What is the General Strike?
Also at CounterPunch.
The General Strike in the US is a multi-faceted, poly-centered resistance movement responding to the general crisis of capitalism and corporate power triggered by the Covid-19 crisis. The pandemic is revealing to millions what was always well hidden: America is a house of cards.
The bosses and their government have no interest in defending the life and liberties of working-class people. Quite the opposite. In order for corporations to achieve their control over us, they are driven to undermine our human and political rights — just as they are driven to maximize profits. Their strategy is to hollow out and weaken all the democratic and representative functions of the government, the two-party system, even trade unions.
After four decades of retreat by organized labor; after the double defeat of the Sanders campaign; after Citizens United legalized bribery; after the multi-trillion dollar bailouts of the ruling class passed by a united and unanimous Congress — we are on our own. The General Strike is an attempt to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of representative democracy.
The General Strike is anti-Trump but it is also against the system that produced Trump. So many still want to believe the system can work for us if we elect the right leaders; that elections are actually on the level; that justice will prevail if we get the right person on the Supreme Court. We tried all this and failed.
And as inspiring as the general strike is, it is a prelude to what is coming. In a mere ten years, we will be lost to irreversible, war-driven climate chaos. The pandemic is the opening act of humanity’s greatest drama. It is now time to “fish or cut bait” and we have been cutting bait for far too long.
Neither the incremental change internalized by far too many union officials nor the incremental change of nordic social-democracy sold by democratic-socialists will be permitted in the USA. Even a moderate reformer like Bernie Sanders or a common-sense anti-war politician like Tulsi Gabbard will never ever be let near the real levers of power — unless they surrender. Why? Because we are at the very center of the empire and if the bosses lose here they have lost it all.
But we can start right here, right now. There will be real resistance no matter what because people face life and death issues. The lose/lose choices people face between food or rent or healthcare will provoke resistance. Should we stand aside and call this wave of resistance nothing: just a strike here, just a strike there? Some unhappy tenants over here or some nice mutual aid efforts over here? Or should we provide the material and symbolic support for what workers have already decided to do? We face an unprecedented crisis and millions of unemployed workers, tenants, essential workers, the poor are on the move. Let’s catch up with them.
The General Strike does not simply harken back to early 20th century models or follow normal union channels. The general strikes of long ago occurred before the US empire achieved its global dominance and stepped up the tactics of oppression used abroad against its own people at home.McCarthyism was that war at home and it went right for the labor movement’s throat. The 1947 Taft-Hartly “Slave Labor” Act essentially made general strikes led by existing unions illegal.
While corporations were always powerful it wasn’t until approximately 1980 that they finally completed their merger with the state placing their interests above and in direct opposition to all others.
For a more useful history, we should look to the waves of resistance that have occurred since the 1999 “Battle for Seattle.” Perhaps most important was the immigrant-led one-day general strike called the “Great American Boycott.” On Mayday 2006 approximately one million people in 50 US cities avoided work, school and shopping to be part of one of the largest days of protest in American history.
In 2011, protests in Wisconsin were followed by Occupy which created millions of new activists around the world. The idea that we belonged to the 99% resonated with millions of people and gave new life to class consciousness and class solidarity by reinvesting “class” with its broadest possible meaning. Economic democracy became a mass aspiration.
The General Strike is much closer to the never-realized ideal of social movement unionism in which workplace struggles must be connected to social movements if we want to win.
But whatever historical examples you find important, today’s General Strike is based upon an actually existing resistance movement. General Strike 2020 introduced their efforts by saying:
We started this organization after we saw working class people launch a wave of labor strike and rent strike actions across the world in response to the severe negligence of our “leaders” as the pandemic has emerged. We were inspired into action by the workers and tenants and debtors who have already begun fighting and the hundreds of mutual aid systems which have spontaneously popped up everywhere.
