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The Working-Class Mini-Revolts of the Twenty-First Century

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Forty years ago I published a study of peak periods of American labor conflict – what I dubbed periods of “mass strike” — called Strike!  As I have updated the book for the fortieth anniversary edition, I have had the opportunity to review the strikes and labor struggles of the last fifteen years in the context of 140 years of American labor history.

The start of the twenty-first century has seen a continuing decline in union membership and strikes. But it has also seen the emergence of unpredicted mini-revolts. Activists in the Battle of Seattle took over downtown Seattle, put an end to the millennium round of the World Trade Organization, and redefined the question of globalization for millions of Americans. The 2006 immigrant-rights demonstrations, the largest ever in the world with nearly five million participants, brought millions of undocumented immigrants “out of the shadows” and made immigrant rights a pivot of American politics.

In the Wisconsin Uprising, the hundreds of thousands of participants occupied the state capital for a week, closed the Madison schools, and rang the tocsin for struggles nationwide against austerity and for labor rights. Occupy Wall Street and the occupations and revolts it inspired in 600 U.S. cities brought hundreds of thousands of Americans into nonviolent direct action, stimulated simultaneous demonstrations in more than a thousand cities in eighty-two countries, and put the inequality of wealth and power front and center in American political consciousness. The struggle over public education in Chicago showed the power of a unified movement of workers and allies, made a nationwide issue of the corporate attack on the public sector, and showed a way to fight back. The strikes of retail, fast food, and other low-wage workers represented the first tentative self-expression of a huge new sector of unorganized, low-paid, contingent workers and the projection of the growing social struggle over inequality into the workplace.

The scope and impact of these mini-revolts were rarely anticipated either by participants or by observers. They emerged from the previously unrecognized thoughts and feelings of millions of people. All were colored not just by immediate grievances but by concern about the future well-being and prospects for working people in general.

Each of the mini-revolts grew beyond expectation because of the interaction and mutual inspiration of different groups of participants. The realization that very different people had parallel thoughts and feelings and were prepared to act on them collectively led to the rapid escalation of revolt.

Each of these mini-revolts, whether or not successful in realizing immediate objectives, succeeded in transforming the understanding of the world and of the possibilities for action for millions of people. The Battle of Seattle transformed the understanding of globalization. The immigrant rights demonstrations brought millions of people out of the shadows into visibility. The Wisconsin Uprising revealed the mass opposition to dismantling worker rights and the public sector. Occupy Wall Street with its slogan “We are the 99%” put the inequality of wealth and power at the center of the American political conversation and crystallized a new class identity. The Chicago public education movement connected the dots between the needs of teachers as workers, the interests of parents and communities as consumers, and the role of government and business as shapers of social life. All made visible the pervasiveness of discontent and the possibility of collective action.

Beyond one-sided class war

The Battle of Seattle and the 2006 immigrant rights protests were relatively isolated events. But starting with the Wisconsin Uprising of 2011, the cascading manifestations of revolt began to manifest, on a smaller scale, the tendency to “run together and run alongside each other, get in each other’s way, overlap with each other” that Rosa Luxemburg found characteristic of the mass strike. They represent the transcendence of the one-sided class war of the past forty years.

These mini-revolts have involved many forms of action but only occasionally strikes, and even where strikes have occurred they are usually less the withdrawal of labor power from individual employers than a form of social protest. In the era of globalization and neoliberalism, strikes by particular groups of workers have turned out to be less and less successful at wresting gains from immediate employers. Instead, strikes have increasingly ended with contract concessions at best, if not the shutting down of workplaces or the hiring of permanent replacement workers. When employers can shut down their workplaces and produce elsewhere around the world, or receive government sanction for laying off an entire workforce, the power of the strike is greatly diminished.

The problems facing working people individually and collectively are also less amenable to solution by the action of individual employers. Even the best union contract can do little to rectify global recession, growing inequality, economic insecurity, the global race to the bottom, degradation of democracy, debt, war, ecological devastation, and deteriorating life prospects.

Meanwhile, the problems facing working people and society have only increased. Either people must acquiesce in those problems or develop new forms of action to contest them. The mini-revolts of the early twenty-first century represent a series of experiments in developing such new forms. Those forms sometimes include strikes as an aspect of larger movements, but they are likely to be one element of a wider withdrawal of acquiescence and consent manifested in various forms of direct action and disobedience to authority.

Notwithstanding these differences, the mini-revolts of the early twenty-first century shared central characteristics with the periods of mass strike whose stories I recounted in Strike!

These mini-revolts, like past mass strikes, involved challenge to authority. People went places and did things that those in authority did not want them to do. The Battle of Seattle protestors blocked downtown and halted the WTO. The 2006 immigrant rights demonstrations occupied public space with masses of people, many of whom were not even supposed to be in the country. The Occupy movement took over parks and other public spaces and refused to leave. Low-wage strikers, conversely, left the hot kitchens, stockrooms, and checkout counters where they were supposed to be to demonstrate and picket. These actions also challenged what those in power wanted to impose as the policies of the government and the thoughts of the people.

These mini-revolts also demonstrated the spreading solidarity that has been such a characteristic of past mass strikes. The immigrant rights demonstrations drew in unions, churches, students, legal immigrants, and the entire Latino community, as well as the legally undocumented immigrants themselves. In Wisconsin, public employees were supported by private sector workers, farmers, students, and a wide swath of the public. Occupy Wall Street initiated solidarity demonstrations on a global scale.

Finally, these mini-revolts have manifested self-organization and self-management on the part of their participants. These events did not happen because somebody gave orders for them to happen; they happened because people developed ways to collectively control their own activity. Seattle had its affinity groups; Occupy its General Assemblies. The anti-WTO protests, the Wisconsin Uprising, and Occupy Wall Street all improvised ways to provide food, shelter, medical care, sanitation, and other necessities.

Working-class revolts and a sustainable future

The future tendency of these mini-revolts is difficult to predict. But the conditions that gave rise to them seem unlikely to go away. So some kind of popular response to those conditions is likely to continue. Such response could lead primarily to chronic internecine conflict and demoralization. It could lead to something like the Tea Party, a pressure group within the political party system. It could conceivably lead to some kind of insurrectionary climax—a “Tahrir moment”—followed perhaps by repression and authoritarian rule.

Alternatively, these mini-revolts might develop into low-level but ongoing nonviolent insurgencies. Movements like the fight for public education in Chicago might establish growing power within institutions like schools, communities, and eventually workplaces. These insurgencies might win victories that would improve people’s lives long before they were able to challenge more central institutions of power. They might make successful appeals for the minds and hearts of the 99%. Like Occupy Wall Street, these insurgencies might link up horizontally around the country and around the world. Eventually they might undermine some of the pillars of support for inequality and domination.

Working people, along with the rest of humanity, are faced with a future that is unsustainable economically, socially, and environmentally. It will take more than a revolt to put that future on a sustainable basis. Ultimately it will take a transformation of human civilization. But when those in power perpetuate unsustainability, the world can only be put on a sustainable basis when people take control of their own activity and support each other to resist the authority of those in power. Whatever may happen in the future, the heritage of worker self-organization will therefore continue to be a resource that we can draw on to construct collective responses to the problems we face.

Jeremy Brecher is a co-founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability www.labor4sustainability.org. The revised, expanded, and updated edition of Strike!  http://secure.pmpress.org/index.php?l=product_detail&p=574will be published May 1, 2014.

Jeremy Brecher is an historian and co-founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability. A new, post-Paris edition of his Climate Insurgency: A Strategy for Survival was published by Routledge.

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