Some strikes are more general than others

Some strikes are more general than others

A critique of a recent article from the Organizing Work blog, "You Say You Want A General Strike", examining recent general strike calls in slightly more depth.

Marianne Garneau’s recent article, “You say you want a general strike”, is a well-written and welcome contribution to current discussions around general strikes and movement strategies. It is also, I think, limited in important ways, and so I want to try expanding on some of the points it skips over.

The most important omission, I think, is one that Garneau touches on, but doesn’t fully explore. She writes “When picturing “general strikes,” a lot of people in North America may be looking at Europe, at these stunning mobilizations, but they are likely imagining things like the Seattle General Strike or Winnipeg General Strike of a hundred years ago – times when cities were shut down for long periods of time because enormous swaths of the workforce had walked off the job and refused to go back.” If people who are calling for a general strike have these sorts of strikes in mind, rather than the Euro-union-confederation-one-day-walkout model, it might be worth considering them further, but Garneau doesn’t explore these kinds of strikes beyond this one sentence.

Giving a full consideration of such strikes would require an article in its own right, at least the length of Garneau’s, but one key feature I would pick out is that, rather than being officially called into being from nothing as general strikes, “wild” or “mass” strikes – to use, and possibly misuse, Rosa Luxemburg’s term – often start as disputes in a particular workplace or industry and then generalise by spreading across sectoral borders. This was the case with shipbuilders in Seattle, metal and building workers in Winnipeg, sailors in Liverpool, and arguably with miners at Saltley Gate, Bimingham in 1972.

Shifting the focus to these kinds of general strikes, we can see the issue as being less of a binary yes/no question – “does the motion for a general strike succeed or fail?” – and more of a sliding scale of how far a strike is able to generalise or massify. For instance, we can say that a strike involving all kinds of school workers including bus drivers, cleaners, food service staff, receptionists and admin staff is “more general” than one that’s limited to teachers; an education strike that goes beyond the school system and draws in higher and further education workers is more general still, but still not as general as one that spreads across the whole public sector, and so on. Similarly, we can see the police kettling of construction electricians trying to join a student demo in London in 2011 as being an attempt to shut down the possibility of struggles generalising in this way.

Looking at things through this perspective strengthens Garneau’s argument insofar as it reinforces the central point that, as Joe Burns put it, “if you want a general strike, organize your co-workers”. No practical, on-the-job organising in the shipyards, no Seattle, and so on. Where I think I would disagree with Garneau (and Burns, for that matter), is that they seem to tend towards dismissing all contemporary general strike calls as being just people who “are not serious” “trying to shortcut a constituency by seducing people to [their] righteous leadership” instead of getting on with the real work. This may well be true of some such calls, but I think others can legitimately be seen as attempts to “generalize” or “massify” existing disputes in ways that have little or nothing to do with the Euro-union-confederation-one-day-walkout model.

This brings me to the second limitation of Garneau’s article. Garneau writes: “Looking at the North American record, the closest analogue to a European-style general strike was the Day Without an Immigrant in May 2006, where hundreds of thousands of immigrants stayed out from work. The action also had a very specific demand. The target was the draconian Sensenbrenner bill, which would have criminalized giving housing or food aid to immigrants. The bill did not pass the Senate.” I would say that both the 2006 May Day, and the recent North American record more broadly, merit a more detailed examination than this brief assessment allows.

May Day 2006: As Garneau notes, this was one of the closest equivalents to a European-style general strike, and was successful in achieving its major demand, meaning it’s up there with the top 10% of most effective actions examined in Hammann and Kelly’s study. It’s also worth mentioning that it was organised outside of the major union confederation, and that, while the US’ combination of midterms and endless primaries means you’re never that far away from an election, it wasn’t particularly close to one, making it even more impressive in light of the observation that general strikes “are most successful when called close to elections”. It’s hard to say exactly what lessons can be drawn from this action, and I don’t want to end up providing pat non-advice like “if I were the US radical left, I would simply enjoy hegemonic leadership among already existing migrant social and political networks, and then use this influence to co-ordinate disruptive action on a national scale.” But this example of a major nationwide action, organised outside of union structures, in more-or-less contemporary conditions, that was successful in achieving its aims, does seem worth considering further.

