Building a Mass Strike Wave: Alternatives for a New Immigrant Workers Movement

What Happened on May Day?

On May 1, 2006, the largest strike in US history took place, with over a million people on the streets in a powerful show of force.  The May Day strike represented a culmination of waves of marches across the country demanding full, immediate legalization for all undocumented immigrants, workers’ rights for all, and an end to detention and deportations.  These local and regional actions, which began in Chicago on March 10 when 250,000 people took to the streets, mobilized millions of immigrant rights activists.  The mass strike on May 1 represented a historic turning point for the immigrant rights movement, an opportunity to combine political and economic demands.

The mass strike was far more powerful than the earlier marches, as it closed down entire industries and impacted local economies. The Los Angeles port, garment industry, and taxi service to the airport were entirely shut down, as was much of agriculture in the surrounding region.  In Florida, construction and agriculture stood still almost statewide.   Much of the independent trucking industry and the entire meat-packing industry were idled because employers voluntarily recognized workers’ power and closed plants that would be crippled by the strike.  In addition, huge numbers of workers also struck outside of these regions and industries.  Out on the streets, workers proclaimed their new-found power.  Equally significant, undocumented people could walk through the streets without fear.  This is truly a powerful new workers’ movement, far beyond anything the labor unions have ever been able to accomplish in the United States.

Many inside the progressive community were skeptical about the strike.  In fact, some national immigrant rights organizations and unions who had strongly supported the earlier marches came out against the strike, saying that it would alienate Congress and result in a vicious backlash.  None of these doom and gloom predictions came true.  Instead, the strike led to a complete defeat of the Sensenbrenner Bill, which would have criminalized immigrants and activists who work in support of immigrant rights.  More importantly, public opinion about immigrants was transformed from hostility to supportive acknowledgment of their contributions.  The immigrant community itself was also changed by the strike, both in terms of the level of consciousness about their own power as well as their ability to make significant demands for equal rights and a better life.

Important and powerful, yet the strike was not perfect.  The major limitation of the May Day mass strike was its brevity.  It lasted only a single day.  Attempts to sustain the strike movement beyond a day were unsuccessful.  For example, some troqueros, the truckers at the Port of Los Angeles, made an attempt to hold a strike meeting on May Day and extend the strike at the port for five days.  Few attended that strike meeting and a follow-up meeting scheduled a few days later.  In addition, the vast majority of the people who took to the streets had not been politically active before May Day and have not become active in community or workplace organizations since then either.  Although May Day had an enormous impact on immigrant workers’ consciousness, the strike represented a sudden burst of energy that did not lead to organizational follow-through or to more actions.

A strategy to move beyond this initial strike and develop ever-growing levels of organization and action is needed in order to maintain the immigrant rights movement’s momentum. The movement must develop a way to prepare for a sustained mass strike movement that could last several years.  While it may sound daunting, it’s important to keep in mind how long other mass movements, like the Civil Rights Movement, took to win.  The immigrant rights movement can learn from the history of mass strikes in the United States and elsewhere, both from theories that have examined mass strike movements and from organizational models that arose from such movements.

What Is a Mass Strike Movement?

A mass strike is very different from a normal strike which is based in a specific workplace or an industry and involves a set number of workers.  In contrast, the mass strike involves workers from many different industries and has potential to be open-ended.  It can grow to encompass the entire population of a city, thus turning into a general strike.  When workers go out on a mass strike, they have the ability to make economic and political demands on whole industries and the government that go far beyond what can be achieved in a normal strike.  By unifying ever-growing numbers of workers, mass strikes can transform political power.

But it’s important to keep in mind that victories cannot be achieved from a single mass strike, or even a single powerful general strike.  These one-time events give participants a taste of the power they have to shut society down, but that is not enough.  Strikers also need to develop consciousness of their solidarity with other workers and their ability to affect state policy.  Only through a series of ongoing mass strikes that happen on local, regional, and national levels can workers develop consciousness about their strength and make increasingly radical demands on employers and the state.

