The Importance of the Oakland General Strike
The Occupy movement entered a new phase today in Oakland, CA by holding a one-day general strike that shut down the Port of Oakland. The importance of the action, in my estimation, is not the number of people that turned out to support the multi-faceted series of protests that went on throughout the day - although the 5,000+ participants that credible sources are reporting is a fine turnout for a mid-sized American city in this era. It is that the occupiers in at least one American city are showing people around the US a useful strategy for expanding the struggle for a more democratic society - and for keeping the movement’s demands appropriately broad all the while.
Although the idea of a general strike has its roots in this country, very few Americans are familiar with it. Which is unsurprising since most Americans know very little history outside of what they see on the History Channel or get taught in high school - from textbooks increasingly censored by Texas-based theocrats. And vanishingly little labor history is taught anywhere in any formal way outside of union circles and a scattered group of humanities departments in a minority of colleges these days.
No big surprise there. Education always includes a healthy dose of propaganda for the existing order - and that militates against teaching about general strikes. Because the one thing that terrifies the rich and powerful more than anything else is the idea that all the working people their corrupt corporations and bought-off politicians depend on will refuse to participate in the existing political and economic order - for a day, a week, or longer - and that they will be overthrown by popular mandate. In one city like Oakland. Or in a nation like Greece - as we’ve seen in practice repeatedly over the last many months. Or worldwide.
A general strike is much more than a typical protest rally or march - although such tactics are always part of the strategy. It’s the idea that workers inside and outside of labor unions and other mass organizations - plus students at all levels - will join together and bring “business-as-usual” to a halt over and over again until major changes are won.
General strikes only rarely include more than a small percentage of the workforce as active participants, but their effects can be profound regardless of their size.
And if significant sectors of the police and military join the strike call, things can get really interesting. Because then the elites have few allies, and can more easily be forced to negotiate or can even be deposed from their positions of power and privilege in any number of more direct ways.
So it’s amusing to see conservative media like the Wall Street Journal try to report that today’s general strike “fizzled.” Because it didn’t fizzle at all. A major American port was shut down by nonviolent direct action involving thousands of people from all walks of life. Many unions, community and religious organizations backed and honored the strike call. Support rallies were held in many other cities - including here in Boston.
And the mass media spread word of this all over the US. Now more people have heard of the idea of a general strike than at any point since the last major American strike wave in 1946.
I’d call that a win.
A win, in fact, that could not come at a better time.
The Occupy movement is in a tough spot after the excitement of its first few weeks. Winter is coming to much of the country. The movement’s main strategy out of the gate has been to set up and defend outdoor encampments as organizing bases. And it’s hard going trying to prepare the camps to literally weather the coming storms while hostile local governments continually try to shut them down - with plenty of support from the … shall we say … more discrete wings of the federal government, you can be sure.
The energy level at the Occupy camps - while still high from many reports - certainly can’t be kept up indefinitely without respite; so there’s been an inevitable slow-down in activity in many cities … and a concomitant fall-off in media coverage. Not that corporate-dominated news media can be relied upon to keep up consistent coverage of popular movements in the best of times. It can't. And these are hardly the best of times.
College students, who make up a significant percentage of occupiers in many cities, are now having to catch up on school work they put off during the initial wave of activity in September and October; so their participation is naturally falling off to some extent as the fall semester draws to a close and major papers and/or final exams loom for many.
Working occupiers that may have let job responsibilities slide to participate in the movement’s foundation are now having to picks up some of the balls they may have dropped - or end up unemployed like so many of their fellow protestors.
The holidays are also approaching - which guarantees an uptick in family obligations for many occupiers, and trips home for those student occupiers that aren’t attending school in their home region.
[It should be mentioned that that last item is also a very positive thing because many of those traveling students hail from areas of the country that may not have strong Occupy encampments - especially rural areas. Which means that such students can spread their experiences with the movement directly to friends and family who may only know about it from the highly uneven reportage of the corporate media.]
In addition, there is also a certain amount of factionalization in the Occupy movement - which I’d also view as an inevitable development - as different schools of thought on how to proceed emerge and gain adherents among the protestors. And I think that is a tough but generally healthy thing.
However that process is exacerbated by the fact that a good number of existing political formations - many unions and non-profit community organizations among them - are working … consciously or unconsciously … to pull the new movement back into the kind of politics-as-usual that they have grown accustomed to over the last four decades.
This kind of activity tends to lead away from the broad liberatory politics that attracted legions of people to the Occupy movement in the first place … and back towards the narrow single-issue politics of the “possible” that have resulted in defeat after defeat for erstwhile progressives since the successes of the last wave of social movements in the 1960s and early 1970s. At least if we are to look at the track record of the American left in the intervening years in the harsh light of the historical record, as I always strongly encourage Open Media Boston viewers to do.
And I would not view the resulting friction between the politics of the new left and the politics of the old left as a healthy thing at all. Especially since the old left is well funded relative to the emerging new left. And can blanket the Occupy encampments with "organizers" and "trainers" who are working ceaselessly to inoculate the movement with what they consider to be "proven tactics and strategies." Many of which, not coincidentally, lead directly to working hand-in-glove with the Democratic Party.
The Democratic Party, for its part, has well-funded front groups like MoveOn.org busily trying to co-opt the Occupy movement on its own terms, and to convince occupiers that all political roads lead back to the ballot box next year. And a vote for Obama and company.
When in fact, any road that leads the Occupy movement into the Democratic Party will lead to the immediate death of the new movement.
It cannot be otherwise, since the Democrats are a corporate-dominated party. A party of the elites at their top echelons. And therefore part of the problem.
In any case, the point here is that social movements tend to happen in waves.
Unless some exciting new development pops up and fires up a movement anew.
Under normal circumstances, I’d say that the next wave will come in the spring - which is always an excellent time for a social upheaval.
But if the Bay Area occupiers expand their general strike call, and if other cities start to call general strikes of their own, and if unions and allied organizations start to grow and get some of that old fighting spirit back into them because of the resulting tumult, and if the Occupy movement hangs together and hangs tough, and if all these forces break with the Democratic Party and sharpen their demands even as they broaden them … then maybe the movement will just keep on growing. And remain genuinely progressive. And independent.
And an American politics that have already been dramatically changed by the arrival of the global movement for democracy and social justice to these shores this fall, could be permanently changed for the better.
If I were a betting man, I’d lay four-to-one odds against the Oakland general strike spreading to other cities before the spring. That means I’m estimating that there’s a 20 percent chance that we could see a wave of general strikes across the US in support of democracy and social justice anytime soon.
Which is a 20 percent higher chance of that happening than I would have projected in early September.
So let’s see what the situation looks like in a couple of weeks.
If a general strike is called in any other major city in that time (including Boston), I’ll happily double the odds of a strike wave happening to 40 percent - or three-to-two against.
If not, then I’d figure we won’t see a strike wave for a while, and that we also probably won’t see another big upsurge in the Occupy movement until spring.
Here’s hoping that the occupiers prove me wrong and beat the odds.
Jason Pramas is Editor/Publisher of Open Media Boston