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.