A short list of objections to the May 1st general strike effort within the Occupy movement and some responses to them.
By now you’ve probably heard about how in various cities Occupy has called for a general strike on May 1. The call seemed to originate from a number of different circles, although the most influential circle seems to have been a group of people involved in several anarchist organizations and/or the IWW. Their influence can be seen in how widely the call was circulated, in the websites set up for Occupy May 1st, and in some of the decent looking posters and images they put out.
Regardless of the source of the call, it has been taken up in a variety of ways by Occupy groups in New York, Los Angeles, Oakland, Minneapolis, Boston, Seattle, Denver, Long Beach, Detroit, and Oklahoma City, among other places. The media has been reporting on it and it’s probably fair to say that this could be the biggest May Day since the immigration protests of 2006.
As the call has spread around and become something inseparable from Occupy as a movement, there have been a number of objections or concerns about a May 1st general strike. Some of them even come from people in the IWW or those in the radical left who we would presume would be on board. Here is my attempt to quickly address some of the most common ones.
“A general strike is irresponsible and will make people lose sympathy with Occupy.”
This comes more from the perspective that movements are about publicity and a battle of positions, primarily though the mainstream media. I don’t want to lessen the role that media plays in affecting our movements and efforts, but this shouldn’t be a main consideration of what we do or how we do it. The media is composed of mostly large businesses that are tied to numerable other large businesses and rely on them for their existence. It is largely a reflection of the interests of the rich or politicians, and it very rarely will be in favor of groups or actions which undermine this. Look at much of the coverage of Occupy; a lot of it is neutral or even positive up to a point where Occupy calls into question the pillars of our society, then the typical associations with violence, “Communism” or “hippies” are trotted out to delegitimize what the movement says. Let us also not forget how they ignored us until the police viciously attacked Occupiers in New York.
“Organized labor was not/is not being consulted.”
In a number of cities our friends in Occupy are talking with the larger mainstream unions and there is some level of participation, even if unofficial, between the two. But let’s be clear, the mainstream unions are tied up in labor law and contracts that were specifically developed to prevent such a linking between them and social movements and to dish out major consequences (including massive fines and jail time) for exceeding the restrictions put upon them.
Unions also are on the decline and have been for a while. Only a small amount of the American workforce are in unions, and many workers (especially younger ones) have had almost no experiences with them. This makes ties to the rank and file much more difficult and can result in only having ties with staff and officers, who are not necessarily the people you want to be in contact with when it comes to mobilizing, engaging and building relationships with the membership to take part in such a thing as a May 1st general strike.
“May Day is for immigrants/Occupy is co-opting May Day”
Anything that Occupy as a movement turns its eye towards has received words of skepticism and territorial claims by individuals and groups who have been involved in specific issues prior to Occupy's emergence. At first, radical left activists looked at Occupy as encroaching their turf. The people attending the occupations were unfamiliar, not in their social circles. In places like Oakland or in situations like the port shutdowns, as the encampments moved towards 'worker issues', some union leaders and groups close to unions glared suspiciously at some erosion on their monopoly of 'worker issues'. Similar sentiments in regard to race have been expressed around the Trayvon Martin case. We see this also with May 1st and immigration.
May Day or May 1st is, strictly defined, International Workers Day. A day in which martyred Chicago anarchist labor organizers are remembered. A day in which the old workers movements have flexed their muscle in a demonstration of numbers and power. But it has also been a day for dystopian 'socialist' regimes to display to the world their weaponry. In the early 70s, May 1st meant massive student protests against the Vietnam war. And yes, in recent years, in the United States, its been a day centered around the rights of immigrants. It's safe to say its meant different things to different people at various times.
However, whether using the rhetoric of the 99% against the 1% or the traditional language of working class vs. the ruling class, the participants in both the Occupy movement and the immigration rights movement are linked. Neither one 'owns' May Day. The additional involvement of other movements with May Day is something to be welcomed.
“It’s not going to be a ‘real’ general strike”
Some like to say or imply that a “real” general strike is something which unions call for, and then people strike, in the formal definition of the word. Sometimes, general strikes do happen this way. Other times they start with other, more unofficial action or wildcat strikes that spread. On May Day 2006, for instance, millions of people just called in sick. Those who say May 1st won’t be a “real” general strike, are probably right. What will happen will most likely resemble what occurred in Oakland on Nov. 2, 2011. Personally, I don’t think what it’s called matters much.
Remember that the reason that the term general strike is even in the vocabulary of U.S. social movements again is because of the IWW’s efforts in Wisconsin. It was an important concept and we did a lot of admirable work towards this concept, but as someone who was there, I don’t think the strategy we engaged in (working through official union decision-making structures) was a realistic way to push for a general strike. However, I think that if we succeeded that it would a “real” general strike and the possibility did exist.
We also don’t really know what a U.S. general strike in 2012 will look like. The last time an official one happened here was 1946. The workforce and society in general have changed drastically since then. Our workplaces are more fragmented. Solidarity and worker combativeness isn't something that can be assumed as a given anymore. The forms of resistance that we take will often look different from past struggles. General strikes of 1877 didn't look the same as those in the 1930s, why would one today look like ones from 70 years ago?
“What about May 2nd?”
This is a good point. What about the day after? The week after? The month after? It is up to the participants of Occupy May 1st to make sure this May Day is something much more than a mere mobilization of people to protest, but the opening shot in a new era of Occupy where we take on issues relevant to our daily life. Work, unemployment, immigration, and housing aren’t just some vague issues that are mentioned within the context of the upcoming elections, but are very real experiences that make up, for better or worse, who we are. They are also things we have the most power to change or even (if we wish) to eliminate as problems. As people who wish for a new world, we should welcome the opportunity to place organizing back into the context of our lived experiences.
A version of this will appear in the May 2012 issue of the Industrial Worker