Occupy May Day: Not Your Usual General Strike
Based on a talk by Jeremy Brecher to Occupy University, Zuccotti Park
By Jeremy Brecher Common Dreams March 26, 2012 October2011
Last December, Occupy Los Angeles proposed a General Strike on May 1 “for migrant rights, jobs for all, a moratorium on foreclosures, and peace – and to recognize housing, education and health care as human rights.” The idea has spread through the Occupy movement. Occupy Wall Street in New York recently expressed solidarity with the proposal and called for “a day without the 99%, general strike, and more!” with “no work, no school, no housework, no shopping, take the streets!” Reactions are ranging from enthusiastic support to outraged skepticism. What form might such an action take, and what if anything might it achieve?
General Strikes and Mass Strikes
One thing is for sure: Such a May Day action is unlikely to be very much like the general strikes that have cropped up occasionally in US labor history in cities like Seattle, Oakland, and Stamford, Ct., or the ones that are a staple of political protest in Europe. These are typically conducted by unions whose action is called for and coordinated by central labor councils or national labor federations. But barely twelve percent of American workers are even members of unions, and American unions and their leaders risk management reprisals and even criminal charges for simply endorsing such a strike.
Most Occupy May Day advocates understand that a conventional general strike is not in the cards. What they are advocating instead is a day in which members of the “99%” take whatever actions they can to withdraw from participation in the normal workings of the economic system — by not working if that is an option, but also by not shopping, not banking, and not engaging in other “normal” everyday activities, and by joining demonstrations, marches, disruptions, occupations, and other mass actions.
This is the pattern that was followed by the Oakland General Strike last November. Those who wanted to and could – a small minority – didn’t go to work. There was mass participation in rallies, marches, educational, and artistic events and a free lunch for all. At the end of the day a march, combined with some walkouts, closed the Port of Oakland. The mostly peaceful “general strike,” in contrast to later violent Oakland confrontations, won wide participation and support.
To understand what the significance of such an event might be, it helps to look at what Rosa Luxemburg called periods of “mass strike.” These were not single events, but rather whole periods of intensified class conflict in which working people began to see and act on their common interests through a great variety of activities, including strikes, general strikes, occupations, and militant confrontations.
Such periods of mass strike have occurred repeatedly in US labor history. For example:
In 1877, in the midst of deep depression and a near-obliteration of trade unions, workers shut down the country’s dominant industry, the railroads, shut down most factories in dozens of cities, battled police and state militias, and only were suppressed when the US Army and other armed forces killed more than a hundred participants and onlookers.
In the two years from 1884 to 1886, workers swelled the Knights of Labor ten-fold from 70,000 members to 700,000 members. In 1886, more than half-a-million workers in scores of cities joined a May 1st strike for the eight-hour day. The movement was broken by a reign of terror that followed a police attack that is usually but perversely referred to as the “Haymarket Riot.” May Day became a global labor holiday in honor of the “Haymarket Martyrs” who were tried by a judge so prejudiced against them that their execution has often been referred to as “judicial murder.”
In 1937, hundreds of thousands of workers occupied their factories and other workplaces in “sitdown strikes” and housewives, students, and many other people applied the same tactic to address their own grievances.
In 1970, in the midst of national upheavals around the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, and a widespread youth revolt, postal workers, teamsters, and others took part in an unprecedented wave of wildcat strikes, while miners held a month-long political strike in West Virginia to successfully demand justice for victims of black lung disease.