In at least four countries, there will be a general strike on November 14.
There are calls to turn it into a European general strike. What to make of
the idea, how to operate most fruitfully in connection to these and
similar initiatives, is the subject of this article.
November 14 will – at the very least – see strike action against austerity
in four European countries: Spain, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus. (1) There
is the potential of much, much more, and people from very diverse
backgrounds are working in the direction of en Europe-wide general strike
on that day. Does it make sense? How can we contribute in such ways that
N14 – as the date is beginning to be called – can become much more than
yet another mostly symbolic action such as we have been seeing many times
First, the situation itself. Trade union federations have called
nationwide one day general strikes for November 14 in the four countries I
mentioned. Apparently, union federations in France and Italy are
considering the idea as well. Let's be clear on the importance of this.
Union federations do not launch these kind of strikes because they want
serious resistance to austerity. Rather, they want these strikes as a show
of force to strengthen their own positiaon as mediators of the class
struggle, as managers of discontent. They want to show governments and
bosses: hey, there is a lot of discontent amongst workers. We will try to
hold it in check for you; it is our (rather well-paid) job. But you have
to give some concessions, you have to soften your stance on austeriry a
bit. Only that will enable us to play our role, ony then we can say to our
members: trust us, don't rock the boat, we will bring about some
improvements. To show governments that the trade union leaders have to be
taken into account, trade union leaders call their members to strike, as
if to say to govermnent: do you see all these angry workers? Do you feel
the disruption they cause, for just one day? Now, do you appreciate our
trouble to keep them quiet? Please help us doing so, by giving us
concessions to increase our credibility among these workers. Or would you
rather have these workers pushing us aside and fighting on their own
terms? Would you rather have strtikes without fixed duration, wildcat
strikes, all-out class confrontation?
These strikes, then, are entirely bureaucratic in their motivation, as far
as trade union functionaries are concerned. Workers, however, tend to see
them as opportunities to show their anger, and make their anger felt.
Rightly so! For radicals, that makes them relevant. The more a strike call
is supported, in as militant a fashion as possible, the stronger workers
will feel, the stronger ties of solidarity will be built.. In itself, this
does not stop governments or austerity policies. But it builds working
class strength and confidence needed for a serious struggle. Trade union
leaders use these kind of strikes to parade workers as their stage army.
Radical workers, anarchists among them, want to see the soldiers of that
army starting to fight on their own account, turning the stage army in an
independent force fighting from below. That is whay libertarian communists
should, in my view, take these strike calls seriously. Not because we
trust the trade unions, but on the contrary, because we doe not trust
them, and refuse to leave the struggle in their iron grip.
The general strikes on N14 will not, in themselves, stop austerity or
bring down governments. Even a one day European strike will not do that.
Greece has seen 20 general strikes of this type. Yet, the government did
neither fall nor budge because of that. One can say that, without the
discontente expressed through thesee strikes, the Greek goverment and the
EU bureaucrats would feel even more arrogantly confident to push on; in
that sense, the strikes may have acted as a brake. But it is clear that to
beat back austerity, a much more offensive approach – ongoing strikes,
occupations, street blockades, confrontation with the state – will be
needed (2). But the mobilizations around the strikes can be used as
stepping stones in that direction. The same applies to the European wide
strike action now being organized and discussed for N14. And yes, when you
are striking in Spain in the knowledge that workers in Greece, Portugal
and Cyprus (and Italy? And France? And... ?) are out on strike, it
probably raises your confidence, making you feel part of an even bigger
whole. So yes, by all means, let's support the European-wide general
strike – in our own independent fashion. It is not at all the magic trick
to end our problems. But we can use it as part of building our fight – and
spreading our ideas within the fight.
