Letter to Wisconsin Workers: How to Start a Mass Strike
Letter to Wisconsin Workers: How to Start a Mass Strike
By Eric Lerner
New Jersey Immigrant and Workers Rights Coalition (for identification only)
America’s workers today face a historical crisis and a historical opportunity—a huge defeat or a momentous victory. On Sunday, March 13, two days after Gov. Walker signed his slave-labor law banning collective bargaining for public workers and one day after nearly 200,000 workers thronged Madison, the Madison Teachers Union ratified a two- year contract that surrendered 10 % or more of teachers pay, allowed the school board to punish those who participated in the strike against the law, and permitted the board to set any wage they chose for the support staff. In return, the union dues check-off was maintained. Across Wisconsin, there are reports that other public union officials are rushing to sign similar surrender contracts that preserve their dues base before the new law goes into effect on March 26.
If Wisconsin workers allow a wave of such surrender contracts, this will be a grave defeat for all American workers, worse than the PATCO strike of 30 years ago. If a mighty mass movement like that which has swept Wisconsin cannot prevent wage slashing, union-busting, the victimization of the lowest-paid workers and of the bravest activists, if workers in fact agree to such wage slashing and repression, then employers both public and private will draw the lesson that anything goes. Wage- slashing will sweep like a giant scythe through the US working class, in both public and private sectors.
The legacy of PATCO: Never Again!
In the wake of the PATCO defeat, when public workers—air traffic controllers –were fired and replaced for striking, union power was crippled. In the next three decades, real wages declined by 20 % a tsunami that left it its wake millions of lives and relationships shattered by economic insecurity, hopes withered as children faced bleak futures, hope-starved minds blasted by drugs and the most impoverished forced to chose between permanent unemployment and “jobs” killing other people’s children in the Middle East.
Today, with over 25 million out of work, wage slashing will go much faster—more likely the pace of the early 1930’s, when wages dropped by 20% in a few years.
Dead-end recall campaign
The recall campaign offered by the Democrats is no alternative and no answer to this crisis. No possible combination of recalls can change this law in the next year and half –plenty of time to victimize and fire every activist and organizer in the state. There is NO guarantee that Democrats would in fact change the law, whatever they promise today. In states where Democrats hold power, like California and New York, it is they who are pushing massive austerity and wage-slashing.
A real alternative: The Mass Strike
But there is an alternative, real as the 200,000 workers who massed on March 12. That is for everyone to STRIKE, NOW and for as long as it takes to defeat this whole law—the union busting, the cuts, the whole thing. A mass strike beginning in Wisconsin can not only shatter this law but begin a resurgence of workers’ power everywhere in the US, as the mass strikes in Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco did in the Depression year of 1934.
People are ready. Across Wisconsin workers are asking “When do we strike?”, “Where’s the Strike?” “why no strike call?”. The key question is how to start?
Fortunately, history gives answers because mass strikes that win are not new—workers have been fighting and winning mass strikes for a century: from Russia in 1905 to San Francisco in 1934 to France in 1968 to Egypt in 2011. Mass strikes do not start with a call from the union tops: they start with a spark—with a small group of people going on strike and calling others for help. In France in 1968, it started with students striking a suburban university, who then called on students at the Sorbonne to help. Three weeks later, 10 million French workers had seized their factories and workplaces. In Egypt this January, it started with small groups of students going to workers neighborhood and calling out for a demonstration against food prices. In weeks, a mass strike and street battles had forced Mubarak from office.
Why the mass strike produces results
The power of a mass strike to grip the rulers with fear is its power to spread. “Who will go out on strike next?”, they ask in alarm. “What will be shut down, what will be occupied next, what new layers of workers will go into action?” In a situation of mass mobilization like that in Wisconsin, with the whole working class threatened, it takes only one spark, one group going on strike.
A mass strike creates its own organization—one that spread across the whole class uniting union and non-union from all sectors. In France, students, workers and unemployed set up joint strike committees everywhere, in universities, in factories, in offices. Then the committees elected delegates to citywide committees. These democratic strike committees, which workers and students could start organizing in Wisconsin tomorrow, are another key to the strength of a mass strike. For the rulers are few and their power rests on us being divided. Nothing scares them more than organization spreading through the entire class. Not only that, these committees cannot be bought out or comprised like so many union leaders and so many politicians can be. The leaders cannot sell out because there are leaders everywhere—all are leaders.
Mass strikes terrify the rulers in another way—by continuously escalating the demands. Strikes that start out defending against assaults—as the French General Strike did, or the wave of revolution in the Middle East—soon change to offensive demands: increasing wages and decreasing hours, more rights, not fewer. Then the rulers worry—“what will they demand next?”
Winning in Wisconsin
So today in Wisconsin, why should we just demand the repeal of the slave-labor law and the rollback of the cuts? Why not demand to tax the rich to give back some of their stolen gains, what about expanding the public sector with a massive jobs program as in the ‘30’s ? What about protecting every workers’ rights by opening public jobs to all who live here, regardless of past records or immigration status? If Walker says No! then spread the strike further and escalate the demands another notch!
Such open-ended escalation is surely possible today. If the ball gets rolling in Wisconsin, a mass strike could spread nationwide on April 4 when the AFL-CIO and student groups, among others, have called for a day of action in schools and workplaces. As in earlier mass strikes, such as San Francisco, the formal call for a general strike comes well after many workers have already gone on strike, but helps to spread the strike when it does come. However, no one-day strike, even if national, can substitute for an open-ended mass strike because a one-day strike does not really threaten the rulers.
Spreading the strike is the response to the repression that inevitably is the rulers’ first response. Walker says he will fire worked who strike? Fine—for every firing, more workers go on strike. Can he run the schools and factories, the trucks and trains, by himself?
And because mass strikes respond to repression in this way, they can do things that can’t be done at other times, such as occupations of buildings, squares and factories. Occupations, like that of Tahrir Square in Cairo, or the mass occupation of factories in France of ’68 are typical of many mass strikes. The occupations serve as schools of revolution, as mass producers of new consciousness as people suddenly see themselves as creative partisans of a vast common struggle instead of the lonely competitors that capitalism casts them as.
And yes, mass strikes, whatever their origin, do fuel ideas of the revolutionary change of society—if we can shut things down, if everything depends on us, then why can’t we run things without them, the banksters and thieves who have robbed us for so long? In fact, it is this threat to the power of those who truly rule this country– the capitalists, the Kochs and the Gates, the directors of the giant corporations, that gang of billionaires– that almost always ends mass strikes in victories, in major concessions for workers. For the few will give up almost anything temporarily if their rule is at risk or people are even starting to think that it might be.
So to those who are waiting in Wisconsin for the General Strike call, history seems to have this advice: do it yourself! Strike for yourselves, strike for your children, strike for your fellow workers throughout the US and the world, but above all, strike now!