Real Progressives

Strikes: The Power of Resistance

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“The members have spoken loud and clear. This vote is about the quality of life, as well as the health and safety of those who work in the film and television industry. Our people have basic human needs like time for meal breaks, adequate sleep and a weekend. For those at the bottom of the pay scale, they deserve nothing less than a living wage.”

IATSE International President Matthew Loeb

There has been a marked increase in labor actions throughout the world. In the United States, this includes the historic vote by the IATSE (The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) to go on strike. If carried out, it will be the first time the union has gone on strike in its 128-year existence. While negotiations continue and the date of the strike has yet to be set, this vote illustrates that the workers are fed up with the poor treatment they are receiving from the bosses. This discontent is not limited to just the entertainment industry, but is widespread among the working class.  Over 1,400 members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM) just went on strike against Kellogg’s in Battle Creek, Mich. (Local 3G), Omaha, Neb. (Local 50G), Lancaster, Pa. (Local 374G) and Memphis, Tenn. (Local 252G). On Friday, October 1st, members of Machinists Union Local 598 (District 54) went on strike in Barboursville, West Virginia. A union spokesperson said, “Sometimes you have to take to Main Street to get Wall Street to listen.” In England, the Royal College of Nursing is voting on whether to go on strike after rejecting a meager offer of a 3% pay raise. France just carried out a national strike on Tuesday, October 5. This strike included 9% of energy workers which caused a 5.2% dip in nuclear energy production. The strike included over 200 protests and members from the CGT, FO, Solidaires, FSU, Fidl, MNL, Unef and UNL unions.  Postal workers, civil servants, school workers, and transportation workers all took part in the strike. 

If the workers take a notion,
They can stop all speeding trains;
Every ship upon the ocean
They can tie with mighty chains;
Every wheel in the creation,
Every mine and every mill,
Fleets and armies of the nation,
Will at their command stand still.

Joe Hill

This wave of strikes is a positive sign of developing class consciousness among the working class. Only solidarity among the workers can lead to an effective strike. Apart from the strikes, there is also the much talked about so-called labor shortage in the United States. As long as there is unemployment, there can be no shortage of labor. What is happening is that workers are refusing to take jobs that cannot pay the rent. Not only are the working class refusing to be hired, they are also quitting en masse. In April, 740,000 workers left the leisure and hospitality industry. This was a part of a wave of departures that has been dubbed “The Great Resignation” which included 4 million workers quitting their jobs last July. According to Harvard Business Review, “resignation rates were higher among employees who worked in fields that had experienced extreme increases in demand due to the pandemic, likely leading to increased workloads and burnout.” Large sections of the working class are waking up to the exploitation that is inherent in the capitalist system. 

The labor actions of today are a part of a wider class struggle that has existed throughout all of recorded human history. After humans developed the means of production past the primitive communism of hunter-gatherer societies, hierarchical class distinctions were created as the surplus produced was unevenly distributed. The first strike recorded in history happened in Egypt in 1152 BCE. The workers were customarily paid in grain and when these payments were late, likely due to hoarding by the ruling class, the workers went on strike and staged demonstrations and sit-ins. These strikes continued for a period of three years as artisans and tomb workers continued to object to their treatment by the Pharaoh Ramses III. These striking workers were successful, and the strike became a tactic used by the working class frequently throughout history. 

One of the greatest examples of the power of the strike can be found when the Macedonian army under Alexander the Great refused to follow his orders and continued the campaign into India. At this point, Alexander had defeated every army he had faced. The greatest empire of the time, the Persian empire, which had plagued Greece for years, had been conquered. He had faced the elephants of King Porus on the Hydaspes and crushed his entire army. He now desired to continue east and seek to conquer all the lands unto the ends of the earth. These ambitions were defeated by the power of the working class. The army under him refused to go one step further. There was nothing the great king could do; he sulked, he cajoled, he pleaded with them, but they refused his admonitions. One of the greatest military commanders of all time was never defeated by an enemy, but his own men overcame his desires through solidarity and unity. This is the power of the working class when united. Even the greatest of men cannot overcome such power. 

