Strike is a Verb (part 3)

From taking over space to taking over time: Occupy Wall Street as seen by AFFECT

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[The following questions were posed by e-mail by Ana Bigotte Vieira and Miguel Castro Caldas between November 2012 and January 2013.]

Part 3: From Taking Over Space To Taking Over Time: Reclaiming Back The General Strike In The US

Can you explain to us what it meant for US politics that OWS tried to reclaim the notion of general strike, especially because in the US certain forms of striking are illegal?

The US is notoriously hostile to workplace organization. Workers’ rights are under threat from the usual large institutions, but also (or by way of) popular culture. The much-lauded American Dream states that if you work hard, you’ll be rich, and if you’re poor, it’s because you didn’t work hard, which is your fault and not anyone else’s. Following this logic, the system is arranged in such a way at its most fundamental level, and it’s difficult for people, even those most directly hurt by this system, to grasp the more abstract factors that create income inequality. A movie came out a few years ago called The Pursuit ofHappiness in which Will Smith plays a homeless father who somehow works his way up into being a big-shot at a Wall Street firm. This is considered as heartwarming as it is plausible, and taken as the rule rather than the exception—there is some function in place that fosters the belief that, rather than this man being exceedingly fortunate, the millions of other Americans in poverty are lazy and self-destructive. American culture is constantly replaying this myth over and over and refuses to reject it as false, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Unions are viewed as an impediment to this Dream playing itself out in its natural course. Union-busting laws are called “right-to-work laws,” with the ludicrous implication being that the purpose of unions is to prevent people from working. The notion of striking, likewise, is portrayed as an act of militant laziness rather than a principled way of maintaining basic working conditions. Striking is rebutted on the grounds that the strikers are, on a personal level, lazy, whiny, ungrateful for their jobs (in this time of high unemployment), unconcerned how their disruption affects those around them, etc.

This is all the result of a long history of conflict between mostly unbridled American industrialists and the local working class, which has historically been based upon the free labor of slaves from Africa, and cheap labor from subsequent waves of immigration from all over the world coming for the above-mentioned American Dream. Unions and “collective bargaining” were formalized, legalized and integrated into US capitalism in the 1935 Wagner Act, as part of Roosevelt’s “New Deal” in response to the Great Depression of the 1930s. But these gains didn’t last very long, coming under severe attack and restriction after the labor struggles following World War II, leading to McCarthyism and the Red Scare, and the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which is still in force. Since 1947 striking has been mostly prohibited, if not outright illegal in many cases, and there has never been a call for a national general strike in the US, something which has become fairly common in many European countries, especially in the last few years. Ronald Reagan’s crushing of the air traffic controllerstrike and union in 1981 was another drastic blow. The number of strikes in the US, much less victories, has steadily declined ever since.

The taking of the Brooklyn Bridge proved a highly inspiring and spectacular action

Even before the May Day General Strike was called, OWS seemed to re-invigorate New York and US labor. After the occupation of the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1st, 2011, in which 700 were arrested and transported to jails in city buses, the local TWU (Transport Workers Union) announced its drivers would refuse to transport OWS protesters to jail in the future, a sign that unions were sympathetic to the underlying message of OWS and trying to feed off its energy. On October 5th, several thousand union members from the TWU, the Service Employees International Union, the United Federation of Teachers, the United Auto Workers and others, marched with OWS protesters in downtown Manhattan. Art handlers from the Teamsters union were locked out of their job for several months by the auction house Sotheby’s, and their dispute became a rallying point for some OWS protesters, who added a certain militant flair to what would have otherwise been another anodyne affair. On March 28th, 2012, militants, some of them associated with OWS, collaborated with rank-and-file members of the TWU to chain open the entrances of around twenty subway stations around the city, enforcing a “fare strike” and enraging the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the NYPD, and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Unions march with OWS on October 5th, 2011