Wisconsin 2011: While the 2006 strike, organised outside of official union bodies, was substantially different to the European model, the push to declare a general strike through official channels in Wisconsin 2011 is perhaps a closer equivalent. Like most of the efforts discussed here, it did not lead to a successful general strike; but, in contrast to Garneau’s dismissal of general strikes as being “a pivot to the electoral arena and a retreat from the workplace strike”, the 2011 push happened in an arena where workplace action was already taken place, and represented a valiant, if unsuccessful, attempt to keep attention focused on the industrial, rather than the electoral, front. Certainly, criticisms can and should be made of the Wisconsin attempt; but a critique that lumps it in with “a pivot to the electoral arena and a retreat from the workplace strike” is, I think, not applicable in this instance.

Oakland/West Coast 2011: The complex of actions around the 2011 West Coast Port Shutdown and the call for a general strike in Oakland is perhaps the closest recent US equivalent to the classic examples of mass/wild strikes that began as industry-specific disputes and then generalised. In this moment, the energy of Occupy, a social movement looking for a way to gain traction and apply pressure, became caught up with longshore struggles happening across the west coast. As with Wisconsin, this moment certainly wasn’t perfect; the “Oakland Commune” did not defeat the state and capital in the end, and plenty of critiques can, and should, be made of what went wrong. But looking at the scale of what happened in Oakland, I don’t think it fits into a narrative of “far left groups [addressing] no one but their own small, marginal group of like-minded activists”, any more than the Wisconsin push meant a capitulation to electoralism. Even if people seriously disagree with the approach taken in Oakland, the question of how people not working in industries/workplaces where key strategic disputes are happening can help spread and generalise those strikes is an important one, and one that’s always worth revisiting.

School/climate strikes: As I write this, the general strike call I’m most aware of is around the earth/climate strike mobilisations. Here, once again, we’re a way off from either “the French CGT marching everyone out for a day and then back again” or “ineffective activist types communicate message to no one, get ignored”. I don’t know much about how the climate strikes in North America compare to the movement in Europe and internationally, and generally speaking I think school student walkouts are perhaps an under-theorised method of struggle at the moment. Having said that, I think that if we allow that school student strikes do at least count as strikes of some kind, then we are once again at a moment where widespread walkouts are/have been taking place in one sector, and those involved are making a conscious attempt to generalise and broaden their struggle. I don’t know where this might lead, but I think it would be a mistake to write all potential off in advance.
In between “Seattle 1919” and “nothing”, there’s a whole range of possible outcomes. Given the current state of class struggle, I certainly think there's scope for actions that would be both far short of what we'd ideally want a general strike to look like, and also a real step forward compared to the status quo of working class self-activity.

Posted By

R Totale
Sep 19 2019 17:14

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  • ...we can see the issue as being less of a binary yes/no question – “does the motion for a general strike succeed or fail?” – and more of a sliding scale of how far a strike is able to generalise or massify.

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Comments

Spikymike
Sep 19 2019 18:09

Just on that last section, students walking out of schools and colleges to protest the 'climate crisis' is welcome but a long way from any meaningful use of the the strike term as a withdrawal of labour and if there is any kind of actual labour withdrawal associated with these protests they do rather fit the criticism of MG's article in terms of the relevant unions intentions and those of the anarchist and left wing activists within them. There really is a difference between social and mass strikes that are dependent on the right objective and subjective conditions to develop and campaign 'call outs' such as these.

R Totale
Sep 19 2019 18:54
Quote:
There really is a difference between social and mass strikes that are dependent on the right objective and subjective conditions to develop and campaign 'call outs' such as these.

I mean, I'm broadly agreed on that, although I think that the 2006 and 2011 examples both muddy the water of that distinction a bit. I think the point of divergence is MG's article seems to be saying, or suggesting, that because these campaign-type calls aren't the same thing as mass social strikes, that means they're pretty much a waste of time, whereas I think it's possible that these kinds of things might help to play some kind of role in helping said conditions to develop, or to become slightly less unfavourable than they are now.

