In Madison and Elsewhere, Defense of the Unions Prepares the Workers’ Defeat

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soyonstout
In Madison and Elsewhere, Defense of the Unions Prepares the Workers’ Defeat
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The discussion that follows was prompted by the article: In Madison and Elsewhere, Defense of the Unions Prepares the Workers’ Defeat. The discussion was initiated by soyonstout.
Below is the discussion so far. Feel free to add your own comments!

soyonstout
the slogan of "General Strike" in Wisconsin

<cite>"The US has not witnessed a general strike in years, making the slogan’s appearance in Wisconsin surprising at best and mystifying at worst. Despite the image of power the call for a general strike conjures, we must ask what a general strike would look like or accomplish if it allowed the unions, which had already agreed to carry out attacks on the working class’ living conditions, any leadership role. In the past two years throughout Europe, the unions have called national general strikes against austerity measures presented as solutions to state debts, and have led them all to defeat. Just last fall in France, 14 general strikes led by the “radical” CGT and other unions, as well as oil blockades, were unable to block the passage of pension reform, and the only significant movements for self-organization and class-wide struggle were all conducted in direct opposition to even the most radical of the unions. The trouble is that the ‘general strike,’ as a planned, mass walkout of all the workers, is a tremendously ambiguous slogan. Who is to call the strike? Who will run it and decide how long to stay out, how to picket, and how to spread it? If weeks of strikes and demonstrations throughout a France far more heavily unionized than the US were unable to stop pension attacks last fall, what would come of one-day general strikes or ‘Days of Action’ by American unionized workers, who make up less than 12% of the American workforce in the first place?

In contrast to the “general strike” slogan, for the workers to defend themselves they need to develop a dynamic similar to what Rosa Luxemburg called the “mass strike”[6] —a wave of strikes which is not planned for a single day or period of time. In the mass strike, both unionized and nonunionized workers from various sectors enter the struggle for their own demands and the demands of their brothers and sisters in struggle. The dynamic of the mass strike always seeks to widen the extent of the movement and collectively develop its goals and demands. Such a movement, organized by the workers themselves, coordinated by committees which owe their mandate to, and can find it revoked by, assemblies of all the workers, would immediately threaten the state. It would not be in the hands of the state’s trusted negotiating partners and could at least temporarily beat back some of the proposed austerity measures. Furthermore, such an experience would develop the combativeness, creativity, and confidence of the working class on an unprecedented scale, making workers all the more ready to defend themselves in the future, eventually to the point of posing questions about how and in whose interest society is run."</cite>

these two paragraphs, I think, offer a number of solid criticisms of the "general strike" slogan.  However, I think the alternatives proposed are quite vague and may not have a lot of traction with revolutionaries not familiar with Luxemburg's The Mass Strike, The Political Parties, and the Trade Unions or with any left communist literature on the "mass strike" phenomenon, which is itself quite vague, I think.

I had hoped to share this article with cdes in the IWW who are developing a debate about how to relate to the official union apparatus and see what their thoughts were (there is a piece on libcom about this question within the IWW here: http://libcom.org/blog/response-direct-unionism-discussion-paper-part-1-2-15052011).  I know WR wrote an article about the debate that happened in the Solidarity Federation (IWA-AIT) over this same issue, and I'm not sure what the response from that group was, but I thought it could be a good debate to develop.

Anyway, what do others think would be a better description of the alternative to the slogan of "general strike" than just talking about the mass strike?  Specific suggestions for delegations of workers to call on others to join the struggle at their workplaces (should this suggestion itself be more specific--as in calling on workers in the state administrative buildings and those industries in the private sector which the state government has an interest in maintaining, etc.?)  Or does anyone have any other ideas about how to debate this slogan of "general strike" and get involved in the debates on the union question happening in the US after the Wisconsin struggle?

vstanrabotnikov
This is a brilliant

This is a brilliant question.

I observed that the Turkish ICC section had problems with this too.

If I remember correctly, Devrim said that posing the question was answered with "yes general strike that sounds good".

It's very important to word this carefully, I do wonder if different situations require slightly differently targeted responses. IE if you were distributing it out at the massive assmeblies during a struggle like TEKEL, or one in Madison which both required more nuanced responses.

I heard a postal worker describe to me his desire to see a "sudden, mass walkout in as many industries as possible". This sounded nice and succinct, but lacked further detail, of course.

