The Occupy movement captured the imagination of millions this past fall because of the determined, ongoing nature of the protest and the fact that it called out the biggest problem in society: corporate domination. Now, debates are taking place about how to best challenge the 1%.
May 1, International Workers’ Day, is approaching. This holiday, which originated in the U.S. but is celebrated more enthusiastically around the world, has the potential for big demonstrations this year. Since 2006, immigrant workers have reinvigorated May 1st protests across the country. Now, with the Occupy movement preparing for spring activity, there is a debate taking place about what type of actions should occur; many anti-capitalist activists are calling for a “general strike.”
Strikes are an important tool for working people and youth in our struggles against the 1%. When we collectively refuse to work and prevent work from taking place, we can shut down a business. This can be an effective tactic to win demands for better wages, benefits, and working conditions. Strikes can also be used to build the cohesion and organizations of working people and to make political demands such as full legalization and citizenship rights for all immigrants (May 1, 2006). A general strike shows the potential of working people to shut down society and build a new one. An indefinite general strike can pose the question of power: who controls the system — the billionaires or the workers?
Strikes, Consciousness, and Preparation
In order to rebuild the labor movement, we need to rediscover the strike tactic. Strikes are effective when they are solid — with close to 100% of the workforce withdrawing labor. A small minority of any given workforce staying home isn’t effective strike action. This means that a strike needs preparation. It also means that workers have to be ready to take the risk of not going to work. For many, this can mean the risk of losing a job or even possibly facing jail time. The labor movement will have to take chances and defy the law to achieve real change, but the mass of workers won’t go on strike for the sake of striking — there has to be something to win.
Many of the best activists in Occupy are trying to orient towards the working class and put forward tactics that can really challenge the 1%. That’s why this call for a May 1st general strike is creating a buzz among activists. Still, the movement shouldn’t put forward this tactic lightly; we need to advance slogans, demands, and actions designed to have the maximum impact.
By putting forward demands that relate to people’s day-to-day needs and tactics that seem plausible, we can win people over. We should put forward the need for strike action when we feel that it can get an echo. During the Wisconsin uprising last year, Socialist Alternative put forward the need for a one-day public sector general strike as a launching pad for a determined fight against Governor Walker’s anti-union legislation and budget cuts. This got a massive echo, but the struggle was derailed into inactivity and elections by the trade union leaders and Democrats.
To raise consciousness effectively and make an impact, we need to understand where people are at. At present, strikes on specific workplace and union issues are at record lows, so we can’t expect unionized workers to go out on strike just because Occupy asks them to. For non-union workers without job protection, the likelihood of a well-organized strike is even lower. Occupy, despite widespread initial sympathy, has limited roots in the workplaces.
When we can’t build strikes with near 100% participation and the possibility of community support, then the most conscious and angry workers can be isolated if they take premature action. To avoid isolation, we have to use tactics capable of gaining a wider echo.
On May 1st this year, we can best gather the fighting spirit of working people, raise consciousness, and build organizations by calling for mass demonstrations with clear working-class demands involving as many people as possible. These actions could involve student walkouts or even significant amounts of workers taking sick days.
Activists should be looking to build upon existing protests for May 1, which should see mass rallies around the country demanding living-wage jobs and immigrant rights, and protests against budget cuts and home foreclosures.
We need to understand that movements do not grow in a straight line upward. Instead, they always have ups and downs, victories and defeats. Sometimes, either due to exhaustion, complications in consciousness, or the rhythm of the struggle, there is nothing activists can do to spur people into action. There will be the temptation to make even more radical protests when movements are retreating, but this can be counter-productive by creating a rift between organizers and those who can potentially be mobilized.
An essential task is to develop demands that can engage the public and raise their political consciousness. Socialist Alternative uses the method of the Transitional Program, put forward by Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in the 1930s. The Transitional Program, based on the experience of the working-class movement, explains the need to connect demands that start from existing consciousness and point towards the problems of the capitalist system and the need for determined struggle to win real gains.
For example, our political leaders say there is no money for decent jobs and public services. We reject that. There’s plenty of wealth in this society, but it is used for the narrow interests of corporate profits. So, instead of limiting our demands to what might be ”reasonable” under this system, we need to demand what we need while exposing the failure of this system to provide it.
On May 1, we need to demand an end to all cuts, living-wage jobs, and free health care and education for all. We need to demand an end to foreclosures and the cancelation of student debt. We need full rights for all immigrants. These demands can mobilize people and point to the fact that capitalism isn’t providing a future. If this system can’t afford good jobs and services, then we can’t afford this system! Using this method, we strengthen the immediate struggles while pointing to the need to get rid of capitalism.
Socialist Alternative develops its strategies by learning the lessons of history and by firsthand experience in worldwide struggles through our political solidarity with the Committee for a Workers’ International, which is organizing for socialist change on every continent in over 40 countries. The fight against austerity across the world is rich with lessons that can be found on www.socialistworld.net.
The capitalist system cannot be overthrown by strikes alone. In Greece, dozens of general strikes have failed to stop austerity measures. This shows the need to develop a clear political program and a new mass party of working people that stands for democratic socialism. Our struggle cannot be successful unless we build a mass movement that can win the immediate battles and also is willing and able to challenge capitalism.
When May Day was established, the end of capitalism was the aim of the internationally coordinated struggle on that holiday. Join Socialist Alternative to build an organization that can effectively raise the consciousness of working people in day-to-day struggle while always pointing towards the necessary transformation of society.