Conversation on general strikes

Conversation on general strikes

This is part of a discussion on Facebook that started off some questions on the topic of general strikes. I thought the conversation was interesting, so decided to turn into a blog post.

2011 was the year 'general strike' reentered the vocaboulary of American social movements. Wisconsin planted the seed, Oakland attempted to pull one off and now large segments of the Occupy movement are organizing for a May 1st general strike. But what is a general strike? What have they looked like in American history? What about in other places? Is Occupy's usage of the term accurate? Does it matter?

So I'm planning to write something on the topic of what a general strike is. Been playing around with this for a while, but the May 1st stuff is creating a sense of urgency. It will probably help a bit on whether I ever get around to writing something more extensive on Wisconsin, as well. Looking for info on a couple things.

1)The various definitions of 'general strike'? - Obviously, the old Wobblies and syndicalists of eras bygone conceived of it differently than say the 2012 UGT in Spain. It's possible today's CNT defines it differently than the historical CNT, I don't know. In any case, when the term was raised in WI, for some it meant trying to push through resolutions and votes through official union bodies to accomplish it. And for others it meant concentrating on getting one or two key workplaces to walk out, regardless of official union structure, and engage in flying squads/mass picketing while trying to spread them through the mass sympathies that existed at the time.

2)History of general strikes in the U.S. - It's my impression that most, if not all, the American general strikes started out as wildcats that spread and then were officially sanctioned by the unions. That we don't have the phenomenon of the European style 1 day general strike called by the unions months before hand.

3)General strikes in Europe & Latin America - These 2 regions because I think they have way more in common with the U.S. than other regions of the world. What have general strikes looked like there? From what I've read, communists are very critical of the GS in Europe that is a very formalized, sterile, routine thing. Are there some good articles/pieces on these criticisms? I've seen some of them, but am sure I've missed a bunch.

4)The 'social' or 'civic strike' - I don't know this history very well, but what happened in Oakland a couple months ago would be described in Latin America as a 'social strike' or 'civic strike'. Do people have information on this?

5)Changing nature of general strikes - How have they changed? Did the ones that happened in the 19th Century looks signifigantly different from the ones that happened in the interwar war years? How about post-war? How about now?

Any info/opinions/thoughts would be appreciated.

Joseph Kay: I don't know when the European ritual general strike became a 'thing'. It never really did in the UK. We've only had one formally called by the unions, and that began with a million miners locked out and quickly spread beyond union control. The local general strikes there's been in the UK (like Liverpool 1911) were all wildcat I think. Obviously we have ritualised one-day strikes in the UK, but nobody pretends they're general strikes.

I guess at some point what must have happened is union tops recuperated anarchist/syndicalist language and started rebranding ritualised stoppages as 'general strikes', when previously they'd been associated with rank-and-file militancy and the revolutionary movement (e.g. the UK government's condemnation of the 1926 general strike - which printers refused to print - read "A general strike is not an industrial dispute. It is a revolutionary move which can only succeed by destroying the government and subverting the rights and liberties of the people").

Nate Hawthorne: Glad you're working on this Juan. I'll poke around for examples of union-called general strikes in the US. If there were any, it'd be before 1920 I think.

Under point 1, definitions, it seems to me you're talking about two things. One is, what is a general strike at all, like what's our vision (GS=temporary work stoppage to win a demand, GS=insurrection, GS=revolution which is close what Ralph Chaplin said). Two is, what does a general strike call mean in practice and how might it be kicked off (work with unions/pass resolutions, try to get a walkout to happen). I'm not sure what the connection is between those two things, like did people's politics matter for the tactics or not, if there is one I'd really like to hear more about it.

Phinneas Gage: I was going to write a Facebook note ages ago about "How a general strike would actually happen". I think we see the seeds of it starting in flying squads based in workplace committees marching on the largest workplaces and transit installations. Most of these committees would also need to be based in the workplaces that are being shut down or we risk a seriously messed up substitutionist dynamic. However minority committees practicing "I'll shut down yours if you shut down mine" could circumvent a lot of contract issues while at the same time making it routed in the democracy of groups based on the job. Additional flying squads would simultaneously put pickets up at transit installations and marshall workers march en masse on the largest industrial installations a la Oakland to shut down places that require more than a couple dozen folks.

