Wisconsin: Calls for a General Strike

This was originally posted on iww.org.

Ever since Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Republican Senators passed a bill aimed at decimating collective bargaining rights of public sector workers, there have been increasingly militant protests and calls for a general strike.  What is a general strike?  What is its history?  Is it an effective strategy for revolutionary change?

Even though this pamphlet was produced before the bill was passed, it does speak to some of these questions.  Without endorsing its views, we are posting it here for discussion.

General Strike Pamphlet

What Do We Face?

 

Walker's bill, if passed, will strip public-sector unions of the right to collectively bargain regarding all workplace issues other than basic wages. Workers would no longer have a legal say in their pensions, their healthcare plans, workplace safety, or any other pertinent issues. Without collective bargaining, we have no legally-recognized way to influence how we are treated at our jobs. Workers with access to a union have an opportunity to make their workplaces more democratic. Think about how much time we dedicate to work and work-related activities. With so much of our lives spent in undemocratic workplaces, how could we have real democracy in the rest of our lives?

The impact of Walker's bill reaches far beyond unions and public servants. Stripping public workers of their right to bargain affects the rights of everyone who works for a living. This attack on workers' rights will not stop with the public sector or with Wisconsin. These anti-union bills are spreading around the country from Indiana to Ohio to Nebraska in an effort to serve the corporate elite by lowering labor costs and weakening all labor.

What Does Any of This Have to Do With A General Strike & With Wisconsin?

In the recently released prank call by a journalist pretending to be billionaire David Koch, Scott Walker said, “All week there's been 15-30,000 [protesters] a day, but I remind our lawmakers that there's 5.5 million people in this state and just because a bunch of guys who can jump off work because of their union[s]...doesn't mean the rest of your people are with you.” The truth is that these protesters are not “guys who can jump off work” – they are students, activists, union and non-union workers from the public and private sectors, Wisconsin families, and members of the religious community. Additionally, unionized and non-unionized workers both risk job security by taking time to protest. Essentially, Governor Walker doesn't think that the protesters represent the rest of the state. He thinks that the majority of Wisconsin agrees with his attempt to strip workers of basic rights. He is wrong. Despite facing opposition from millions, Walker still won't budge from his position on this issue. It will take something bigger from the unions, and from the working-class as a whole: a general strike.

 

 

A general strike will show Walker that millions of people are willing to fight his agenda

A General Strike: The Ultimate Tool of Change

What exactly is a general strike? A general strike is a strike involving workers across multiple trades or industries that involves enough workers to cause serious economic disruption.

In essence, a general strike is the complete and total shutdown of the economy. A general strike can last for a day, a week, or longer depending on the severity of the crisis, the resolve of the strikers, and the extent of public solidarity. During the strike, large numbers of workers in many industries (excluding employees of crucial services, such as emergency/medical) will stop working and no money or labor is exchanged. All decisions regarding the length of the strike, the groups of workers who continue working, and demands of the strikers are decided by a strike committee.

Past victories won by general strikes are:

· Chicago, New York, Cincinnati, and elsewhere, 1886 – First victory in the fight for an eight-hour day

· Toledo, OH, 1934 – First successful unionization of the auto industry.

· San Francsico, CA, 1934 – Unionization of all West Coast ports of the United States.

· Poland, 1980 – Began the process of democratic reforms that led to the end of Soviet control over the country.

· Egypt, 2011 – Brought the 30-year reign of an autocratic despot to an end.

If enough of us act together, we’ll see some serious changes, and quick. That’s the “general” part of a general strike. We’re all divided up by race, religion, gender, and political affiliation. In a general strike, people come together in large numbers across those divisions and unite around our struggles as workers. If enough of us stand together and stop work, Walker’s bill will be defeated – even if it passes! If enough of us are united,WE can decide the outcome.

Who should participate and how

A general strike against Walker would begin the process of rebuilding a strong labor movement in the United States. Since the U.S. plays such an important role in the global economy and world political system, this could also invigorate workers' struggles around the planet. To make it happen will require participation from many people across industries, across unions, and across the country.

