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The Lessons of 2011: Transcending the Old, Fostering the New, and Settling Outstanding Accounts

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The militant working class struggles of 2011 – from the strikes and occupation in Wisconsin, to the countless demonstrations against Wall Street Banks,  the direct action and broad resistance to the Keystone Pipeline, to housing occupations throughout the country, to the defeat of regressive anti-Union legislation in Ohio, to the (inter)national explosion of the Occupy Movement – demonstrated the critical fact that the multi-national working class contained in the United States can stop the” shock doctrine”  measures being imposed upon it by transnational capital and the neo-liberal state.

The initial returns on these struggles are not insubstantial. Just two months into 2012, we have witnessed ILWU Local 21 coming to an agreement with transnational conglomerate EGT/Bunge in large part due to the impact of the Port Shut Down actions in Seattle, Portland, Oakland, and Los Angeles on December 12, 2011 and the threat of mass industrial action in Longview by the Occupy Movement allied with the Million Worker March Movement and militant rank and file members of the ILWU. Inspired by the Occupy Movement, the mass action in Oakland on November 2, 2001 and coast wide actions of December 12, Truck drivers inCaliforniaandWashingtonStatetook independent organizing and industrial action to win wage and safety concessions from employers and potential legislation inWashingtonStatethat that will enable the Truckers to unionize.  The victory in Longview halts the concerted drive to destroy the ILWU and further weaken organized labor and the pending Washington State legislation could potentially reverse decades of circumvention of the Wagner Act and provide an opening for sectors (and with it oppressed peoples) historically excluded from its protections.

None of this would be possible without the militant mass action of the multi-national working class, both unionized and non-unionized, acting in open defiance of the rules of engagement established between organized labor, capital, and the state in the 1930’s with the New Deal. As the power struggle between capital and the working class intensifies over whom and how the economic crisis will be resolved, the working class would do well to recall the lessons of 2011 and build on them. In addition to reaffirming the lesson that the working class must rely on militant mass action – that is strikes, occupations, blockades, general strikes and other forms of industrial action – as a primary means of exerting its own will and power, several other critical lessons we believe must be affirmed. These lessons include:

  1. That in order to halt and over turn the slide of the labor unions, the unions must wage struggle beyond the confines of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and/or the Wagner Act framework.
  2. That mass action will only be successful if it pulls in and engages broad sectors of the working class, particularly critical sectors of the 89% of the multi-national working class that is not unionized, and directly addresses their issues and demands.
  3. That new forms of working class organization must be constructed capable of organizing workers as a self-conscious class that encompasses and incorporates the broad diversity of its totality as differentiated by race, nationality, gender, sexuality, and legal status.
  4. That the multi-national working class must build, maintain, and exert its political independence from the Democrats (and Republicans), and not rely on electoral politics and processes (such as the recall efforts inWisconsinthat worked to negate mass action) to exercise its power, realize its demands, and build the society it envisions.
  5. That the struggle for equity and economic democracy necessitates struggling to reclaim and redefine as much public space as possible – particularly the Ports given their strategic importance to the distribution of the necessary goods that sustain life – in order to rebuild the “commons” and exert democratic control over various processes of social production and exchange.
  6. That the decolonization of the entity presently known as the United States national state is fundamental to the social and material liberation of the multi-national working class, particularly its subjected and colonized sectors, i.e. Indigenous Nations, New Afrikans (Black people), Xicanos, Puerto Ricans, and Native Hawaiians.

However, it should be noted that the struggles of 2011 and the lessons gleaned from them did not come out of nowhere. The resistance of 2011 was in large part a culmination of an escalating number of militant initiatives of resistance throughout the United Statesfollowing the financial and economic collapse of 2007 – 2008. These initiatives not only established critical precedence, but served as catalysts for the transformation of social consciousness that stimulated the resistance of 2011. Some of the most notable of these pre-2011 initiatives included the occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors Factory in Chicago, Illinois by UE (United Electrical Workers) Local 1110 in December 2008; the national Take Back the Land Movement housing occupation initiatives started in the fall of 2009 by the Land and Housing Action Group (LHAG) (which initially consisted of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Picture the Homeless, Survivors Village and Take Back the Land – Miami) of the US Human Rights Network (USHRN); and the Oscar Grant Justice Movement which commenced on December 31st, 2008 – January 1st, 2009 in Oakland, California following a national day of racist carnage against New Afrikans which saw the police execution of Adolph Grimes in New Orleans, Louisiana and the police shooting of Robbie Tolan in Bellaire, Texas. Of all the critical initiatives that occurred prior to 2011, the Oscar Grant Justice Movement was perhaps the most pre-figurative of the dominant feature of resistance in 2011: the Occupy Movement.

From its inception, leading elements in the Oscar Grant Justice Movement worked to establish a General Assembly as a model of collective decision making and social liberation and advanced the notion of organizing a General Strike to attain justice and transform social relations inOaklandand the Bay Area. The Oscar Grant Justice Movement also made critical links with organized labor, particularly ILWU Local 10, which conducted a demonstration and critical work shutdown of thePortofOaklandon October 23, 2010. Also from its inception the Oscar Grant Justice Movement confronted major repression from the Oakland Police Department, but gradually drew the attention of the Feds and massive monitoring and infiltration. What occurred in 2009 – 2010 was in effect a semi-national occupation ofOakland, which is a majorityThird Worldcity with a long and brutal history of police occupation and terrorism, particularly targeted at its New Afrikan population. As with the shooting of Scott Olsen on October 25, 2011 which prompted the call for a General Strike on November 2, 2011, the police repression of the Oscar Grant Justice Movement prompted several militant confrontations with the police. It was these militant confrontations that played a decisive role in the securing of a conviction (however slight) of Oscar Grant’s executioner, Johannes Mehserle. These experiences played a critical role in inspiring the militancy of 2011 and set the mold and tone of what is developing on the West Coast at present.

2012 can be a year of critical advances for the multi-national working class, but, only if it takes hold of these and other lessons about organizing to serve its own interests and in its own name. It must also take great pains to not repeat errors of the past and present, particularly the reactionary politics and polices of white settler unionism  that views itself as a partner with capital and a defender of the US national state; promotes the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous nations;  excludes New Afrikans, Xicanos, Asians, and other oppressed peoples; fosters  the super-exploitation of immigrant and imprisoned labor; devalues the labor and contributions of women; stigmatizes sexual and gender non-conformity; promotes economic growth over ecological sustainability; and partners with US imperialism (i.e. the strategic partnership between the US government and US based transnational corporations and financial institutions) to undermine radical unions, social movements, and national governments in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

The opportunity now exists to set a course of action that creates new forms of working class organization that can meet the challenges of imperialist globalization and relegate the limitations of settler unionism and the co-optive restrictions of the NLRB framework to the dustbin of history.  Occupy and the militant orientation of rank and file union resistance presents us with a vision and process to move forward. As we dream new dreams, struggle to decolonize theUnited Statesand fully emancipate the working class, let us press forward boldly to transform the world and ourselves.