The next step would be seizing essential services, deemed essential by the committees meeting in assembly, and commandeering those resources to consolidate and expand the struggle. Things like transit, water, food, communications, power etc.

QC: That excites the hell out of me, Phinneas. British Colombia teachers are about to walk out and the gov't is already in the process of legislating them back. They are known to be a militant union according to some. So this theory would work well. If they are known to be militant then they's be willing to engage in these type activities.

Phinneas Gage: Imagine if a bunch of teachers blocked the trucks from the Mail Plant and then the plant doors while a bunch of posties then got in cars to the nearest schools? Couple that with posters all over town calling on mass pickets at the biggest worksites in the city, like the docks in Vancouver, big trucking teriminals and bus depots and you could grind the joint to a halt in hours. The thing is we need the organisation- and the guts to do it, this won't be our last opportunity so we need to push as hard as we can now but also build real infrastructure too. This infrastructure would look like phone trees that network committees of militants in every job, contact lists built through solidarity campaigns for fired militants and committees that can fight around day to day grievances that workplace contracts can't touch.

DE: Adding to Phinneas' excellent point about essential services, is a dual struggle, I think: we not only have to seize those services we think are essential, but we must also either seize or render inoperable those services the employers deem essential, in order to 'break their haughty power.'

Phinneas Gage: Totally, also I'm talking in the first few hours/days, shutting down the police is a top priority but we are also getting the power and water first because we need them for the schools- in the long term reform of the education system will make or break us.

DE: ‎"We need the organisation - and the guts to do it". Exactly. Which ties it back to Juan's original point about the meaning of the words. 'General Strike' is sometimes used, it seems, merely as a ritual work-stoppage or holiday. That's different from our 'revolutionary' "General Strike," which we have often imagined as the prelude to complete revolution (a thought often dismissed these days, yes?). We need the organization, and the will/guts to do it, and follow through.

Phinneas Gage: Exactly, I think we can half ass organisation but guts is harder to fake and it has to run deep. This is part of where smaller fights are important, they give people the confidence to try more ambitious projects without as much hesitation. There's no doubt once you move beyond sectoral struggles and into mass social struggle though that there is a leap of faith that needs to be made. Faith however can always get a little bit of help from experience.

RJ: The AUPE wildcat should be proof positive that not only can essential services strikes gain ground but if conducted en masse there is little the government can do.

Gayge Operaista: Some preliminary thoughts...I'm not sure if really big social strikes (like an order of magnitude larger than the Oakland General Strike attempt, to be honest) are a good way to build to "The General Strike" in the Wob sense, and I'm not sure if that necessarily means they're less than. I think a social strike on a larger scale than Oakland, with a higher general degree of militancy, could succeed in seizing and holding various sites and communizing them - of course, that would cause an escalation of police response and unless it triggers things to pop off in other cities, will probably end up isolated. I think the advantage of the Oakland model is that it's easier to bring in unorganized/precarious/unemployed workers, and the disadvantage is it's easier to isolate.

‎I'm using "The General Strike" in the old-school Wob sense to mean a significant number of strategic organized workplaces go out, and that cascades to shut down production, and then the workers sieze their workplaces and restart them to produce for proletarian needs.

On organization: it's a little ironic (but certainly a good thing) that the San Francisco Bay GMB1 of the IWW acted as the network of militants agitating, organizing, and heightening spontaneous ruptures, rather than organizing a discrete workplace first and becoming its union with the Oakland General Strike - this is not to say people more into contracts weren't involved (they were, and did solid work, I'm super proud and super impressed of the entire branch for stuff in regards to OO), but I think to get all theory speak, it was a good synthesis of spontaneity and organization, and kind of a vindication of the organization being, in part, a network of groupings of shopfloor *and* community struggle militants.

Phinneas Gage: Not just easier to isolate but harder to communise, some infrastructure is only going to be run by the workers in that industry. Also the wob sense brings a level of coordination and logistical planning into the struggle already. This is really important. Look at GP Maximoffs Program of Anarcho Syndicalism as opposed to the Anarcho Communist model of grass roots decentralised expropriation. Syndicalist planning is important because at some point we need to transition from disruption to subversion. That synthesis you speak of sounds a lot like how our branch rolls. We've had an awesome dynamic between occupy and our workplace committees and this has led to some impressive struggles.

