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Forum Post: Occupy May Day: Not Your Usual General Strike By Jeremy Brecher

Posted 2 years ago on March 27, 2012, 10:14 a.m. EST by flip (6813)
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Most Occupy May Day advocates understand that a conventional general strike is not in the cards. What they are advocating instead is a day in which members of the “99%” take whatever actions they can to withdraw from participation in the normal workings of the economic system -- by not working if that is an option, but also by not shopping, not banking, and not engaging in other “normal” everyday activities, and by joining demonstrations, marches, disruptions, occupations, and other mass actions.

To understand what the significance of such an event might be, it helps to look at what Rosa Luxemburg called periods of “mass strike.” These were not single events, but rather whole periods of intensified class conflict in which working people began to see and act on their common interests through a great variety of activities, including strikes, general strikes, occupations, and militant confrontations. · In 1877, in the midst of deep depression and a near-obliteration of trade unions, workers shut down the country’s dominant industry, the railroads, shut down most factories in dozens of cities, battled police and state militias, and only were suppressed when the US Army and other armed forces killed more than a hundred participants and onlookers.

· In the two years from 1884 to 1886, workers swelled the Knights of Labor ten-fold from 70,000 members to 700,000 members. In 1886, more than half-a-million workers in scores of cities joined a May 1st strike for the eight-hour day. The movement was broken by a reign of terror that followed a police attack that is usually but perversely referred to as the “Haymarket Riot.” May Day became a global labor holiday in honor of the “Haymarket Martyrs” who were tried by a judge so prejudiced against them that their execution has often been referred to as “judicial murder.”

· In 1937, hundreds of thousands of workers occupied their factories and other workplaces in “sitdown strikes” and housewives, students, and many other people applied the same tactic to address their own grievances.

· In 1970, in the midst of national upheavals around the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, and a widespread youth revolt, postal workers, teamsters, and others took part in an unprecedented wave of wildcat strikes, while miners held a month-long political strike in West Virginia to successfully demand justice for victims of black lung disease.

Such periods of mass strike present what Rosa Luxemburg called “A perpetually moving and changing sea of phenomena.” Each is unique in its events and its unfolding. But they are all marked by an expanding challenge to established authority, a widening solidarity among different groups of working people, and a growing assertion by workers of control over their own activity.

In periods of mass strike working people become increasingly aware of themselves as a group with a common situation, common problems, and common opponents. They organize themselves in a great variety of ways. They become aware of their capacity to act collectively. They become aware of their potential power. And they opt to act collectively.

However much it may chagrin organizers and radicals, it is not possible to call or instigate a mass strike. It is something that must gestate in workplaces and communities (now including virtual communities). But it is possible to nurture and influence the emergence of mass strikes through discussion and above all through exemplary action. Provoking discussion and showing the possibilities of collective action is what Occupy Wall Street has done so well. That is what its May Day action can potentially do.

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