What to do about workplace shutdowns?

29 May, 2020

Nissan workers in Barcelona

A wave of plant and factory closures is coming. Boeing announced 7000 layoffs in the US alone. In Argentina they are already preparing the way. In Spain, after requesting state subsidies for more than a year, Alcoa announced the dismissal of 534 workers. Nissan after negotiations with the government decided to close its plant in Barcelona leaving 3000 workers on the streets. These are examples of a phenomenon that is happening all over the world. What to do in the face of a workplace shutdown?

Italian workers in “Coronavirus Strike”


Do not bite into the profitability trap. The unions will unfailingly come up with the discourse that “the company is still profitable, it must not be closed” or its symmetrical: “the conditions for closure must be negotiated, without profitability the company is not viable and if it is not viable there is no work”. A long experience of “reconversions” and industrial crises in the 80’s and 90’s and of dying workplaces later tells us that in the best of cases this ends up in early retirements for the elderly, dismissal for the others and if some state subsidy appears, an agony of downward bidding to lower the working conditions for the handful left working under the excuse of maintaining a minimum of production.

It is the radicalization of the discourse with which the unions try to bring all strikes into their fold, a place safe for them, from the slavery of unfulfilled human needs to the profitability of the company. But the profitability of the capital invested in the company is not our problem. And in fact, if governments do make a gesture to intervene it is because this idea that “shutdowns are simply a business problem” is basically an illusion.

Companies are applications of capital. And from the point of view of capital the “business framework” is a system of communicating vessels. A system that equalizes the results of the money invested according to its share in the total national capital, favoring the applications that exploit workers more efficiently and penalizing those that are less efficient. Profits and losses are the signals by which big capitals are driven to move continuously from an application to another. When we are told that a plant or a factory “has to close” they are in fact telling us that if they close it they hope to increase the company’s attractiveness for a volume of investments which, otherwise, will go elsewhere to support the companies that exploit the workers best at any given time. They can peddle to us that the accounting of a plant or a company follows an iron law, but it is not true. The only thing the losses say is that this concrete application of total capital, which is the collective owner of all companies, has stopped contributing efficiently to capital accumulation which is the objective of the system.

Strike at Gazprom in Yakutia, Russia, this week.


Whether given plants close or not, in the end is a matter of the correlation of forces. The same as when, after denying workers’ demands because “this denial would make profitability possible” they end up giving in, usually with state intervention. We saw this recently in the strike of French high-speed railroad workers. When the correlation of forces favors the workers -which happens when unions are taken out of the way as it happened in France- the “solutions” appear. Whether this is done through credits, subsidies or nationalizations, as several members of parliament now propose, is also the companies’ own problem, that is, of capital’s problem. How it takes care of its own damage when it is overtaken by the workers, how it arranges its sacrosanct accounting, is not the workers’ problem either.

Matamoros, MX. “Unions and fiirms kill the working class”


What modifies the correlation of forces is to take control of the strike through an assembly and extend the strike. As long as the problems are confined to one plant or company, capital has nothing to worry about. It is a local problem that will be solved by its local managers who are paid to do so and then relocated to other companies. When things start to change is when strikes spread from one to another site. That’s when capital as a whole suffers. But there is another breakwater: the trade unions. As long as the unions remain in charge, the struggles will remain contained. And when they have no choice, they will stage a sector-wide strike, even a national sectori-wide strike.

That’s not what extension is about. It’s about an assembly of all workers taking over from the unions’ works council and its policies of containment and isolation. It is about transforming the assembly and the company struggle into a permanent assembly open to all workers affected by layoffs and closures and to all workers who join, through strikes, from other companies, whether they come from the same sector or not. The aim is to turn a company struggle into a class struggle. This is the only way in which capital is forced to assume responsibility and take damage as a whole… and then forced to withdraw.

Flyer distributed by Emancipation.


The neighborhood is also part of the fight. The covid has accelerated the crisis. Millions of workers have lost their jobs around the world. Many of them are small business workers, temporary and precarious workers. It is now clear that the worker who spent “a lifetime” in a large company is not going to get better treatment or can expect anything in return. His work is a commodity and right now capital doesn’t know how to use it to produce more profits, which is its logic and its goal. Locking up the struggles in a single plant, factory or company is a mistake which isolates us. The interests of the worker under temporary layoff, the precarious worker who is unemployed, the waiter who has nowhere to go to work are identical to those of the industrial worker, the administrative worker or the accountant. “We will all end up laid off and on the streets anyway, so let’s all meet on the street and hold assemblies in the neighborhoods too!.


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