Gayge Operaista: I think the failure to transition from disruption to subversion (not for lack of trying, though!) has been the sticking point for Occupy Oakland. I also agree with you on the harder to communize - OO has been trying to take abandoned buildings, with no success, and I'm not sure how the port shutdowns could go from disrupting the flow of capital to socializing goods coming in.

So, in other words, I agree with you. I think the theoretical/strategic questions are:

1) How do we push for a significant number of workplaces to go out at the same time as a social strike. I don't think this is as obvious as people would like it to be. The OEA (teacher's union) was one of the few I can think of where rank-and-file agitation has been particularly effective, OO did have this core that thought the bureaucrats were organized labor?

2) As militants, where should we push things? If we know we're calling for what is primarily a social strike, do we continue to use the term General Strike?

3) What is the role of our various pro-revolutionary organizations (the IWW; groups like WSA, Common Struggle, Common Cause, MAS, Amanacer, etc; affinity groups, collectives, etc.) - my guess is that these organizations are most useful at low points of mass struggle, or when building to it, or trying to slow down the tide turning - at the height of struggle, well, we're best off taking what we've learned and using that to make good decisions with the people we're with b) a way to preserve and group militancy - I don't buy the rigid political/economic divide at all, and I don't buy the IWW is a "mass" org that just isn't big yet (or that we should water down for the sake of numbers).

I don't think that synthesis is how the branch rolls all the time; unlike other branches, the SF Bay GMB seems to have less resistance in getting involved in stuff outside the workplace - but, I think a lot of people do try to use it as a political platform on issues, too.

Outside SF, I've noticed a lot of resistance to get involved in anything off the shopfloor - there's the idea that struggles around mass transit or repression are "political" and the IWW is "non-political". I think it's better to look at the IWW as anti-political (in the communist sense), that has a tendency to fall into vulgar workerism. Whereas I think the vast majority of our radical orgs tend to focus mostly on repression, and ignore exploitation...not that the two are really separable, there's no exploitation without domination and vice versa.

Phinneas Gage: Hey Gayge, I think there's some diversity in IWW branches with regards to the "outside the shopfloor" thing. I think the Bay Area GMB is really exceptional in a lot of ways, some of these good some of these bad but it has to do with the unique position that area occupies in North America.

Generally speaking small branches have to make priorities, the Bay Area GMB is huge and has a tremendous amount of capacity. In my experience branches that take a "shop floor first" approach tend to grow and develop, this builds their capacity and brings them to a level where they can work on multiple things. So for instance there's a lot of stuff in Twin Cities GMB that is outside the workplace, but a lot of the GMB got that way by majorly prioritising workplace organising in their early years. The Bay Area kind of warps this tendency because there are just so many ideological leftists that you don't have to worry about "doing things right" as much as in a place like the Midwest or Alberta Canada.

Another thing is that for a very, very long time almost everything outside the workplace was actually cross class or anti-working class activity and there has been a strong tendency to get the IWW on board to all sorts of activist projects. Part of this is that the IWW has done well and built a strong presence on the job where the IWW prioritised building itself over the broader lefty scene. I think some of this position can be revised now that there is a lot more activism that is actually working class activism (IVAW2, Housing and Tenants, Transit etc) but for the reasons I put above I do still think the workplace is one of those "necessary but not sufficient" kind of thing if we are going to build the movement we want. Transit is good if we have it but alright if we have a good housing organisation, same for transit instead of housing but a strong presence on the job is essential.

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Posted By

Juan Conatz
Mar 24 2012 02:53


Attached files


Joseph Kay
Mar 24 2012 14:31

Just to throw these definitions from the French CNT-AIT into the mix:

CNT-AIT wrote:
Generalised strike: A strike situation which affects one or several sectors of production (or commerce) in a region, country or several countries.

General strike: A strike which crosses sectors in a region, country or internationally. It is a conscious and concerted action, which differentiates it from the generalised strike. It is the weapon desired by and defended by anarcho-syndicalists. It is an act by the masses, the population, which is anarcho-syndicalist whether they understand it or not. Indeed, at this stage, people want and intend to fight and challenge their adversaries. They do not rely upon governmental elections, or promises for the future, to effect reform. The people struggle, here and now, relying on direct action, intend to resolve their demands. The general strike expresses the conflict of opposed classes clearly. If it is large, the balance of power is favourable and new choices may appear.