Public Workers

The South Central Federation of Labor, a federation of over 97 labor organizations representing 45,000 workers, has endorsed to educate and prepare for a general strike. If your local is part of a different federation or district council, contact their Executive Board and your members and start your preparations for a strike immediately.

Union Members and General Strikes

Trade unions enable large groups of people a powerful, unified voice, from the local and its officers, representatives, stewards, and negotiators up to the level of a union, such as AFSCME. It may be difficult to get your union officials to agree to a general strike. Labor law is set up in the United States to discourage unions from standing together. Your union’s officials will be afraid of possible legal ramifications. They will also be afraid that no other unions will endorse the call or actually carry out the strike. Your union may have contractual agreements that union officers are worried about. Be prepared for these objections. Remind everyone that if the labor movement does not take a stand to stop Scott Walker today, there may not be a labor movement tomorrow. There are risks to building a general strike, but the much bigger risk is that Walker will accomplish his anti-union agenda.

Talk to your co-workers about the general strike. If you are meeting soon, there is a sample resolution to be found at madison.iww.org that you can bring to your local. If you aren’t meeting soon, talk to your coworkers and union stewards about holding an emergency meeting; most local unions have rules that allow for these types of meetings in their bylaws. Help educate your fellow workers by sharing this pamphlet and the news. Form an education and preparation committee to help organize your local.

If it seems that your union is opposing the desires of their rank-and-file to hold a strike, it is possible to act on a general strike without the consent of these leaders, as long as enough rank-and-filers stand together. A strike committee can be formed by a few elected representatives from each participating local who then gather into a larger coordinating body. These representatives should be elected by the rank-and-file members of each local and they should be able to be recalled by a majority vote of the workers they represent at any time. This body would have to hold together when (not if, when) one group is attacked or encouraged to strike out on its own.

If your shop decides not to go out, you can still strike “on the job”, that is, slow down or halt production through clumsiness, ignorance, or “work-to-rule”: following the rules so carefully that nothing gets done.

How the rest of us can prepare

In order to successfully conduct a general strike we must fully prepare ourselves for all possibilities.

The first step is to get as many workers to commit to the strike as possible. This needs to be done beforehand; not the day before the strike, and not after the strike has begun. We need to be able to trust the commitments of other workers, regardless of union affiliation. Talk about the general strike with people at rallies, at work, online, and at home with your friends, family, and neighbors. Ask your community about practical ways that they can aid a potential general strike or pass around the included leaflet to community groups in the area. Consider preparing a phone tree or online contact list to keep your friends, family, and fellow workers connected and prepared for emergencies.

Bring cardboard, markers, sticks, and tape to make picket signs; write protest chants and songs; bring bullhorns from your workplace or home to the street. There is already a support system in the capitol building for hungry and injured protesters, but we need to be prepared to expand these systems to a larger scale. Being on strike is exciting, but it is also difficult and tiring. When a general strike happens, workers will need to push each other to stay resolute, support each other when times are hard, and be able to ask for and accept help when they need it. When you are tired, hand your sign to someone else and get some rest. Protesters at the capitol have created amazing mutual support networks over the past weeks through little more than word-of-mouth, and if we continue to work together these networks can only get stronger.

Why rank and file solidarity is important for a general strike

It is important in a general strike to support other workers regardless of their positions in the workforce (unionized, non-unionized, public or private)-- to build the kind of relationship where an injury to one group of workers is an injury to all. Within our locals & unions, personal rivalries and pettiness can erode unity and the ability to work together for common gains. Groups can be pitted against one another during a general strike―city workers versus workers in more rural or isolated areas, or, as Gov. Walker attempted (but failed) to do, police and fire departments against the rest of the municipal workforce. When one group of workers is pitted against another, the strength the movement is in trouble. In a general strike, rumors about a lack of solidarity and inappropriate acts may be circulated by our governor and anti-worker segments of the media to deliberately demoralize and divide the participating groups. We must make an effort to not believe everything we hear―to go to the source and get facts before reacting.

