|Street Cars Abandoned by Drivers During Oakland General Strike|
The last General Strike in the U.S. occurred in 1946 in Oakland, California. The strike came in response to the anti-labor policies of Hastings and Kahn’s department stores in downtown Oakland. Hundreds of store clerks went on strike in late October. The store enlisted the police to clear away strikers and protect strike-breaking scabs. The AFL voted to walkout in solidarity with the clerks. On December 3, 100,000 workers throughout Oakland joined the strike. The General Strike lasted until December 5.
Last night, Occupy Oakland has called for a General Strike on November 2, to protest the city’s military-style assault on occupation protestors on Tuesday, October 25. Will Oakland become the first U.S. city to have a General Strike in 60 years?
On Tuesday night, police used concussion grenades, helicopters, armored personnel carriers, tear gas and fired rounds of rubber bullets or some sort of projectile that critically wounded Scott Olsen, an Iraq war veteran. Olsen remains in the hospital in critical condition, at risk of dying from his injuries. (You can click here to see footage of the assault).
A General Strike is the correct step to take in response to the police attack, assuming a General Strike can be successfully carried out. The authorities are already nervous about the backlash caused by the police’s heavy handed tactics and the potential for it to galvanize the movement and attract an even wider base. A successful General Strike, even for one day, would demonstrate that this has indeed occurred and the growing power of the movement.
However, a General Strike cannot occur without the support of labor (in action, not just in words). Thousands of protestors in the streets can gum up traffic in one or several parts of town, and slow down profit-making temporarily for a few businesses in those regions, but they cannot halt business on the scale of a General Strike and certainly not enough to make business leaders relinquish any of their wealth or power or even concede to any modest demands. Furthermore, without the support of labor, it will just be another mass direct action that blocks traffic, pisses off commuters, and results in more excessive force by the police.
For a General Strike to be truly effective, business as usual must be halted and the bosses must lose money. This is most effectively done when workers join together, refuse to go to work, and picket or blockade their job sites to prevent scabs or managers from doing their work. It is particularly important to have transit workers on board, as they bring both workers and customers to the businesses. However, an effective General Strike should also emphasize participation by communication and media workers, banking, commerce, public sector workers and others.
Numerous unions have come out in support of the Occupy movement. Many have marched with the occupiers, provided on the ground support and participated in the encampments. However, none have so far taken any job actions to help win the protestors’ demands. Of course, until some concrete demands are expressed, this could be seen as premature. Or, maybe they will see the need to participate in a General Strike simply to send a message to the ruling elite that workers will not tolerate such brutal suppression of free speech and assembly.
The major difference between 1946 and today is the relative militancy and courage of the labor movement. In 1946, the labor movement was relatively strong and significantly larger than it is today. 30% of the workforce was unionized in the 40s and the 50s compared with 12% today. Furthermore, in 1946, the Taft-Hartley Act had not yet been passed. Taft-Hartley forbids solidarity or sympathy strikes, including General Strikes. Ever since Taft-Hartley passed, union leaders have been terrified of being imprisoned or losing their entire war chests to legal fees and fines for participating in an illegal job action. This has been a major justification for the absence of any General Strikes since 1946.
Not A Compelling Argument
If union leaders fear imprisonment, fines and expensive legal costs they can always let their members make the decision for themselves whether to strike and simply stand aside. If, on the other hand, they successfully discourage their members from participating or do anything else to undermine the General Strike, they will show their allies in the encampments that their words of support are empty. More significantly, they will expose their necks to the ruling elite, sending the message that they are unwilling to work together for anything larger than their own members’ contractual issues and that they lack the courage and resolve to fight. The consequence will be an intensification of the assault on unions and working people by the bosses who will correctly interpret the unions’ passivity as weakness.