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Bay Area General Strikes: 1930s and Now
For the upcoming Oakland General Strike this Nov. 2, 2011. This is a history of the General Strikes that happened around the country in the 1930s.
We all know that, in spite of the claims of politicians, wealth does not “trickle down” from the richest to the poorest. Even during boom times, when the rich might “create” a few jobs, we all end up getting paid less than we are worth – assuming we even get enough to survive. But as we are quickly learning, something big and ugly is “trickling down” to us: a multi-billion dollar “bail-out” of banks and corporations that lost their high-risk bets with our money.
Now that the latest speculative bubble has blown (remember the Savings & Loan scandal? The IMF-engineered debt default crisis? The dot-com bust?), we are once again hit with the bill, while politicians across the spectrum are trying to scare us into accepting this, otherwise “this sucker could go down.” 1
But the only sucker that’s going down is the latest model of capitalist accumulation – and if we don’t act together to stop it, the next model will be built upon the same hard working backs that are now getting stepped on by predatory lenders, executive con-men, and modern-day robber barons who lay low in their mansions while their cronies in government absolve them of their class war crimes.
We can’t wait for Mr. Obama! He has already joined the “trickle down” camp, back pedaling from his promise to reverse Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, as if that would somehow magically help everyone else.
No, we need to fight back the way people did in the 1930s, not by asking for a “New Deal”—which was barely effective compared to the military build-up that really ended the Great Depression—but by strikes, sit-ins and other direct actions to defend our livelihoods and our communities.
SF General Strike, 1934
For example, the Unemployed Councils of Detroit “practically stopped evictions.” According to Detroit resident Fred Vogel: “When there’s an eviction about to take place, the people notify the Unemployed Council and [they] go around and wait till the sheriff has gone and then move all the furniture back into the house. Then the landlord has to notify the authorities again, and the sheriff has to get a new warrant, and the result is that they usually never get around to evicting the people again. They’ve got the landlords so buffaloed that the other day a woman called up the Unemployed Council and asked whether she could put her tenants out yet. The Unemployed Council said no.”2 Groups like International Labor Defense gave free or low-cost legal defense for victims of eviction or mass arrest.
Strikes were also a common tactic that produced real gains: in the United States alone, during the 1930s, there were general strikes in five cities and towns—including San Francisco—and massive sit-down strikes in three others.3 These kinds of actions were a direct community defense against attacks by capitalists desperate to preserve a system that was, like today, imploding unto its own contradictions.
In the 1930s, even with people fighting for their very survival, the movement won social security, rights to workplace organization, and unemployment insurance. What can we win this time?
If the business press is any indication, it is clear that the current bail-outs are just the beginning of an offensive against poor and working people. Whose jobs are being saved with the money the banks have already received? The CEO’s and their drivers and butlers?
Just as Third World people were “structurally adjusted” into accepting lethal austerity measures after the World Bank schemes failed, our new regime will continue to try to make us pay for the failures of a take-the-money-and-run economy that they constructed. (If you need proof that it wasn’t just the Republicans, please refer to Clinton’s signing of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which de-regulated the finance industry). Inflation, higher taxes for fewer public services, and the elimination of social security and Medicare are all on their agenda. If the auto industry is bailed out, you can bet that deep cuts in autoworkers’ benefits will be a required condition. Foreclosures (16,000 in process in Oakland alone!)4, evictions (hundreds in Oakland last year)5, and high food prices are ways in which they are already squeezing us in order to save their world of funny-money.
And we can expect that, just as the working poor are being blamed for the sub-prime fiasco, the sordid American tradition of racism and nativism will be re-charged: they will try to get us to blame and compete with each other in order to distract us while they once again loot our future and our planet.
What can we do about it? If we want to survive this crisis, mutual aid will be crucial. Eviction/foreclosure defense networks, collective demands for affordable healthy food, and workplace organizing for a living wage will all be urgent tasks – and this must be done across the racial and cultural divides that impede our human solidarity and only help the rich exploit us more easily.
Many unemployed organizations in the 1930s were known for their interracial character—the Chicago group that participated in the nation-wide demonstrations of March 6, 1930 included “negroes and whites together rioting against the forces of law and order” that had come to repress the protest.6 The Baltimore People’s Unemployment League was known for “getting white men and women to work with and under Negro men and women.”7
This kind of activity is already happening in U.S. cities, including Boston, Philadelphia, and Cleveland (e.g. http://www.esop-cleveland.org). Here in the Bay Area, the Eviction Defense Collaborative (http://www.evictiondefense.org) and Just Cause Oakland (http://www.justcauseoakland.org) are potential starting points. While some organizations may overestimate the value of “taking it to City Hall”, this does not have to exclude efforts at creating grassroots networks of people who will respond in solidarity when their more vulnerable neighbors are in trouble.
What else can we do besides defending ourselves? If we want to do more than survive, if we want to take this crisis as the opportunity to re-create our world in a way that exploits no-one, we are going to have to establish this mutual aid society on a wider scale.
Through organizations like neighborhood and workers councils, we will have to demand representation and foster popular participation in a way most of us have never seen.
Are we up to the task, brothers and sisters? Can we see what needs to be done, organize, and do it?
If we’re prepared for the worst, if we give reign to our most intelligent and generous instincts and stand together against the coming ruling class attacks, we just may achieve the society for which many of us have only dared to dream.
1 George W. Bush on Thursday, September 25th 2008. Reported in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/26/business/26bailout.html
2 Edmund Wilson, “Detroit Motors” in The American Earthquake. Doubleday, NY, 1958. p229. See also the account of Mrs. Willye Jeffries in Studs Terkel’s Hard Times (New York, 1970), p456-462
3 The general strikes: Minneapolis, San Francisco and Toledo (1934); Pekin, Illinois (1936) and Terre Haute, Indiana (1935). The sit-down strikes were in Akron, Detroit and Flint (1937-38).
4 According to RealtyTrac, cited in Kamika Dunlap, “Oakland Fights for Funds to Address Foreclosures” Bay Area News Group, November 7, 2008.
5 Housing Needs Fact Sheet, justcauseoakland.org
6 from St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton’s Black Metropolis (New York, 1945), p.87. Quoted in Roy Rosenzweig, “Organizing the Unemployed: The Early Years of the Great Depression, 1929-1933” in Radical America, v. 10 no. 4 ((July-August 1976) , p42.
7 Rosenzweig, p53