Saturday, October 22, 2011

What is a General Strike?

What is a general strike?

A general strike is when a large number of coordinated workers in different industries (in a locality or in an entire country) all stop working at the same time. When workers stop doing their jobs, the system grinds to a halt. The goals of general strikes have been different in different times and places, but they are always aimed at forcing powerful groups (bosses, employers and their friends in government) to bend to the will of the working majority. Goals of past general strikes have included: recognition of collective bargaining rights, better wages and conditions, increased political power for the working majority, and the overthrow of capitalism (i.e. and end to the private ownership of the means of production by a small elite).

Could a general strike happen in the United States?

It already has happened here! General strikes --and struggles of all kinds against oppression and exploitation-- are a huge part of the history and heritage of the United States. Though we're not taught it in school, there have been several big general strikes in US history: 1877 Great Railroad Strike, 1877 St. Louis General Strike, 1892 New Orleans General Strike, Seattle 1919, The Great Textile Strike of 1934, 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters Strike, Toledo 1934, 1934 San Francisco General Strike and the 1946 Oakland General Strike. You'll notice from a quick glance at these dates that there was an explosion of labor militancy during the 1930s. This period of increased struggle put the fear of God in the 1% who worried that they might lose power. Thus, after WWII the U.S. ruling class clamped down hard on working class militancy through a campaign of red-baiting, purges, criminalization of strike action, union-busting, and outright repression. The 1% would use the same tactics to crush the Black Power movement. By the end of the 1960s, workers wages stagnated and declined for the first time since the 1820s. Thus began a long one-sided class war from above against the working majority. Wages are still stagnant today while unemployment levels soar toward historic highs (16.5%). Unsurprisingly, in this context the question of a general strike is back on the agenda and has re-entered the discourse as a feasible option.

What role does the general strike play internationally?

There are many countries in the world where general strikes are occurring or being planned as we speak. In Western Europe, the general strike is a key tactic of the working class in fighting back against cuts and austerity. The May '68 movement culminated in a general strike that involved over 10 million workers stopping work all at the same time. General strikes were a part of the Portuguese and Iranian Revolutions during the 1970s. General strikes were used by workers in Poland in the early 80s against the Stalinist regime that exploited them. General strikes played a key role in ousting Mubarak in the Egyptian Revolution --and the key to the success of the revolution lies in the capacity of workers to shut the system down. Occupy activists in the U.S. are (self-consciously) part of a global movement. We need to take a look at what our sisters and brothers in the global 99% are doing right now to fight back against their respective ruling classes --and that means taking the idea of a general strike seriously.

What could a general strike do for the occupy movement in the US?

The occupy movement is a global phenomenon that has electrified millions of people in the 99% all around the world. People said it couldn't happen here in the US --but it is. People are determined to fight back against cuts, austerity, layoffs, and war. They stand together against a system that places the profits of the 1% above the needs and interests of the vast majority. The occupy movement stands for genuine democracy from below --it stands for empowering the 99% to take control of society and run it in the interests of the majority. But how do we get from here to there? The occupation of public spaces --where free debate and grassroots democracy can flourish-- are key part of the struggle. But we also need to think about how to leverage the promise of occupied parks and public spaces to take the struggle to the next level. Workers' central role in economic production gives them an unparalleled social power--by use of the strike weapon--to paralyze the system like no other social force. The next logical step for the occupy movement is to consider using strike action --co-ordinated work stoppages by ordinary working people of the 99%-- to force the 1% to take us seriously. The 1% is banking on the fact that this is going to be a cold winter. The last thing they want is for us to actively disrupt the profit system that forms the basis of their power. A general strike can do just that --because the 1% does not pick up their own trash, nor do they pilot their own private jets. They need us to co-operate in order to maintain their dominance. A general strike sends a clear message: we will no longer co-operate and toil for a system that oppresses us.

Is a "colorblind" general strike movement possible?

