“If You Want a General Strike, Organize Your Co-Workers” Interview with Joe Burns

The following interview with Joe Burns, author of the important labor text Reviving The Strike, takes up the evergreen questions of the role of strikes and building a base within our workplaces. With the recent wave of teacher strikes these questions are back on the radar of the U.S. left but this interview from 2012 spoke to then-current discussions of how to move the left from fleeting activist mobilizations to building long term roots within the working class.

The “Build Power, Show Power” campaign, also referred to as “Occupy May 1st,” was an effort initiated by groups within the anarchist milieu, some later coalescing into what became Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation, which sought to channel the numbers and energy of those radicalized by the Occupy movement towards a May 1st, 2012, General Strike. Ultimately the political temperature and activity in the wake of the Occupy movement cooled and contracted into a “post-Occupy lull” rather than heating and the campaign culminated in anti-capitalist themed rallies in a number of cities instead of hoped for strikes. But the effort wasn’t without basis in 2012 given the widespread popularity of the general strike in the prior year – calls for a general strike electrified the wider left during the April 2011 Wisconsin uprising called for by members of the IWW and endorsed by local labor unions and the one-day general strike carried out in November 2011 by Occupy Oakland which resulted in shutting down the Port of Oakland and activists taking over the downtown core of the city.

With renewed discussions around the use of general strikes during the January 2019 federal government shutdown by the leader of the flight attendants union, Joe Burn’s advice that we need to be organizing at our workplaces and building rank-and-file organizations are just as relevant then as they are now.

-Adam Weaver

Many in the Occupy movement have called for a general strike on May 1st but most Occupy activists aren’t involved in labor organizations or organized in their workplaces. While General Assemblies may be somewhat effective institutions at reaching the agreement of assorted activists around future direct actions, workplace stoppages require the large scale participation of workers in decision-making structures. The interview below gives some organizing advice for those who have called the general strike. I hope that this interview will inspire Occupy activists to consider the difficult work ahead that is needed to build democracy in the workplace. We are the 99%!

-Camilo Viveiros, 2012

Camilo (CV): You’ve written this very important book Reviving the Strike that gives us a lot of insight about some of the challenges, but also the importance of strikes as a tactic. Thank you for your work promoting the increased use of the strike as a tool to use building working class power. In “Reviving the Strike” you argue that the labor movement must revive effective strikes based on the traditional tactics of labor— stopping production and workplace-based solidarity. As someone who sees the strike as a vital tactic to achieve economic justice I want to ask you a few questions.

Right now Occupy and other activists across the country have been agitating for a general strike on May 1st. Resolutions have been passed at General Assemblies around the country.

There are a lot of new activists that have joined the Occupy Movement, some never having had any organizing experience or labor organizing experience. Could you share some of the examples of creative ways that newer activists and established labor activists can think about this coming year, maybe toward next May 1st or toward the remote future of how people can embrace new creative strategies to organize toward strikes involving larger numbers of folks.

Joe Burns (JB): First of all, I think the fact that people are talking about this strike and the general strike is a good thing because it starts raising people’s consciousness about where our real source of power is in society, which is ultimately working people have the power to stop production because working people are the ones who produce things of value in society. On the other hand, if you look back through history about how strikes happened, how in particular general strikes happened, what you’ll find is that they’re organized in the workplace by organizers organizing their co-workers. And that’s really the key aspect here. If you look at how most general strikes in the United States have come about, it’s because there’s been strike activity in the local community, people have built bonds of solidarity. And then, let’s say one Local goes out on strike, they put out an appeal for other Locals to help them, and then eventually it breaks out beyond the bounds of the dispute between just them and their employer and becomes a generalized dispute between all the workers in the city and the employers in the city. So it really happens as part of a process of solidarity being built step by step.

It hasn’t really happened where people have put out a general call saying let’s strike, let’s do a general strike on this day.

One of the things that I focus on in my book, is the need to refocus on the strike. And to do that, that really takes workplace organizing in both union and non-union shops, where people go in and do the hard work of talking to their co-workers, forming an organization, and ultimately walking out together. I think it’s scary to do, to strike, to ask people in these isolated workplaces to strike all by themselves makes it very difficult.

CV: What do you think it would take to actually organize, to bring back the capacity to have a general strike in the United States?

