Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Comparing the Wisconsin and Oakland 'General Strikes' of 2011

This year has seen two serious attempts to organise general strikes in the United States, which had not seen such grassroots industrial action in many decades. The significance of this should not be underplayed, and both struggles are worthy of analysis, to help build an understanding of our strengths and weaknesses in different contexts, as well as the forces lined up against us.

The first took place last winter in Wisconsin, as working people tried to overturn the governor's huge attack on pay and bargaining rights. In 'The general strike that didn't happen', Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) members describe how they were at the centre of efforts to organise a stoppage, but were ultimately frustrated as large numbers were channeled into liberal protest avenues such as recall campaigns. The report describes the high point of the campaign, which in retrospect also prefigured the shift to more reformist methods:
"The public forum held in the evening after the rally had around 200 participants, of which approximately 25 were IWW members. This is certainly one of the largest public meetings organized by the IWW in a long time. Unfortunately the reverse side to this is that we do not have a culture of how to organize public meetings. We did not have a clear objective for the meeting and it became a long list of people speaking eloquently about mass action, but with no discussion of practical steps. To a large extent, the event became a forum for people to get things off their chest. Members of the public sector unions expressed their shock and disbelief."
In the end, "IWW participation in the so-called ‘#wiunion movement’ started to decline as the recall became the popular option, individuals in the branch still maintained varying levels of involvement."

Much more recently - just three weeks ago in fact - a "general strike" shut down the Port of Oakland, in response to police violence against the city's Occupy movement. In 'The Oakland general strike, the days before, the days after', an IWW participant describes how:
"Personally, I had some of the easiest agitating in my life. A class on Monday started with the instructor talking about how he wasn't sure what was going on, but since getting to Alameda pretty much requires going through downtown Oakland, he was cancelling class on Wednesday. Then he goes on about how all the community college instructors are looking forward to this, because most of them are getting hours cut or losing their jobs."
By the strike day itself:
"My medic buddy and I then went back to moving around the plaza and the area around it, worried about tensions developing and bursting out into some sort of confrontation, but, that did not seem to occur. Our numbers, however, were swelling rapidly. Two marches would leave for the port, at 4 and 5 pm, the first, from reliable estimates consisting of at least 10,000 people, the second consisting of 15-20k people. Plus many more people went to the port from elsewhere. The best estimates I have seen for the numbers at the port were 35-50,000, which I can easily believe."
Both articles are full of vitally important analysis and tactical reflection, and as the Wisconsin authors argue:
"As the crisis of capital deepens, more and more misery will be directed at the working class, which will have no choice but to respond in ways that break through decades of working class defeat. The events in Wisconsin were just a preview of struggles to come, and the IWW will have to be involved in all of them, learning and developing each time."
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