Absolutely not. We need to be clear here: colorblindness, the view that race is "divisive" and undermines the unity of the movement, is a form of racism itself. Colorblindness, by definition, is blind to the reality of racial oppression and therefore plays a role in reproducing it. What's more, the idea that anti-racism is "divisive" is music to the ears of the 1%. They can divide a movement with racists in it --but they can't divide a movement that stands together against all forms of oppression. The last thing that the 1% wants is a movement of, by and for the entire 99% that stands firmly and uncompromisingly against racism. Furthermore, a successful general strike depends upon dense networks of solidarity. But solidarity cannot be built on a foundation of sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia or oppression. Solidarity is only possible when all workers fight together and promise to stand up for one another in accordance with the principle that an injury to one is an injury to all. One final thought. We sometimes encounter a caricatured version of the working class in the US according to which it is nothing but brawny, white men. That is false. Today, the majority of the working class in the US is women. The working class is disproportionately people of color. The working class is every bit as diverse and different as this movement needs to be if it going to stand together and win. Our sisters and brothers of color are being forced to endure this recession in a particularly acute way. As Malik --the co-founder of Occupy the Hood-- puts it: "when white people get a cold, black people get the flu". The entire 99% is hurting bad --but the pain of people of color as a group is particularly intense. We need to stand together for the good of all of the 99%. The potential for the Occupy movement to unite and assuage the social and economic misery of whole 99%--and especially of those who face special oppression-- is unprecedented. The time to get involved is now. This is what Fred Hampton was talking about back in 1969. Power to the people!

If we're for a general strike, what can we do to build it?

General strikes are not easy to pull off --they take countless hours of hard, unglamorous organizing work. But tireless organizing for the betterment of humanity is what the occupy movement is all about. So we can do this. What's the first step? There is no ready-made rulebook for how to proceed, but there are several things that we can do to encourage escalation via strike action. First off, general strikes don't spontaneously materialize because someone puts out a call for one. Putting mass strikes together requires that we work with the labor movement. This requires establishing relationships of solidarity between the movement and labor unions --particularly those unions who are under attack and have the strongest incentives to get involved in the movement. Right now transit workers and teachers are being scapegoated, attacked, punished and threatened with layoffs. Postal workers are facing mass layoffs. These facts should help orient those establishing links between the movement and organized labor. The key is to establish links with the rank and file workers of unions in order to make the argument for escalation via strike action. If the rank and file workers themselves are ready to push the struggle forward, their leaders will have no choice but to follow their lead. Solidarity --and the involvement of the labor movement-- is what stopped Bloomberg from destroying OWS. We need to learn from that experience and build on it. But we can also do other things --besides working directly with the labor movement-- to get the idea of a general strike out into public discourse: we can start discussions about general strikes (e.g. what they are, why they're important) in all kinds of social spheres --in workplaces, schools, streets, churches, neighborhoods, on buses and trains, in union halls, listservs, social media, homes, General Assemblies, committee meetings, etc. If you're moved by what you've read here, pass the world along and make the argument that working people have a potential social power like no other --to withhold their labor and force the rich and powerful 1% to take note. Only when we learn about our own history --and our own power-- can we have the constructive collective discussions that grease the axles of workers struggle. Publicize, talk about it, make fliers, post about it on Facebook, tweet that you're for a gen strike, join a revolutionary socialist organization, talk to ordinary people on the street. Don't wait --the time is now!

Is the general strike a "silver bullet"?

Hardly. We can expect a general strike to meet with the same state violence and repression that the Occupy movement has met with thus far. But our strength is in numbers --and in our capacity to shut the system down by withholding our labor. We should be careful not to romanticize the mass strike and make it sound like its the answer to all of our problems. It's not. But it is the next logical step in the progression of our movement. We --the 99%-- have enormous power when we stop doing what the system requires of us. We make this system run, we do the work in this society. It is our right to protest and occupy public spaces to begin the discussion about a new kind of society. But is also our right to withhold our labor and grind the system --which we know serves the needs and interests of the 1%-- to a halt. The ruling class can't ignore us when we stop doing the work that makes their position of dominance possible. A mass strike is a serious weapon in the tactical toolbox of the 99%. We must start talking about using it. Less abstractly: we must start talking about how one could be built in the here and now. We should consider learning from our sisters and brothers that inspired the world by fomenting the Arab Spring. We have a world to win!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post! I'm new to left politics and I had no idea about this history. I'm passing this along to everyone I know! Solidarity!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for so clearly laying out what General Strike means. These words are solid and well-informed, and now I know better how to explain what I have always felt - our hard toil makes it possible for those in power to subjugate us. The way to fight back is to refuse to cooperate. The plain simple truth hits home and rings like Liberty!

Anonymous said...

I can not wait for the next general strike. Could I go on strike against my school?

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