Whose Strike?

3 Feb

Following the massive Women’s March and the surprising partial success of protests against Trump’s immigration ban, many feel that the logical step is to escalate. Seize the momentum, put more pressure on the administration, disrupt and paralyze as much as possible. I feel it myself. There are ways in which there is more possibility in the air than there has been in a long time, and Trump has wasted little time going about his authoritarian business.

That, no doubt, is the reason why the idea of calling for a general strike – a general national strike – has caught the imagination over the past few days. After Francine Prose put the idea out in the Guardian, it spread rapidly throughout social media, and split into multiple proposals and counter-proposals.

Some, including Prose herself, see themselves carrying on in a venerable tradition of mass social disruption. But, as much as these proposals look like a natural response to the moment, they are severely disconnected from reality. Calling for a general strike now bears no relation to what mass strikes have meant in the past. The flight from reality shows up in activists’ blasé attitude to history and their very distant relationship to the working class.

The United States has the most violent labor history of any major industrial country. General and other large-scale strikes in the US have nearly always been met with major repression, from police, National Guard, even federal troops. For instance, the general strike in San Francisco of 1934, which developed out of a longshoremen’s strike, led to running battles with the police and a number of deaths.

sfgs-embarcadero

Running battles on San Francisco’s Embarcadero 

National Guardsmen set up machine gun nests and tanks for strike suppression

sfgs-machine-gunsfgs-tanks

The massive strikes in the period of 1919-1922, involving more than 1 million workers in industries like railroads, steel and mining, were met with enormous violence. One of the most famous is the coal mining wars, which culminated in the Battle for Blair Mountain. It pitted armed and organized miners against a private militia, federal troops, bombing runs by employer-hired aircraft, and some of the first post-war uses of military planes. Hundreds of miners died in the battles.

blair-mountain

Rifles collected from defeated miners

During the Ludlow Massacre, National Guardsmen mounted a machine gun on a train, and mowed down strikers and their families living in tents.

ludlow-machineguns

Machine gun nest at Ludlow 

During the massive Pullman Strike of 1894, during which Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs was arrested, hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike, and the Attorney General carpeted every state from Illinois to California with injunctions and martial law. Federal troops aided local police and private guards to suppress the strike.

pullman

Federal troops guarding a train during Pullman  

We can tell similar stories for the suppression of the Great Strike of 1877, which included a general strike in St. Louis; for the strike wave of 1886; for the Lawrence strike of 1912; for the Little Steel Strike, Harland County strikes, the Auto-Lite Strike, the Minneapolis strike, and the textile strikes of the 1930s; and so on and so forth.

This isn’t just distant history.

On March 10, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed “Local 1199,”* a radical local of drugstore and hospital workers, and spoke about the need for organizing the unorganized and for a trans-racial class alliance against exploitation and imperialism. Turning his attention to African-American sanitation workers striking in Memphis, Tennessee, he said, “You may have to escalate the struggle a bit….just have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis.” Less than a month after calling for a citywide general strike, King was assassinated in that very city.

memphis-strike-1968memphis-strike-cops-beating

National Guardsmen at the Memphis Strike

The Phelps-Dodge strike of 1983 pitted local miners against riot police.

phelps-dodge-1983

Tear gas and cops at Phelps-Dodge

During the Hormel Strike of 1984-5 in Austin, MN the National Guard helped local police forces suspend civil liberties, impose deeply oppressive labor law, and undermine the strike.

1HORM22

The National Guard helping break the Hormel Strike

The 1990 Justice for Janitors campaign was not exactly peaceful.

justice-for-janitors

The more seriously disruptive the strikes, the more dangerous they are. It is no doubt true that the American state has reduced its readiness to violently repress workers. But even that is as much a function of the decline in worker militancy itself as it is a more tolerant view of major strikes.

