In at least four countries, there will be a general strike on November 14. There are calls to turn it into a European general strike. What to make of the idea, how to operate most fruitfully in connection to these and similar initiatives, is the subject of this article.
November 14 will – at the very least – see strike action against austerity in four European countries: Spain, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus. (1) There is the potential of much, much more, and people from very diverse backgrounds are working in the direction of en Europe-wide general strike on that day. Does it make sense? How can we contribute in such ways that N14 – as the date is beginning to be called – can become much more than yet another mostly symbolic action such as we have been seeing many times already?
First, the situation itself. Trade union federations have called nationwide one day general strikes for November 14 in the four countries I mentioned. Apparently, union federations in France and Italy are considering the idea as well. Let's be clear on the importance of this. Union federations do not launch these kind of strikes because they want serious resistance to austerity. Rather, they want these strikes as a show of force to strengthen their own positiaon as mediators of the class struggle, as managers of discontent. They want to show governments and bosses: hey, there is a lot of discontent amongst workers. We will try to hold it in check for you; it is our (rather well-paid) job. But you have to give some concessions, you have to soften your stance on austeriry a bit. Only that will enable us to play our role, ony then we can say to our members: trust us, don't rock the boat, we will bring about some improvements. To show governments that the trade union leaders have to be taken into account, trade union leaders call their members to strike, as if to say to govermnent: do you see all these angry workers? Do you feel the disruption they cause, for just one day? Now, do you appreciate our trouble to keep them quiet? Please help us doing so, by giving us concessions to increase our credibility among these workers. Or would you rather have these workers pushing us aside and fighting on their own terms? Would you rather have strtikes without fixed duration, wildcat strikes, all-out class confrontation?
These strikes, then, are entirely bureaucratic in their motivation, as far as trade union functionaries are concerned. Workers, however, tend to see them as opportunities to show their anger, and make their anger felt. Rightly so! For radicals, that makes them relevant. The more a strike call is supported, in as militant a fashion as possible, the stronger workers will feel, the stronger ties of solidarity will be built.. In itself, this does not stop governments or austerity policies. But it builds working class strength and confidence needed for a serious struggle. Trade union leaders use these kind of strikes to parade workers as their stage army. Radical workers, anarchists among them, want to see the soldiers of that army starting to fight on their own account, turning the stage army in an independent force fighting from below. That is whay libertarian communists should, in my view, take these strike calls seriously. Not because we trust the trade unions, but on the contrary, because we doe not trust them, and refuse to leave the struggle in their iron grip.
The general strikes on N14 will not, in themselves, stop austerity or bring down governments. Even a one day European strike will not do that. Greece has seen 20 general strikes of this type. Yet, the government did neither fall nor budge because of that. One can say that, without the discontente expressed through thesee strikes, the Greek goverment and the EU bureaucrats would feel even more arrogantly confident to push on; in that sense, the strikes may have acted as a brake. But it is clear that to beat back austerity, a much more offensive approach – ongoing strikes, occupations, street blockades, confrontation with the state – will be needed (2). But the mobilizations around the strikes can be used as stepping stones in that direction. The same applies to the European wide strike action now being organized and discussed for N14. And yes, when you are striking in Spain in the knowledge that workers in Greece, Portugal and Cyprus (and Italy? And France? And... ?) are out on strike, it probably raises your confidence, making you feel part of an even bigger whole. So yes, by all means, let's support the European-wide general strike – in our own independent fashion. It is not at all the magic trick to end our problems. But we can use it as part of building our fight – and spreading our ideas within the fight.
How? I have not very much to say here about the specifics of struggle in Spain, Portugal, Cyprus and Greece. The general idea is clear: making the strike as forceful as possible, challenging the top-down union bureaucratic grip on events, connecting with ongoing struggles, introducing direct-action dynamics within and around the strike and connected demonstrations. For instance, the anti-austerity protest organized in Londen last Saturday was by trade unions along familiar, bureaucratic, blowing-off-steam-and-then-go-home lines. However, as mentioned in “What October 20 tells us about the state of the movement”, on Libcom (3), Disabled People Against Cuts held a beautiful street blockade with wheelchairs as part of the action which raised the temperture and added to the pressure. Initiatives like these can make mobilizations much more forceful than trade union organizers intend them to be. Radicals in the countries where the strike is on will find their way.
There are, however countries where ther is no general strike call from trade union circles in sight. The Netherlands is one of these countries. Yes, ETUC, the European trade union federation, has made a call for “a day of action and solidarity on 14 November, including strikes, demonstrations, rallies and other actions.” (4) Not quite a call for a general strike, but a step in that direction. The purpose: “mobilising the European trade union movement behind ETUV policies as set down in the Social Compact for Europe”. Whatever is in that document, people will understand this call as a protest against the European-wide austerity policies, at least in their current form. Just like national general strike calls can be used to mobilize around in the direction of a more radical approach, the ETUC call can be used to build in the direction of European-wide strike action and more. This is what people, myself included, are trying to do in the Netherlands.
It is important to do it right, however. There is the temptation to get stuck on trade union territory, to just take the ETUC call, step to the unions and demand that they organize strike action, imploring them, pressurizing them, leaving it up to them. This is the approach that Trotskyists use in Britain: demanding that the TUC organize a general strike. Lenin's Tomb expresses the idea: “there is a basis for mass industrial action to happen if only the trade unions are willing to support it.” (5) Ah, if only! They will solve the problem for us! And what if they don't? Wait for better days and Sell the Paper? I think a much more fruitful approach can and should be tried. The idea of e a general strike on a European scale can be pushed by radical circles, whether anarchists, Occupy-related networks, other formal or informal netwerks of radicals.
For the day itself, street actions can be planned, noisy pots-and-pans protest marches ans assemblies like in Quebec last summer, blockades of buildings where hated, austerity-related institutions are seated, 'ordinary' demonstrations, pickets at embassies of states where general strikes are going forward. People might spontaneously get sick of austerity on that 14th of November as well. Anything to express solidarity with the struggle against austerity. Anyything to raise the anti-austerity temperature. And all exoplicitly connected to the general strike idea for N14. And who knows, there might just be an office department, a factory, a company, where workers are already so fed up and confident that they might come out on strike. There might even be a trade union branch or wing here and there that is sensitive to the mood, and starts supporting the idea. You never know how far you come unless you try. However, our approach should not make itself depend on that unions will or will not do. Independent initiative and organization from the bottom up, are essential. Waiting for the unions would be catastrophic and, more importantly, it is entirely unneccessary.
The idea has been tried before. On May Day this year, calls went out in the US for a general strike. Occupy- and related initiatives spread the call, and organized street protests on that day. No, it was not a general strike. But is spread the idea of such a strike, and it was a step in that direction. No, a combination of the actions that I mentioned for N14 will very likely not amount to a full general strike, it may not even come close. But it would spread the idea that strike action is needed and should be built, it would be a step in the right direction. And maybe it could become a dress rehearsal for something much bigger as well, on the First May 2013...
 “Anti-Austerity Allies Coming Together for Cordinated European Strikes”, Common Dreams, 19 oktober 2012,
 The insights that Thrasybulus expresses in “General strike: Round 20”, on Libcom.org, are vital here.
 Phil, “What October 20 tells us about the state of the movement”, Libcom.org, 21 October.
 ETUC, “ETUC day of action and solidarity for a Social Compact for Europe” , October 17
 “Mass protests against the cuts”, Lenin's tomb, October 20.
For this article, the forum thread on Libcom, “European general strike? 14 November” , has been very useful.