The idea of a general strike first re-appeared during some labor unrest in the public sector in Wisconsin in February-March 2011, where the governor was trying to eliminate collective bargaining for public employees in response to the state’s budget crisis. Although the threatened general strike never materialized in reality, the struggles in Wisconsin were some of organized labor’s first major popular acts of resistance to austerity in the US since this crisis began. We had to wait for the general strike in Oakland, California, on November 2nd, which was a tremendous inspiration, as it was called by the Oakland Commune (the Oakland version of Occupy) and shut down the major port in the city with the aid of rank-and-file members of the International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union (the last real general strike in the US also occurred in Oakland, in 1946). An even more ambitious strike was called by Occupy Oakland for December 12th, the aim being to shut down ports all along the West Coast. This was largely successful in Longview, Oakland and Portland, partially so in Anchorage, Long Beach, San Diego, Seattle, Vancouver, and other cities. Union leadership opposed the strike, and the fact that the Occupy movement was autonomously calling for these strikes was certainly an innovation in the history of US labor organizing.

The November Oakland general strike, called by Occupy Oakland, was a huge step

The May Day strike was, from the beginning, conceived as operating outside of the authority of union bureaucrats, and even reached outside the bounds of the traditional “worker” identity at the point of production, to include the precarious, domestic laborers, the unemployed, and all those who are in a position to halt the flows of capital and disrupt normality. It was perhaps the biggest possible horizon for the Occupy movement, a coordinated national strike, called for by an autonomous and decentralized social movement, aiming to withhold all forms of labor and to block the flows of capital, in the process rejecting all forms of political and economic representation and mediation. Unfortunately what we saw in New York on May 1st was extremely weak in terms of industrial actions, and made little dent in economic activity, but the resulting mobilization was exceptionally vigorous and large as a May Day protest and celebration (part of the aim of some general strike organizers being to resuscitate the memory of May Day as a day for workers and anarchists).

The issue of unions and union officials remains a knotted one. Although unemployment is high, and only a small fraction of employed workers are unionized in NYC and the US, not only is the idea of striking associated with a violation of the work ethic, but it is also considered the prerogative of unions only, and self-organized or wildcat strikes are very rare in the US these days. No unions in New York supported the general strike as such or organized for it, although they mobilized their members for the usual May 1st march. It seemed unions were willing to use OWS to gain visibility for themselves and put on some airs of vitality, perhaps even use Occupy protesters as foot soldiers in ongoing contract disputes, but when it came to following Occupy’s lead in taking offensive action, union leaders quickly changed their tune. They could conveniently point to the restrictions of the Taft-Hartley Act, which would make a coordinated general strike “illegal,” although taken in its true meaning, the very concept of a general strike cancels the notion of operating within legality.

So actual strikes in NYC were mostly in the form of student walk-outs, people calling in sick, taking vacation days, freelancers losing a day’s pay, etc. A small amount of sympathetic cultural spaces, retail stores, restaurants and cafes closed for the day. A “wildcat” march, essentially a black bloc, was several hundred strong and assertive. Other marchers ended up in the Financial District, which was completely militarized by the NYPD.

The general strike was, therefore, a step towards making even the most elementary forms of workers’ struggle possible again, in that it sought to recast the strike in terms of its positivity. Something like a free university in Madison Square Park, for example, showed that professors and students weren’t merely interested in playing hooky. In theory this general strike would have worked towards reversing these false assumptions about striking and about the workers’ struggle generally—to recognize that protesting isn’t merely whining, that striking can be more than vegetating, a jab at the “rugged individualism” glamorized by American culture, a term synonymous with isolationist greed. The general strike was even more audacious than a typical strike, being that it, like OWS, cannot even be tied to any specific demands. The past couple of months in the US have seen both promising momentum for worker organization (fast food workers organizing in NYC) and huge blows towards it (right-to-work laws in Michigan). What long-term effects, if any, the General Strike on May 1st had on the larger climate of the Worker’s struggle are impossible to say for now.


Read the whole interview: Part 1 | Part 2

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