Mike Harman
Sep 20 2019 10:47
R Totale wrote:
and generally speaking I think school student walkouts are perhaps an under-theorised method of struggle at the moment. Having said that, I think that if we allow that school student strikes do at least count as strikes of some kind, then we are once again at a moment where widespread walkouts are/have been taking place in one sector, and those involved are making a conscious attempt to generalise and broaden their struggle.

Not exactly theorised, but did this quick blog on school walkouts last year:

https://libcom.org/blog/cutting-class-communism-school-strikes-april-20t...

R Totale
Sep 20 2019 16:49

Yeah, I suppose my understanding of school student walkouts are that they're not the same thing as a workplace strike, the gears of capital aren't grinding to a hault because of kids missing school or anything BUT they do seem to be indicative of people instinctively grasping that the way you change things is by disrupting the reproduction of daily life, rather than, for instance, just spending a Saturday afternoon walking from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square to listen to Lindsey German and Owen Jones, or whoever. I think it is interesting that the school walkouts are remembered as being among the total high points of the 2003 anti-war movement, and seem to be pretty much a baseline starting point for the 2019 climate change movement. I'm vaguely reminded of some Dauve quote about how the idea of autonomy was the highest achievement of 1970s radicalism, and a basic starting point for 90s/2000s movements, can't remember the exact wording or where it's from though.

Mike Harman
Sep 20 2019 19:22

Yeah, I suppose my understanding of school student walkouts are that they're not the same thing as a workplace strike, the gears of capital aren't grinding to a hault because of kids missing school or anything

Quoting myself here from the piece above:

Mike Harman wrote:
In 1975 Martin Glaberman, US auto worker and associate of CLR James wrote:

Glaberman wrote:
If teachers or students shut down a school, the school is shut down. But when five thousand 'people in some small town in Ohio shut down a stamping plant, within two weeks two-thirds of General Motors is shut down and steel plants begin to lay off and railroads begin to lay off and so on. Those workers who have access to that kind of power are aware of that reality.

What Glaberman missed in this analysis was the power of workers, students and the unemployed to blockade capital from outside the workplace. When a factory shuts down, it can affect the entire supply chain, but when roads or public transport are shut down, it can affect the ability of capital to flow through an entire city. Following de-industrialisation, with some exceptions such as transport workers, blockades may actually be more effective at disrupting capital accumulation than strike action at many workplaces. After all if you shut down your coffee shop, the coffee shop is shut down but nothing else will be.

Hieronymous
Sep 21 2019 13:14
Mike Harman wrote:
What Glaberman missed in this analysis was the power of workers, students and the unemployed to blockade capital from outside the workplace. When a factory shuts down, it can affect the entire supply chain, but when roads or public transport are shut down, it can affect the ability of capital to flow through an entire city. Following de-industrialisation, with some exceptions such as transport workers, blockades may actually be more effective at disrupting capital accumulation than strike action at many workplaces. After all if you shut down your coffee shop, the coffee shop is shut down but nothing else will be.

I wholeheartedly disagree and have to agree with Marty on this one. What's lacking in the latter is agency, and more specifically working class agency.

Blockades are simply a tactic, and in today's world of sophisticated logistics planning a not very effective one. The 2002 lockout of ILWU longshore workers on the West Coast is an example of the bosses using the blockade tactic. Its effectiveness was undermined by air cargo.

Peter V. Hall, an academic in Canada, wrote an excellent critique of the 10-day lockout called "'We’d Have to Sink the Ships': Impact Studies and the 2002 West Coast Port Lockout," which states:

Peter V. Hall wrote:
After the lockout began, firms substituted across transport modes, with various industry sources reporting that the port lockout had been good for airfreight carriers. U.S. air cargo volumes jumped 19% in October 2002 over October 2001

The lockout had been orchestrated by the West Coast Waterfront Coalition, and amalgam of large importers (like Walmart and other retailers), who had make extensive preparations and used the lockout to gain advantage over competitors not in their coalition (but its primary motivation was to crush the master agreement of the union in all 29 ports). But if a massive, coastwide lockout -- effectively a management blockade -- can easily be undermined by transporting by air, so can an activist blockade.

