Libcom Study Group - Strike! Discussion

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Feb 13 2011 03:35

Chapter 2 but I just finished reading about the Minneapolis General Strike.

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Feb 13 2011 04:24
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smg, I think that today is a very different state of affairs. During the time of the eight-hour movement, the working class was going on the offensive, making demands for improvements.

Right now the employers are massively on the offensive and so far we are not even managing to defend the pay and conditions we have now…
.

I don't know if I'm convinced that the form of a universal working class fight (such as the 10 and 8 hour day movements) has to take an offensive character. Or, that such a militant movement can really only take place during a time when the balance of class forces is even or slightly on the side of the workers.

At the moment I really do think that capitalism as a global system and the bourgeoisie as the class in the drivers seat are unable to grant the kind of reforms and concessions they were forced to give up in the 19th century (post-1848). This kind of leads me to doubt whether we will see a similar movement towards forcing lasting and durable reforms and concessions (equivalent to the 8 hour day; the modern equivalent maybe being the Living Wage movement) when the balance of class forces shifts back in the favor of the working class.

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Feb 13 2011 08:04
devoration1 wrote:
prec@riat wrote:
Not sure why you're asking this again, but yes... I think understanding the Great Upheaval in light of Reconstruction is a more explicit starting point. Contemporary class consciousness in the US and certain American characteristics of the wage relation cannot be truly understood w/o an understanding of settlerism and the chattel slavery system and the resistance to such.

I don't mean is it an appropriate book to start the study group, I mean what do readers of the book think of Brecher's choice to start with the railroad strikes of 1877 as the starting point of the mass strike (later defined and expanded upon by Luxemburg) in the US? Specifically as many see the mass strike as the main 'motor force' behind the revolutionary, insurrectionary, etc uprisings of the working class in the 20th century (Russia, Germany, Hungary, Finland, Italy, Spain, etc)- were there earlier events in American working class history that point to the same prefiguring of the Mass Strike?

I'm boring myself as a one trick pony in this conversation but... yes I wasn't talking about the book 'Black Reconstuction', per se, but rather the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction... the massive refusal to work of slaves, especially as it was generalized during the Civil War, their desertion of the fields, and their enlistment in the Union Army, could be (and has been) construed as a prefiguration of a "Mass Strike" ...

Also beyond (yet historically intrinsic to) questions of racialized class composition ...people have mentioned the 'nature of our period' viz a viz the nature of 'that' period ... I think the victory of struggle over chattel slavery or the victory of struggles against peonage or serfdom (arguably qualitatively different forms of value accumulation than 'capitalism as we know it' - in "real" or "formal" terms) would have different expressions in peoples consciousness (and I think this relates to what people are discussing re: the immigrant experience)

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Feb 13 2011 12:02
devoration1 wrote:
I don't know if I'm convinced that the form of a universal working class fight (such as the 10 and 8 hour day movements) has to take an offensive character. Or, that such a militant movement can really only take place during a time when the balance of class forces is even or slightly on the side of the workers.

At the moment I really do think that capitalism as a global system and the bourgeoisie as the class in the drivers seat are unable to grant the kind of reforms and concessions they were forced to give up in the 19th century (post-1848). This kind of leads me to doubt whether we will see a similar movement towards forcing lasting and durable reforms and concessions (equivalent to the 8 hour day; the modern equivalent maybe being the Living Wage movement) when the balance of class forces shifts back in the favor of the working class.

i've been thinking about this, and i think there's several issues. on the one hand, rapidly expanding capitalism (like in the US in the late 19th century) can more easily bite the bullet and concede big reforms, but as it matures, profit rates stabilise somewhat creating less wriggle room for all concerned. a lot of this is that workers were starting from a very low base, so big % gains were easier to grant. the obvious place today to look is china/vietnam etc, where i think similar struggles have been winning big concessions.*

the second thing, on the balance of class forces. it's easy to look back and say 'well it's easy for them, they had the balance of forces on their side', but these movements faced harsh repression and very hostile organising conditions. it's true that there wasn't a developed labour relations/social democratic machinery to recuperate struggles either, which tended to mean polarisation, but in many ways the conditions for organising and agitating where far harsher than today. certainly very different, and not necessarily in a way more favourable to struggle.

