Occupy debates the call for a May 1 general strike

At least 15 sites of the Occupy Movement have endorsed a call for actions on May Day 2012, including a general strike, initiated by Occupy LA (OLA). The debate within New York’s Occupy Wall Street (OWS) over whether to endorse the call is illustrative of the ideological differences within the movement, as well as the possibility for unity in action despite such differences.

In this sense the debate overlaps simultaneous discussions on the West Coast about the relative roles of Occupy sites and unions, of differences between union officials and rank-and-file, and of the centrality of labor as opposed to an undifferentiated “99%”.

In December, the Direct Action working group, the body that considers and endorses action proposals for OWS, set up an exploratory committee to consider the call. On Jan. 28 the committee came to consensus, with no “blocks” or even “stand asides,” on the following language:
“May Day 2012: Occupy Wall Street stands in solidarity with the calls for a day without the 99%, a general strike and more!! On May Day, wherever you are, we are calling for: No Work, No School, No Housework, No Shopping, No Banking. TAKE THE STREETS!!!!!”
In forwarding this resolution to the planning group’s list after its passage, one of the co-facilitators of the process said, “We reached consensus on language for May Day that respects diversity of tactics, the different needs of various communities and the autonomy of individuals, while not putting us at odds with occupations across the country.” This is an accurate reflection of the discussions leading to the final language, and a testament to the desire for unity, despite wildly varying interpretations of what a general strike is, whether and how it would be possible, and of the possible repercussions for participants.
The phrase “a day without the 99%” is in the OWS call as a nod to the concerns of the OWS Labor Outreach Committee and its Immigrant Worker Justice Working Group (IWJWG). Both of these groups pointed out that many workers are legally barred from striking or fear victimization by la migra for doing so. LOC and IWJWG activists also pointed out that a general strike can’t just be called, that historically such strikes occur as part of a broader organic process of mobilization and radicalization of working people.
Desire for unity
While the overwhelming majority of the OWS May 1st committee still believe a general strike is possible, it agreed to insertion of the “day without the 99%” phrase—including its placement before the general strike phrase, as a recognition of the seriousness of those concerns, and as a display of the deep-seated desire for unity. This reflected a desire manifested throughout the four-hour-long meeting, culminating a weeks-long process, which reached consensus on the call.
Those differences even include what exactly a general strike is, with the LOC and IWJWG referring to its traditional meaning of a workplace-based action, while the anarchist-influenced majority conceiving of it as a more general nonparticipation in any economic aspect of the system.
The final agreement is something of a mish-mash: a call for a universal stay-away from work, combined with a list of actions for those who can’t. And in that it reflects the original OLA call in the diversity of tactics recommended, with an explicit acknowledgment in the OLA call that anti-labor legislation and other intimidating factors might lessen the response by both organized and unorganized workers to a strike call.
LOC and IWJWG activists pointed out that general strikes typically break out as broader responses to specific battles in a context of overall class-wide dissatisfaction, and they argued for building May Day actions as the culmination of support for already ongoing struggles, such as the many contract and organizing campaigns going on in New York in a wide variety of industries. They further argued that such pre-May Day activities present an opportunity to talk to those in struggle about the need for class-wide action.
There are three basic tendencies in the OWS May Day planning group, whose meetings range from 60 to 100 in size: (1) hard-core anarchists who are openly and insultingly dismissive of unions (and who don’t differentiate between union officials and rank and file, believing unions themselves are inherently creatures of capital); (2) mainstream anarchists, whose ideology is predominant in OWS, and who take seriously their insistence on finding ways to work with those they disagree with; (3) the LOC and IWJWG, most of whom are socialists and activists for union reform and militancy.
During discussions about what we wanted to see happen on May Day, both groups of anarchists said they hoped for a complete shutdown of the city, or “shutting down capitalism,” by “widespread disruption” such as blocking bridges and roads. Some even advocated picketing workplaces to force workers not to go to work, as opposed to encouraging them to strike. This, of course, is an ironically patronizing and substitutionist approach for a movement that prides itself on fostering the autonomy and self-determination of all the oppressed.
Are unions still relevant  to the struggle?
The anarchists also claimed that a general strike could no longer be conceived of as primarily workplace-based, and that “strikes” against payments of rent, mortgages, student loans, credit card debt, etc. were just as important as job walkouts. Arguments for such a conception of a general strike were motivated by claims that unions are now irrelevant, ignoring the historical fact that the percentage of labor organized has always sunk to tiny fractions of the workforce in periods of ruling-class offensive—but has mushroomed quickly and massively in periods of struggle.