The idea of using "unofficial" appeals to me, perhaps saying something along the lines of "unofficially organized by workers" or a "big lightning strike across all trades".

kinglear
Not being in work I don't

Not being in work I don't really know, but what seems to be missing are people who can act as catalysts, or crudely put, as shit stirrers. The postal worker referred to above could be an example. He wants 'a sudden mass walk out' and this would be excellent, arousing feelings of 'well we can do something after all' among workers who may be feeling totally fucked and impotent in the face of continual Union sabotage. The sudden mass walkout doesn't initially have to be in many different Industries, because to start with it serves as a demonstration of independent action taken by workers who decided to do it for themselves. It establishes their autonomy from the Unions. And being seen to be dramatically effective, it will spread. It probably matters less what you call it as the vital active, consciousness expanding thing is to just do it. Then do it again and expand, and get a sense of who we are and what we're up against. The important thing is to get started!

Devrim
Crucial Question

vstanrabotnikov wrote:
This is a brilliant question.

I observed that the Turkish ICC section had problems with this too.

I think that it is possibly the most important question that we are confronting at the moment. How communists orientate themselves towards workers struggles is essential.

vstanrabotnikov wrote:
If I remember correctly, Devrim said that posing the question was answered with "yes general strike that sounds good".

Yes, you do remember correctly. Just to refresh for those who didn't see the original discussion, the ICC in Turkey issued a leaflet during the TEKEL struggle entitled 'General Strike or Mass Strike'. Afterwards we felt that we hadn't really made ourselves clear, as the general response to it was as you said. People came up to us much later, and said that they then understood what we were talking about, but at the time we felt that the leaflet had failed.

vstanrabotnikov wrote:
It's very important to word this carefully, I do wonder if different situations require slightly differently targeted responses. IE if you were distributing it out at the massive assmeblies during a struggle like TEKEL, or one in Madison which both required more nuanced responses.

Obviously different situations require different responses. I think that it is crucial that we both try to address the real concerns within the class and start from where we really are.

Just on a tiny point of correction, there weren't mass assemblies during the TEKEL struggle. I think we may have used a term in our articles that it was 'like a permanent mass assembly'. Perhaps it was a bit miss leading. There was a permanent demonstration with people living in 'tents' in the streets in the centre of the capital. In that sense there was a constant political discussion going on, but it was never one that brought all of the workers together in one meeting or attempted to seize any decision making power.

I think that it is very clear that shouting for a 'general strike' is not the way forward. I can remember when I was working in the UK and the various leftist groups chanting in unison 'TUC get off your knees, organize a general strike" during the year long miners' struggle.

There wasn't a general strike during the miners strike. In fact when it came down to it the unions did whatever they could to prevent strikes emerging in other groups of workers at the same time. There were two general strikes during the TEKEL struggle. The first of which I think did more to demoralise the TEKEL workers than anything else.

If we go back to the first 'general strike' during the TEKEL struggle what I personally think demoralised workers was first the fact that it wasn't particularly 'general', and second the fact that the movement seemed to be losing momentum with it.

On the first point, I think that people in the Anglo-Saxon world tend to have a misguided impression of what the term general strike means today. In countries where there hasn't been a general strike for nearly a century know, it is all caught up with the image of events like the UK general strike of 1926 or the Seattle general strike of 1919. These were strikes in which masses of workers participated in the struggles. On the contrary, in countries today where we actually have general strikes, these strikes are limited not only in terms of participants but also in terms of length.

On the second, the first 'general strike' during the TEKEL struggle had a main demonstration in Ankara which was significantly smaller than the previous major demonstration over TEKEL (about 60,000 as opposed to about 140,000). With the low number of people actually going on strike and with a much smaller demonstration, it is easy to understand how workers, who had put their faith in the idea of a general strike became demoralised.

So with this in mind what did the ICC in Turkey argue for during the strike?

Basically we said that the unions would not organise an effective general strike, and that real solidarity action had to be initiated by the workers themselves, and based around common demands. While workers at TEKEL, and also from my impression workers in Wisconsin realised the necessity of solidarity action, I think that neither of them got to the point where they went out to actively seek it.

It is very clear to us that there is a huge difference between people being critical of the unions and actual organising to take control of their own struggles. Similarly there is a huge difference between people realising the necessity of solidarity action and going directly to other groups of workers to call for it.

The thing that struck me about Wisconsin though is that, observing from a distance, there never really seemed to be any possibility of the unions even organising a token general strike. If this is true I think that it is legitimate to ask questions about what those who were calling for it were doing, and what would have been more effective.

I have a lot more to say on this issue, but I would like to leave it open for others comments first.

 

Devrim