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labor Reader Responses - New Calls for a General Strike in the Face of Coming Climate Catastrophe

Last week Portside Labor posted an article, New Calls for a General Strike in the Face of Coming Climate Catastrophe. This has generated considerable response and debate within the labor movement and amongst labor historians.

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image credit: United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America,

The original Portside Labor post was last Wednesday, New Calls for a General Strike in the Face of Coming Climate Catastrophe by Joe Maniscalco in the Labor Press. Here are some of those responses, from Claire O'Connor; Kim Scipes; Joe Berry; Fred Glass; Peter Rachleff; Gregory A. Butler; and Paul Ahrens.

 

I think we are past the time for demonstrations, letter writing and calling our 'elected' representatives. The real decision making power is with the wealthy and the only language they understand is the language of money and profit. And that is where we will make a difference - organized and escalating strikes - from everyone and everywhere. Any one got any ideas on how to make that happen? We don't have much time.

Claire O'Connor
 

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I'm sorry folks, but calling for a General Strike is a bunch of leftie bullshit, and I say this as a long-term, committed leftist.

Just so everyone understands, let me say climate change is real, it's coming sooner than most expect, and we need to organize within labor and our communities to mitigate, stop and then remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.  It is serious as a heart attack.  I've been teaching at the university level on this stuff since 2006, and I understand the problem.  Quite frankly, in my opinion, we are going to have to massively transform our social order in the US, and around the world, if we want to adequately address the problem.  And no one knows if we still have time to make these changes, or if too much has happened within the entire earth system that we're too late..  

It's that serious.  From my reading of the literature, the best thinking today is that we have until the year 2030 to make significant change or we are going to see the beginning of the extermination of people, animals and most plants by the turn of the century.  In any realistic scenario, we are going to have to change our social order and we are going to have to transform our personal lives:  each of us (with perhaps the exception of the really poor globally) is going to have to give stuff up-and some of us are going to have to give up a lot.

And I'm not saying that people cannot come to that understanding, but we must understand that we must educate them on the seriousness of the problem, and get them to see that is really the only way forward.  Then, we have a chance of seeking them to seriously consider the situation.  And then we might be able to talk about a general strike-but without this long-term, serious educational program beforehand, it ain't gonna happen.  Period.  (And truthfully, it might not happen even with it, but it's the only realistic approach I see that we have.)

I think we have to give up this nonsense of replacing the bad old jobs-which are heavily unionized-with high paying, unionized jobs fixing the environment.  I wish that was realistic, but I don't see it.  Tell me, please, how we're going to be able to do this?  Give me specifics, not rhetoric.

And tell me how we're going to make the massive cuts in war spending so we can finance this stuff.?  Until we in the United States recognize that our military is NOT defending our country, but is maintaining and expanding the US Empire-which requires us to understand that the US has an Empire, and our country is at the heart of it-we cannot even challenge the reactionary nationalism present in this country, a nationalism accepted and projected by many of our sisters and brothers in the labor movement.

I'm not saying it cannot be done.  I AM saying it will be a long, slow, difficult process.  And "quick fixes," like calls for a general strike, not only are stupid but make the process even more difficult.

If you think I'm wrong, tell me this:  how many local unions (or labor organizations at ANY level) have had in-depth educational meetings with members to seriously consider and address these issues in all of their complexity?  

Workers are no better or no worse than any other group of people.  There is no mythical, unified "working class" and certainly not one that has some common degree of consciousness.  I come from a blue collar family, spent four years in the Marine Corps, have worked in industry as a printer, and have worked in high schools and in (business) offices in a number of occupations, and have lived/worked in 12 different states in this country.  And I've been teaching for the last 15 years in a university where most of my students from blue collar or lower white collar backgrounds-and I've not seen this mythical, united working class.

What I HAVE seen is that, in some cases, people can be educated (in all senses of the word) to come together, and stand up for the good of the community.  But it is the result of a process that is designed to unify, bring them together, discuss and get their input, and then a decision to act together; it does not happen automatically.

As pro-union labor educators/activists, we need to take this issue extremely seriously.  We've got to find ways to make people aware of what's going on and, ideally, get them to unify and act on this knowledge.

Let's not waste our time on fantasies-we don't have that time to waste.

In solidarity,

Kim Scipes, 
National Writers Union, UAW #1982, AFL-CIO
Professor of Sociology, Purdue University Northwest, Westville, Indiana
 

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So if you agree with the overall thrust and the motivations of the call, why lead off with calling it bullshit? IMHO, this is not a useful style of criticism.

