Occupy's "precarious" general strike

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Jacob Richter
Occupy's "precarious" general strike


Worth posting in two forums, being both political and economic:




With a general strike planned for May 1, Occupy is looking for new ways to organize the under- and unemployed


Of the many questions that the Occupy movement faces before its May 1 general strike, the most important may be who exactly will be striking. Due in part to restrictive U.S. strike laws, organized labor has not endorsed the action. And many of the protesters from which the Occupy movement has drawn its energy are the under- and unemployed who have been victimized most by the economy — people who are not exactly in a great position to withhold their labor.


That’s where the Precarious and Service Workers Assemblies come in. These groups have been popping up around the country to try to forge links between unorganized laborers with tenuous employment. Last  month, the first such meeting in New York drew 60 some people from an odd mix of professions – writers, adjunct professors, bar backs, dog walkers, baristas, sex workers, movers and designers. Despite their very different backgrounds, they discussed the one thing they all shared: a precarious earning situation. This was more than just an occasion to share their fears. It was, as the event invitation noted, an organizing platform to “engage together in upcoming actions like the May Day General Strike.”


What this gathering and others like it suggest is that Occupy is taking a different approach to the general strike than the one you might expect — one appropriate to precarious, non-unionized and largely service-oriented workers. When the Oakland Precarious and Service Workers Assembly gathered in early March, the organizers wrote, “For many these days, our work is defined by its precarity. We lack job security, work for laughable wages, and have no healthcare or potential for advancement.


As the precarious workers assemblies and numerous articles and books suggest, many see the currently disparate army of insecure workers as a potent political force. Some theorists have even sought to frame precarious workers as an emerging social class – the “precariat,” as described by Guy Standing, professor of economic security at Bath University. According to Standing, the precariat is a class in the making insofar as there are multiple examples of precarious workers joining together with a growing awareness of common vulnerability. There is some truth in this: In the Occupy Wall Street meetings dedicated to exploring the call for general strike, over-educated freelancers like myself met with migrant laundry workers to discuss lacking healthcare insurance and job security.


Some wonder, however, whether these new groups are capable of pulling off a general strike without support from organized labor. Without the support of unions, some have argued, workers will not have the confidence to miss work and take to the streets. It’s a prisoners’ dilemma of sorts: Individual workers, some say, are afraid to strike in fear that other individuals will not — even though the greater the pool of strikers (even non-unionized strikers) the more difficult it will be for employers to retaliate.


But the question of whether a general strike can take place without organized labor’s formal support seems to me moot at this point: No one is working under the impression that May Day in New York will resemble the general strikes of 1946, for example, or even contemporary general strikes elsewhere, like last week in Spain, when two powerful unions called a general strike and 3 million people took to the streets.


It is also worth noting that in Greece – where mass strikes in recent years have been successful in temporarily paralyzing the economically beleaguered country – some of the most celebrated strikes have been largely accredited to the Syntagma Square movement (an Occupy forebearer), not the unions. As Dimitris Dalakoglou, co-editor of the book “Revolt and Crisis in Greece” told me:


Greece saw some of its massive and most successful general strikes in summer 2011, because at that time the movement of Syntagma Square had brought the spirit of autonomous, self-organized struggle away from union executives and political parties … The day of the strike, the majority of strikers did not bother with the union’s afternoon rally, they went from the morning to Syntagma and fought against the economic and political sovereignty and the brutal violence of the police there next to the people who were occupying Syntagma for one month.


However, questions still remain about the specific challenges facing different precarious workers who might be interested in involving themselves in May Day. How, for example, can someone leave work or call in sick for the day if they know they will be fired and lack a union to defend them? Or, how might someone strike if they work flexibly and don’t need to turn up to an office that day anyway? And how do unemployed people strike at all?


All these questions rely on a traditional notion of strike (withdrawing labor as leverage against an employer) or even general strike (that the majority of workers in a country or region walk off the job in solidarity with each other). Occupy organizers, though, are planning a very different type of general strike. Calls include a consumer strike (“No Shopping! No Banking!”), student debt strikes, school walkouts, a data strike (leave the smartphone at home), slow work days and, of course, calls to take the streets. The idea is that, given the variety and vulnerability of working situations, there’s no one catch-all way to strike – so a strike will need to have many diverse elements if it is going to be general.


