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Thoughts On Occupy's Call For A General Strike

Started by GREGORYABUTLER, April 17, 2012, 05:19:20 am

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The Occupy Wall Street movement has put out a call for a General Strike on May Day 2012.

This is a great idea - unfortunately, I have serious doubts that OWS will be able to pull this off. I hope I'm wrong about this, but I have serious reasons for my reservations (including the fact that, at this writing, they only have 13 calendar days to pull such a mobilization off).

That's kind of a big deal, especially in light of the fact that America has only had two successful nationwide partial general strikes in its history (the "Great Upheaval" of 1877 and the 8 Hour Day general strike of May 1-4 1886).

There have been five local partial general strikes, all a very long time ago (Seattle 1919, Toledo, San Francisco and Minneapolis, all three at the same time in the spring of 1934 and Oakland in 1946) and the two big immigrant workers nationwide "boycotts" of work in 2006 ("The Great American Boycott" in March of that year and the follow up "Gran Marcha" on May Day) so it can be done.

However, general strikes are the exception rather than the rule here in America, and, with the exception of the 1886 general strike for the 8 hour day, none of those general strikes were sanctioned by the official labor leadership.

A general strike on May 1 (or at any other day) would break a big political logjam in America, might help to stop American labor's death spiral, would show workers our potential power and, if learned from correctly, could do wonders for the working class movement, here and overseas.

This would apply even if the general strike was confined to what folks in the Occupy movement call the "precariat" - temps, part timers, day laborers and other casual workers in the service sector - and to young underemployed White college grads (Occupy's social base).

It would be even better if the more strategic contingents of the working class got in the mix. This would include manufacturing workers who, despite what this article and "conventional wisdom" might tell us, are actually still a very important sector of the working class in this country with their fingers on the jugular vein of capitalism. This is especially true of factory workers in meatpacking, food processing, lumber and building materials, the auto industry and aerospace and defense, industries that, for various reasons, still do a LOT of their production here in America and aren't able to offshore work as easily as other sectors.

Other strategic sections of the working class would included truck drivers  - particularly over the road or long distance drivers (80% of all of America's goods move in the back of their trucks) and the drivers who haul sea freight at the ports and the ones who transport Mexican manufactured goods across the border at Laredo, TX and up Interstate 35 ("the NAFTA Corridor") to the big distribution centers in Bentonville, AR and Joliet, IL; construction workers, both the predominantly American-born workers in big city commercial construction and industrial maintenance and the largely Mexican workforce in residential  construction; longshoremen on the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts and the Great Lakes-Mississippi River valley inland waterways (they handle most of America's overseas imported and exported goods); freight handlers and mechanics at the airports, in particular JFK Airport in New York, the main entry point for American airfreight imports from and exports to the European Community nations) and transit workers in New York City (New Yorkers are just about the only Americans who rely on public transportation rather than private cars to get to work - shutting down NYC's transit system shuts down the city's economy, including the financial district and the corporate headquarters of many of America's leading corporations).

However, there are big obstacles to those workers participating.

One is the fact that many of these workers are unionized and the American labor movement's leadership is dead set against any type of serious organized resistance to the abuses that American capitalists have inflicted on the workers.

They are especially opposed to any kind of general strike, because of the revolutionary political implications of such a strike. These leaders are pro Democratic Party reformists, they don't want to upset the apple cart and that's exactly what a general strike would do.

The second obstacle is the lack of a working class leadership independent of the AFL-CIO that could persuade these workers to go on strike and actually lead them on strike. No industrial worker, even the militant minority that sympathize with Occupy's goals, is going to risk job loss to go out on strike based on a leaflet or an email from the local OWS General Assembly.

Add to that the fact the perception that most workers have of Occupy. The general perception is Occupy as a bunch of good hearted middle class kids who are doing the right thing and have the right idea, but that involvement in Occupy is impractical for the average working class person and, by and large, it's an alien class phenomenon.

This view of Occupy is based on the largely correct perception that involvement in Occupy means having to go to lots of 5 hour long meetings and then having to go out and get arrested.

That might be an easy sacrifice for underemployed middle class White young adults with lots of free time who also benefit from racial and class privilege (a real advantage when you're sitting in Central Booking).

However, getting pepper sprayed, arrested and "put through the system" is kind of a big deal for working class folks, especially Black, Latino and immigrant workers, but also a big risk for anybody with a steady job or parents who don't want to lose their kids to foster care.

Obviously, we can look at the Oakland experience earlier this year to see why Occupy was unable to lead a general strike.

Despite fairly widespread passive support among working class Alameda County residents, Occupy Oakland was not able to pull off any kind of serious work stoppages the day of their mobilization, despite enormous effort on their part to spread the word in working class neighborhoods throughout the East Bay area.

Unfortunately, we can safely draw the conclusion from that experience that they'll have similar results in terms of calling a larger scale general strike.

Obviously, this shows the urgent need for a leadership among the working class that would have the kind of credibility to lead things like general strikes.

Unfortunately, no such leadership is on the horizon at this time.

That's a damned shame, and a difficult problem that militant workers need to solve sooner rather than later. Regrettably, we aren't going to be able to resolve that problem in the next 13 days.

I do hope I'm wrong about this and I hope Occupy surprises me on May Day and pulls this off, but I seriously doubt it.

-   commentary by GREGORY A. BUTLER, LOCAL 157 CARPENTER
               Originally published on Tuesday, April 17, 2012
               © 2012 Gregory A. Butler, all rights reserved.