The anarchists also claim that the labor process itself and the extraction of profits from work is no longer a defining feature of our system. This again ignores history, as do similar theories about “the end of labor” or “the post-industrial society” every time capitalism appears to have achieved stability—theories which are quickly swept away by the same upsurges which swell the ranks of organized labor.
These ideological differences appeared to be leading OWS to a split over what to do on May Day. At the Jan. 28 meeting, one of the hard-core anarchists made a motion that we divide into two working groups, with those wanting to issue a general strike call going their way and those arguing for other actions going theirs. 
Fortunately, one of the mainstream anarchists, a key leader of OWS, then put forward an amendment stating that we would “stand in solidarity with” the call by Occupy LA for a general strike, but also, “in recognition of the needs of organized and unorganized labor,” we would call for a day without the 99% (meaning that the 99% would do whatever they could on that day, including activities on the job, during lunch, or before or after work, but not necessarily striking). And it was pointed out that “stand in solidarity with” obligates no one in New York City to actually participate in or even agitate for a general strike.
Amazingly, the hard-core anarchist who put forward the original motion accepted the new one as friendly, and throughout the rest of the meeting she and her ideological comrades worked hard to maintain that unity. When consensus was reached, a huge cheer filled the room. Now we move to implementation.
Work leading up to May Day will also be an opportunity for LOC and IWJWG to bring forward demands articulating working-class concerns, which will surely include calls for jobs for all, immigrant rights, increased publicly-funded health care and education, revocation of anti-labor laws such as Taylor and Taft-Hartley, etc. Such demands and others around war, repression, women’s rights, and so on were in the original call from OLA.
OLA’s suggestions for participation on May Day for those who can’t explicitly strike include requests that workers call in sick, take a holiday or personal day, join activities after work such as marches, block parties, rallies, and so on. Similarly, in New York an LOC activist drafted a list of possible activities for those unable to strike: “In the workplace, workers can decide on what grievance to act on. … Pay? Benefits? Physical conditions? Lack of breaks? Theft of tips? …
“Environmental issues, mortgage issues, schooling issues, policing issues, gender issues, discrimination issues, health-care issues. … Unions can offer communications, logistical support, meeting places, the infrastructure for wider cooperation and coordination. … Walk off the job for the day, or sit in for the day.  … Call in sick. Slow down. …”
LOC and IWJWG activists will now be engaged in intensive discussions with workers in struggle about how actions leading up to and on May Day can further their cause (including by continuing LOC’s longstanding practice of encouraging mutual solidarity among those in struggle). Another key task facing New York labor and immigrant activists will be using the new May Day momentum provided by the Occupy phenomenon to build on the fragile unity between longstanding May Day coalitions in New York—e.g., the one based in immigrant worker groups that holds an annual rally in Union Square, and the one started by liberal union officials who traditionally gather in Foley Square. Last year they agreed for the first time that those rallying in Union Square would march to Foley for a joint event ending the day. This year joint efforts involving both coalitions and OWS can lead to a bigger and more politically powerful set of actions.
The LOC activist who listed possible at-work actions for May Day concluded by reminding us that through such activities “what we develop is the sense of collective power, communication, and cooperation that would make a general strike possible.”
That developing awareness is key to the possibilities inherent in the May Day call, which, however self-contradictory it may appear on the surface, presents an opportunity for new momentum for both the Occupy and labor movements, as well as a mutual reinforcement of the best elements of both.
The Occupy movement was not at its inception based on organizations rooted in particular workplaces or even neighborhoods. Community-based assemblies subsequently were organized, especially after evictions from citywide camps. And labor committees of Occupy sites have been seeking to sink their roots in particular workplaces and unions. Activities building for May Day can further this essential process of grounding the Occupy movement in workplaces and neighborhoods, and fostering the most militant elements in each while building broad united fronts.
As another leading LOC activist put it in an e-mail exchange: “The alliance between the militant, direct action of OWS (which LOC is committed to), which put us on the map, and the resources, and mass, mainstream constituency of labor, which gave us legitimacy and support of the 99%, is the key to power for OWS, and we have to work hard to preserve this alliance…
“The distrust of unions has a genuine basis; there is bureaucracy and lack of militancy or inclusiveness, and needs the push and support of OWS to move forward. LOC is trying to reform the labor movement, so that it will use direct action and represent the 99%, but to do so we have to be both inside and outside the unions. … For the first time, I expect to see a general strike in my lifetime. OWS has changed everything.” 
> The article above was written by Andrew Pollack, and first appeared in the February 2012 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.

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