Examining past mass strike movements can help illuminate how such a movement could be built today.  The closest parallels to the 2006 May Day strike were the railroad strike of 1877 and the eight-hour day movement that culminated in 1886.  These strikes were mass uprisings that were not bound by unions, but instead represented broad community-based movements that in 1877 came out in solidarity with striking railroad workers and in 1886 won the eight-hour day nation-wide.  These movements were not spontaneous — they were organized by leftist organizations — but the vast size of the community responses was unpredicted.  For example, during the national railroad strike in 1877, communities flocked to the railroad yards, destroying trains and burning down the warehouses in an outpouring of working-class rage.  These early mass strikes paved the way for the radical upsurge in the 1930s during the Great Depression.

Another Way of Organizing Workers

Mass strikes won’t take place spontaneously; they need to be built by organizations that can bring together a broad, working-class-wide force made up of immigrant and native-born workers.  This means developing a new type of organization that avoids the pitfalls that the labor movement and the left have been mired in for the last sixty years.  An unemployed workers movement that was developed during the Great Depression provides us today with an organizational model of how to combine political and economic power to make demands on both private employers and the state.  This national movement of unemployed, the Workers Alliance of America (WAA), united nearly one million unemployed and employed immigrant and native-born workers into a single organization.  The unemployed were viewed by the public as having no power or political resources, and yet they demanded and won food and cash assistance for the unemployed as well as sustained a public jobs program which developed vital infrastructure throughout the Great Depression.  In these programs, the government directly competed with and replaced the private sector in building vital infrastructure such as roads, schools, hospitals, and dams, as well as in garment production.  In contrast to the private employer and workplace focus of traditional labor unions, the WAA made demands on the state with a joint community-workplace movement.

The WAA’s organization structure was key to its achievements.  The movement began with neighborhood-based unemployed councils that grew into citywide, statewide, and regional unemployed organizations.  At the same time, the WAA also organized workers in the government jobs programs (Works Projects Administration or WPA) into unions that were set up at the local project level.  If workers lost or changed their jobs, they were still part of the same organization rooted in their communities.  In this way, the community and workplace actions merged together.

The WAA also played a major part in the development of the traditional trade union movement, which was undergoing major struggles of its own.  Like the WAA, the 1930s trade union movement adopted the notion that there should be connections between community and workplace.  A mass strike wave in the mid-1930s brought recognition for labor from employers and the state.  In a series of militant near-general strikes and then a final general strike in San Francisco that shut the entire city down, the labor movement exhibited its ability to mobilize workers who were not directly engaged in a particular workplace struggle to mass picket lines.

A perfect example of this was the Toledo Auto-Lite strike in 1934, which involved a group of largely Polish women working in an auto parts factory.   When an injunction was passed down for the workers to stop picketing, the union chose to obey the injunction.  The unemployed workers movement then took over the picket line, turning it into a mass struggle by mobilizing tens of thousands of residents to come out to the picket line.  Instead of trying to cross the picket line to get the strikers’ jobs, as many unemployed workers regularly do today, the organized unemployed joined the picketing because they had developed class consciousness and hence an understanding that their participation in a strike against a factory where they never worked or expected to work would make conditions better for the working class as a whole.  The Toledo strike grew until it effectively shut down the city in a near-general strike with tens of thousands of mass pickets and showed the power of the labor movement to broaden single strikes beyond the workplace to the whole community.

Mass strikes did not end with the end of the Great Depression.  Another wave of citywide general strikes took place throughout the Northeast immediately after World War II.  In these general strikes, entire communities would go out on strike, marching in massive pickets and shutting cities down until demands for more economic security, higher wages, and better working conditions were met.  This strike wave arose in response to an attempt by employers to push people back to starvation conditions that they had experienced during the Depression.  The general strikes built on each other’s momentum.  Inspired by the news of a general strike in towns like Lancaster, Pennsylvania, or Stamford, Connecticut, strikers in other towns took up the mass strike in order to win tremendous victories.

It is the political threat of the mass strike, the threat of an ever-growing unity of the working class, which elicits concessions from employers and governments in an attempt to stop the movement from getting bigger and the demands from becoming more militant.  This open-ended growth, bringing in new groups of workers, is the power of the mass strike.  At the same time, this process of striking together solidifies the unity of workers around their common interests.  This whole mass strike process was first described a century ago by the German revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg, in her pamphlet, The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions, a work still well worth reading.