The movement of goods is multimodal, so if activists block a highway, the goods are rerouted along another highway or surface streets. If, by some miracle, all roadbound vehicular transportation is blockaded, logistics planners will revert to rail or movement by water (ship or barge) or air. Which means activists would need to have the numbers and mobility to be prepared to block trains, waterways, and highly-secured airports.

But if workers, even very few, with their intimate knowledge of the production process of their own work sector strategically sabotage the production and distribution process at a key chokepoint, they can cripple the whole global supply chain. And the class-based agency for doing so can ripple outward from sector-to-sector, driven by class consciousness, and paralyze capitalist reproduction. Activist blockades, being a tactic, can't even sustain themselves beyond a few hours or days, let alone make any lasting impact on capital since they lack agency; in an industrial setting they aren't anything more than a tactic of substitutionism.

Spikymike
Sep 21 2019 16:15

Yes 'blockades' as a tactic may sometimes be useful in conjunction with particular strikes but not as a primary strategy they are no substitute for strikes.

Hieronymous
Sep 21 2019 14:40

In the process of self-negation, an aufhebung, the proletariat destroys class society by abolishing itself as a class. This process, by necessity, is an internal dynamic within the social relations of capital.

Arguments, usually of a Leninist nature, posit that more enlightened professional revolutionaries can execute this process from without through the vehicle of the party. Orthodox anarchists propose that revolutionary change can be a process driven by mere will, by insurrectionists who can also catalyze it from outside class relations.

Blockadeism is an ideology that combines the worst parts of the two in rejecting the central role of working class agency in the dynamic of social change.

CLR James refuted all this. The best example I can find is in his comrade George Rawick's essay "Working Class Self-Activity" (Radical America, Vol.3 No.2, March-April 1969, pp.23-31) [unfortunately the truncated version on libcom cuts out all the good stuff].

Here's the relevant part, found in footnote #3 of the essay:

"Working Class Self-Activity" wrote:
3. Marxists who are familiar with the basis of the Hegelian dialect. In the master-slave discussion in which Hegel indicates that the slaves must struggle against elements of their own class as well as against the masters, will not be surprised by this historical analysis. In Facing Reality (Facing Reality Publishing Committee, Detroit, 1956), C.L.R. James offers the following useful summary of dialectics:

    (a) All development takes place as a result of self-movement, not organization or direction by external forces [emphasis mine - Hieronymous].
    (b) Self-movement springs from and is the overcoming of antagonisms within an organism, not the struggle against external foes.
    (c) It is not the world of nature that confronts man as an alien power to be overcome. It is the alien power that he has himself created.
    (d) The end toward which mankind is inexorably developing by the constant overcoming of internal antagonisms is not the enjoyment, ownership, or use of goods, but self-realization, creativity based upon the incorporation into the individual personality of the whole previous development of humanity. Freedom is creative universality, not utility.
LeninistGirl
Sep 21 2019 17:08

I don't think that is what Lenin actually proposed. Like the entire concept of "professional revolutionaries" is to let workers develop organizational and agitation skills, and to apply them on a larger-scale. Instead of agitating at one factory or local geographical area, you agitate through the entire country or for an entire industry. Instead of only printing local pamphlets about local issues you also create an organ that can tie together struggles all over the country(and internationally).

I think anyone who has spent time working and trying to do workplace struggle has learned that Kautsky and Lenin were in fact correct in saying that class consciousness is not something that just comes from narrow economic struggles or capitalist development.

Quote:
Yes 'blockades' as a tactic may sometimes be useful in conjunction with particular strikes but not as a primary strategy they are no substitute for strikes.

The whole "blocking flow of commodities" has become such a meme in real life. I have been at open mass-meetings where "autonomists" have rejected any notion of actually trying to work where the workers are, or to try and bring the "grass roots" of the trade union movement out of isolation, and instead propose we simply do a big blockade(with what base?). It is like a rejection of mass-work under the guise of "mass-action", a modern form of blanquism.

Using blockades to stop a company from getting its wares out, or material in, or blocking scab transports, is a trade union tradition.