Joe Berry
 

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I concur with Joe that the tenor of your critique, Kim, was not useful.  I have another observation to offer.  I'm in agreement, and I'm sure everyone on this listserv is too, with you about the deadly importance of dealing with climate change.  Precisely for that reason we labor educators should be encouraging, not discouraging, our students and the public to think about general strikes.

I'm speculating here, but I'm pretty sure not many of the participants in the Seattle and Winnipeg general strikes of 1919, or the San Francisco, Minneapolis and Toledo strikes of 1934, or the general strike of the textile industry that same year, or the six citywide general strikes of 1946, imagined they would be participating in one until shortly before the events unfolded. 

I'd bet most people, if asked today, either wouldn't know what we're talking about, or would think it's not possible to achieve.  I've actually asked this question of my students each year for the past fifteen years or so as a short essay question after studying the 1934 SF and 1946 Oakland general strikes:  "Do you think it's possible, or even desirable, for a general strike to occur today in a city or industry in California?"  Most responses are quite thoughtful, acknowledging differences between that era and this one, and split pretty evenly yes and no.  For some of my students, this is the first time they've encountered the idea of a general strike.  They are astonished at the level of solidarity shown in these events, and lament how far we are from that today. 

And yet...in 2006 the call for immigrant rights demonstrations brought five or six million people into the streets around the country.  In 2011, in protest against the specifics of police brutality in suppressing an Occupy Oakland demonstration, and more broadly against great and growing economic inequality, organizers called for a general strike.  The official labor movement did not support the call as such, but did urge workers to come out for a "day of action".  At least thirty thousand people were out at the peak of the day, controlling the streets, shutting down all the banks in downtown Oakland, and closing the port of Oakland. 

Neither of these events-like the women's marches in 2017-could be classified as a general strike as historically understood, but they were pretty good mass statements nonetheless.  And of course last year we witnessed what amounted to general strikes of public education in several states, with ripple effects continuing this year around the country. 

These events took organizing on a great scale, and were mixed successes at best.  But in the run up to them, a lot of consciousness was raised among participants and observers.  Just as one example, thanks to the education strikes, in addition to achieving increases in education funding, the concept of "progressive taxation" became a subject of mass discussion and a goal in states with Republican-controlled statehouses. 

My point, Kim, is I don't think you should make an IWW-style dream of a general strike to bring down capitalism into a straw man.  A general strike is a tactic, not a goal, and we need to think broadly about every tactic that might play a part at some point in this struggle to turn back climate change.  We also need to encourage, not discourage, people to do this thinking together. 

Solidarity,

Fred Glass
 

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Thanks, Fred, for your commentary.  Let me add -- these experiences live on.  This year is the 100th anniversary of the Seattle and Winnipeg general strikes.  Observances occasion activities, reflections, imaginations.  For our celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Minneapolis teamsters' strikes a new organization was born -- the descendants of the strikers.  Now 130 people!  This has also led to the creation of public markers, plaques, and art work.  And, here at the East Side Freedom Library, a unique board game, "Game Turn," created by artist-activist Keith Christensen, now lives and is played, teaching not only labor history but also strategic thinking.  There have been occasions when players have turned out to apply lessons to environmental issues here in the community.  It is all connected!

Love and Solidarity,

Peter Rachleff

see:  http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/kc1080
 

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Workers go on strike over burning immediate issues with their bosses that cannot be resolved any other way 

It takes a lot of provocation to drive workers to risk getting fired and go on strike 

Political abstractions like global warming really aren't strike issues 

Also a general strike is a revolutionary act against the capitalist class as a whole- there has to be real urgent immediate issues to push that 

Re "no good jobs on a dead planet" - that's overheated rhetoric and workers aren't dumb enough to buy it 

You're telling them that an abstraction like the sea level going up 2 feet 100 years from now or world average temperatures going up 2 degrees is somehow an immediate urgent issue for them 

It isn't 

You're also saying urgent issues for them - like paying bills and rent, or buying groceries - is not important 

Don't be surprised if they ignore you.

Gregory A. Butler
 

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There is a lot to unpack in Professor Scipes' thoughtful response to the call for a general strike, some of which I agree with and some I disagree with. I'd like to respond to the main point "calling for a General Strike is a bunch of leftie bullshit," because I think it involves two extremely important topics to discuss in today's time: the form that direct labor action takes in today's economy and how to deal with the climate crisis.