How? I have not very much to say here about the specifics of struggle in
Spain, Portugal, Cyprus and Greece. The general idea is clear: making the
strike as forceful as possible, challenging the top-down union
bureaucratic grip on events, connecting with ongoing struggles,
introducing direct-action dynamics within and around the strike and
connected demonstrations. For instance, the anti-austerity protest
organized in Londen last Saturday was by trade unions along familiar,
bureaucratic, blowing-off-steam-and-then-go-home lines. However, as
mentioned in "What October 20 tells us about the state of the movement",
on Libcom (3), Disabled People Against Cuts held a beautiful street
blockade with wheelchairs as part of the action which raised the
temperture and added to the pressure. Initiatives like these can make
mobilizations much more forceful than trade union organizers intend them
to be. Radicals in the countries where the strike is on will find their
There are, however countries where ther is no general strike call from
trade union circles in sight. The Netherlands is one of these countries.
Yes, ETUC, the European trade union federation, has made a call for "a day
of action and solidarity on 14 November, including strikes,
demonstrations, rallies and other actions." (4) Not quite a call for a
general strike, but a step in that direction. The purpose: "mobilising the
European trade union movement behind ETUV policies as set down in the
Social Compact for Europe". Whatever is in that document, people will
understand this call as a protest against the European-wide austerity
policies, at least in their current form. Just like national general
strike calls can be used to mobilize around in the direction of a more
radical approach, the ETUC call can be used to build in the direction of
European-wide strike action and more. This is what people, myself
included, are trying to do in the Netherlands.
It is important to do it right, however. There is the temptation to get
stuck on trade union territory, to just take the ETUC call, step to the
unions and demand that they organize strike action, imploring them,
pressurizing them, leaving it up to them. This is the approach that
Trotskyists use in Britain: demanding that the TUC organize a general
strike. Lenin's Tomb expresses the idea: "there is a basis for mass
industrial action to happen if only the trade unions are willing to
support it." (5) Ah, if only! They will solve the problem for us! And what
if they don't? Wait for better days and Sell the Paper? I think a much
more fruitful approach can and should be tried. The idea of e a general
strike on a European scale can be pushed by radical circles, whether
anarchists, Occupy-related networks, other formal or informal netwerks of
For the day itself, street actions can be planned, noisy pots-and-pans
protest marches ans assemblies like in Quebec last summer, blockades of
buildings where hated, austerity-related institutions are seated,
'ordinary' demonstrations, pickets at embassies of states where general
strikes are going forward. People might spontaneously get sick of
austerity on that 14th of November as well. Anything to express solidarity
with the struggle against austerity. Anyything to raise the anti-austerity
temperature. And all exoplicitly connected to the general strike idea for
N14. And who knows, there might just be an office department, a factory, a
company, where workers are already so fed up and confident that they might
come out on strike. There might even be a trade union branch or wing here
and there that is sensitive to the mood, and starts supporting the idea.
You never know how far you come unless you try. However, our approach
should not make itself depend on that unions will or will not do.
Independent initiative and organization from the bottom up, are essential.
Waiting for the unions would be catastrophic and, more importantly, it is
The idea has been tried before. On May Day this year, calls went out in
the US for a general strike. Occupy- and related initiatives spread the
call, and organized street protests on that day. No, it was not a general
strike. But is spread the idea of such a strike, and it was a step in that
direction. No, a combination of the actions that I mentioned for N14 will
very likely not amount to a full general strike, it may not even come
close. But it would spread the idea that strike action is needed and
should be built, it would be a step in the right direction. And maybe it
could become a dress rehearsal for something much bigger as well, on the
First May 2013...
 "Anti-Austerity Allies Coming Together for Cordinated European
Strikes", Common Dreams, 19 oktober 2012,
 The insights that Thrasybulus expresses in "General strike: Round 20",
on Libcom.org, are vital here.
 Phil, "What October 20 tells us about the state of the movement",
Libcom.org, 21 October.
 ETUC, "ETUC day of action and solidarity for a Social Compact for
Europe" , October 17
 "Mass protests against the cuts", Lenin's tomb, October 20.
For this article, the forum thread on Libcom, "European general strike? 14
November" , has been very useful.
Tuesday, October 30, 2012