Even when not violent or repressed, strikes are serious business. They are often lost, and if strikers aren’t injured they can lose their jobs, friends, and even families. The law is pitted heavily against workers – they can be replaced, they lose free speech rights when at work, even the whiff of strike activity allows employers to shut down the entire factory, and legal protections of workers are poorly enforced. The police and the rest of the security apparatus are usually happy to enforce that law, and there is often no way for workers to carry out a proper strike without breaking those laws. To the degree we have forgotten this, it is because worker militancy has declined, strike rates are way down, and union memberships have dwindled into the low single-digits.

In the past, workers stayed out on those strikes, even fighting the state, in part because of dense, historically developed, cultures of solidarity; established traditions of militancy; organized, if not always recognized, unions; and long connections with left-wing organizers. These days, the appetite for fighting the state is next to nil, there is no tested public sympathy for labor actions, and there are no clear organizations standing ready to lead.

If you’re going to ask people not just to risk losing their jobs but potentially face the armed apparatus of the state, there had better be preparation, leadership, and some evident readiness for mass labor actions.

Not to mention, there had better be a recognizable goal. But what is the point of the proposed general strike? To say down with Trump? What, so we can have Pence?

Or is the point just a generalized ‘No’? A massive expression of discontent? None of the significant costs of a general strike are worth it if it’s just a grand gesture of refusal.

On one version, the point of the strike is to affirm a grab-bag of demands: no to the immigration ban, yes to universal health care, no to pipelines, no to global gag rule and, inexplicably, a final demand that Trump reveal his tax returns. These demands show no evidence of thinking about what the immediate interests of workers might actually be – no mention of proposed national right-to-work legislation, $15 minimum wage demands, or even Trump’s terrible Labor Secretary pick. Trump’s nationalist and deeply inegalitarian economic ‘plan’ at least acknowledges the need to address bad employment prospects and stagnant wages.

It would be reasonable for workers to dismiss the call for a general strike. It looks like they are being asked to be actors in someone else’s drama, by people who just cottoned on to the fact that things are shitty out there.

Moreover, even moderately effective general strikes don’t emerge, willy-nilly, like miraculous interventions into national life. They are intensifications and radicalizations of already existing patterns of resistance by the working class. This demand for a general strike looks less like that intensification and more like an attempt to leapfrog all the hard, long-term political work that goes before.

At least some of those arguing for the general strike seem to sense that there is an element of bad faith here. For instance, Francine Prose added the qualification, which I have seen repeated in a number of places, that only those “who can do so without being fired” should go on strike. This must be the first time someone called for a general strike but exempted most of the working class.

Believe me, I’d love to see a real general strike, a serious attempt at restructuring society, not just lopping the head off the Republican hydra. But there is no royal road to revolution, or even to a true mass movement for social change.

Alex Gourevitch

* The original post said “SEIU Local 1199,” but Local 1199 only joined SEIU many years after MLK addressed them.

 

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33 Responses to “Whose Strike?”

  1. originalsandwichman February 3, 2017 at 7:36 pm #

    Superb! I’ve linked to this at EconoSpeak. Goals: 1. abolition of the wages system. 2. direct democracy. Those goals are not just slogans but shorthand for a complex analysis. Just like the idea of a general strike must acknowledge the history of anti-strike violence in U.S. and the conditions and preparation needed to undertake such action.

    http://econospeak.blogspot.com/2017/02/general-strike-and-recall.html

  2. Nick Copeland February 3, 2017 at 9:02 pm #

    so what is the alternative to the general strike? obviously we aren’t fully prepared, and might never get there. but shouldn’t we at least try to head off war with Iran–among the many, many other horrible things happening immediately– by any means at our disposal? shouldn’t we try to strike before they consolidate power?

  3. greenpeoplesmedia February 3, 2017 at 10:39 pm #

    We’re in general agreement with this post. When I first heard of these various “general strikes” being called for, my first question was, “what are the list of demands?” Second question was, who is the command for such bold, risky actions? Your point is right on about not exposing your rank-and-file (assuming you are a labor leader jointly calling for these strikes) to severe repression, possibly deadly repression by the State Power.

    An even bigger question looms in all of this. What form do today’s General Strikers think that the labor movement of the future will take? Just as Democratic Party leadership believe they can “rebuild and restore” the former Democratic Party that existed on top of a different economic base, just so many labor leadership believe they can “rebuild and restore” the CIO-style unions existing on top of a different economic base.

