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Wisconsin: Why a general strike hasn't happened yet...

category north america / mexico | workplace struggles | opinion / analysis author Monday April 04, 2011 21:35author by Juan Conatz Report this post to the editors

An attempt to identify some factors that have prevented a general strike from breaking out in Wisconsin


If you haven’t figured it out yet, a general strike is probably not going to happen in Wisconsin. Maybe it never was, but what is commonly identified as the high point is past and a major demobilization has happened. This high point was when the bill was jammed through and people forced themselves in the capitol. This was also the point when the crowd calls for a general strike were the loudest. In my opinion, if walkouts, occupations or strikes were to have happened in this atmosphere, it could have snowballed, at least in the public sector.

I’ve been really busy and involved in a lot of stuff or secondarily involved through conversation in other stuff, so it’s been hard to take a step back and see where we’re at, but it’s something I’m trying to do. Also, being around mostly only people that are for a general strike probably doesn’t give me the full picture. That said, I think there’s some general observations on why a general strike has not happened.

1)Inexperience and fear - One of the most common responses to taking job actions is “But we can’t strike, it’s illegal” or “I’ll get fired”. The law, rather than looked at as a set of rules that are enforced in proportion to the amount of people willing to abide by them, is looked at as if it is some invisible force field, enforced by the gods, which makes it physically impossible for one to do something contrary to it. This is of course related to us not having ever been in a situation like this. Years and years of relative labor peace in combination with atomization on the job and in wider society has encouraged these attitudes.

At this weekend’s Labor Notes Troublemaker’s School, printouts of what I believe was the South Central Federation of Labor’s general strike info packet was freely distributed at the IWW table. The first and only section that ran out of copies were those on legal rights, and it wasn’t even close. I think that says a lot about where we are/were. At a leftist Labor event, which is going to have a pretty high number of active militants, the number one worry is on legal issues, not on how to actually carry one out, how other places have done it or what a general strike actually is, which by the way, are all issues that have needed greater clarity.

2)Looking for strong leaders/Seeing a general strike as something outside one’s self - The following is a part of a piece on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee occupation:

Yet within much of the assembled body of students, a general strike was not understood as something that everyone would have to create together, a festival of disruption, but rather as something that would just happen; a disheartening attitude that reduces the likelihood of a meaningful and widespread stoppage.

I think, that among many of those who had been considering the possibility of a general strike, this was a common sentiment. It was almost viewed as something outside one’s own agency. Or something to be started by someone else or called by some official higher up.

3)Lack of clarity on the relationship to formal union structures - Should we attempt to put pressure on union officials/bodies to pass resolutions or act in a certain way? Or should we bypass these structures and build our own networks of pro-strike militants within the public sector unions? It seems I’ve seen or heard more of the former and less of the latter. I’ve never had a union job nor public sector job, so I’m not one who could really say which would have been or will be more effective, but it’s something I’ve thought about a lot and a question we have to debate amongst ourselves and come to some sort of outlook on.

4)The Recall and Electoral Politics - While I’m sure there’s many, even on the radical left, that may disagree with me on this, I’m absolutely against the recall as a tactic. I know I’ve heard what some may see as a compromise of both the recall effort and wider agitation around striking being used, but I don’t think it works like that. Electoral politics does not act in a way that is complimentary to working class self-activity and self-organization. It is a co-opting force that clears the discourse for its path to supremacy. For every dollar donated to a Democratic politician, that is one less for a strike fund or bail money. For every hour spent traveling to different districts to gather signatures for a recall petition, that is one less hour one could have spent agitating in their workplace and community for something bigger and better.

Not only that, but the recall has a good chance of not even producing results. There is a real possibility that the same number of current Democrats and Republicans could be recalled, leading to absolutely no change in the political party composition of the state senate. Also, as of now, to my knowledge, there is no proposed Democratic candidate that has said that they will run if a Republican gets recalled, much less has said if they would kill the bill on collective bargaining. Also, notice, I haven’t mentioned the non-collective bargaining aspects of Walker’s agenda.....

5)’Massification’ of Opposition - It's been a much commented aspect of this movement that many other groups or sectors of workers have not had their issues heard or have lacked their involvement. Walker’s agenda includes devastating cuts that would disproportionately affect people of color, women & single parents, those on state healthcare, the poor & unemployed, and students.

Yet, as far as involvement in the protests go, some of these groups, although their material interests are much more threatened than public sector workers, have not been involved really at all or their specific issues are being ignored or not brought up.

I think there’s a lot of reasons for this: earlier defeats in these communities, lack of organized left presence, the impression of the protests as a ‘white people’ thing or ‘public sector worker’ thing, the movements cozy relationship (in both rhetoric and attitude) to the police, etc, but it’s a problem. If those with the most to lose see no interest in struggle, it leaves the potential for action on the shoulders of those with the least to lose.

Anyway, despite these shortcomings, there’s been a lot of amazing activity and agitation done by both individuals and groups (formal and informal). Most of us, young and old, have to make stuff up as we go, as there really isn’t much to base how we do things on. This is an unfamiliar situation. The fact that a general strike was even in the national dialogue would have been unthinkable even 3-4 months ago. Also an important thing to remember, is that we working class militants are a small minority, and a lot of our efforts have been spent on just basic infrastructure and propagandizing, both extremely important activities to be engaged in and major contributors to the fact this situation even occurred.

Even if a general strike does not happen, what has occurred in Wisconsin could be the start of an upsurge in worker resistance. People are talking and they are thinking. They are considering things that haven't been considered in a lifetime. We should recognize and appreciate this. And think about what we can do to intensify and encourage future activity.

author by Waynepublication date Tue Apr 05, 2011 05:03Report this post to the editors

An excellent analysis. Sounds like the IWW did great work in Madison. However, I think there should be more emphasis on the union officialdom when considering why there was no general strike. The union leadership channeled popular discontnt into the demonstrations, rode them out, and directed discontent toward reliance on the Democrats, and are continuing to do so right now. Of course, workers have their illusions in the bureaucrats as in the Democrats, but the misleaderships use those illusions to hold back the struggle. That is why a movement for a general strike would need to be both an organization of the ranks (independent of the officials) and needs to demand that the officials endorse it (to expose them).

author by dagseoulpublication date Tue Apr 05, 2011 05:45author address dagseoul.blogspot.comReport this post to the editors

I like your post. When I saw the title, one word was in my mind: politics. Nobody was going to strike once the mass protest became a source of fuel for future elections. I don't know how I feel about this because it concentrates the protest, makes it local. Already, most Americans treat the issue as yesterday's news. "They're handling it." I don't that like sense of things at all.


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That said, let me be clear that this is an accounting of the days events and not any sort of feeling of victory or satisfaction with the business unions’ approach or their marriage to the democratic party. This is an attempt to describe what I was seeing glimpses of, piece that are present, just below the surface in spite of the unions’ backwards ways.

This bill is only possible because most of the unions have not been organizing, have been acting in the interests of the bosses as much as in the interests of workers and have wed themselves almost completely to the democratic party, who hasn’t really given them a thing in several decades. I don’t dispute any of that and have had my share of experiences with unions that make me sick to my stomach. That said, I think it is incorrect to write them off as obsolete, having run their course or irrelevant. The hundreds of thousands of people who participate in their unions, despite their problems don’t think so and I think it is a mistake to dismiss those sentiments and commitments. That was demonstrated pretty well in what I saw on Tuesday.

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