Some Critical Notes on the Occupy Movement's November 2011 Attempt at a General Strike in Oakland, California
My personal experience of the Nov. 2nd, 2011 attempted general strike in Oakland was a blast. The event was beautiful and exhilarating -- even the colors in the sky were perfect! More importantly, as the first attempt at a general strike in a U.S. city in sixty-six years, I hope Nov. 2nd in Oakland can stir a long-suffering and silent wage-earning class in the United States to see the collective power we can have when we use a mass-scale workplace walkout as a political weapon against the owners of America. This is a gift to our future from the Occupy movement as a whole, and in particular a tribute to the outward-directed and working class focus of Occupy Oakland. Today in the Occupy movement, Oakland leads the way.
The internet is now saturated with exhaustively detailed first-person accounts of this event. I don't need to add to these. The San Francisco Bay Area protest-scenester-scene is at its most limber and energetic when patting itself on its back, reveling in imaginary victories, celebrating its manifest failings as glorious victories, and proclaiming the limits of it's current endeavors as the highest possible point that future efforts can aspire to.
The word ‘strike' means "to hit with force' (Webster's Dictionary.) Except for a few large windows of some wholly appropriate businesses, nothing got hit with force in Oakland on Nov. 2, 2011. It may be years until we have some accurate figure of the number of people who actually walked off the job in Oakland on Nov. 2nd, but my guess is that it was something less than five percent of the city's wage earners. Below two percent is more likely.
A "strike" that the boss gives you permission to take part in isn't really a strike.
In Oakland some of the forms this took were:
1. Employees represented by the California Nurses Association making use of their sick days,
2. Oakland City government employees were given permission from the city to "participate,"
3. And the occasionally leftist-jargon-slinging port workers union, the ILWU, needed to have masses of protesters block the gates to port facilities, and with this in place got an official mediator to approve of one of the port worker's shifts being cancelled.
Other ILWU members went to work during an earlier shift on the day of the general strike.
A strike has to have some forcible, breaking-all-the-normal-rules, disruptive and destructive qualities to be a true act of social or class rebellion. To begin with, members of the wage-earning class have to actually collectively withhold their labor power, and not meekly ask the boss for the day off. A strike has to do some damage to the economic interests of the bosses, and this didn't happen with the strike on Nov. 2nd.
Among other negative indicators here, I haven't seen the bourgeois media offering any public estimate of money lost to businesses from the strike. You can generally count on this after similar episodes in all those other countries where the working class has been more assertive of
its interests than we've been. An actual one-day general strike would deliver an economic rabbit-punch to the private sector elite, and if they had taken a real hit this way we would have heard them acting martyred about it afterward.
Still, this doesn't mean that Nov. 2nd in Oakland was a failure. The majority of working people in the contemporary U.S. are many generations distant from any directly lived experience of collective workplace-based confrontation with capital, let alone a large-scale, city-wide event taking the form of a mass workplace walkout. From the car culture to hip-hop, we've been subjected to an ever-more sophisticated hundred-year-long psychological operations campaign of consumer society that tells us that we are all free and atomized individuals with no bonds of solidarity or obligations to one another. And of course in Uncle-Sam-Land everybody is "middle class," only some have a lot more money than others. All this has preempted the emergence of a collective class awareness, even in a rudimentary defensive sense, let alone a widespread, conscious collective hostility to our exploiters and to the political and ideological mechanisms of their power. Fortunately as the often tedious and dogmatic ultra-left Marxist Amadeo Bordiga noted, action tends to precede consciousness, and the simple fact that a general strike of sorts was attempted in Oakland in November 2011 may generate some awareness of the potential that an action like this can have among a wider U.S. audience.
Before the strike, the call for a city-wide walkout was not publicized in an even minimally adequate way. On the Saturday night before the Wednesday strike we had a march to the Oakland City Jail with a thousand people chanting anti-cop slogans. Two nights later I walked the length of Telegraph Avenue, one of Oakland's main streets, from the center of downtown Oakland to the Berkeley border, a distance of several miles, and saw a total of less than two dozen handbills slapped up in a desultory manners, and these mostly along a short stretch in the semi-hipsterized/gentro'ed Temescal District. My guess is that this paucity of propaganda applied equally to other main thoroughfares as well. So, what's that mean? A thousand people showed up for an entertaining, lightweight, low calorie episode of anti-pig posturing, but not one fiftieth of that number had the authentic dedication and commitment to form crews with paint brushes and buckets of wallpaper paste, or with tape guns, and cover the length of the main streets of Oakland with posters and flyers, with visible public propaganda calling attention to an action that had to strike most mainstream contemporary U.S. working people as a wholly unusual, exotic and foreign idea.