    The days of big, highly concentrated and centralized work forces existing in huge massive Works in big cities like Chicago and Cleveland and Pittsburgh (the Big 8 Steel companies) or in Detroit-Flint-Toledo (Big Auto) are done-for now. Today’s workforce is scattered, contingent, often part-time or on shady schedules. Many of the biggest factory Works are on schedule for full robotization in the decades to come.

    Tomorrow’s labor movement is going to look exactly like tomorrow’s poor and destitute people’s movements. The North American workforce is being destituted by big capital, and big capital realizes they have all the power in this picture.

    Tomorrow’s labor & impoverished people movements *could* look somewhat like Occupy Wall Street, if actual means of production, offices, logistics facilities and so forth were actually being occupied and held until a list of demands is met. This would also trigger unbelievable levels of state counterforce bent on making an example of movements in several cities. Probably with appalling loss of life on the part of protestors.

    Calling for a general strike by a workforce that is no way organized nor prepared for the current economic conditions, the status of forces between classes, etc. is not realistic. And it shows that the “leaderless movement” concept that grew up in Occupy has still not be dispensed-with.

    Cheers,

    B.G.

  4. Buzz Malone February 3, 2017 at 10:44 pm #

    That is an excellent piece. Thank you for putting it together. I believe in the need for such action. But as a labor organizer and historian, as much as I feel the need for it, and long for workers to rise up and claim the fruits of their own labors, for all of the reasons you have so correctly identified, such action NEVER comes as a result of leaders or organizers or anyone calling for it to happen, or planning for it to occur. Historically, union and political leadership have been opposed to these actions. The people went out because they were moved by other workers in the moment to do so. The more traditional and established labor and political “movement” leadership are ALWAYS chasing after them from behind, trying to tame the tiger by its collective tail.

    I find value in the “elitists” (myself included – i.e. not the rank and file) at least beginning to talk about these things honestly and openly again. Because foresight and thought and planning will make catching up to the mob less difficult. But we will never make it happen. Only the workers will do that.

    Past efforts have failed in part because of the violent and oppressive actions of the state and the employers the state represents. But equally, they have failed due to lack of organizational structures able or willing to support them, and the inevitable infighting of establishment leaders who eventually catch up and try to take charge.

    I think of Wisconsin too. 100,000 angry workers surrounding the state capitol. Labor leaders arrived on scene and told everyone to go home and vote. There was a brief moment in time when it could have gone another more radical direction, but energies instead were funneled back into the electoral system that had failed them to begin with.

    For this reason, I have also said many times over through the years that from the vantage point of organized labor, the next revolution will also be against us. I have no doubt that something akin to a general strike is on the horizon. Be it in a city, or a state or region. It is an inevitability. But it won’t be called for. It will simply happen, and who knows what will spark it? The only real question we ought to be asking, is how the left, the movement, the unions, etc. is going to respond when it happens, and what, if anything will be prepared to do to support, encourage, and gain from it?

  5. barry9999 February 4, 2017 at 2:26 am #

    I thought this article was incredibly well-written and definitely worth discussing in the interests of helping the spontaneous movement that has emerged to grow. I have two criticisms to make of the piece.

    1) The main argument against the notion that US workers should have a General Strike is that they will be mowed down by the State, leading to massive loss of life that might set back the overall cause. I don’t buy it. The context of this discussion is the spontaneous outbreak of solidarity and humanism evidenced on the Women’s March that was the largest single day protest in US history, and now some are wondering how to take this further. They are right to do this, it does need taking further, if only to increase the working class component within the Resistance that might be able to mitigate the negative effects of middle class students forming an irrational authoritarian mob, as they just did at UC Berkeley. The widespread anti-Trumpism that exists – it permeates most of the media outlets – coupled with the spontaneous Resistance at the street level, means that the context in which mass strikes were previously brutally suppressed in America no longer exists. Back then, it was widely perceived that capitalism had a bright future, this is now a belief that no longer exists. So, back then it was possible for the State to get away with brutal suppression of workers, now it is not. I would wager that if a single striking worker was shot, all hell would break loose. It’s something we should encourage, and workers should begin to formulate their demands right now.