JB: In order to have a general strike I think we need to have a workers’ movement that’s based in the workplace. If you look at, in the early 1970’s there’s a good book called Rebel Rank and File that a number of folks edited and it’s got articles. It’s really about how the generation of 60’s leftists, a lot of them went back into the workplaces and did organizing, and that in the early 70’s there were tons of Wildcat strikes which aren’t authorized by the union leadership. Some of them, like the Postal Strike of 1970 involved 200,000 postal workers striking against the federal government, in an illegal strike. But that didn’t happen just by itself, it happened because people went in to their workplaces and organized it. So, how are we going to get a general strike in this country? I think it’s going to be because we redevelop a labor movement or a broader workers’ movement that’s based on the strike. I think the efforts of Occupy for the class-based sort of thinking will help in that. Ultimately, though, I think we need at some point to devote our attention to the workplace, because the workplace is the site of where the strike and struggle need to generate from.

CV: During the takeover of the capital building in Wisconsin some folks speculated that what should have happened is that public sector workers who were under attack should have gone on strike. But in some ways public sector workers are even more restricted around strike guidelines than private sector workers and so they have less right to strike. What are your thoughts around public sector workers who are really bearing a large brunt of the attack on labor over the last year, and what would the challenges be to building the solidarity necessary to consider strikes of public sector workers?

JB: I think what you find studying labor history is that even though strikes were illegal up until 1970, Hawaii became the first state to authorize a legal strike, regardless of that workers struck by the hundreds of thousands, public sector workers in the 1960’s. And in fact the laws giving them the right to strike were done after the fact, and they were only passed because workers were striking anyway and legislatures decided to set up an orderly procedure to govern strikes. So what you find is hundreds of thousands of teachers striking throughout the 1960’s, and that’s really how public employees built their unions. And they did it in the face of injunctions, so a judge may order them back to work and start jailing leaders, but like in Washington state in a rural community all the teachers showed up together, everyone who was on strike, and told the judge to arrest them all. And the judge backed down because it didn’t look good.

So that’s really how we won our unions to begin with in the public sector, in the 1960’s, so when you fast forward to today and look at strikes in the public sector, when you look at Wisconsin in particular, clearly the Wisconsin teachers is what really kicked off the whole Wisconsin battle. They organized calling in sick, and two-thirds of Madison teachers didn’t show up to work and that’s what really kind of fueled the beginning of the takeover of the capitol, along with the grad students and so forth. So it was based on a strike. Some people wanted that to expand into a general strike, but that really wasn’t going to happen unless the people most involved which were the public employees, took the lead on that. And they chose, and made a strategic decision after four days to go back to work and fight by other means. I think that’s the strategy that they wanted to do and that made sense for them.

CV: With union density not at its peak what are the some of the opportunities for non-union organizations to use striking as a tactic? What are some of the lessons we can learn from the Wildcat strikes of the 70’s, and how can we have enough flexibility to try to go beyond the stranglehold that Labor law has on workers’ organizations right now?

JB: I think there’s been a lot of good movement in recent years to look at different forms of worker organization beyond the traditional unions. So you’ve had workers’ centers, you’ve had various alternative unions, the IWW and so forth, all looking at how do you organize particular groups of workers. The question that all of them eventually run into is, you can have your alternative form of organization but ultimately it’s a question of power, and do you have the power to improve workers’ lives. And to do that traditionally, that’s been at the workplace the ability to strike or otherwise financially harm an employer. So I think part of what moving forward we’ll see with the revival of the workers’ movement in this country is a lot of coming together of these different forms of organizations, embracing tactics such as the strike. And really some of them are the best situated to do it, because they don’t have the huge treasuries and buildings and conservative officials that you find in a lot of unions.

CV: So, what would your advice be to a non-union Occupy activist who maybe voted for a general strike during a general assembly, or who wants to see a general strike come to fruition at some point, what would your suggestions be for those activists that are out there who are seeing the need for this tactic to be embraced.

JB: I think go into your workplace. The strike and strike activity needs to be rooted in the workplaces, and if it’s based on people outside of the workplace calling on people to engage in strike activity, that’s not going to work. Not saying you need to just bury your head in some local place, you need to have a broader perspective and broader activism, but if you really want to see a general strike, go out and organize workers, your co-workers or however you want to do it to build forms of organization in the workplace.

This article was originally published at From Activism 2 Organizing.

Joe Burns is staff attorney and negotiator, with the Association of Flight Attendants/ Communications Workers of America and author of Reviving the Strike. http://www.revivingthestrike.org/

Camilo Viveiros has been an organizer for over 20 years with a focus on training, education, and strategy.

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