Solidarity means uniting everyone: union and non-union, native citizens and immigrants, men and women, white and black and brown. A labor movement that turns away any worker isn’t anything but a powerless social club. We must believe all other workers can have a higher standard of living and gain the power and respect they deserve on the workplace. We will need to seek out individuals, organizations and community groups of all colors and creed. Their fight is our fight!

Solidarity makes us stronger and it spreads quickly. People are impressed by it and drawn to learn about and support our causes. Love really is stronger than hate, and many working families throughout labor battles in the past have been inspired by positive support from all corners of the working population. “Workers united will never be defeated,” we chant―for good reason.

Ways to Know When It's Happening

T he efforts towards a general strike are just beginning and the lines of communication we use will emerge as the situation evolves.

For updates, a sample resolution for your local, and more information on the General Strike, visit madison.iww.org

To send statements of solidarity or to ask for help educating your fellow workers or community members about the general strike, contact wigeneralstrike@gmail.com

Published 2011 by the Madison IWW

PO Box 2442, Madison, WI 53703-2442

People in this conversation

  • Guest - carldavidson

    General strikes are easy to agitate for, but difficult to implement, especially if the left militant minority is not situated and based, at least in part, in the unions themselves. It's one reason we (CCDS) stress the important of trade union work.

    General strikes are rare, and not always successful in there own terms. That's still no reason not to have them. But it's important to understand what's involved, and what comes next if you do have one!

    First, the reason the labor council in WI used the term 'educate' in its resolution is that general strikes are illegal in the US under Taft-Hartley, which took away many labor rights won under the Wagner Act, which were themselves limited. Thus part of waging such a strike is also a campaign to repeal Taft-Hartley--a worthy cause--or at least be able to challenge it in court. I believe a good case can be made based of 1st and 10th Amendment rights--the right to assemble in the former and the unamed rights reserved 'to the people' in the latter.

    An interesting question arises when and if you are successful. Lloyd George faced down the Brit trade unions this way in the 1920s. 'Gentlemen,' he told them, 'You have done a great job, showing your power. You have brought the country to a halt. But now are you prepared to govern?" (He knew they weren't, they had no political party or unity or popular army capable of it) The wiser top union leaders realized that it was at that point that they had lost the battle. They got a few minor gains, but it fizzled out from there.

    We alao may see a period of 'rolling strikes' and ongoing mass rallies.

    These are all part of the Gramscian 'war of manever,' the direct mobilization on the seat of power.

    But in non-revolutionary conditions especially, it must be combined with the 'war of position.' In this case, I'd argue that what that means is burning the political instrument in every Wisconsin town, an electoral popular front, capable of recalling the worst of the rightwing officials and altering the balance of forces, plus organizing something for more strategic battles ahead. The recall effort make not be a sexy as the mass strike, but it's no less important.

    Fanning the flames of the single sparks only takes you so far. Alone its just the worship of spontaneity. We have to learn how best to cast out the net, then draw it back in within these waves, consolidation both revolutionary and mass democratic organizations, for its in the nature of wave to ebb as well, before the next one comes in.

  • Guest - Gregory A. Butler

    Pro capitalist union leaders are flat out <strong>terrified</strong> of general strikes because of their revolutionary implications. Unlike routine economic strikes of relatively small groups of workes, divided by workplace or craft and often as not split up among several unions, a general strike (espeically those over political issues) has the workers as a class challenging the capitalist class over who should rule.

    As a practical matter, general strikes that last any significant amount of time involve workers having to set up their own parallel government, to deal with public safety and the sale/donation of food and other essential consumer goods. That challenges the elitist concept (presented as an article of faith in all societies ruled by an exploiting class) that only the elite are fit to rule and that the masses are a stupid rabble who need to be controlled by the upper classes and their state.

    To pro capitalist trade union leaders who have devoted a life's work to serving as arbiters and middlemen between the bosses and the workers, the very idea that the workers can rule fundamentally challenges their social role as a sort of diplomatic corps of the working class, barganing the terms and conditions of our exploitation with the bosses.

