From Strike Wave To General Strike
Above photo: Yasmine James (center with microphone), the McDonald’s worker attacked while working at a St. Petersburg restaurant, spoke to a crowd at a worker rally Tuesday. Spectrum News image.
The strike wave is here. The strike wave is real. Can workers take the next steps toward a General Strike?
The current crisis is a rare opportunity for us to build a movement both outside of electoral politics and based on an organizing model. That matters because the biggest shortcoming of the left and the social movements is our lack of organizing.
Organizing can do what good intentions or radical theory or electoral campaigns cannot: turn solidarity from a dream into a living thing. But without some serious solidarity, all our hopes for a General Strike will fail to materialize.
As we build the solidarity infrastructure needed for a General Strike lets not lie to each other. It’s called “class struggle” for a reason. Strikes are painful with workers pitting their sacrifice and suffering up against the bosses’ profits. Strikes are no party.
But, general strikes, while rare, are a good match for the unprecedented interlocking crises we face. There is an answer to our problems. It’s the age-old working-class answer: “solidarity forever.” But, never forget that solidarity is forged in sacrifice too.
Solidarity is not simply passing a resolution or staking a claim — it is actions like boycotts or mutual aid efforts or sending money to those at the front lines or going on strike yourself.
The Strike is Back
After a long period of retreat, the strike has returned with a vengeance. In 2018 West Virginia teachers kicked off a strike wave the likes of which we have not seen for decades. And the leadership is coming from the rank and file — not union officials.
In this moment of pandemic panic strikes and unrest are focused on immediate demands. We want a general strike and that is a great thing but we have to pave the way between the largely defensive strikes that actually exist and the political offensive that is the heart of a general strike.
General strikes contest for power by explicitly raising class consciousness and proposing system-wide reform, economic democracy, maybe even social transformation. The political task is to build the transition between the defensive strike wave and the offensive general strike we need. We can find the path by starting down the trailhead right in front of us.
If we want to engage people we have to listen carefully to what they say and do. The strongest currents of resistance that I see are actions, demands, and tactics around the immediate life and death questions of safety, protection, and survival:
+ Protective equipment, sick benefits, hazard pay.
+ Strike as “sick out” that withholds labor until we break the back of the pandemic.
+ Strikes, slowdowns, rolling job actions or staying home. Let the workers decide.
+ Increase wages for essential workers.
+ The conversion of production to ventilators or masks or tests.
+ Universal health care
+ No rent, no evictions, no vacancies
+ Mutual Aid to serve the people
These may be immediate demands but in them, we can imagine the possibilities of the General Strike. In these demands, (and in the bosses’ rush to get us back to work) we can see that labor creates all wealth. We can see that workers are essential and bosses are disposable. When workers demand that they switch production to ventilators or masks — the seeds of worker control are taking root. Housing and health care are revealed as demands of direct interest to everyone, not just a moral stand. If the General Strike is the front-line Mutual Aid is the quartermaster providing aid and comfort to the troops and showing us what a democratic economy looks like.
Taken together these actions and demands are the beginnings of a struggle for economic, workplace and community democracy. Call it Freedom and Democracy, call it Socialism or Revolution, call it Reason or call it Treason — I don’t care what you call it.
It’s Solidarity Forever or General Strike Never
“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
― Lilla Watson
Solidarity is not simply good intentions or the fine speeches that politicians sometimes make. Solidarity grows by acting on the principle that “your liberation is bound up with mine.” With solidarity, a new world is possible — without it we surrender to corporate power.
By all means, have your steering committee pass a resolution but real solidarity can only be achieved by organizing and activism.
Here are a few possibilities:
+ We need to coordinate strategic boycotts targeting Amazon, Whole Foods and other corporate criminals. We need a huge email list and a website updated daily to select targets and coordinate timing. Who will take up this work?
+ In 2016 the Sanders campaign proved that a presidential campaign could be crowdfunded by millions of small donations. Can we set up a funding mechanism to funnel money to striking workers trying to last “one day longer” than the boss?
+ Solidarity with strikers means building networks, coalitions, Mutual Aid and communal efforts, and Unemployed Councils.
The Crisis Cannot Be Resolved by Normal Means
When compared with the narrow vision of the electoral arena (with the vast majority of politicians from both major parties still opposing universal healthcare) even these initial spontaneous uprising are full of ideas for redistributing wealth and power.
Even in the depths of the crisis, unanimous Congressional action could deliver nothing greater than temporary cash payments so meager as to exaggerate the very wealth inequality that made our world unsustainable in the first place.
These tasty crumbs are welcomed aid to workers but were also a good move by the ruling class to calm things down. Without real resistance, our rulers got away with tossing us the bare minimum necessary to engineer consent so they could gain a far bigger prize: the further consolidation of 40 years of corporate power.
It’s not that progressive Democrats produced nothing. They moved the discourse in important ways. But the unanimous consent to the corporate bailout signals the limits of even well-meaning electoral activity under existing conditions. And that is why the strike wave is so important. Direct action gets the goods. And, the torch is passed back from celebrities and politicians to the unknown everyday people that were always the true leaders of the working-class.
The left needs Ella Bakers’ vision. Do we have the capacity to “pick up the pieces or put together pieces?”
What will help the millions move? What will build the capacity for self-organization? We need to learn and quick. Because it is when millions move — then and only then — that we will unleash the enormous creative energies of the people. They will find the way forward.
The people are telling us where to find them. Can we catch up? Its due time for all organizers to engage, listen, learn from and stand with our new leaders. There is no greater solidarity than this.