[Marxism] From Occupy to Workers Control: Professors Elaine Bernard and Immanuel Ness

Douglas Greene greene.douglas at ymail.com
Thu Feb 2 15:40:36 MST 2012

>From the Boston Occupier:

From Occupy to Workers Control: Professors Elaine Bernard and Immanuel Ness

By Doug Greene on 2/02/12 

On Friday, January 20, Professors Elaine Bernard and Immanuel Ness 
spoke at Encuentro Cinco, a community organizing space in Chinatown, as 
part of the Howard Zinn Memorial Lecture Series. The series is coordinated by Free School University – a working group of 
Occupy Boston – and has featured professors from universities across the East Coast in the last four months, including Noam Chomsky and Bruno 
Bosteels among many others. Bernard and Ness came to discuss the 
possibility of the Occupy Movement moving from encampments to workers 
taking power.

Immanuel Ness, a political science teacher at Brooklyn College, is a 
longtime labor organizer and activist. He co-edited the book Ours to Master and to Own: Workers Councils from the Commune to the Present with Dario Azzellini, which covers 22 instances of workers’ factory occupations and councils since the Paris Commune of 1871.
Elaine Bernard is the executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. Bernard contributed to Ours to Master and to Own with a chapter that details her experience and research as a part of 
the largely women’s British Columbia’s Telephone Workers’ Occupation of 

Ness discussed workplace activism in the United States and how 
“occupying workplaces and enterprises is a much larger task than 
occupying a public place,”  referring to the idea of a worker council 
where workers are able to manage and produce democratically at the point of production, without bosses. Ness explained that the aspiration for 
workers councils in the United States has its roots in a long tradition 
of workplace autonomy from the nineteenth century “where workers 
demanded certain respect and were producers on their own.” Workers were 
able to have such power because their unions were able to dictate wages 
to bosses. However, workers lost their autonomy with the rise of mass 
production industries by the early 1920s that cheapened their labor, 
simplified work, and allowed for easier control by capital.

In response, unions such as the Congress of Industrial Organizations 
sought to organize everyone in a factory in order to build working class power. The mass strikes of the 1930s were an examples of what workers’ 
direct action. Ness explained that the Flint Sitdown Strike of 1937 for union recognition of in the automobile industry showed the power of workers who sit down and take over a factory.

Bernard discussed the Telephone Workers’ Occupation seizure of phone 
exchanges which arose as part of a long struggle between the company and workers over automation and the contracting out of work which weakened 
the power of the union. As the workers fought to sustain their job 
security, they questioned the right of the company to determine the 
choices of equipment and the nature of work.

She discussed how the telephone workers were able to get on the 
public’s side. The workers wanted to provide good phone service to the 
wider community and felt that “automation was removing the human 
factor.” The union went out to talk with the public and took on their 
side by acting as a whistle blower. For example, when the company 
planned to increase phone fees, the union urged for no rate increase 
while the company provided poor service.

Bernard contrasted the workers before the occupation, who were 
subdivided into different job categories based on gender. Once the 
occupation began, the workers went to around the exchanges and learned 
what their coworkers did. The workers ran the exchanges cooperatively 
with better service and less stress. Bernard said that “workers began to see themselves as whole people, who were thinking very differently 
about themselves, their communities and their rights.”

Bernard finished her talk by saying that worker occupations and the 
Occupy Movement show “things can happen very quickly and we can dream 
the impossible.”
During the discussion period, Ness discussed the strengths and 
weaknesses of worker cooperatives. Although cooperatives show a 
different way to organize production, Ness warned “cooperatives don’t 
challenge capitalist logic since they are working within the logic of 
Many in the audience stressed the value of direct action and 
self-organization rather than waiting for a union to come and help them. Some of those in the audience advocated moving towards workplace 
takeovers as the next stage of the Occupy movement. 

More information about the Marxism mailing list