In calling for a general strike on November 2, Occupy Oakland took quite a risk. Generations have passed since the last wave of general strikes in the United States, and in many ways political consciousness could not be more different. Historically, mass labor actions have depended on large-scale organization among workers, a clear list of demands, and broad community support. Moreover, changes in labor laws and union membership rates make the kind of well-structured actions seen during the height of the labor movement all but impossible. Bottom line: if you’re looking for reasons why November 2 was not a truly traditional general strike, they’re not hard to find.
But that might be missing the point. The Occupy movement seems to be more about redefining activism and political participation than building a throwback to the 1930s. Occupiers have already rejected the hierarchical decision making process that so defined organized labor in the mid twentieth century, and they have much more to say about inequality and financial reform than about labor laws or specific workplace grievances. Like the rest of America, most participants have little or no experience with organized labor, and while they may find inspiration in historic struggles, they are also seeking to define themselves and their actions in new ways.
These realities constitute both advantages and disadvantages for the nascent movement. One significant challenge is a lack of central organization to build momentum and protect striking workers. To participate on November 2, many workers not only had to defy workplace rules, but also labor laws regulating when and how mass actions like this can take place. Of the twenty or so people I interviewed Wednesday at Frank Ogawa Plaza—rechristened “Oscar Grant Plaza” by protesters in honor of the twenty-two-year-old who was fatally shot by BART police in January 2009—most said going on strike was a difficult choice to make. The jobless rate in the Bay Area and the state is higher than the national average, and small businesses are still being squeezed by low consumer demand.
Juan Alvarado, a proofreader at a legal firm, was able to take time off, but said he knows not everyone could have made that choice. “I’ve spoken to a lot of decent people who would want to participate and lend their support, but have bills to pay, and they’re afraid of losing their jobs,” He said, adding that because employers frequently provide health care, many potential strikers are less willing to take the risk. “I switched the day off,” he said. “I probably should strike, but I’ve got bills to pay too.”
Bennett Cross, who works at a coffee company in San Francisco, had similar concerns. “I had the day off work,” he said, but added that he probably couldn’t be here otherwise. “I just got this job a few weeks ago. To make the statement that I’m not going to show up for work, three weeks into a new job would be a really big deal. I don’t know personally if I could do that.”
Even unionized workers faced barriers. Oakland was the scene of one of the last general strikes in U.S. history in 1946, when more than 100,000 AFL members struck in solidarity with retail clerks who were facing police repression. But laws passed since then like Taft-Hartley in 1947 have made sympathy strikes illegal, and union membership has declined significantly. As Huffington reports, both the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Oakland Education Association could not officially endorse the strike, though some local branches encouraged workers to take sick leave or vacation time to participate. This was further than both the Berkeley Federation of Teachers and the California Nurses Association were willing to go — both groups urged members to follow contracts and laws and participate after hours. Similarly, many local businesses that could not afford to shut their doors chose to deal in cash only, refusing to handle credit cards for at least one day, while many others remained open.
In such an uncertain economy, will workers be unwilling to risk their employers’ wrath by participating in future work stoppages? If workers face sanctions for participating in a strike or walkout, if unions are unable to call a sympathy strike, or if small businesses cannot afford to shut their doors, is there a limit to the magnitude and scope of the Occupy movement? Can it afford to grow?
The silver lining of the uncertain economic situation from the movement’s perspective is that, for many people, the question is not if they should participate, but how. Most people I interviewed on Wednesday said it was their first day at an Occupy event, and many were looking for new ways to get involved.
Wendy Neff, a restaurant worker from San Jose, said most people need to be realistic about participating. “This movement isn’t about quitting your job … you can’t just sacrifice your whole life to make a point, even if that’s the point.” But, she said, people don’t need to attend single-day actions to make their voices heard. “It’s about personal choices every day in the way that you spend your money, where you invest, the things you buy, the things you support, the things you eat, the people you vote for,” she said. “People need to make individual decisions, not just say so much, but start acting, and start doing.”
Katie Wynen, a social worker from Boston, shared a similar outlook. Wednesday was her first day at an Occupy event, as well, and she said she plans to find other ways to stay active. “I’d be interested to see if there are more things like this,” she said. “My girlfriend and I are currently trying to figure out how we can move our money out of the bank system,” she added, referring to the Bank Transfer Day scheduled for this Saturday. While not officially tied to occupations in New York or Oakland, other groups like Occupy LA have planned events around the November 5 action. Likewise, Occupy Oakland’s website, while calling for mass action on the ground, says the group “recognizes that not all workers, students and community members will feel able to strike.” In that case, it recommends other actions, such as providing needed supplies to occupiers, and shopping locally.
Even when general strikes are widespread and effective, they are never pure or total. During the 1919 Seattle General Strike, laundries and milk stations stayed open to provide essential services, and firefighters stayed on the job. When the 1946 Oakland strike ended, retail clerks at Hastings and Kahn’s department stores in downtown Oakland did not see any of their demands met. But rather than accept defeat, they and other labor leaders elected four labor allies to Oakland’s five-member city council. Having shown their power in the streets, Oakland’s workers adopted a new tactic to finish the job.
The Occupy movement is nowhere near that point yet. A common refrain at Wednesday’s mobilization was that the occupations are still in their infancy. If the actions in New York, Oakland, and hundreds of other U.S. cities indeed represent the birth of a new social movement, the future is full of new possibilities. That being said, the onset of winter presents some unique challenges for the nascent gatherings, as does a mainstream media that may try to define the movement in terms of the looming federal election cycle.
A pamphlet available at the Occupy Oakland encampment’s central information tent claims that this fall’s occupations, in rejecting partisanism and embracing new technology and direct democracy, represent “a protest movement qualitatively different from any that has come before, a uniquely twenty-first century form.” The expansive potential of this message underscores the diversity of the movement’s participants, and the diversity of tools at their disposal. Like the labor movement before it, Occupy seeks to redefine political issues and actions on its own terms, even the idea of the general strike itself. Just like the occupations, the strikes and labor actions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries belong to a certain historical moment, and appeal specifically to those who lived through them. For a new generation, if the conversation has already changed, if the hard part is already over, the idea of Occupy may be far more powerful than occupation itself.