    That's true even in countries where the trade unions are nominally led by socialists (England, Sweden, Germany, Brazil, Greece, Israel) and even in countries where the labor leaders are, supposedly, communists (France, Italy, Japan, South Africa, India, the Philippines)

    This is especially true in a place like America, where the trade unions are openly pro capitalist, politically dominated by a bourgeois party (the Democrats) and where much of the trade union leadership is openly racist (America's trade unions were the last institution in this country to abandon Jim Crow segregation - my union, the Carpenters, didn't fully desegregate <i><strong>IN NEW YORK CITY</strong></i> until the early 1970's - and the union leadership had to be dragged kicking and screaming into integration by an armed Black workers protest movement called the Coalition!) and in thrall to organized crime syndicates (with the unions in conststruction, trucking, school bus services and longshore work at the waterfront particularly infested by gangsters).

    It's not an accident that we haven't had a national general strike in this country since the Great Upheaval of 1877 (which predated the present labor leadership).

    In the 20th century, there were only five citywide general strikes, only two of which were union sanctioned.

    The Seattle general strike of 1919 emerged around a shipyard workers strike - it was sanctioned by the local American Federation of Labor central labor council, who, once finding themselves having seized control of the city from the local bourgeoisie (just two years after the October Revolution in Russia) quickly got scared, called off the strike and gave the city back to the bosses with the underlying demands of the shipyard workers left unresolved.

    Three of them happened more or less simultaneously in July 1934.

    The Toledo general strike emerged around a socialist-led auto parts workers strike at a company called Auto Lite, became a general strike despite the local American Federation of Labor's central labor council and was called off relatively quickly by it's socialist leaders

    The Minneapolis general strike began in support of a truck drivers strike led by Trotskyists who'd been elected into the leadership of a dying Teamsters Union local and revived it with a mass organizing campaign. It became a general strike more or less spontaneously when workers from other trades rose up to defend the truck drivers from attacks on the union by Minnesota's nominally socialist but objectively pro capitalist Farmer Labor Party state government. The Trotskysts actually worked very hard to end the general strike and never allowed it to become an officially sanctioned walkout, because they were terrified of it's revolutionary implications (and their dogmatic belief that "we're not in a revolutionary situation right now" actually <strong>prevented them from leading a workers' revolt that could have led to such a situation!</strong>)

    The San Francisco general strike, the last union sanctioned general strike in this country, grew up around a West Coast-wide strike of merchant sailors and longshoremen. The local AF of L Central Labor Council, many of who's delegates were communists, called a general strike after the San Francisco Police murdered two protestors at a strike rally. However, once they found themselves, like the Seattle CLC 18 years earlier, having seized a city from the capitalist class and, like the Minneapolis Teamsters Union's Trotskyist leaders, found themselves at the head of a working class insurrection with strong revolutionary implications, they hastily called off the strike, even though the sailor's and longshoremen's strike raged on.

    The last citywide general strike in this country was the Oakland general strike of 1946. It broke out spontaneously in December 1946, in solidarity with a retail clerk's strike at two downtown department stores. Almost immediately, the left wing leaders of the Congress of Industrial Organization's Oakland Industrial Union Council and the right wing leaders of the AF of L's Oakland Central Labor Council made moves to end the strike (with the communist leaders of the International Longshoremen's &amp; Warehousemen's Unions taking the lead in fighting to end the strike). Within three days, the strike was over, even though the underlying retail clerk's strike had not been settled.

    The only strikes in any way comparable to general strikes in scope in this country since 1946 were the two big immigrant workers nationwide mobilizations of 2006 - the Great American Boycott of March 2006 and la Gran Marcha on May Day 2006, both of which involved in excess of 4 million workers refusing to report to work for the day.

    The AFL-CIO leadership had nothing to do with either one of those mobilizations (they were led by coalitions of imigrants rights groups, workers centers, liberal Catholic priests and Spanish-language radio DJs) - also, the leadership of that movement got uncomfortable with leading such a militant mass movement, so they demobilized it into the dead end of supporting the Democratic Party. They helped lay the foundation for the movement that got Barack Obama elected president in 2008 (and, of course, he turned around and unleashed the biggest campaign of mass deportation of immigrant workers since the Eisenhower Administration in the 1950's!)

