PERFECT STORM: The general strike and the eclipse of unionism

A radical critique of the principles and outcomes of capitalism, its inefficiencies and instabilities, and its exploitative reliance on unequal distribution of wealth, needs no further contextualization; the current economic situation and its effects on working class people speaks for itself. The ground has been set for mass social upheaval. Our current economic catastrophe has all the elements of a perfect storm, bringing to surface the latent possibility for revolution. It seems that the student movement at the UC campuses is becoming cognizant of this potential.

Spreading the Rebellion: Student Agitation

The wave of occupations that spread across the UC campuses from this fall and the outpouring of support from students, workers, and faculty demonstrated an increasingly shared sense that mounting militancy to fight the budget cuts is required of us. So far, however, this emerging militant consciousness has failed to transcend the education sector. The U.S. working-class has gone so long without mass struggle that they lack the fruits that struggle produces: theory, organization, and confidence.

Student radicals and those versed in the history of working-class struggles can play a catalytic role in movement building by approaching the working-class with traditional forms of political propaganda (direct agitation).  Their agitation can start in spaces they’re already familiar with, such as their respective work places and school campuses, but should extend outward into the community at large.

Agitation should center on building class-consciousness generally, and building for a mass strike on March 4th specifically. It is clear that the conditions exist for every school and perhaps every public institution to form political committees composed of workers, students and teachers that attempt to organize their workplaces and schools for militant struggle and a general strike. Unions will pass watered down resolutions for March 4th, but rank-and-file militants — if such a thing exists at all — are perhaps the key link in motivating their coworkers to take political responsibility for the strike building process to reach its radical potential.  Paid staff organizers and/or the union more broadly cannot do this work for the rank-and-file.

Left groups commonly allege that the problems with unions can be traced back to flawed union leadership, conveniently ignoring how the political structure of unions have been vertically integrated into the state apparatus since the 1947 passing of the Taft-Hartley act. If the union model is to be salvaged, the rank-and-file, or at the very least, militant individuals within the rank-and-file must be able to think and act beyond legalistic unionism. With that said, budget cut “organizing” can mean many things, but the politics of such organizing should have a clear vision, avoiding both centrism and adventurism, in order to advance the struggle

The UC budget cuts and the economic crisis at large cannot be separated. Both are intertwined in this general crisis of capitalism. The young people who are rejected from California’s public higher education system due to budget cuts will find their reflection in the swelling ranks of the unemployed, high-school dropouts, and highly oppressed section of the working class. Class-consciousness transcends immediate self-interest; solidarity is not sympathy – it is unity in a common struggle. Students have a responsibility to spread news of their own rebellion, to encourage workers to rebel, and to help build the proletarian struggle wherever it erupts.

Building toward March 4th:

While a general strike may indeed be the most legitimate course of action to combat university privatization and neoliberal policies, I have some very real concerns about the actualization of this process.  My concerns are twofold; one stems from the very real fact that striking is illegal according to union contract. Moving beyond the general weaknesses of the contract’s terms and conditions,  which prohibits workers from striking within a given time period following the ratification of the contract agreement, my concern is that workers will view this said illegality as a concrete reason to distance themselves from strike activity.  My other concern which works in tandem with the first is that workers at the UC lack the sort of autonomy, self-organization, militancy and, more importantly, a collective class identity, all of which are necessary preconditions to successfully organize a general strike at the UC.

It is precisely because the union has systematically positioned itself as the sole legitimate voice of the working class at the UC that workers appear incapable (certainly not to their own fault) of separating themselves from the union apparatus for purposes of escalation or otherwise.  It is becoming increasingly clear is that the union’s hierarchal organizing structure inadvertently -or perhaps intentionally- takes power away from its members by denying them legitimate participation in union activity and movement building, and instead allocates responsibility to staff organizers who speak on behalf of workers. Indeed, the union structure denies workers equal participation in decision-making processes about the shape and trajectory of the labor movement.  Individual voices are channeled through representative union liaisons and therefore worker autonomy is essentially nullified.

Moving beyond the concrete problems of representation, it seems that the union has morphed into something that actually and perhaps intentionally deescalates and dilutes potentially radicalizing moments or radical behaviors.  The union functions like an extension of the state, effectively suppressing dissent and squashing radicalism as a means of control. This is not an issue of ill intent or willful betrayal on the part of union leaders: it is the consequence of a long-term trend in the eclipse of working-class resistance.  However, it cannot be excused and must be combated at every turn.

So what is to be done?

Recognizing the pathetic language of the contract, workers must declare the contract agreement illegitimate. As such, we must strike.  Recognizing the diversionary nature of the union structure as it exists now, workers must deny its role as the effective voice of the movement.  Workers must reclaim responsibility, determine their collective voice, and redefine class consciousness according to a shared identity. Workers must construct a counter-narrative to the dominant explanation of economic crisis, denaturalizing the accepted story of recession as explanation of injustices.  What we need is a re-articulation of the working-class identity.

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One Response to “PERFECT STORM: The general strike and the eclipse of unionism”

  1. PERFECT STORM: The general strike and the eclipse of unionism « Says:

    […] PERFECT STORM: The general strike and the eclipse of unionism By occupycalifornia from the gazuerdo collective: […]

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