    2) The other argument in this piece against workers having a General Strike seems to be a notion of Stagism. To understand what this means and how much of a setback it was in the twentieth century, I quote from marxists.org the accepted definition of Stagism.

    Stagism

    A political theory that society must follow definitive stages of class society. Thus, it is essentially impossible for a feudal society to transition into a socialist society, in much the same way that a tribal society could not transition to a capitalist society.

    The stagists particularly argued, in countries lacking the basic preconditions for capitalism (let alone socialism), that a large, organised and educated proletariat, a high level of urbanisation, industrialisation, concentration of capital, and a democratic political culture were necessary before Socialism could be achieved. They explained that the preconditions of socialism have to be secured by a development of the market, including private ownership in the means of production, and conversely that the passage to socialism cannot be secured by means of a dictatorship of the proletariat.

    Some versions of “stagism” hold that the “intermediate stage” must include a bourgeois-democratic regime, and rules out the possibility of a dictatorship of the proletariat overseeing the development of the market and raising the cultural level, and postpones the seizure of power by the working class until the “normal” course of capitalist development has been completed. Other versions of “stagism” envisage a workers’ government overseeing a stage of normal capitalist development.

    “Stagism” is generally contrasted with the idea of the “growing over” of the bourgeois democratic revolution into a socialist revolution, a social process which can take place under a dictatorship of the proletariat, understood as the fullest development of participatory democracy, but suppressing large-scale capital accumulation if not entirely eliminating private ownership of the means of production.

    The idea here is that although the seizure of power by the organised working class is a “sudden” or revolutionary event, the underlying social change is gradual, with the preconditions for socialism slowly developing and the working class gaining an ever firmer hold over social life, smoothly passing from a social-democratic “mixed economy” to a planned economy managed by the working class. According to this position, the “stagist” proposal to freely allow capital accumulation and the extension of the market (with or without a workers’ government) would allow the bourgeoisie to grow, consolidate its power and crush the working class, eradicating the possibility of socialist revolution.

    Stagism leads to the belief that reformism must be exhausted before revolution is possible.

    Historical Development: In the Russian Revolution, the problem of stagism versus permanent revolution posed itself in the split between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Everyone agreed that the coming revolution had to carry out the tasks of a bourgeois revolution (i.e., establish basic freedoms, overcome the legacy of feudalism and modernise society) but the Bolsheviks held that these tasks would be achieved only by a revolution led by the proletariat, while the Mensheviks held that the tasks of the bourgeois revolution could only be achieved with the bourgeoisie, and that even though the Russian proletariat was a strong class, political leadership had to be shared with the bourgeoisie. This was a form of stagism: first a bourgeois revolution, then later, a proletarian revolution.

    In the immediate aftermath of World War Two, Stalin actually tried to restore right-wing and even reactionary governments in the countries occupied by the Red Army because of the conviction that a distinct stage of bourgeois development (People’s Democracy) was needed before making a decisive move towards the elimination of capital. This perspective was never implemented however.

    Later, in the series of national liberation movements that grew up after the second world war, “stagism” meant limiting these revolutions to the achievement of normal capitalist development, postponing nationalisation of the land and the building of a planned, non-market economy to a later, second stage. Support for stagism grew particularly in the 1970s as the nationalised economies in these countries failed to make the necessary development.

  6. Peter February 7, 2017 at 3:51 am #

    Doesn’t need to be a “royal road”. Just needs to be steady…strengthening… resistance. “Stayin’ away”, if only for a day, and marching in the street can defeat fear, elevate consciousness, and engender solidarity. It is a step in a forward direction and, over time, could rise to be a general strike – as is done by most of the world’s workers. It would happen with the leadership and support of key sectors of the organized forces of US workers… and a common set of demands.

