The pamphlet as passport

A piece about a disruption of traffic action at a Barcelona university.

Spain in June was hot. Not in the temperature sense, but in the “labor struggle is heating up” sense. The rhetoric in Europe isn’t about “recovery” the way it is here in North America: everything is “crisis,” “austerity,” and “we must all sacrifice.” “We,” of course, means “workers.” The first target was the militant public sector workers. This sector includes staff in hospitals, schools, and government offices. My first question upon arriving in Barcelona to my host was, “What’s going on, and how do I help?” His response was, “Come to our action.”

The action was an information picket at a university outside of Barcelona. We had a two-sided pamphlet in wordy and less wordy form. There were multiple access points to the campus, but it was possible to occupy them all with about three groups. I was initially confused about the objectives, and clearly others were as well. Before arriving I thought we were doing a full blockade. Then I later thought we were just handing out pamphlets; later still I was informed that our objective was to ruin traffic around the university. We were to functionally block the university without announcing it. That didn’t require actually stopping every driver. This was an important distinction.

During the initial phase, when we were just handing out pamphlets, the drivers began treating the pamphlets as their passport to the campus. After a while we started getting cars that already had a pamphlet. It was almost cute the way the drivers would desperately wave it in order to get past us. What I realized was that this was an assent to our power. Whether or not they acknowledged the legitimacy of our makeshift passport, they acknowledged our power. Legitimate or not, we controlled access to the campus. Not only that, we had a lasting effect with the “pamphlet as passport.” If these people planned on leaving campus and returning, they had to carry that pamphlet with them the entire day. All of a sudden a disposable piece of propaganda had acquired the status of one of those critical things you carry around with you every day, like your driver’s license.

Realizing the power we had and seeing how we could use it shocked me. We speak a lot about class consciousness, but we rarely talk about power. Raising class consciousness needs to have a component that acknowledges the fact that we are using and wielding power. We don’t really have the ability to be surgical with that power. Mostly it takes the form of “we can do a lot of economic damage if we don’t get what we want.” This is the core of the strike action. Recognizing this truth is critical. The “what we want” part can be fair and equitable, but it is utterly irrelevant without a foundation of “we can do a lot of economic damage.”

Class consciousness is not just “my buddy and I at work have the same grievances.” It is the acknowledgement of our collective power and our willingness to use it for our benefit. Exercising that power, even in small ways like pamphlet-as- passport, demonstrate the kind of class consciousness that is the bread-and-butter underpinning day-to-day class struggle. Without this experience and understanding of collective power we risk crippling our own class consciousness.

Originally appered in the Industrial Worker (December 2010)