V. Counter attack: November 2nd general strike

A New York Times article reported on the counter-attack of worker militants resisting the attempt by a transnational corporation EGT (Export Grain Trade) to hire non-union workers (as well as union workers of another union) to undermine International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) local 21. What was at stake? The EGT, a Forbes 500 global corporation undermining ILWU, one of the most militant contemporary unions, was a serious move towards a generalized attack on all union rights.

Since May, ILWU Local 21 has been escalating the fight in a two-year-plus battle to force the multinational conglomerate EGT to abide by the ILWU contract, while a new $200 million grain terminal was being built in Longview. This was the first new terminal built on the West Coast in the last 25 years. On September 1st, about 500 longshoremen stormed the new $200 million terminal in Longview carrying baseball bats, smashing windows, damaging rail cars and dumping tons of grain from the cars, police and company officials said. Later in the day, more than 1,000 other longshoremen shut down the ports of Seattle and Tacoma by not going to work. “It’s a wildcat and it’s unsanctioned,” said Craig Merrilees, the union’s chief spokesman. “Workers did not show up to work today at the ports of Tacoma and Seattle. Piecing things together, it appears that folks voted with their feet and stood by their conscience to send a message and express concern about what’s happened in Longview.”

Like their worker counterparts in Longview, Occupy Oakland was not going to lay down easy. It looked to Longview as a counterpart in a common struggle against “the 1%”, and as it started to build the November 2nd General Strike, it included solidarity with Longview ILWU members.

Participants in Occupy Oakland were by and large students, former students, anarchists, lumpen, homeless, non-profit workers, union workers and non union workers . . . all “proper” revolutionary subjects. But the general assemblies at Occupy Oakland did not have workers representing industry that they, as workers, could shut down only because it is they who keep them running – by compulsion of wage slavery. Only a few ILWU rank-file were active in these general assemblies, while the attempted general strike implored longshore workers as a whole to shutdown the port of Oakland. The surplus populations in political motion are legitimate revolutionary subjects, but workers struggling in vital structural institutions- the ports, airports, schools, transportation- are necessary to really fight capitalism. On the one hand, the movement could be seen as a diverse grouping of the working class, some thrown out of work, other being students with no future in the professions, fighting EGT because the ILWU union is legally handcuffed. On the other hand, one can see this movement substituting itself for longshore and port worker class struggle to gain media attention and political hype. There is truth to both of these interpretations, which taken together express a real contradiction the movement. However, we see the contradiction resolving itself in the development of an advanced part of Occupy Oakland putting, for the moment at least, the battle of Longview, Wa. port workers at center focus. It is not true that Occupy movements represent a new tendency of proletarians alien to a workplace forcefully blocading a workplace or industry with little coordination or consideration for these particular workers’ will.

From October 26th to November 2nd, Occupy Oakland was at its most dynamic. It’s dynamism was best represented by the incredible energy, ever-present through the participants’ and supporters’ unity, the language of class struggle and memory from the Oakland general strike of 1946. All of this was couched in the “99%” rhetoric of the Occupy movement. People of all walks of life came to Oscar Grant Plaza to pick up thousands of fliers to put out in every available space. The act of building for November 2nd was in itself transformative in a way similar to the lead-up to March 4th 2010 which was a watershed event in the struggle against austerity. In both cases, 100s of people become confident in their role as organizer, identify as an activist, and engage in theoretical questions brought up in the process.

The improvised form for building a general strike bore social movement fruit. November 2nd was massive. Estimations vary between 10,000 and 100,000 people.

The mayor said 200 of the city’s civilian workforce numbering 2,500 called in sick or took the day off through other means. It was also reported that 18% of Oakland’s teachers took that day off as well. ILWU reported that 40 out of 325 stevedores failed to come to the morning shift work and a third of longshoremen were opposed to work that day. Several businesses shut down. A 4pm rally produced a march headed to the docks and a 5pm rally backed it up, with both marches including over 10,000 people.

The marches went through parts of Oakland that have not been completely integrated or involved with the Occupy movement, like West Oakland as the crowds marched to the port. This improvised march, collective collaboration and eventual port shutdown was a massive success, yet the improvised form contained its own limits: a dynamic social movement protest calling itself a general strike.

In order to have multiple, successful and collaborative general strikes, it would have to take more than just spontaneous calls for action. Occupy Oakland has been engaged in organized and spontaneous action for a while now, a process of reflection and growth that is important to long-term struggle. The reflection part is extremely important, but so far limited in Occupy Oakland. What people have started and continue to do, is think through long-term strategy to sustain struggle in working or study groups. Spontaneous calls for shutdowns or strikes can be empowering and offer quick political responsiveness, but to maintain and build class struggle, including under an “occupy” rhetoric, we need long-term class-struggle collectives rooted in working-class communities.

The night of November 2nd ended in a flaming barricade blocking access to an occupation of a shuttered homeless services center. Open police antagonism against Occupy Oakland reasserted itself that night and continued again on the morning of November 14th where OPD shut down the camp again.

The closure of the camp was a major setback for Occupy Oakland, but not the death of it. It became obvious that the camp could not militarily defeat the state, contrary to those who focused on camping as political resistance.Occupy Oakland’s strength lies in a movement that was and is in active opposition to state policies and capitalist austerity. The Occupation would have to find a way to spread beyond the canyon walls of the downtown complex of government high-rises.

That same afternoon, over a thousand people congregated in a powerful and well-attended general assembly at the Main Library. The next day, UC Berkeley had a powerful public general assembly with 6,000 people in attendance. A radicalization was sweeping the Bay Area, with an Oakland-Berkeley cross-fertilization of political energy reaching a new generation. Debates erupted about next steps. Some argued for focusing on the fight for space, maintaining the camp. Others argued for decentralized occupations. Neither proposal seemed powerful enough to jump-start Occupy Oakland against state attacks. Some organizers proposed to organize a mass un-permitted march to either a foreclosed home or a school getting closed. Organized labor approached some organizers of Occupy Oakland to build a vigil or other forms of soft support.

Ultimately, the idea of a mass unpermitted march to the banks and a closed school was most popular. The march was intended to be a combination of organized labor and Occupy Oakland, in defense of the Occupy movement and public schools and against the financial sector profiting as the working class suffers cutbacks and terminal debt.