    • thecurrentmoment February 8, 2017 at 5:29 pm #

      Peter, it’s true that it might have that effect. But usually, one-day strikes have that effect when they are rooted in a class politics, trying to elevate it, win public sympathy, work out strategies. That, for instance, is what happened with the one-day strikes for the Fight for 15 movement. This General Strike call doesn’t look like that at all. It doesn’t even seem to be that interested in the working class to begin with.

  7. Joanne Thomas February 7, 2017 at 4:19 pm #

    Interesting article. I studied every word and the comments from the HuffPo and the other sites for this article. A very productive conversation for today. But, I am writing because I live in Michigan’s Keweenaw peninsula, where the 9 month long copper miner’s strike of 1913 included the Mi. National Guard and the murders of a number of miners. But a more infamous detail of this strike is the Italian Hall tragedy that took the lives of 73 (mostly children) because of a false cry of ‘Fire’ in the crowded hall for a Christmas party for the striking miner’s children.
    You listed the more minor labor strikes toward the end of your article, but this tragic strike missed your radar. Dr. Aaron Goings is a U.S. labor strike expert (from the state of Wa.), and he was stunned at the absence of broader knowledge of this strike history, and so he co-authored one of the many books on it. https://1913copperstrike.blogspot.com/

    • thecurrentmoment February 7, 2017 at 4:26 pm #

      You are right that I left out that important strike. The Italian Hall tragedy is important because it was also very likely the historical basis for Holmes’ famous remark that yelling “fire in a crowded theater” is not a protected form of speech. It’s a real tragedy. There is a nice discussion of that strike here (the second link is a correction to the first):
      http://coreyrobin.com/2013/02/17/falsely-shouting-fire-in-a-theater-how-a-forgotten-labor-struggle-became-a-national-obsession-and-emblem-of-our-constitutional-faith/

      http://coreyrobin.com/2013/02/19/new-information-on-that-false-shout-of-fire-in-a-theater/

      There are so many strikes that I could have mentioned but didn’t for reasons of space. Paint/Cabin Creek, Homestead, Lawrence, Detroit ’37, RR strike of 1873-74, I mean it’s endless. And so many of them are poorly known.

      • Joanne Thomas February 8, 2017 at 4:22 pm #

        Thank you so much for your kind response and acknowledgment.
        Just to add to the conversation – it may be important to embrace any and all civil and lawful ideas to resist the oppressive actions of this administration, and not discourage fragile enthusiasm. The suggestion of a strike (or a boycott) in the context of today’s resistance could be a loosely-worded way to put a dent in the economy to send a message. But certainly the repercussions of an organized strike as our history has demonstrated should never be forgotten.

  8. cbrizifire February 16, 2017 at 2:25 pm #

    Oh people

  9. halfbakedlog February 16, 2017 at 2:58 pm #

    You may be missing the point. Workers, union and non, may be aligned with the new administration more than you think. You may need to ask real actors in Hollywood to become “actors in someone else’s drama.” Staying on the fringe keeps you from seeing the whole. I believe that a continuation of massive protests against Trump will make Trump look like the underdog and garner more support.

    • thecurrentmoment February 16, 2017 at 7:09 pm #

      There is no strong evidence that workers are more aligned than against the administration. There have been union actions and protests against the administration across the country at the local level, the substantial majority of Trump’s votes came from wealthy Americans rather than poor ones, Hillary got far more support from unions than Trump did, and the few union leaders that met with Trump are already known to be quite conservative. There is, it is true, a separation between rank-and-file and leadership, but again the polling and votes do not suggest that anything close to a majority of workers voted for or support Trump. Not only did he receive a minority of votes from those making under $50,000 a year – which already represents a minority of those adults over all – but he is the most unpopular president ever for an entering president. There is little evidence of popular support for him at any level, especially among workers.