    It's because our unions have this rotten pro capitalist leadership that we've gotten into this fix in the first place - the American labor leadership's consistant refusal to fight over the past 33 years of <i>one sided class war</I> (beginning with the Democratic Party administration of Jimmy Carter's attacks on the trucking, airline and coal miners unions in 1978) have led us to a place where Governor Walker's attacks on the state workers unions in Wisconsin were even possible.

    The bottom line is, if a general strike is to happen in Wisconsin, it is highly unlikely that the Wisconsin AFL-CIO will lead it. If they are forced to by the workers (and I hope they are) they will struggle aggressively and with great energy to end it as quickly as possible, on the boss' terms.

    The conclusion we can draw from this is that it is long past time for American revolutionaries to start building an alternative leadership to the present labor movement. The AFL-CIO leadership, in all of it's grovelling bootlicking to the Democrats, subordination to Corporate America (and the racism and gangster domination of vast sections of the unions) have shown their utter incapacity to lead American workers. If left in charge of American labor, they will wreck the unions in this country sooner rather than later and within the decade we could see the death of the trade unions if present trends continue.

    Bottom line is, we have to act now, before it's too late - or we'll just have to pick up the pieces later, once the AFL-CIO leadership has destroyed the US labor movement.

  • Guest - carldavidson

    The problem with your post, Gregory, is that it could easily have been written 20 or 30 years ago or more, without changing much.

    Even so, it's a little one-sided. It's true that AFL unions like the carpenters had to be pulled into the civil rights era, dragging their feet all the way. But others played a more supportive role, such as the UAW, joining a number of marches in the South in the 1960s.

    Today we have a split at the top between the AFL-CIO and Change to Win (for better or worse), plus a few independent unions. And while they're still in the social-democratic camp, the politics of Gerard, King and Trumka are rather different from Meany and Kirkland, and largely reflects the undercutting of great-nation privilege by globalization and de-industrialization.

    The best single book on the topic, IMHO, remains Fletcher and Gaspin's 'Solidarity Divided,' and I recommend it to anyone who want to jump into this work.

    But it would be wise to start by making distinctions and finding some allies, both tactical and strategic. Simply denouncing the entire leadership as 'all the same' doesn't help much; the workers themselves know better.

    It also helps to build your own independent electoral arm at the same time, such as PDA. That way when legislative matters and elections come up, you have an alternative structure to the regular Dems and the union committees to work with and draw the more advanced into.

  • Guest - CC

    Paroxysms of History, or, Later Comrade, Later
    An Agony in Five Fits

    Fit I
    The people: Outrageous! This must be stopped!
    The left: Yes! We will stop it! But first... [Time passes]
    The people: Now that we have waited long enough, we know it is truly time to act!
    The left: Yes! Action is needed! But first... [Time passes]
    The people: We grow tired, their blows land heavily. We still believe it is the time, but we are not so sure.
    The left: Yes! Their blows land heavily, but we shall overcome someday. In the meantime... [Time passes]
    The people: We despair. Our hope is cold.
    The left: What you need is leadership! It is very nearly the time!
    The people: When we needed what we knew we needed we were told our task was to wait. We have waited. We no longer know what we want, only that your slogans taste of ashes in our mouths. [Time passes.]
    The left: Now is the time! Now! Now!
    The people: [Silence.]

    Curtain closes on a single figure standing with fist raised and a broad smile.