* i don't equate maturity with 'decline', if anyone's wondering, except perhaps as a geographic centre of industrial production.

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Feb 14 2011 06:46
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the second thing, on the balance of class forces. it's easy to look back and say 'well it's easy for them, they had the balance of forces on their side', but these movements faced harsh repression and very hostile organising conditions. it's true that there wasn't a developed labour relations/social democratic machinery to recuperate struggles either, which tended to mean polarisation, but in many ways the conditions for organising and agitating where far harsher than today. certainly very different, and not necessarily in a way more favourable to struggle.

You're right- it seems that the 'historical balance of class forces' is a constant shifting force without that kind of micro, on the ground effect. I'm sure to the striking copper miners being herded into cattle cars to be 'relocated' and miners and their families being massacred by the Pennsylvania Cossacks shit seemed pretty dire, not to mention the average wage earner living and working in atrocious conditions. The only way it could be interpreted as 'better' than today is in the macro, communist revolution 'big picture' sense of what is and isn't on the historic agenda (if you go in for that sort of thing). The higher standard of living, greater leisure time, better communication and technology, etc are all factors that improve the odds of a successful culmination of circumstances the next time all of the factors of consciousness and collective class experience align.

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the obvious place today to look is china/vietnam etc, where i think similar struggles have been winning big concessions.

This has been a big debate around certains parts. The problem is figuring out whether or not they are actually durable concessions (like the 8 hour day standardization), and if the East Asian tigers don't implode on another speculation bubble or go the way of the Midwest USA and Guangzhou turns into another Akron or Braddock and all of those bustling industrial centers (because of capital flight or some other as of yet unknown phenomenon) turn into the Asian Rust Belt.

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the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction... the massive refusal to work of slaves, especially as it was generalized during the Civil War, their desertion of the fields, and their enlistment in the Union Army, could be (and has been) construed as a prefiguration of a "Mass Strike" ...

It'd be interesting to find out how important this collective experience was to the black community as it moved into wage labor from slavery- and whether or not this event was transmitted to future generations in the decades following the end of the Civil War.

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Feb 16 2011 17:09

This quote Breacher gives from History Of The Labor Movement In The United States by John R. Commons is very inspiring:

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This movement, rising as an elemental protest against oppression and degradation, could be but feebly restrained by any considerations of expediancy or prudence

. . .

Extreme bitterness toward capital manifested itself in all the actions of the Knights of Labor, and wherever the leaders undertook to hold it within bounds they were generally discarded by their followers, and others who would lead as directed were placed in charge. The feeling of 'give no quarter' is illustrated in the refusal to submit grievances to arbitration when the employees felt that they had the upper hand over their employers.

-Strike! p.26.

This seems to suggest that the concept of mandated and recallable delegates as content need not be preceeded by it (manifested as bylaws, a constitution, etc) as form.

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Feb 16 2011 21:59
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Quote:

the obvious place today to look is china/vietnam etc, where i think similar struggles have been winning big concessions.

This has been a big debate around certains parts. The problem is figuring out whether or not they are actually durable concessions (like the 8 hour day standardization), and if the East Asian tigers don't implode on another speculation bubble or go the way of the Midwest USA and Guangzhou turns into another Akron or Braddock and all of those bustling industrial centers (because of capital flight or some other as of yet unknown phenomenon) turn into the Asian Rust Belt.

These struggles that are winning concessions in East Asia do they have mass strike character like we see in Strike!? Some of the strikes I've read about happening in Bangladesh seem comparable to what is going on in Strike!; such as strikers going from factory to factory shutting them down and building the strike. It is easy to see how mass strikes can force concessions from capitalists in a way that we don't see today (in the US, Canada, the West in general) while strikes remain isolated and unconnected.

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Feb 16 2011 22:07
devoration1 wrote:
This quote Breacher gives from History Of The Labor Movement In The United States by John R. Commons is very inspiring:
Quote:
This movement, rising as an elemental protest against oppression and degradation, could be but feebly restrained by any considerations of expediancy or prudence

. . .