There have been over 150 strikes since March 2020. These are the latest episode in a rapid upswing in strike activity since 2018. Many of these strikes are wildcats where strikes occur before unions were formed or are on the margins of an existing union structure. This worker self-activity should push unions, and all of us, into action.
The General Strike is also the emerging strike support networks, the expanding and unprecedented rent strike movement, the approximately 1000 active Mutual Aid projects, strategic boycott efforts targeting Amazon, Wholefoods, Trader Joes, Walmart, Tysons and more. The General Strike also means alternative supply chains and resources produced by all sorts of communal efforts from community gardens to cooperatives such as Cooperation Jackson.
The Green Party and other parties outside of the chokehold of the two-party system have been rejuvenated. And the growth of third parties will continue to the degree that we turn ourselves into the electoral wing of the social movements — or in this case the electoral wing of the General Strike. The activists associated with Popular Resistance are playing just such a role commuting back and forth between the Green Party and General Strike.
The general strike is the sum of all these struggles.
The general strike may not live up to expectations or rigid categories based on backward-looking models, but in fact, it far exceeds them because it is based on the actually existing concrete conditions of this historical moment. We cannot love our categories more than we love the life that appears before us. While was must learn from history we do not get to go back in time.
We cannot disentangle the multiple social forces at work that produced the General Strike. In fact, the organizing task is just the opposite. By seeking synergy and building networks, we will discover the organizational forms that give life to solidarity. Can we innovate the next generation of the Original Rainbow Coalition or something like it?
Our moment is one of deep crisis and opportunity. Guess what? It’s tangled and messy. Making history always is. We don’t get to select the circumstances of our engagement with history, but engage we must.
The overarching goal of the General Strike is democracy: economic, workplace, and community democracy. Representative democracy is largely broken. Direct and participatory democracy — on a mass scale — is the best response to the deeply interlocking crisis of pandemic, climate chaos, empire, and corporate rule.
We need a mighty movement to transform the political climate. For that, we need a big coalition and the political skill to find unity without uniformity. Can we build a movement of movements? For that, we need the General Strike and we need all its many parts to stay in motion.
Strike, Sick Out, Slow Down: The General Strike and You.
Also at Counterpunch.
The strike, sick out, and slowdown are among the most effective weapons in the arsenal of class struggle. They disrupt production and interrupt the flow of profits. But the most effective weapons are also the most demanding. Strikes require discipline, sacrifice, and struggle. Strikes are short-term pain for long-term gain. It’s not a coincidence that as strikes fell out of use over the last few decades the US working class fell too.
Striking for Life: Protect the Front-line, Not the Bottom Line.
The most dramatic examples of the General Strike are the many wildcat strikes across the country.Follow the action at On The Picket Lineor check out this interactive map of strike actions, or the “Dual Power” map by Black Socialists in America. Get in the loop and get connected at General Strike 2020.
If you are an essential worker and risking your life — talk to your co-workers. Form a clandestine strike committee and speak to, and listen to, everyone in the shop. A strike, sick-out, or slowdown can last a few hours, a day or indefinitely. Don’t hoodwink the workers into thinking it will be easy, but when life hangs in the balance the choice becomes clear.
Wildcats are strikes led by the rank and file workers, not union officials. This is a hidden strength. The kind of actions that were the backbone of the general strikes during the 20th century are now illegal — here in the land of the free. “Sympathy” or secondary strikes where workers strike — not out of a specific grievance with their own boss — but in solidarity with other strikers were made illegal. Russia-gate’s forerunners — the anti-communist purges of the Cold War and McCarthyism gave us the 1947 Taft-Hartley “slave labor act” that tamed the labor movement. Until this day, union officials that call sympathy strikes are treated as criminals — but the wildcats strikes have no official leaders.
In all those years since 1947 Democrats made not a single serious attempt to repeal Taft- Hartley. Maybe we can repeal it through direct action. Anyone who knows this history knows that Russia-gate and China-hate is no friend to the US working-class.
