Unity & Struggle holds seasonal meetings where we try to figure out ourselves and/or the world. In February, we looked back on “Striketober” in 2021 and at the ongoing Great Resignation.
We prepared by sharing news and reading commentaries from the Brooklyn Rail by Jason Smith and Marianne Garneau. Both threw cold water on the “strike wave” buzz, showing the upsurge in 2021 was still, by any measure, much smaller than the teacher strikes a few years prior.
Smith says capitalism’s secular decline continues to recompose the relationship between capital and labor, in ways that disintegrate unions and make strikes infrequent. He thinks we’re more likely to see class battles take other forms in workplaces and in the streets.
Garneau attributes strike declines to the unfavorable legal terrain and the business unions bought into it. To beat it, she says we should return to traditions of shopfloor militancy. Against Smith-style explanations, she says intentional organizing causes strike waves not objective conditions.
We appreciated both articles’ reality checks, but most of us still agreed that something is happening – the question is: what does it consist of? How widespread is it? And how can we participate in it as revolutionaries?
To understand what’s happening, we felt we had to look beyond work stoppages and what the “official” labor movement is doing. We looked at different types of activity: big strikes, yes, but also strike authorization votes that pressured bureaucrats, fights for union democratization, new unionization drives, rising resignations in different sectors, burnout from turnover and staffing shortages—even socially-organized theft at luxury malls and railyards. All these seem, potentially, like expressions of a general dissatisfaction over the terms of work.
At the same time, many of us were skeptical of insurrectionary arguments that people are refusing work in general. News coverage and our own experiences paint a more mixed picture. The Great Resignation is a cumulative trend, driven not just by people refusing shitty jobs and shit pay, but also people cashing out inflated real estate values to retire early, sitting on stimulus checks and looking for better options, moving up the career ladder, or leaving the job market to care for children. It’s not simply refusing work, more like a mass reshuffling: “the great churn.”
Then we asked: what is the content of the activity we’re seeing? What concerns or demands are people trying to address through these different modes of action? And what are their implications for struggle?
We surveyed coverage of strikes, recapped strikes we’d mobilized to, and did a go-round discussing the mood in our own workplaces. The U&S members in attendance worked as university staff, city parks workers, animators, baristas, or were unemployed. During the pandemic, we supported strikes by graduate student and warehouse workers, a walkout in a picture frame workshop, and bus drivers fighting for health and safety conditions.
Looking around we saw a mix of trends. In some places, workers feel they’re owed (“we risked our lives during the pandemic while the bosses got rich or worked remote, now we deserve something.”) In many of our workplaces, people are griping about the terms of reopening: issues like hazard pay, health and safety, speedup upon return, and opposition to vaccine mandates. We also see workers voicing concerns about inflation and standards of living.
In some unionized workplaces, workers are angry at unions that don’t serve them, fighting to overturn two-tier contracts and nepotistic bureaucrats. Those of us in unionized workplaces haven’t seen these types of fights—mostly our leaderships are happily focused on legislative action, and members relate to the union like a service while griping individually. Worker’s concerns don’t attain an autonomous expression, and in some cases flow into anti-vax conspiracy theories. One U&S member works in a non-unionized section of a campus where grad students struck. The strike itself was interesting—it challenged both the university administration and the union bureaucracy, forging alliances with students, and so on. But strikers didn’t connect with non-union staff, who watched skeptically from the sidelines and got angry at the pickets.
We’ve also seen a lot of anti-work sentiment in person and on Reddit, but it can be highly individualized, libertarian, or even conspiracy-fascistic. We’ve seen co-workers more inclined to quit quietly than discuss their grievances and fight. People may discuss grievances elsewhere with family or community (say, around the job board at the local bodega) where it might be possible to engage. And these atomized trends can create problems for capital in the aggregate: “cost-push” inflation and rising interest rates. But people tend to experience these things like bad weather, without collective organization to respond.
We hypothesized you could also see flashpoints in sectors where not everyone can quit, and those left behind are compelled to struggle. We flagged education, healthcare, transport/logistics, and low-wage gig work as sectors where the pressures of the moment are being felt most acutely and could blow. The education front interested many of us, considering the contradictions piling up there: burnout conditions, battles over CRT and mask mandates, and student walkouts against racism and patriarchy. But we also see reopenings used to pit parents against workers, with sympathy falling for teacher’s unions.
We also discussed worker identity, forms of organization, and analytical method.
Reflecting on the Floyd uprising, we generally agreed people didn’t participate “as” workers. But what did they participate “as”? A class antagonistic to white supremacy? Individuals moved by the same morals expressed in their day jobs working for nonprofits? We also asked: how might the uprising affect the way people see themselves in workplaces? There is a precedent for street rebellions mutating into workplace rebellions (Detroit 1967 -> The League of Revolutionary Black Workers) and anecdotal evidence suggests something similar could be happening now (like here, here, here). But we disagreed over whether it’s widespread.
We want to continue the conversation about how struggles circulate between production and reproduction today, amid an ongoing crisis of contracted social reproduction, and what this implies for how we should organize ourselves. What forms of organization will help struggles amplify and leap across these terrains? Are waged reproductive sectors like education and healthcare especially strategic, as some argue? Are formal unions “bargaining for the common good” enough to bridge workplace and community struggles, or is something else needed, like rank-and-file committees mixed with solidarity networks?
Finally, we felt a need to bring together the objective and subjective analyses represented by Smith and Garneau, respectively. Objective conditions aren’t causes—they don’t make anything happen automatically—but they do condition our struggles by posing specific kinds of challenges to us and enabling an array of responses. Similarly, intentional organizing is necessary to make strike/waves happen, but it can’t will away objective trends, and its methods aren’t valid for all time. While Garneau reps people we like, some of us thought she also fetishizes them (“just do what Stan Weir, Marty Glaberman, and the Wobs did and we’ll have a strike wave.”) There’s no simple way to “go back” to earlier methods since business unions and labor law exist now when they didn’t before: previous subjective activity has become an objective condition. Instead of saying “do what Stan did,” we should ask “what would Stan do, today, in these objective conditions?”