The insurrectionary general strike: for various reasons the strikers form barricades, create disorder and riots. Everywhere the people rise up in arms, opening the prospect of the expropriation of the capitalists.

The expropriatory general strike: the strikers, masters of the street, seize the means of production, exchange and communication. Businesses, commerce, governments are under the control of the committees of struggle. This is the prelude to a profound social change which, in our opinion, will lead to libertarian communism.

Mar 24 2012 19:50

There have been some general strikes that were officially sanctioned from the beginning, sort of, but in a time & place where there was substantial anti-capitalist sentiment in the labor movement...such as the 8 hour day national general strike in the USA in 1886. Predecessor of AFL called it, Knights of Labor national leadership waffled because they didn't like strikes, but it gained sanction in KoL at local level due to radical local leadership, and in Chicago the syndicalist Central Labor Union was on board officially. I believe the general strike in 1919 in Seattle was sanctioned from the beginning, but there was substantial socialist & syndicalist influence at all levels of the unions in Seattle in that era. General strike in New Orleands in 1892 may have been official from beginning, i'm not sure.

Sometimes general strikes have been prevented due to action of officials. There were widespread calls for extension of a series of strikes & worker actions in Los Angeles in 1919 (massive transit strike & telephone strike at same time) to a general strike but national leaders of AFL & railroad brotherhoods acted very aggressively to prevent it...this was a few months after Seattle general strike.

Otherwise, general strikes have tended to emerge as an expression of what I'd call the grassroots, autonomous tendency in unionism, that is, from the workers but workers who are organized, are part of the organized labor movement. Often what has happened is that workers are angered by something going on and take action and force leaders to reluctantly go along, as with Philadelphia general strike of 1910 (solidarity with transit workers), Toledo general strike of 1934 (solidarity with an autonomous local union and the unemployed council), Minneapolis1934 (solidarity with a radical-led Teamster strike), S.F.-Oakland 1934 (AFL officials forced to go along but brought it to a close as soon as possible, but force was from below, e.g. truck drivers forcing the IBT local in S.F. to sanction stoppage).

The "civic strike" i think refers to things like supportive actions by unorganized groups such as local store owners closing. You had that sort of thing in S.F. during the 1934 strike and also in some neighborhoods during the 2006 immigrant general strike, which was interesting because i think the participants were mostly not "organized" workers, tho some actions were by organized workers, like the shut down of the ports of L.A./Long Beach.

in southern Europe there is a long history of "class" unionism as they call it (as distinguished from sectoralist unionism by industry or craft). But it became bureaucratized and routinized. in Spain both UGT and Workers Commissions call themselves "class unions" even tho they are bureaucratic service agency unions. so acting together as a class as in a general strike is an example of what class unionism means.

fingers malone
Mar 29 2012 21:58

Please don't take this the wrong way, but do you really think the Spanish general strikes are 'sterile'? I know they are not revolutionary, and that announcing a date ages in advance means companies plan ahead and minimise disruption as much as possible, and that everyone goes back to work tomorrow (well, except all the people who got nicked, and the people with no jobs) but is it really 'sterile"? I feel that there is a lot of genuine working class anger being expressed, a lot of grass roots mobilisation, linking up with M-15, unemployed movement and so on. They are not sufficient in themselves and we shouldn't give them a magical status they don't have, that's true, but don't you find the strike at least a bit exciting? Do you think there is no genuine class struggle in it?

fingers malone
Mar 30 2012 10:44
Mar 30 2012 11:39

Hmm, in all fairness fingers, JK wrote that before yesterday's general strike.. and even in Spain people are saying yesterday's was bigger and more solid than any of the others in recent years..

I can't really speak for Spain (or for JK), but I know that in Italy, there have been a few 'general strikes' declared recently and they have been pretty sterile. I barely noticed one beyond seeing more people than usual on the bus I take to work! And they are seen as sterile and routine, even in the countries where they happen (certainly in Italy, anyway.. talking to people about the Oakland general strike was met with, "so what, we have general strikes all the time")..