Generally, I support the call for a general strike as a tactic, but I do not think most advocates have thought through how to practically organize the structure to carry out such a feat. In this respect, I agree that many leftists who call for a general strike do so more for rhetorical purposes, and it does seem to amount to little more than "a bunch of bullshit," to put it in Scipes' words. However, I think this reflects more on the left's deficit in thinking strategically about how to actually organize a REAL working class movement rather than anything inherently fateful about a general strike. (I realize I am speaking very generally about the "left," but in the broad scheme of things, despite the recent upsurge in strike activity across the country, I still do not think enough leftist organizations are doing enough organizing to significantly change the devastating path of neoliberal capitalism. Of course, people can change that, and I am hopeful of that.)

Therefore, though I support the call for a general strike, I only do so if organizations calling for and supporting a strike are willing to do the organizing work to build for a strike. (I also would like highlight Jane McAlevey's important distinction between organizing and mobilizing, which she has written and talked about extensively, when I use the word "organizing.") Calling for a general strike can raise the expectations of the working class and signal to elites a looming crisis should they fail to act. Carrying out a general strike can serve as an educational and consciousness-raising experience. But if we fail to do the boots-on-the-ground, one-on-one organizing that is the core of virtually all modern social movements, I think calling for a general strike is a convenient distraction that generates headlines and supplies an endless stream of meme-able content on social media, but does little to challenge the power of capital or change our material reality.

In short, YES to a general strike! But we must organize to realize our goal. The idea in itself floating around the zeitgeist will not be enough to translate into concrete, direct action. Organizing is skilled work, and must be taken seriously as such (or course, most people can learn to organize fortunately!). Sadly, there is a lot of talk on the left, but not a lot of organizing. However, I think we are starting to see that change from the efforts of groups like DSA, Labor Notes, and the variety of unions, primarily rank-and-file driven, who have been defying the odds with historic strikes. I think these strikes show us that a general strike, in some capacity, is possible...if we do the hard work of organizing. It's not glamorous, and it doesn't generate headlines (few media outlets reported on the YEARS of member-to-member organizing work that the UTLA carried out under it's Union Power leadership before it had the capacity to wage a massive work stoppage, but they love to report the culmination of all of that work), but it gets the goods.

Good organizing must be strategic and educational, and it must always strive to expand its base rather than simply mobilizing the same players (there are simply not enough of the "same players" anymore to make any impact on the issues that matter most). I do believe a working class consciousness can and should be developed, but I do not believe it forms organically through most people's lived experiences. The capitalist class has done a good job of reinforcing the myth that class in America either doesn't exist or, at the very least, doesn't determine your life's outcome. Furthermore, divisions along race and gender lines (among other identities) have successfully pitted groups of workers against one another, further stratified the working class, and helped create a false consciousness in which class simply isn't salient. However, if we are going to "win," we need to recognize that we are the working class, objectively speaking, because we do not derive our income from profits off the labor of others, and we must come together on that basis. Whether we subjectively recognize our material and political position does not change that reality, but it does prevent us from changing it. (As a footnote, I'd like to echo Professor Scipes' point about acknowledging that the U.S. is an empire, and as workers, we need to recognize our role and position in this international system and be honest about how the "global north" exploits the "global south" to see how the U.S. working class can simultaneously be oppressed and partial beneficiaries of oppression. Capitalist oppression must be viewed through an intersectional and international lens.)

The effort to organize a general strike around climate change must be as diligent and serious as it would be (or should be) in an effort to organize a workplace. We must formulate specific demands to make of a specific target, whether that's from a head of a corporation, a government entity or an international body, and we need to take their power into account when making those demands. For example, it might not make much sense to demand a resolution from the U.N. if it has not binding or enforcement authority. Focusing on the U.S. president, who is the Commander-in-chief to the world's largest polluter makes more sense as long as we take into account the grips the rest of the Military Industrial Complex has over the Executive Branch. And again, we must build a base by identifying the structure of people we need to organize, and develop "cells" of leaders and activists across that structure.

A general strike will not be accomplished by a union officer simply calling for a general strike, and to that extent, I agree with Scipes. However, we must not discredit the inspirational and educational component of building for a general strike and the amount of power they hold, when carried out successfully, even if only across a few, large metropolitan areas and political nodes. We don't need to shut the entire economy down to win. We just need to shut down enough of it to create a crisis and trigger a response from elites. The response may be violent and reactionary, which is more of a reason than ever to get organized! We should keep the idea of a general strike on the table, but we need to be realistic about what it takes to organize that action and what our current capacity is to organize it.

In solidarity,

Paul Ahrens
Labor educator for the Civil Service Employees Association
Master of Industrial and Labor Relations Graduate, ILR School-Cornell University