      • halfbakedlog February 16, 2017 at 8:12 pm #

        Macomb County, Michigan here. No strong evidence may turn against you. Something’s happening. Union workers who wouldn’t go to sleep unless they were assured that Clinton was not elected. The many immigrants in this area: Arabic, Eastern European, Mexican – all more conservative in their politics and religion than I ever will be. The voices in stores, gyms, libraries, voicing support for this administration. Hysterical antics by the way-off left turns people off. I am pro-choice (as far as Roe vs. Wade goes). I’m an agnostic that has spiritual desires. I believe that if whatever gets you through the night is a same-sex relationship, go for it. And the Democratic rhetoric turns me off so much, I’m on the verge of joining the local Republican party. You may have strong evidence, I see real people around me.

  10. braddahr February 16, 2017 at 3:29 pm #

    Didn’t want to like this post because it’s just so distressing. Man’s inhumanity towards man. However, if we forget the past we lose sight of the truth of what the world is.

  11. Oldunionist February 16, 2017 at 5:43 pm #

    Reblogged this on Old unionist.

  12. colas95 February 17, 2017 at 4:21 pm #

    Great post! thanks for the share 🙂

  13. erotesque February 17, 2017 at 9:52 pm #

    Reblogged this on Erotesque.

  14. SumitOfficial February 18, 2017 at 2:46 am #

    Loved it.

  15. Leyland7659 February 19, 2017 at 12:32 am #

    Damn. What a reward for my browsing. Only one sentence I disagree with, that is, the suggestion that they have become more tolerant. Nope, they are just as vicious but use more acceptable tactics. Ferguson was saved by cell phones. The police will mow you down and go have a burger.

  16. Lee Poskey February 19, 2017 at 2:59 am #

    “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved” Acts 16.31
    This is what matters.

  17. Shish Singh February 19, 2017 at 7:59 am #

    Superb!!!! The way this has been crafted

  18. Pablo Cuzco February 19, 2017 at 10:45 am #

    No. I think the writer is wrong. He admits the two recent strikes made an impact, yet he culls history for bad examples to make an argument against one of the most fundamental tools we have to ensure our freedom from oppression. He is set on defusing the spirit of people willing to expose what is a clear danger to the lives of millions of Americans. They are protesting a charlatan who is shamelessly exploiting the Presidency to enrich his daughter and sons, and himself, to the harm of everyone else, including those who supported his rise to despotism. Martin Luther King died for the freedom and equality of the entire American population. Every one of us owes their Civil Liberties to Mr. King and those like him, who fought to ensure those rights. To say his Memphis efforts were a failure is a disingenuous attempt at misinformation and every American citizen reading this article should take offense.

  19. profferweb February 20, 2017 at 9:28 pm #

    Nice technofuze.com

  20. location de voiture casablanca February 21, 2017 at 10:44 am #

    Great post! thanks for the share

  21. deprivedofloveblog February 21, 2017 at 6:19 pm #

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  22. Ian Roberts February 23, 2017 at 11:03 pm #

    A general strike only ever worked when there was a big, easily mobilised workforce and a clear, single issue. And even then, action that disrupts people’s lives usually serves only to alienate. Protest over broad, sweeping matters is fairly easily dismissed as rent-a-crowd – and disruption simply to gain publicity overlooks the fact that US media has little credibility and the on-line is not mainstream enough. The only effective way to combat The GOP domination of the political process is for an effective political opposition to speak to GOP voters. It won’t be achieved by the Democrats moving further Left and linking their once-relevant party with disruption and extremism. We are talking about the US, not Germany.

  23. fathersside February 24, 2017 at 12:47 am #

    Strike and save our sons brothers friends and fathers “Fathers Side” http://www.fathersside.wordpress.com

  24. Dave Dally March 5, 2017 at 9:59 pm #

    Awesome job! Congrats!

  25. Abhranil August 20, 2017 at 7:27 am #

    this is weird

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Radicals: Don’t Ignore the General Strike! - February 6, 2017

    […] has generated massive disruptions like the list of labor strikes outlined by Alex Gourevitch in his critical article on the matter. Before leaping to impugn proposals which have inspired swaths of the population we […]

  2. Whose Strike? by Michelle W. – Welcome to my online library! Your one-stop source for information and entertainment! - February 22, 2017

    […] Whose Strike? by Michelle W. […]

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