Extreme bitterness toward capital manifested itself in all the actions of the Knights of Labor, and wherever the leaders undertook to hold it within bounds they were generally discarded by their followers, and others who would lead as directed were placed in charge. The feeling of 'give no quarter' is illustrated in the refusal to submit grievances to arbitration when the employees felt that they had the upper hand over their employers.

-Strike! p.26.

This seems to suggest that the concept of mandated and recallable delegates as content need not be preceeded by it (manifested as bylaws, a constitution, etc) as form.

Throughout Strike! content seems to precede form. The spontaneous self-directed activity of the working class in struggle appears to give rise to the seeds of something much bigger and more revolutionary than the individual struggle in many cases.

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Feb 23 2011 19:09

It's interesting that on p.27 (of the 1st edition), Brecher describes the dispute involving K.O.L. workers and Jay Gould's Southwest System in 1886-1887:

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The Wabash shopmen struck spontaneously the day after they received their wage cuts, and the strike rapidly spread to the shopmen on the other Southwest System roads. By the first week of March the strike had spread to all the important shops of the system in Missouri and Texas, involving 10,000 miles of railroad.

. . .

All K.O.L. on the Wabash struck. The workers on the rest of the Southwest System demanded support from the leaders of the K.O.L., who reluctantly instructed all members to refuse to handle Wabash rolling stock "and if this order is antagonized by the companies through any of its officials, our executive committee is hereby ordered to call out all K of L on the above system without any further action."

The Southwest System was controlled by Jay Gould, known as 'the wizard of wall street', and perhaps the most hated of the robber barons of his day. Faced now with a strike that would equal the dimension of the 1877 railroad strike and close down his entire system, Gould decided to come to terms, at least for the time being. He met with the Executive Board of the K.O.L. and, according to them, Gould advised the general manager of the Wabash to agree to their demands. The manager thereupon agreed to reinstate those fired and promised that 'no official shall discriminate against the K of L'.

Brecher goes on to quote Job R. Commons' History Of Labor, which says, "Here a labor organization for the first time dealt on an equal footing with the most powerful capitalist in the country."

It seems that the representative bargaining and negotiating of the 20th century in America (specifically the Wagner Act and later the practice of collective bargaining) begins here, in this instance of a labor organization (acting as a trade union) negotiating terms with a company (in this case the boss, Gould). It's interesting that the dynamic of the labor union as 'Shopfloor Policeman', safety valve for labor unrest, lobbyist for industrial peace, is very distinct in this instance. On the one hand the workers are taking matters into their own hands, based largely on the collective memory and experience of 1877 and subsequent strikes and class warfare, engaging in wildcat direct action following the pattern of an insurrectionary mass strike- and on the other hand, the presence of a labor organization/trade union acting as a representative of the workers in struggle, negotiating above their heads with the boss, to ensure labor peace.

Does anyone have any evidence of earlier representative negotiation and bargaining by other earlier labor unions (craft or trade) in the US?

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Feb 23 2011 22:13
smg wrote:
Is there anything in 2011 that could galvanise the class like the demand for an 8 hour work day?

How about the attempts to break public sector unions that seem to be moving nationwide? I mean, obviously there are huge differences, but it does seem like it could play a similar, albeit more limited, defensive role.

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Feb 24 2011 07:00
devoration1 wrote:

Does anyone have any evidence of earlier representative negotiation and bargaining by other earlier labor unions (craft or trade) in the US?

I am not sure if negotiation is the right word, but the Workingmen's party in 1830's New York State would work towards endorsing candidates for State and Federal offices who seemed to lean towards them. The Workingmen party basically cashed in the achievements of fledgling wildcats for the 10-hour day in order to start playing the electoral game between Tammany and the Whigs (precursors to today's State Democrats and Republicans, respectively), with most of the prominent leaders vehemently opposed to strikes. Also, the actual trade union movement eventually became more radical and encouraged strikes, but then collapsed with the 1837 financial panic and subsequent Depression.

When I have the time, I'll have to reread a text I have about the era to be more specific. That may be a while.

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Mar 1 2011 19:35

what is the target date for chapters 3 & 4? i don't have any problem throwing the other chapters up, it's just easier for me if i have a time table.