R Totale
Sep 22 2019 09:45
Hieronymous wrote:
I wholeheartedly disagree and have to agree with Marty on this one. What's lacking in the latter is agency, and more specifically working class agency.

Blockades are simply a tactic, and in today's world of sophisticated logistics planning a not very effective one. The 2002 lockout of ILWU longshore workers on the West Coast is an example of the bosses using the blockade tactic. Its effectiveness was undermined by air cargo.

Peter V. Hall, an academic in Canada, wrote an excellent critique of the 10-day lockout called "'We’d Have to Sink the Ships': Impact Studies and the 2002 West Coast Port Lockout," which states:

The lockout had been orchestrated by the West Coast Waterfront Coalition, and amalgam of large importers (like Walmart and other retailers), who had make extensive preparations and used the lockout to gain advantage over competitors not in their coalition (but its primary motivation was to crush the master agreement of the union in all 29 ports). But if a massive, coastwide lockout -- effectively a management blockade -- can easily be undermined by transporting by air, so can an activist blockade.

The movement of goods is multimodal, so if activists block a highway, the goods are rerouted along another highway or surface streets. If, by some miracle, all roadbound vehicular transportation is blockaded, logistics planners will revert to rail or movement by water (ship or barge) or air. Which means activists would need to have the numbers and mobility to be prepared to block trains, waterways, and highly-secured airports.

But if workers, even very few, with their intimate knowledge of the production process of their own work sector strategically sabotage the production and distribution process at a key chokepoint, they can cripple the whole global supply chain. And the class-based agency for doing so can ripple outward from sector-to-sector, driven by class consciousness, and paralyze capitalist reproduction. Activist blockades, being a tactic, can't even sustain themselves beyond a few hours or days, let alone make any lasting impact on capital since they lack agency; in an industrial setting they aren't anything more than a tactic of substitutionism.

I'm not quite convinced of your argument here - if blockading a port, or every port on the coast, is ineffective because capital can re-route, then doesn't exactly the same point apply to striking workers shutting down a port, or every port on the coast? Is the distinction just that if striking workers do it, it can/should spread further to affect the alternative supply routes as well, whereas blockades are seen as being incapable of spreading in that way?

Also, I'd be interested in your assessment of the 2011 Oakland/West Coast actions - both as in, was my presentation of them in the article above broadly accurate, and also in how you'd describe the exact mix of worker involvement vs outside blockadeism.

Finally, when you counterpose "working class agency" to blockades, are you getting into the terrain of making a distinction between an "essential proletariat" in manufacturing and logistics and then everyone else (service sector workers, unemployed, schoolkids, etc)?

Hieronymous
Sep 23 2019 03:23
R Totale wrote:
Finally, when you counterpose "working class agency" to blockades, are you getting into the terrain of making a distinction between an "essential proletariat" in manufacturing and logistics and then everyone else (service sector workers, unemployed, schoolkids, etc)?

What’s the “essential proletariat”? Is the opposite the “inessential proletariat”?

How are those adjectives useful as analytical tools? I don’t get it.

Mike Harman
Sep 23 2019 10:56
Hieronymous wrote:

But if workers, even very few, with their intimate knowledge of the production process of their own work sector strategically sabotage the production and distribution process at a key chokepoint, they can cripple the whole global supply chain.

This relies entirely on workers who work at key chokepoints though. Workers going on strike at a coffee shop is not necessarily more effective than a blockade. I'm not saying blockades are more effective than a rail or dockers strike, but that they are a way for workers who don't work in those industries to be more effective than simply stopping work when that in itself is not disruptive.

Similarly even massive industrial/transport strikes of the 19th century used the blockade tactic, like tipping over of trains during the Pullman strike.

Mike Harman
Sep 23 2019 11:14
Hieronymous wrote:
R Totale wrote:
Finally, when you counterpose "working class agency" to blockades, are you getting into the terrain of making a distinction between an "essential proletariat" in manufacturing and logistics and then everyone else (service sector workers, unemployed, schoolkids, etc)?

What’s the “essential proletariat”? Is the opposite the “inessential proletariat”?