Why the Immigrant Workers Movement Can Strike

The growing general strike wave of 1946 terrified bosses, and there was widespread concern in Congress about how to respond.  A decision was quickly made to outlaw militant strike tactics in the far-reaching Taft Hartley Act of 1947.  It became illegal for unionized workers to engage in mass picketing, hot-cargoing (i.e., workers refusing to touch goods from a struck workplace), political strikes (workers striking specifically over political, not workplace-based, demands), and general strikes.  Despite widespread agitation for a general strike to fight Taft-Hartley, the AFL and the CIO took no effective action to block the passage of the bill.

Taft-Hartley was sweeping, crippling the powerful labor movement of the era, and continuing to cripple the labor movement today.  But it is important to understand that Taft-Hartley only applies to unions, not to other forms of working-class activism.  Worker movements outside of the traditional labor movement can organize mass pickets and political and general strikes and also stop goods from moving from struck facilities.  Workers outside of the unions are protected both by the strength of the mass movement and the Constitutional right to free assembly.  In other words, the stranglehold that the union movement has been under for the last sixty years does not apply to the emerging immigrant workers movement.  Instead, the new movement is free to experiment with militant tactics that have worked in the past.  The immigrant rights movement has an opportunity to step in where the labor movement has been unable to tread and develop an ongoing strike strategy that could completely alter the political landscape as we know it today by uniting labor and progressive communities.  The destructive divides between African-American and immigrant communities as well as immigrant and native-born could be swept aside in a class-wide movement where we learn to stand in solidarity with each other.

What Did a Class-wide Movement Win?

The class-wide movement that developed in the 1930s won some significant demands, not just for the unemployed, but for the entire working class.  The way that the WAA formed a class alliance was by bringing together many different groups of workers to make demands for higher living standards directly upon the state.  Politically, the Workers Alliance was instrumental in the passage of unemployment compensation and Social Security, significant victories that remain the cornerstone of the welfare state.  Through local protests at relief offices building up to regional marches in state capitals and then mass marches in Washington, DC, the unemployed movement exerted tremendous pressure on Congress to allocate additional resources for the unemployed.  The WAA grew in strength until it mobilized enough community support to push unsympathetic candidates out of office and get sympathetic candidates elected.

In addition to these broader political demands, the Workers Alliance also called upon New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin to allocate more resources for government jobs and unemployment relief; when state legislatures balked, the WAA occupied the state capital buildings.  These dramatic occupations, which captured national press attention, were a culmination of the rigorous day-to-day community and workplace organizing the Workers Alliance did to protect relief programs and sustain the federal government jobs program all throughout the 1930s and into the early 1940s.

What Can We Win Today?

The mass marches of March, April, and May have led to a period in which the immigrant rights movement is searching for ways to continue and build the movement.  The emerging movement needs specific campaigns to win short-term victories and build class-wide unity on a local level while planning ongoing local and regional strikes, campaigns that can allow native-born and immigrant workers to come together in a series of actions organized over a period of several years, thereby increasing solidarity and developing a new consciousness that their interests are directly linked to each other.  Such campaigns must be worked out by the movement as it builds and grows and consolidates into an organization.  A class-wide movement, moreover, cannot be based just in immigrant communities or in the unions; it must be flexible enough to allow all sections of the working class to come together.

That said, what might such campaigns look like?  Here are some suggestions.

The first type of campaign that could help build class-wide unity and push the demands of the movement is to take on ICE — Immigration and Customs Enforcement — which has been the arm of state terror since 9/11, conducting SWAT raids throughout immigrant communities, and detaining and deporting tens of thousands of immigrants.  In New Jersey, where most of the New York City detainees are held in county jails, the New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee (NJCRDC) has been successful in taking on ICE by demanding that local immigration contracts be terminated.  A group of immigrants and native-born together held meetings, pickets, and protests over a four-year period, demanding the termination of the ICE contract at Passaic County Jail.  NJCRDC highlighted the human rights abuses that took place in Passaic County Jail, such as attack dogs being used against detainees, ongoing verbal and physical abuse by guards, and systematic refusal to provide appropriate medical care.  NJCRDC was finally successful in winning the termination of the ICE contract with Passaic County Jail in late 2005, after all the detainees signed a petition demanding the contract be terminated.  This locally based movement that mobilized together immigrant detainees, their families, local communities, and immigrant rights activists can be a model for shutting down detention centers throughout the nation.