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Mar 1 2011 23:03
naughtonomist wrote:
what is the target date for chapters 3 & 4? i don't have any problem throwing the other chapters up, it's just easier for me if i have a time table.

March 15th - Chapter 3 , April 15th Chapter 4, if we continue to use the same time table.

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May 5 2011 03:17

Resurrecting this thread, I'm now about to finish Chapter 4: 1919, and it seems that in two situations, the Seattle General Strike, as well as the Boston police strike, students offered to act as strike-breakers. This seems to show the students as a highly reactionary population. When did it transform into the radical student cliche of the mid-20th Century?

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May 13 2011 07:29

Anyone else interested in continuing to discuss the book?

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May 17 2011 23:05

I am, even if nobody else is. I've found another mention of students as scabs in Chapter 5: Depression Decade, in the section about the 1934 West Coast strike, where employers brought in scabs for the longshoremen, "many of them recruited from the University of California."

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May 18 2011 18:20
Tojiah wrote:
I am, even if nobody else is. I've found another mention of students as scabs in Chapter 5: Depression Decade, in the section about the 1934 West Coast strike, where employers brought in scabs for the longshoremen, "many of them recruited from the University of California."

At the same time longshore militants were going to the black community in San Francisco and Oakland and promising to integrate the union if they promised to refuse to be scabs. I think it was then that the bosses turned to frat boys and jocks at UC Berkeley.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union was built out of the victory of the San Francisco General Strike -- breaking with Joe Ryan's mobbed-up ILA -- with another successful strike in 1936 to defend a totally union-controlled hiring hall. Since almost no blacks scabbed, they also lived up to their promise to desegregate and today the ILWU local 10, which works the ports of the Bay (mostly the cargo container port of Oakland), is a majority black union -- and has some of the highest industrial wages in the U.S.

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May 18 2011 20:45

I was also uber-shit about posting on this thread, but I did actually end up finishing reading the book. So keep the convo going....

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May 18 2011 20:53
Tojiah wrote:
Resurrecting this thread, I'm now about to finish Chapter 4: 1919, and it seems that in two situations, the Seattle General Strike, as well as the Boston police strike, students offered to act as strike-breakers. This seems to show the students as a highly reactionary population. When did it transform into the radical student cliche of the mid-20th Century?

This is going to sound cliché, but until the early 60s weren't almost all universities conservative bastions of the rich? (Not that they're not that today when it comes down to it...) Why that happened, and this conjecture here:

- General social upheaval
- radicalization from Vietnam draft
- a turn toward more "social" disciplines on campus
- the effect of the GI bill where you had a situation where working class people actually got into uni. Presumably some of them (not the least Howard Zinn) would have carried some degree of working class politics and an interest in radical topics into academia.

Maybe...

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May 18 2011 23:27

I think that Chilli Sauce is right about there being a large shift in the class composition of US colleges and universities after World War II. Beyond the GI Bill, there was also the Higher Education Act in 1965 which made it easier for the children of working class parents to go to college.

Although, I remember reading about some really impressive sounding student organizing in the late thirties. So maybe this is all crap.

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May 18 2011 23:36

The situation was the same in the UK pre-WW2 with students helping to break the 1926 general strike. I also seem to remember students being a large proportion of the volunteers to help put down the various uprisings in Germany post-WW1.

In Asia, students seemed to be more radical in the same time period, although that's a very vaguely remembered impression I have, so could be wrong.

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May 23 2011 00:12

Well, I was about to give up on Depression Decade, but a concerted reading effort had me triumph over it. It's amazing to see this repeated pattern: the workers radicalize, self-organize production and the strike, in opposition to the AFL and then CIO operatives trying to calm them down, until the companies end up recognizing the union, which then does the best that it can do to stop the wildcats and self-organization, with its organizers clearly seeing their mediating, industrial peacekeeping role, and the rank-and-file slowly giving up the fight now that they have "representation". What is it about having a union that demilitarizes the workers so well?