How can we help strikers?
Local efforts may be best. You can support your local strikers by setting up a “gofundme” account for them. Mask up and observe physical distance, but show up at picket lines with food and beverage. Join your local Mutual Aid team and help back up strikers.
Learn from our new leaders. Do what the strikers ask you to do. They know best.
Strategic boycotts in alignment with strikers are an important way to slow profits — the main form of leverage strikers have. Boycott Bezos for starters.
Sick Out and Slow Down
For at-home workers, the sick out and slow down are tailor-made for you. Call in sick sometime in the first week in May. Mild symptoms; a day or two, severe; a week or more. How sick are you? Only you know. Get it? Or, take a sick day, go back for one, then take another sick day. Can’t take the whole day, take half a day. Can’t take half a day just slow down — cut your production in half or more.
Almost all stuck-at-home workers I speak with are having symptoms due to isolation and confinement. Time for a mental health day? You owe yourself one.
One of the classic slowdown tactics is “Work to Rule.” Workplace rules are usually the product of the Human Relations department meant to put a liberal face on exploitation. But these rules often slow down production and are routinely ignored by management and worker alike. Study your “handbook” and find the weakness. Sometimes you can actually slow down by following the rules.
Working people have always resisted. Unfree workers, like slaves, developed forms of resistance to oppose slave owners. We can use the same kinds of resistance to oppose corporate power.
- Pilfer. “Steal” it back to reclaim value the boss stole from you in the first place. Let the bosses pay.
- Sabotage. Break your tools. Delete paperwork. Use stealth and cunning. Don’t get caught.
- Shamming. Bullshit them. Behind your smile is the strike.
Show solidarity with the general strike. Have a strike poster in your apartment window. Wear a red or black or lavender bandana. Change your Facebook cover image.
We have to rely on the creativity and power of the people. I am confident we will figure it out. The general strike has no central committee and that is probably a good thing since no one has all the answers. Let the people decide. You can best determine the kind of action you can take.
Just remember: whatever small step you take, you are part of something bigger. And the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
No one can do everything but everyone can do something.
From Strike Wave to General Strike
Above photo: Yasmine James (center with microphone), the McDonald’s worker attacked while working at a St. Petersburg restaurant, spoke to a crowd at a worker rally Tuesday. Spectrum News image. Thanks to Popular Resistance.
Also in Counterpunch and Popular Resistance.
The strike wave is here. The strike wave is real. Can workers take the next steps toward a General Strike?
The current crisis is a rare opportunity for us to build a movement both outside of electoral politics and based on an organizing model. That matters because the biggest shortcoming of the left and the social movements is our lack of organizing.
Organizing can do what good intentions or radical theory or electoral campaigns cannot: turn solidarity from a dream into a living thing. But without some serious solidarity, all our hopes for a General Strike will fail to materialize.
As we build the solidarity infrastructure needed for a General Strike lets not lie to each other. It’s called “class struggle” for a reason. Strikes are painful with workers pitting their sacrifice and suffering up against the bosses’ profits. Strikes are no party.
But, general strikes, while rare, are a good match for the unprecedented interlocking criseswe face. There is an answer to our problems. It’s the age-old working-class answer: “solidarity forever.” But, never forget that solidarity is forged in sacrifice too. Solidarity is not simply passing a resolution or staking a claim — it is actions like boycotts or mutual aid efforts or sending money to those at the front lines or going on strike yourself.
The Strike is Back
After a long period of retreat, the strike has returned with a vengeance. In 2018 West Virginia teachers kicked off a strike wave the likes of which we have not seen for decades. And like today’s strikes, the leadership is coming from the rank and file — not union officials.
In this moment of pandemic panic strikes and unrest are focused on immediate demands. We want a general strike and that is a great thing but we have to pave the way between the largely defensive strikes that actually exist and the political offensive that is the heart of a general strike.
