations of workers’ control?

An Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) that maintains production in a failing midwest steel mill.

Worker co-ops in Pacific Northwest plywood mills.

Nineteenth century skilled artisans owning their own tools.

Plantations temporarily taken over by workers after colonial owners have fled.

The working class as a whole, exercising authority over a country’s entire productive system through coordinated regional and enterprise-based councils.

A grocery in which nonunion workers gain a shopfloor-direct grievance procedure.

A unionized grocery with a multi-step grievance procedure handled by union staff.

A nationalized farm-implements factory, run by a state agency on behalf of its workers.

After what I have said, it should not be a surprise that every one of these has appeared as exemplars in the literature on “workers’ control.” To an extent, we have to be sympathetic to this murky inclusivity. Control in the context of working-class life is elusive; the slipperiness of the concept merely mirrors this fact. To act as subjects in any way when class-bound life treats you as objects, is worth celebrating.

Nevertheless, celebration is only a small step toward understanding and being able to act strategically. The editors’ optimism undoubtedly also reflects a considered political stance meant to encourage workers’ action. But the lack of evaluative criteria interferes with that objective.

What Does “Control” Mean?

A chapter written by one of the book’s editors, “Workers’ Direct Action and Factory Control in the United States,” for example, reads more like a rhetorical general U.S. labor history than an essay with any strategic perspective.

Immanuel Ness treats strikes for union recognition as if they automatically are about workers’ control, and pretty much any action undertaken by workers as if it invariably manifests a drive for workers’ power. It is hard to learn lessons for our own future from history written in this manner.

Of course every struggle engaged in by groups of workers has some kind of control as its objective.(6) Even mobilizing around nothing more than a wage increase (“bread”) is an attempt to restrict capital’s share of the economic surplus and its ability to pit workers against each other.

Organizing a conventional union, or struggling to maintain one, is another example. The very fact of a union’s existence is a restriction on management prerogatives, as is the body of labor law that in a limited way facilitates unions.

Yet most of the unions we have now, and the laws that facilitate and regulate them, are also means of providing a disciplined workforce for employers. The “control” they provide workers is both very limited and blocked from going further.

Even those historical examples of working-class power that inspire us raise troubling questions. All were short-lived.

There are of course abundant reasons in each instance why their experience was brief. The Paris Commune could not possibly have held out against the Prussian military in collusion with French national authorities; the soviets of 1917 were decimated by the loss of workers needed elsewhere for defense of the revolution; and so on. But a closer look also reveals a pattern of workers relinquishing control, of deferring to pre-existing authority, of accepting and reinforcing the legitimacy of non-working-class institutions.

Marx and Lenin cited the Paris Commune (1871) as the prototype of proletarian power. Before the Commune, however, workers actually did hold power in Paris through their National Guard soldiers’ councils. They voluntarily and hastily gave up power to the Commune, on which worker representatives were a minority.(7)

The democratic and participatory workers’ and soldiers’ councils in post-World War I Germany, from a position of great strength in the society, voted both to return power to the Reichstag and subordinate themselves to the trade unions. Ours to Master and to Own contains other examples. Reading closely we can learn some of what happened, but seldom why things occurred as they did.

The scope of necessary discussion around workers’ control is vast. It ranges from our conception of human capability to our vision of a better society, and from there to the realm of political practice.

Among the key questions are whether and how to relate to existing unions; the role of any sort of vanguard; the need to transform existing technologies; and whether and how far the powers of the state might be used in social transformation. All these questions come up in the book, but too often only implicitly.

Above all, we need learn from rather than idealize working class experience and responses. Ours to Master and to Own offers valuable background material for our own reflections. The lessons to be drawn are still up to us.


  1. Ernest Mandel, “Workers’ Control and Workers’ Councils,” International, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring 1973, page 8.
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  2. Gerry Hunnius, G. David Garson & John Case (eds) Workers’ Control: a Reader on Labor & Social Change, Vintage Books, 1973, pp ix-x.
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  3. An account of this campaign, including an extended extract from my organizer’s journal, is to be published in an upcoming issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly.
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  4. Globalization is not only a narrowly economic response by capital to declining profit margins. It is also an intentional political maneuver in response to working-class initiatives. Thus, calls for an “industrial policy” or for an end to state subsidies for moving capital investment abroad, have to face the political consequences were they to be successful — and therefore the reality of the opposition they face. Removing the threat to disinvest, even bringing manufacturing back home, would weaken capital in ways more fundamental than simply raising the costs of labor. On any large scale these campaigns could only succeed as the demands of a workers’ movement powerful enough to wrest managerial control.
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  5. www.workerscontrol.net.
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  6. A felicitous phrasing of this broader point is found in Carmen Sirianni, Workers Control & Socialist Democracy, Verso Press, 1982, 311: “The struggle of workers to control their own productive activities has been perennial, encompassing various stratagems — formal and informal, deliberate and spontaneous — to set their own pace and style of work and to resist the routine of the clock and the discipline of the boss.” Sirianni’s is a more in-depth treatment of a single experience, that of the 1917 soviets, in an explicitly comparative perspective, drawing out many of the most telling distinctions.
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  7. Oskar Anweiler’s 1952 critique of Marx’s projection of his own politics onto the Commune remains useful. The Soviets: The Russian Workers, Peasants, and Soldiers Councils, 1905-1921, Pantheon Books, English translation 1974, 11ff.
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January/February 2013, ATC 162