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May 25 2011 17:10
Tojiah wrote:
It's amazing to see this repeated pattern: the workers radicalize, self-organize production and the strike, in opposition to the AFL and then CIO operatives trying to calm them down, until the companies end up recognizing the union, which then does the best that it can do to stop the wildcats and self-organization, with its organizers clearly seeing their mediating, industrial peacekeeping role, and the rank-and-file slowly giving up the fight now that they have "representation".

that's perfect. so i don't have to read the book now? grin
actually i will, in about 3 weeks, when i get my life back from the little fuckers.

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May 25 2011 18:35
petey wrote:
Tojiah wrote:
It's amazing to see this repeated pattern: the workers radicalize, self-organize production and the strike, in opposition to the AFL and then CIO operatives trying to calm them down, until the companies end up recognizing the union, which then does the best that it can do to stop the wildcats and self-organization, with its organizers clearly seeing their mediating, industrial peacekeeping role, and the rank-and-file slowly giving up the fight now that they have "representation".

that's perfect. so i don't have to read the book now? grin
actually i will, in about 3 weeks, when i get my life back from the little fuckers.

What's the world coming to when a school teacher wants the Cliff Notes. Jesus wept.

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Jun 15 2011 00:31

Well, I'm done reading the book. It's been quite a ride. There's definitely a change of tone in the last chapter, written more recently, but he still seems to be focused on worker self-organization as the ultimate path for transformation.. how does this differ from the way it concluded originally?

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Jul 12 2012 19:26
Tojiah wrote:
Well, I'm done reading the book. It's been quite a ride. There's definitely a change of tone in the last chapter, written more recently, but he still seems to be focused on worker self-organization as the ultimate path for transformation.. how does this differ from the way it concluded originally?

I'd like to know this as well. Wasn't the last chapter taken out or replaced and some of the general analysis missing from the second edition. I never read the 1st edition (or could even find it) so I don't know. I would be surprised if someone hasn't blogged about it.

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Jul 12 2012 22:39

The 1st edition came out in 1972, so it was written in the midst of a wave of wildcat strikes and at a time of optimism for class struggle. The last chapter of the next edition (put out by Southend Press) is full of all the bitter defeats of the 1980s. I was just thumbing through the newer version at a bookstore yesterday and noticing how the tone had become more pessimistic.

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Jul 13 2012 00:05

Is the section on the wildcat strikes of the 70s still in the newer version? I thought that that section was just as intriguing as the rest of the book. It would be a bummer if it was left out.

Also, since this discussion has popped up again, I'd like to thank Devoration for conceiving the idea for this study group and making it happen. The discussion might not have taken off, but it encouraged me to start reading a book which has had a pretty big impact on my political outlook.

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Jul 13 2012 06:35

Agreed. Thanks to Devoration in getting some of us, like myself, to reread this excellent book.

Anyone interested in making joint, but brief, summarizations of the book, chapter-by-chapter? I just attended the IWW's Work People's College and presented a 3-part working class history of North America, much of it based on Brecher's account. So I'm ready to discuss some of the high points in class struggle. And also add some others that Strike! glosses over or fails to mention.

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Oct 28 2012 01:52

I think a major problem is successfully tying historical high points of class war/class consciousness and making them seem relevant. Overall Brecher does a good job of weaving it together to paint a picture of where we are in the present day (due to where we've been). But it becomes disconnected when having real life discussions with other people (like co-workers) about socialism/class/labor- an example of workers shutting down a country or a city and running distribution and/or production for themselves seems to lose meaning when it happened 70+ years ago.

It seems important to be able to draw together historical events across different nations and cultures to demonstrate what class conscious workers, or revolutionary workers, can accomplish. At its core Brecher writes how these things happened, in some cases the organizational elements that helped or hindered the event, the economic situation or political situation leading up to an event. Basic strategic questions can be learned from these kinds of historical examples (like what makes a mass strike a mass strike, how do they start, how do they spread; or what makes a worker's council, how they start, how they operate, etc.).

What kind of contemporary (1968-present seems like a good starting point) events, strikes, organizations, etc. do you think would make up the kind of list Brecher uses for historical class warfare, strikes and self-organization, but written to engage and interest people today (in a way that saying, "well they did it like this in 1877. . ." doesn't)?