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General Strikes

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I have an interview in the Denver-based publication Denverite, presumably in no way connected to our Bronco fan commenter, about this idea of general strikes. Again, I’m skeptical.

Erik Loomis is an assistant professor of history at the University of Rhode Island and his areas of study include the American labor movement.

The first thing he told me is that he’s pretty skeptical about Friday’s general strike, in large part because it’s directed by activists and radicals, not workers, and doesn’t seem connected to existing worker movements.

“They seem to be saying, ‘Let’s shut things down,’ because that’s what they want to do anyway,” he said.

Loomis wrote about the most famous American general strikes — in Seattle in 1919 and in Oakland in 1946 — for In These Times back in 2011 when Occupy Oakland was calling for a general strike. Both of those strikes were incredibly threatening to people in power and were crushed. The Oakland strike started with a strike by department store clerks for better wages and working conditions, and in December of that year, members of the typically more conservative American Federation of Labor joined them.

AFL workers from 142 unions around Oakland walked off their jobs — bus drivers, teamsters, sailors, machinists, cannery workers, railroad porters, waiters, waitresses, cooks. For over two days, Oakland shut down. Over 100,000 workers participated in the strike.

The strikers controlled Oakland. All businesses except for pharmacies and food markets shut down. Bars could stay open but could only serve beer and had to put their juke boxes outside and allow for their free use. Couples literally danced in the streets. Recently returned war veterans created squadrons to prepare for battle. Union leadership took a back seat to rank and file actions.

Loomis said the term “general strike” calls up radicalism, but the goals of the Oakland strike were not particularly extreme. They wanted the department stores to meet the demands of the striking clerks, and they also wanted to break the Republican political machine that controlled Oakland at the time, which had close ties to the department store owners.

On the other hand:

On Monday, thousands of people in Milwaukee held a “Day without Latinos, Immigrants and Refugees” rally to protest immigration crackdowns by Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr., an outspoken supporter of the president. People then called for a national “Day without Immigrants” shutdown on Thursday, with immigrants, regardless of legal status, staying home from work and school, not opening their businesses and not spending money in any way.

Dozens of prominent restaurants in Washington, D.C., plan to close. In Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Austin and other cities, workers have said they’ll stay home, and restaurant owners are closing their doors out of necessity but also solidarity for their largely immigrant workforce.

There’s not a lot of evidence online of immigrants in Denver planning to participate, and a few activists I spoke to hadn’t heard much either. But it’s also not the kind of thing that requires a Facebook group to organize. So we’ll just have to see what happens today.

Loomis said this protest — if a lot of people participate — would have more in common with a general strike than the events calling themselves general strikes.

Why?

“The workers themselves are leading it,” he said.

Immigrants as a group share common interests and common vulnerabilities, and working together to make the impact of their absence felt, they have collective power, Loomis said.

“It’s very organic,” he said. “It’s very real to those workers. They’re saying this is an expression of our power and our interest. It’s not a bunch of radicals telling people what to do.”

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  • Thom

    Austin today–I went by two popular local chains at lunchtime, both closed for lack of staff. One was clearly supportive, with a sign that said “no immigrants, no tacos.” The other (an Indian place) just said, not enough staff, we will be open tomorrow.

    • BobBobNewhartNewhartSpecial

      Austin today

      This is the problem though. Austin didn’t vote for Trump. I wonder if this had any impact in any red parts of the country.

      • Nang Mai

        What happened in Austin wasn’t huge but it was encouraging. Even the local news covered it and that’s saying a lot because those outlets don’t do protests or strikes in general. I even saw kids with signs at the local elementary school. It is early days for the resistance and so every little effort matters — baby steps to building solidarity and strengthening networks.

        Austin has experienced extreme gerrymandering. Our city was sliced into 6 pieces. I am hoping our ‘representatives’ will get the news that gerrymandering works both ways. As one of the fastest growing cities perhaps one day we will hit a tipping point and they may actually have to pay attention to constituents.

  • CrunchyFrog

    Denverite – the publication not the LGM commenter – is a frequent contributor to the Denver page on Streetsblog (http://denver.streetsblog.org/) – a progressive web site focused on urban and transit planning. When I first saw the two names I wondered, but no they aren’t connected and “Denverite” as a name is generic like “Chicagoan”.

  • Whirrlaway

    I was in a McD’s in industrial Medford OR where two of the junior staff were discussing the missing people. They didn’t understand it, but they noticed … something.

    … btw, it would seem the on-site managers are being more tolerant about this action than I would have expected.

  • Joe_JP

    any thoughts on the new Labor Secretary nominee?

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