AWARD-winning American film maker Michael Moore is no mere "trendy" media type trying to keep up with the fashion of the day. He may be light as theoreticians go, and I'm not nominating him as a wonderrebbe or guru, as though I believed in such things. But giving credit where due, Mr.Moore has uncovered an important thread of continuity leading up behind the anti-capitalist "Occupy" movement, whether or not participants are aware of it.
"On this day, December 30th, in 1936 -- 75 years ago today -- hundreds of workers at the General Motors factories in Flint, Michigan, took over the facilities and occupied them for 44 days. My uncle was one of them.
"The workers couldn't take the abuse from the corporation any longer. Their working conditions, the slave wages, no vacation, no health care, no overtime -- it was do as you're told or get tossed onto the curb.
"So on the day before New Year's Eve, emboldened by the recent re-election of Franklin Roosevelt, they sat down on the job and refused to leave.
"They began their Occupation in the dead of winter. GM cut off the heat and water to the buildings. The police tried to raid the factories several times, to no avail. Even the National Guard was called in.
"But the workers held their ground, and after 44 days, the corporation gave in and recognized the UAW as the representative of the workers. It was a monumental historical moment as no other major company had ever been brought to its knees by their employees. Workers were given a raise to a dollar an hour -- and successful strikes and occupations spread like wildfire across the country. Finally, the working class would be able to do things like own their own homes, send their children to college, have time off and see a doctor without having to worry about paying. In Flint, Michigan, on this day in 1936, the middle class was born.
"But 75 years later, the owners and elites have regained all power and control. I can think of no better way for us to honor the original Occupiers than by all of us participating in the Occupy Wall Street movement in whatever form that takes in each of our towns. We need direct action all winter long if we are to prevail. You can start your own Occupy group in your neighborhood or school or with just your friends. Speak out against economic injustice at every chance you get. Stop the bank from evicting the family down the block. Move your checking and credit card to a community bank or credit union. Place a sign in your yard -- and get your neighbors to do it also -- that says, "WE ARE THE 99%."
"Do something, anything, but don't remain silent. Not now. This is the moment. It won't come again. 75 years ago today, in Flint, Michigan, the people said they'd had enough and occupied the factories until they won. What is stopping us now? The rich have one plan: bleed everyone dry. Can anyone, in good conscience, be a bystander to this?
"My uncle wasn't, and because of what he and others did, I got to grow up without having to worry about a roof over my head or medical bills or a decent life. And all that was provided by my dad who built spark plugs on a GM assembly line.
"Let's each of us double our efforts to raise a ruckus, Occupy Everywhere, and get creative as we throw a major nonviolent wrench into this system of Greed. Let's make the politicians running for office in 2012 quake in their boots if they refuse to tax the rich, regulate Wall Street and do whatever we the people tell them to do".
But at least he reminds us that these gains were made in struggle and did not 'trickle down' from the generosity of the business tycoons and bosses, or the super rich. Evoking the struggles of the 1930s is also a healthy inoculation against the snake-oil salesmen, conspiracy theorists and middle class dumbwits who have been telling eeach other the system was fine until some wicked individuals spoilt it, and have remembered how Henry Ford once spoke ill about bankers, forgetting he also ordered gangsters and guns be used against workers.
Moore is wrong to think the big auto sit-downs of 1936 were the first time such things had happened, even in America, and they certainly were not confined there. In 1920, Italian workers occupied the big plants of Turin, though as one observer noted, while they had raised the red flag over the factories, the tricolore still flew over the barracks and police stations. We know which won, as a former "Socialist" backed by capitalists, landowners and the bankers JP Morgan arranged the "march on Rome" of his blackshirts.
But if the embers of working class resistance had been stamped underfoot with the rise of fascism they burst into flame again in 1943, in the factories of Turin as well as in the partisan movement, which was to leave il Duce dangling.
Between the wars sit-downs and occupations had taken various forms and places, from Italy to Poland, even Hungary under a semi-fascist regime, and often involving miners staying underground. In 1934 there was a major staydown strike at Terbovlye, in Slovenia. It may have been miners from Yugoslavia who brought that weapon with them to the anthracite mines in America.
In 1935 about 70 miners stayed down and on strike at Nine Mile Point colliery in South Wales. It was not to be the last time miners in Britain took such action.
In 1936, strikers at Le Havre in Normandy occupied to prevent a lock-out, and their action spread right across France, involving big factories like Renault and the steel plants. It ended with workers winning gains from employers and government, not just national pay agreements but for the first time, holidays with pay and other benefits.
In both France and the United States the sit-down strikes boosted organisation and confidence in the working class, as well as securing immediate gains, and as Leon Trotsky pointed out, they did something more:
Sit-down strikes, the latest expression of this kind of initiative, go beyond the limits of "normal" capitalist procedure. Independently of the demands of the strikers, the temporary seizure of factories deals a blow to the idol, capitalist property. Every sit-down strike poses in a practical manner the question of who is boss of the factory: the capitalist or the workers?
Transitional Programme of the Fourth International
Of course posing the question is not delivering an answer. In the 1970s there were several places in Britain, the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders being most famous, where workers fighting sackings and closure took over the workplace, and while perpectives varied they posed other questions, like how the workplace relates to society, the state and finance.
More recently we have had the occupations at Vestas in the Isle of Wight, and Visteon in Belfast and London. Both raised interest much wider than among "the usual suspects", and neither waited for supposed leaders from the TUC or Labour Party to initiate them. The Vestas strikers, defending wind turbine jobs, gained support from climate camp activists.
Though the main struggle here is currently over cuts and pensions, it is clearly related to who should pay for the capitalists' crisis, and could raise the issues of who is boss, and who owns what, in new ways.
The Occupy movement has sprung up outside the conventional organised labour movement, but if anti-capitalism is to mean anything positive it needs the working class as a political force, and for that the working class needs its memory. Whatever Michael Moore's political limits, we should welcome anyone, particularly with his creative skills, who is bringing out the connections.