In New York, we have already seen rumblings of the type of activity May Day might bring. In the last week of March, a number of activists self-affiliating with OWS who according to a communiqué were working “in conjunction with rank and file workers from the Transport Workers Union Local 100 and the Amalgamated Transit Union” chained the doors open of numerous subway stations and printed signs that resembled those of the Metro Transit Authority informing passengers “Free Entry, No Fare. Please Enter Through The Service Gate.”


Regardless of one’s opinion on the particulars of the subway action, the fare strike gives one example of the type of strike a work force underpinned by precarity can engage in: those that did not pay the fare made a strike of sorts; those who chained the station doors open made a more daring one. In either case, it was certainly not endorsed by union bureaucracy.


Of course, the actions undertaken by certain groups to promote or partake in the general strike will not please everyone – the fare strike alone has already received equal helpings of criticism and celebration both within and outside Occupy Wall Street discussions. What’s clear, however, is that with under 12 percent of the U.S. work force unionized, an autonomously, horizontally organized “precariat” could be a potent force for political and social rupture. As such, it might be high time that the media stop turning to union leaders to ask about what a general strike could mean.


Natasha Lennard covers the Occupy movement for Salon. A British-born, Brooklyn-based journalist, she has been covering Occupy Wall Street since before the first sleeping bag was unrolled in Zuccotti Park. One of the first journalists arrested at an Occupy action, she has managed to enrage Andrew Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. You can follow her on Twitter (@natashalennard), and email her any Occupy updates/videos/ideas to natasha.lennard@gmail.comMore Natasha Lennard


epaulo13 epaulo13's picture

..re spain
General strike marks another step forward for indignados


On the other hand, it also contained an emerging form in the repertoire of collective action which has only recently begun to take its first steps, but which, if we look back to the previous general strike of 29 September 2010, appears to be maturing remarkably fast. What we see is that the general union strike is giving birth to another kind of strike: the metropolitan strike, protagonised by the precariat and animated by networks of activists who are constantly learning, aggregating and experimenting with a variety of tactics.

The metropolitan strike goes beyond the old repertoire of transport paralysis, factory paralysis and the collapse of production from inside the workplace to reveal another innovative and dynamic repertoire that is capable of synergistically projecting movement-based politics beyond their traditional forms and achievements: strategically located universities had been occupied since Monday to strengthen transport blockades, a consumption strike which gave people who couldn’t strike a chance to participate, metropolitan picket lines made up of women, youth, immigrants or senior citizens, and black bloc-style anonymity facilitating targeted property destruction (including the a small-scale casino heist) all contributed to the success of 29M. Once again, the tactical richness of a multitude that ignores the institutional limitations of the concerted social action favoured by mainstream unions proved surprisingly effective (surprising, at least, to the ruling elite)....



The evolution of this new repertoire is no easy task. It has yet to be institutionalized or clearly define a common strategy. And the traditional left, after years of focusing on resistance and defensive positions, has on many occasions viscerally and ideologically attacked these types of actions without offering any alternatives beyond those traditional forms of action and representation over which they maintain a certain hegemony. But this matters less and less, and the wave of mobilizations continues to leave a trail of successes in its wake: the 29F and 17N educational mobilizations, the 15O global day of action, the birth of the indignados movement on 15M and the general strike and Bank of Spain occupation of 29S are just some of these landmark moments of its still recent history.

This wave is unstoppable, at least as long as the political regime does not change course, which doesn’t seem likely. In fact, this past summer the Partido Socialista and Partido Popular agreed to shield the regime against all possibilities of change by modifying the Constitution of 1978 to include a balanced budget amendment that was not submitted to public debate or referendum. Despite the indignados’ persistent calls for a substantial modification of electoral law, the ruling parties, obscene beneficiaries of the status quo, are apparently willing to uphold this fundamental component of their dominance for as long as possible.


It seems a bit self-defeating to organize a general strike in a social context such that 99% of people will just go to work or do whatever they would have done anyway. 

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Jacob Richter wrote:
Worth posting in two forums, being both political and economic

Sorry Jacob, I disagree. Let's try to keep the discussion in one place, thanks.

Please continue here.

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