The main routes of the bus system AC Transit, major bus stops and BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) could have and should have been used as a platform for the message in the form of mass postering and flyering. This did not happen in the build-up to the general strike.
In the days leading up to Nov. 2nd, rank and file union members and low-level union bureaucrats came to meetings of the Occupy Oakland General Assembly. Many of these folks sincerely tried to get their unions involved in the build-up to the general strike. Some union locals generated pious statements devoid of any threat of action. Participation of unions in an effort like this is like asking the U.S. Department of Labor to organize a general strike. Unions are capitalist business organizations - they cannot be transformed into something other than this by combative members, or compelled to act as anything other than transmission belts from capital to labor that help adjust unionized workers to the requirements of capital. Eighty years of repressive labor
legislation have also tied capital's labor brokerages at the ankles, wrists and elbows to capitalist legality and to the capitalist state. The fact that unions are sociologically made up of working class people doesn't make them an expression of the class interests of their members, much less of the working class as a whole. The U.S. Army is for the most part made up of individuals who are sociological working class in origin but that doesn't make the Army a "working class organization."
Organizers at Occupy Oakland were probably and quite understandably overwhelmed by the task they had set for themselves in calling for a general strike, and they only had about six days to prepare for it and get the word out. Trying to get unions involved may have seemed like some kind of short cut into the world of the mainstream working class. It wasn't. And it won't be next time, either.
Today almost ninety percent of U.S. wage slaves aren't members of labor unions. Among those who are union members, those who have any strong opinions at all about unions are as likely to have negative perceptions of "their" union as positive ones, and they may see "their" union as a wholly bureaucratic entity that steals dues from their pay and is either indifferent or actively hostile to their needs.
Any real future general strike has to be a wildcat action. It will have to do an end-run around the entire union apparatus, and appeal directly to all working people. All future efforts of this sort will have to use direct action communication methods, appeal to everyday immediate needs, and broadcast an uncompromising anti-market economy message. This is no small task, and unions will do absolutely nothing to help us here.
The admirable and exemplary targeting by Black Bloc youth of windows of a store of the despicable market-libertarian-owned Whole Foods Market chain during the 2 p.m. "anti-capitalist" march points the way to where the Occupy movement must now go; into a much deeper involvement with the everyday life struggles of the mainstream wage-slave class in capitalist America, from a public, highly visible, aggressive anti-market/anti-money/anti-wage labor perspective.
Some of the specific forms this might take are:
1. Borrowing from the tool kit of rebels in Chile and Egypt, and using so-called social media to initiate some kind of autonomous, widespread, sub rosa workplace resistance among employees of the Whole Foods Market Corporation.
With its combination of a large number of non-union employees, abysmal wages, frantic working conditions, and a creepy, Scientology-like workplace management psychology, the Whole Foods Market Corporation is an easy to hate enemy, and is just dying to be targeted. The right kind of ongoing bare knuckle direct action against Whole Foods can become a template for similar actions against other retail sector exploiters,
2. Using big city public transit systems as a platform for mass working class direct action linking ever-more beleaguered transit system employees and transit system riders, the vast majority of whom are wage earners and low income people, akin to what's seen here:
3. And start a long term process of fraternization between civilian rebels and enlisted people inside the United States Armed Forces.
For all its viscerally satisfying qualities, bricks through the windows of banks and other deserving capitalist enterprises aren't going to draw in the large numbers of hard-pressed mainstream working people who will gain the most from mobilization in a new mass social movement. The bricks can come later. A few broken windows won't scare off the work-within-the-system types, either. Liberals of the MoveOn.org stripe and leftists including or akin to the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition are the deadly enemies of any liberatory potential that the Occupy movement has, but these counter-subversives have to be politically combatted and defeated in an open debate where the only weapon will be the weapon of language.
The Occupy movement is an admirably spontaneous, anti-hierarchical and tremendously positive phenomenon. Seeing Occupy emerge is like watching fifty meters of glacial ice begin to crack. But the Occupy movement is still not a mainstream working people's movement. It can become this. The problems with the Oakland General Strike prove that this is absolutely the direction the Occupy movement must now go in.
MAINSTREAM WORKING PEOPLE, INCLUDING THE UNEMPLOYED, AND ENLISTED PEOPLE IN THE ARMED FORCES ARE THE PEOPLE WHO ARE GOING TO MATTER MOST
(Originally written in January 2012)