G is for General Strike (and Guest Blog)

by RS on April 8, 2012

General Strike!

I err’d in thinking that I had the weekend off so today’s post has to do with General Strikes. Timely because in Spain there was one against the government’s austerity measures. 

In Julius, strikes are brought up often. Corinne’s parents were always involved in organizing workers to strike or were part of a picket line, and at one point Corinne gets arrested for trying to organize vineyard workers and is bailed out by Hal Sarf, her graduate advisor. This scene told in a flashback is important to the mystery subplot…and that’s all I’m saying.

For the uninitiated who have never walked on a picket line, a general strike is when all the workers in a specific industry, region, or country strike at the same time with the same demands. In the Spanish general strike the two strongest unions—the General Workers Union and the Workers Commissions—which represent workers in large factories, the civil service and transport, demonstrators from those unions marched in cities across the country protesting the austerity economic policies of the Popular Party, Spain’s conservative government.

General strikes can either be tactical or strategic. If used as a tactic, the general strike has limited objectives. When used as a strategy then we enter a completely different game, where, say in the case of anarcho-syndicalism, the general strike is seen as a revolutionary tool to end capitalism.

Historically, in the United States, the strategy of the general strike was carried out by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) when they were are their peak from 1905 to 1923. According to the Encyclopedia of the Left, the IWW preamble stated:

… that the solution to economic and social injustice lay in the creation of of a worker-controlled system called industrial democracy. The primary task of revolutionaries was to create industrial unions that would fight for gains within the system until strong enough to call a general strike able to bring all economic life to a halt.

The conditions for returning back to work would be the substitution of industrial unions to replace business enterprises and governmental activity. The industrial unions would be run to satisfy social mean rather than private profit.

Is it possible that the U.S. would  see a general strike like the recent one in Spain? Doubtful, but most likely no.

American organized labor membership has shrunk from the mid-1940s when more than one-third of the US workforce belonged to unions. By 1979 union membership fell to 24.1 percent and in 1998 we saw a dismal 13.9 percent of the workforce that were union members.

Management today, of course, plays a big part the diminishing role of unions. They are less willing give into higher wage demands and better benefits; they’re also more aggressive about fighting unions attempts to organize workers. As for the strikes themselves, these became more infrequent during the 1980s and 1990s when employers didn’t hesitate to hire strikebreakers. And of course, we saw what happened with the air controller’s strike during the Reagan presidency—the federal government will fire you.

If you take a look at today’s weak economy, the strength of management, the fear (which I believe is the biggest factor) that many workers have losing their jobs and that steady stream of income along with the notion that labor is replaceable, the likelihood of a general strike is itty-bitty.  In other words, management and the government has labor by the hairs.

There are thousands of resources on the interwebs about unions, general strikes, but I recommend There Is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America by Philip Dray, which gives you a good historical account of the US labor movement. If the definition of anarcho-syndicalism is still confusing, this video does a nice job of explaining it in layman’s terms.

Lastly, I penned a post on Rick Bylina’s blog concerning research and procrastination. Feel free to visit and please comment!

 

 

 

2 comments
cecilieaux
cecilieaux

What? No mention of Anarchists and Anarchism in a post on general strikes?

RebecaSchiller
RebecaSchiller moderator

 @cecilieaux I'm trying to use it as how it relates to Julius, but I mention anarcho-syndicalism. 

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