On the contrary, history teaches that much, great, and permanent good has resulted from strikes

Eugene V. Debs

In the United States, the Pullman Strike in 1894 stands as one of the greatest instances of working class power. The strike was led by the American Railway Union (ARU) after the Pullman company cut wages but did not lower their rents in their company towns. The strike involved 250,000 workers in 29 states, mainly those in the ARU led by Eugene V. Debs but also included many other workers carrying out sympathy strikes. Debs called for a general strike in support of the railway workers, but Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was against it. The strike was brutally crushed by President Grover Cleveland who deployed 12,000 troops against the striking workers. Debs was sent to prison and the ARU was dissolved. Rather than higher wages or a shorter working day, the workers received the consolation prize of the creation of Labor Day by President Cleveland in an attempt to placate them. This satisfied Gompers, but Debs was unwilling to accept such a worthless gesture from the ruling class and would fight for the working class for the rest of his life. 

Although the Pullman Strike had been crushed, Debs still believed in the power of a unified working class. This is why he was one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). It was to be a union for the entire working class, rather than a simple trade union. The preamble to the constitution of the IWW includes the following: 

These conditions can be changed and the interest of the working class upheld only by an organization formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all.

Instead of the conservative motto, ‘’A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘’Abolition of the wage system.” 

It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organised, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.

The IWW was created as a truly radical organization based around the concept of the general strike in order to bring the power of united labor together to overthrow the capitalist system. In 1911, Big Bill Haywood gave a speech on the power of the general strike, saying: 

Still, they will speak to these people about the power of the ballot, and they never mention a thing about the power of the general strike. They seem to lack the foresight, the penetration, to interpret political power. They seem to lack the understanding that the broadest interpretation of political power comes through the industrial organization; that the industrial organization is capable not only of the general strike, but prevents the capitalists from disenfranchising the worker; it gives the vote to women, it re-enfranchises the black man and places the ballot in the hands of every boy and girl employed in a shop, makes them eligible to take part in the general strike, makes them eligible to legislate for themselves where they are most interested in changing conditions, namely, in the place where they work.

The power of the united working class is far more powerful than the ballot. It was the general strikes in Russia in 1905 that would set the stage for the revolutions of 1917. The February Revolution of 1917 was sparked by the workers’ strike at the Putilov Mill. This led to the overthrow of the Tsar and the creation of a provisional government. As conditions did not improve significantly for the working class, a series of strikes were carried out in September and October of 1917. More than one million workers took part in these strikes. Carried by this wave of popular insurrection, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and the Bolshevik Party overthrew the provisional government and took power for the working class. On November 11, 1917, the Soviet Union became one of the first countries in the modern era to decree a national 8-hour work day. The United States would not implement a nation-wide 8-hour work day until the Fair Labor Standards Act was enacted in 1937 as part of the New Deal. According to Bureau of Labor statistics, “There were 4,740 strikes which began in the United States during 1937, in which 1,860,621 workers were involved.” These were the most strikes in a single year in United States history until that point. The 8-hour work day was won through mass labor actions, not through the ballot box. 

Recently, there has been much talk on social media about a general strike. The latest call for a general strike was focused on the date of October 15. However, the original call for a general strike has been tempered and folded into a call for a general labor movement. As Labor Movement X states on their website, “The folks who started this drive for a General Strike on October 15th were incredibly passionate and ready to demand change. They were, however, unprepared for how quickly and how far this movement would spread. As some folks stepped down and many more of us joined to work behind the scenes on this, we thought it best to step back, reevaluate our demands and plans, to make sure they were researched, inclusive, and safe for all who participate.” Meanwhile, Fred Hampton Leftists will be hosting a general strike summit to discuss the possibility and power of a general strike from November 12-14th. This is not a general strike itself, but rather a discussion around it. In the past, social media calls for general strikes have been ineffective due to a lack of union backing. This is why organizing on the local level is so important and why a resurgence of the Industrial Workers of the World would be significant for the class struggle. A general strike is needed in the United States and internationally to confront the global system of capitalism, but it will take more than tweets and social media posts to get it done. Agitate, educate, inoculate, organize, unionize

We are guilty of no crime unless the simple expression of an opinion is a crime. We are not responsible for this strike. Pullman is responsible for it.  

Eugene V. Debs

As long as capital continues to oppress labor, strikes will happen. The recent surge in strike activity is a positive sign that the working class has grown tired of being bullied by their rulers. These strikes must be supported with boycotts and mutual aid. In solidarity with striking workers, it is imperative that we never cross a picket line. For far too long, labor has been under the boot of the bosses. The time has come to throw off the chains of wage labor and create a new society where the workers control the means of production. An injury to one is an injury to all! 

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