General strikes contest for power by explicitly raising class consciousness and proposing system-wide reform, economic democracy, maybe even social transformation. The political task is to build the transition between the defensive strike wave and the offensive general strike we need. We can find the path by starting down the trailhead right in front of us.
If we want to engage people we have to listen carefully to what they say and do. The strongest currents of resistance that I see are actions, demands, and tactics around the immediate life and death questions of safety, protection, and survival:
- Protective equipment, sick benefits, hazard pay.
- Strike as “sick out” that withholds labor until we break the back of the pandemic.
- Strikes, slowdowns, rolling job actions or staying home. Let the workers decide.
- Increase wages for essential workers.
- The conversion of production to ventilators or masks or tests.
- Universal health care
- No rent, no evictions, no vacancies
- Mutual Aid to serve the people
These may be immediate demands but in them we can imagine the possibilities of the General Strike. In these demands, (and in the bosses’ rush to get us back to work) we can see that labor creates all wealth. We can see that workers are essential and bosses are disposable. When workers demand that they switch production to ventilators or masks — the seeds of worker control are taking root. Housing and health care are revealed as demands of direct interest to everyone, not just a moral stand. If the General Strike is the front-line, Mutual Aid is the quartermaster providing aid and comfort to the troops. Mutual Aid shows us what a democratic economy looks like.
Taken together these actions and demands are the beginnings of a struggle for economic, workplace and community democracy. Call it Freedom and Democracy, call it Socialism or Revolution, call it Reason or call it Treason — I don’t care what you call it.
Its Solidarity Forever or General Strike Never
“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” ― Lilla Watson
Solidarity is not simply good intentions or the fine speeches that politicians sometimes make. Solidarity grows by acting on the principle that “your liberation is bound up with mine.” With solidarity, a new world is possible — without it we surrender to corporate power.
By all means, have your steering committee pass a resolution but real solidarity can only be achieved by organizing and activism. Here are a few possibilities:
- We need to coordinate strategic boycotts targeting Amazon, Whole Foods and other corporate criminals. We need a huge email list and a website updated daily to select targets and coordinate timing. Who will take up this work?
- In 2016 the Sanders campaign proved that a presidential campaign could be crowdfunded by millions of small donations. Can we set up a funding mechanism to funnel money to striking workers trying to last “one day longer” than the boss?
- Solidarity with strikers means building networks, coalitions, Mutual Aid and communal efforts, and Unemployed Councils.
The Crisis Cannot Be Resolved by Normal Means
When compared with the narrow vision of the electoral arena (with the vast majority of politicians from both major parties still opposing universal healthcare) even these initial spontaneous uprising are full of ideas for redistributing wealth and power. Even in the depths of the crisis, unanimous Congressional action could deliver nothing greater than temporary cash payments so meager as to exaggerate the very wealth inequality that made our world unsustainable in the first place.
These tasty crumbs are welcomed aid to workers but were also a good move by the ruling class to calm things down. Without real resistance, our rulers got away with tossing us the bare minimum necessary to engineer consent so they could gain a far bigger prize: the further consolidation of 40 years of corporate power.
It’s not that progressive Democrats produced nothing. They moved the discourse in important ways. But the unanimous consent to the corporate bailout signals the limits of even well-meaning electoral activity under existing conditions. And that is why the strike wave is so important. Direct action gets the goods. And, the torch is passed back from celebrities and politicians to the unknown everyday people that were always the true leaders of the working-class.
The left needs Ella Bakers’ vision. Do we have the capacity to “pick up the pieces or put together pieces?”
What will help the millions move? What will build the capacity for self-organization? We need to learn and quick. Because it is when millions move — then and only then — that we will unleash the enormous creative energies of the people. They will find the way forward.
The people are telling us where to find them. Can we catch up? Its due time for all organizers to engage, listen, learn from and stand with our new leaders. There is no greater solidarity than this.