That's what I imagine JK was talking about when he mentioned the 'sterile' union-run general strikes. As unions in most parts of Europe represent either pulic sector workers or those in traditional militant industries (car manufacture etc) and most of the working class aren't even in unions, their strikes have been very easily contained.

IMO, Spain yesterday (and Greece for basically the last 2/3 years) saw new energy pumped into the strikes from the social movements like 15M etc which made it a break from the norm. That's a good thing, and hopefully it'll continue, but it's still different from the general conception of general strikes called by the big Communist-affiliated union federations that Europe has a history of (indeed, all the most interesting stuff going on in Italy at the minute is happening outside these unions!).

Joseph Kay
Mar 30 2012 11:47

I don't think I described anything as sterile? confused

Mar 30 2012 11:56

My mistake.. maybe its Juan? It's in the OP anyway, and I think there's a grain of truth to it..

fingers malone
Mar 30 2012 12:42

JK, no, I never said you did mate, it's in the OP.

Ed wrote:
Hmm, in all fairness fingers, JK wrote that before yesterday's general strike.. and even in Spain people are saying yesterday's was bigger and more solid than any of the others in recent years..

Ed, I'm hardly going to disagree with you there, am I, seeing as I said that myself, on the other thread. The strike is bigger and more solid in terms of more people striking and actively picketing, and in terms of the mass mobilisations by people who aren't in organised industries, pickets by unemployed, 15M, and the level of sheer smashitup and willingness to break the rules going on. That's clearly true, and measurable. But I still wouldn't say that the previous strike was "sterile", I think all those positive elements were there as well on S29, this time it's bigger and better because the economic conditions are much worse, because the labour reform is worse, because there have been 18 months of massive grassroots mobilisation going on between the two strikes, and tbh because UGT and comisiones are prepared to take the gloves off a bit more because it's PP in power and not their mates like it was last time. But I still don't think the last strike was just a going through the motions thing, it was pretty full on imo.

Look, I didn't like the original comment as there's been a lot of "sneering at your struggles from above" recently (Juan, I didn't think you were sneering, you never sneer at people's struggles, I just mean generally) and I've got the hump about it. I haven't read the exact criticisms Juan is referring to so I can't argue with them, maybe they are all completely accurate, it is also fair enough to say that Spain isn't the only country in Europe to have general strikes, and I'm only talking about one general strike in one country.

I don't think the general strikes are unproblematic, they are massively problematic of course, but there are different ways you can engage with them. As we the ordinary base can't call them, because they are organised and negotiated at the highest level, if you pinned all your hopes on them that would be totally demobilising as all you can do is helplessly plead and petition the union tops to call them. However there's no reason why you have to react like that, you can do all your grassroots stuff all year and still take part in a general strike if there is one, you don't have to spend the whole year waiting for it (of course you might have to spend the whole of the next year dealing with the legal consequences.) You can have a critique of the official general strikes without writing them off, and still see a lot of genuine working class mobilisation in them, and participate in them, that's all I'm trying to say really.

Mar 31 2012 19:15

Yeah, fingers, I don't think there's anything in your post that I really disagree with.. the only thing I can really see is that maybe you reckon that calling these kind of general strikes 'sterile' is the same as writing them off (maybe 'sterile' isn't the right word).. but to me, this was part of a discussion about general strikes as a category and the different types within that category, up to and including revolutionary general strikes.

I think in that context, its fair enough to say these one-dayers are a bit sterile (as in, "that 24-hour general strike called by CGIL was a bit sterile compared to that indefinite general wildcat strike by South Korean workers back in 1987 or the time the revolutionary Russian workers of 1905 etc etc etc....").

That doesn't mean there's no genuine working class mobilisation in them or that we shouldn't participate in them. I don't even think it's sneering (especially as us Brits would love a 'sterile' TUC-called general strike!). It's just differentiating between a strike which goes by the traditional trade union rule book and one which doesn't.

fingers malone
Apr 1 2012 13:32

Sure, ok fair enough. I would say "sterile" sounds like you think there is no point to something at all, it is dead, nothing can grow there.... what you are talking about is more like "limited" or "insufficient" or something like that.
If you use "sterile" like that you are going to have to use it an awful lot though,
"Your anti workfare picket yesterday was sterile"
"No, why, I thought it was good"
"But workfare is still going on, isn't it."