Another local campaign that can win short-term demands, thereby invigorating the movement and developing class-wide ties, is the passing of local laws giving all immigrants the right to vote.  Several communities in Maryland have begun this process, which could easily turn into a national movement if similar legislations are introduced in progressive communities.  This could be an opportunity to educate the native-born about the need to expand political rights to non-citizen immigrants and the historical tradition of quickly integrating immigrants into the political process.

These two projects could help invigorate and build the immigrant rights movement, but they are not enough.  In addition to working for political rights, the movement must also integrate demands for workplace rights such as pay increases, better working conditions, pensions, and benefits.  The shutdown of the Los Angeles Port on May Day brought the plight of the troqueros to public attention, but the troqueros did not make specific demands for pay increases.  The same critique can be made of all the other industry shutdowns on May 1.  On a broad scale, the immigrant rights movement should begin discussions about integrating economic demands into local and national protests.  To unite immigrants with other workers, and provide both immigrants and native-born with good-paying jobs, we should develop a campaign on the local, state and national levels for a massive public works programs, with direct government employment, to rebuild the infrastructure of the nation.  This would be similar to the Works Projects Administration program in the 1930s.  These reconstruction programs could be financed by taxes on the wealthy and on corporations and by an end to all US military interventions and arms production.

The most glaring need for a reconstruction plan is in New Orleans.  Instead of distributing public funds to greedy private contractors who exploit immigrant and native-born workers, an alternative reconstruction program could demand government money to rebuild the infrastructure of the city and employ local workers.  Through direct government employment, a local and national immigrant workers movement in solidarity with native-born workers could set parameters for pay scales, working conditions, and the scope of the reconstruction process.  By building a movement in solidarity with the residents of New Orleans, a powerful class-wide force could put demands on the state to recognize immigrant workers’ contributions, provide a decent standard of living, and rebuild the infrastructure of the city around the needs of the community.

Building a Class-Wide Movement Today

There are two important goals in building the new immigrant workers’ movement today: the development of class consciousness in order to broaden the movement by bringing in other groups of workers; and the formation of class-wide organizations that mobilize mass strikes.

In order to build a mass strike movement, the new movement will need to build organizations that are broader than trade unions and more far-reaching than the existing workers centers.  Class-wide organizations like the WAA of the 30s, which encompass everyone in a given geographic region, provide the best structure to organize workers both in their communities and workplaces simultaneously.

Such organizations can be built through a series of mass meetings where people can begin to articulate demands that will improve peoples’ lives, not just defensive ones that seek to prevent them from getting worse.  In preparation for each major national mobilization, why not hold local rallies and mass meetings. which elect delegates to citywide mass meetings to be held at the end of a mass march, like those of May Day?  Such meetings should come directly out of the protests — this is a fundamental cornerstone to the movement developing democratically.  This is the only way that the movement can integrate the masses on the streets into the decision-making process.  In order to facilitate workplace organizing as well, these mass meetings could include a breakdown into industry groups where activists within industries who would not otherwise find each other could meet.  This process will allow mass meetings to formulate concrete next steps so that one-day actions can be continued and broadened into ongoing mass strike movements.

This strategy for movement building can develop an ever growing connection between local organizing, local marches, post-march political meetings, and mass strikes.  Hopefully, marches will embolden marchers, and meetings held immediately after the marches will reflect this sense of empowerment and enable participants to come up with new and creative demands.  Local campaigns could lead to the organization of communities and workplaces together around common goals.  Out of this integrated organizational structure can come an expanding movement that is capable of wining local victories and developing worker consciousness.

This mass strike movement will have the power to win the broad demands for legalization of all immigrants, full workplace rights, and an end to detention and deportation.  At the same time, it can even go beyond this, mobilizing native-born, beginning to win back what we have lost in the past generation, and providing our children with the security of well-paying jobs and strong social insurance, including comprehensive health insurance and solid pensions.  Above all, by developing a democratic workers organization that includes people from all different geographic areas and economic strata, we can begin to lay the basis for a new society where workers can make the decisions that affect their lives.

Jeannette Gabriel is a member of Workers Democracy Network and New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee.  The views expressed in this pamphlet are the author’s.