Here is Glaberman's paragraph immediately before the one I quoted:

Glaberman wrote:
However, there are also other elements. People tend to view workers as victims. They are exploited, they are 'alienated, they have 36 second jobs, etc. I talked to workers on a' wildcat strike at a Chrysler stamping plant about 15 miles outside of Detroit a few years ago. It was the first day of the strike and there were a few guys on the picket line-you don't really need a great effort to shut a plant down in the Detroit area. This was a stamping plant making parts for various Chrysler cars. What the workers were saying was, if we're out one day, Chrysler Jefferson, Dodge Main, and the Plymouth plant in Detroit shut down. If we're down two days, Windsor, Ontario, shuts down. If we're down three days, St. Louis, Missouri, shuts down, and so on. One of the realities of working class existence is not simply victimization, but power, and an awareness of that power when it seems to be appropriate, or when the possibility opens up. Not all workers have that power. In a plant making trim with 16 other plants making the same kind of trim, workers can go out for six months without being noticed. But in a crucial kind of plant, or on a railroad, or if the auto industry is shut down, or the steel industry, or some other industry, workers become aware of a social reality which is different than what is available to middle class radicals or anyone else.

https://libcom.org/library/working-class-social-change-martin-glaberman

He is not just counterposing workers and students, he is counterposing workers in single points of manufacturing and logistics failure that can disrupt entire sections of the economy, vs. all other workers including manufacturing workers in a 'non-crucial' plant.

(to be clear, I love this piece by Glaberman, I just think he overstates the case in this bit, because he's ignoring all tactics except the withdrawal of labour). Also he's not wrong that workers in key logistics/manufacturing have more power, but what methods are available to workers without that structural power - more than Glaberman allows for.

French students in 2006 successfully opposed the imposition of the CPE employment law - by shutting down not only their universities, but also roads and train lines. Glaberman's logic here is that they were only able to shut down the universities, which is just not true. Were the student rail shutdowns as effective as a proper rail strike? No, but how many train drivers in France are between 16 and 21 years old exactly? Does them shutting down rail stations preclude transport workers coming out on strike to support them? Obviously not, in some circumstances it might encourage it.

R Totale
Sep 23 2019 17:17
Hieronymous wrote:
What’s the “essential proletariat”? Is the opposite the “inessential proletariat”?

How are those adjectives useful as analytical tools? I don’t get it.

Well, I'm not so sure the line of analysis suggested by those terms is a useful one, so I don't really have to defend it. For record I think the term might come from, or have been popularised by, Monsieur Dupont - but I'm certainly not claiming their analysis as being useful.
Anyway, as MH points out above, the terminology's not so different to Glaberman talking about "crucial plants", or you talking about workers at "key chokepoints", which still maintains the distinction between the most strategically important proletarians and the rest of us. And I'm not claiming that we need to scrap that distinction entirely, of course some workers do have more leverage than others, it's just that the question persists of what working-class agency outside of key chokepoints looks like.

Agent of the In...
Sep 27 2019 15:29
LeninistGirl wrote:
I don't think that is what Lenin actually proposed. Like the entire concept of "professional revolutionaries" is to let workers develop organizational and agitation skills, and to apply them on a larger-scale. Instead of agitating at one factory or local geographical area, you agitate through the entire country or for an entire industry. Instead of only printing local pamphlets about local issues you also create an organ that can tie together struggles all over the country(and internationally).

So you think workers are in need of a concept that allows them to "develop organisational and agitation skills"? And that was what Lenin "proposed"? Do you realise how silly and utterly trivial that sounds? Your representation of Lenin's contributions, if he had any, only confirms further of how much of a mediocre thinker he really was.

LeninistGirl
Oct 3 2019 00:13

It was not an original thing of course, Lenin was a product of the social-democratic labor movement. He was arguing against people who did not think we needed this, though I would put more focus on the organ or paper to spread struggles beyond local boundaries, which is what was rejected by the "economists". But was the debate about if Lenin was mediocre or not.

Honestly I would just love if it people actually read What is to be done? instead of guessing what was written based on one quote.