    Fit II
    The people: Outrageous! This must be stopped!
    The left: Yes! We will stop it! But first... [Time passes]
    The people: Now that we have waited long enough, we know it is truly time to act!
    The left: Yes! Action is needed! But first... [Time passes]
    The people: We grow tired, their blows land heavily. We still believe it is the time, but we are not so sure.
    The left: Yes! Their blows land heavily, but we shall overcome someday. In the meantime... [Time passes]
    The people: We despair. Our hope is cold.
    The left: What you need is leadership! It is very nearly the time!
    The people: When we needed what we knew we needed we were told our task was to wait. We have waited. We no longer know what we want, only that your slogans taste of ashes in our mouths. [Time passes.]
    The left: Now is the time! Now! Now!
    The people: [Silence.]

    Curtain closes on a single figure standing with fist raised and a broad smile.

    Fit III
    The people: Outrageous! This must be stopped!
    The left: Yes! We will stop it! But first... [Time passes]
    The people: Now that we have waited long enough, we know it is truly time to act!
    The left: Yes! Action is needed! But first... [Time passes]
    The people: We grow tired, their blows land heavily. We still believe it is the time, but we are not so sure.
    The left: Yes! Their blows land heavily, but we shall overcome someday. In the meantime... [Time passes]
    The people: We despair. Our hope is cold.
    The left: What you need is leadership! It is very nearly the time!
    The people: When we needed what we knew we needed we were told our task was to wait. We have waited. We no longer know what we want, only that your slogans taste of ashes in our mouths. [Time passes.]
    The left: Now is the time! Now! Now!
    The people: [Silence.]

    Curtain closes on a single figure standing with fist raised and a broad smile.

    Fit IV
    The people: Outrageous! This must be stopped!
    The left: Yes! We will stop it! But first... [Time passes]
    The people: Now that we have waited long enough, we know it is truly time to act!
    The left: Yes! Action is needed! But first... [Time passes]
    The people: We grow tired, their blows land heavily. We still believe it is the time, but we are not so sure.
    The left: Yes! Their blows land heavily, but we shall overcome someday. In the meantime... [Time passes]
    The people: We despair. Our hope is cold.
    The left: What you need is leadership! It is very nearly the time!
    The people: When we needed what we knew we needed we were told our task was to wait. We have waited. We no longer know what we want, only that your slogans taste of ashes in our mouths. [Time passes.]
    The left: Now is the time! Now! Now!
    The people: [Silence.]

    Curtain closes on a single figure standing with fist raised and a broad smile.

    Fit V
    The people: Outrageous! This must be stopped!
    The left: Yes! We will stop it! But first... [Time passes]
    The people: Now that we have waited long enough, we know it is truly time to act!
    The left: Yes! Action is needed! But first... [Time passes]
    The people: We grow tired, their blows land heavily. We still believe it is the time, but we are not so sure.
    The left: Yes! Their blows land heavily, but we shall overcome someday. In the meantime... [Time passes]
    The people: We despair. Our hope is cold.
    The left: What you need is leadership! It is very nearly the time!
    The people: When we needed what we knew we needed we were told our task was to wait. We have waited. We no longer know what we want, only that your slogans taste of ashes in our mouths. [Time passes.]
    The left: Now is the time! Now! Now!
    The people: [Silence.]

    Curtain closes on a single figure standing with fist raised and a broad smile.

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    Another subtitle for this: 'Worshiping the God of Spontaneity, Redux!'

  • Guest - CC

    Ever the voice of the brake pedal, comrade.

    If our choices are limited to Dionysian spontaneity or the mendicant orders of 'left' Democrats, the best option is obvious.

    Thankfully we have better options that just those two. History will judge.

  • Guest - carldavidson

    I'm much more interested in the steering wheel and the stick gear shift on the floor than the brake pedal--although it comes in handy once in a while, too. It's in the nature of waves to ebb, and this one will soon enough, without any help from me. I hope the high tide lasts as long as it can, but it's best to make some plans for the next phase and consolidate gains as we can. Forget Dionysius; go for Sun Tzu. Or if he's too uptight for you, take a middle path with Lao Tse

  • Guest - CC

    The general strike organizing effort - it's not merely a call - is an attempt to raise the height of the high tide and lengthen its duration, and to do both in ways that set people up better for the next time around. Speaking for electoralism and so forth is speaking for a tide that doesn't go as high and doesn't last as long.

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