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Rick Smith Files | Interview with Erik Loomis: How General Strikes and Direct Action Build Solidarity

[Rick Smith]: Last night we had Susie Cagal on the program.  Turns out, she got arrested after she was on the program.  She tweeted earlier, “charged with misdemeanor ‘Present at Raid’, arraignment not for a month, seems like a scare tactic to make me stop reporting.” That might be what’s going on out there in Oakland. I still think it was a great thing that happened yesterday, the show of solidarity, the show of people getting out into the streets, a great thing. What have general strikes done over the history of our country, how many have we had? That’s why I’ve asked Erik Loomis, he’s an assistant professor of history at the University of Rhode Island. He’s written a great piece called, “Shutting it All Down: The Power of General Strikes in U.S. History,” we’ve got a link at the RickSmithShow.com, just click on professor Loomis’s name. Professor, thanks for taking time for me.

[Erik Loomis]: Oh, hey, I’m really glad to be here.

[Rick Smith]: I look at what happened yesterday in Oakland and, you know, I’m…the Right was saying it was a failure, I think it was a rousing success. When you have that many people out in the streets, you shut the port down…I think it’s a positive.

[Erik Loomis]: Yeah, well, it’s been a long time since you had an action like this, it’s hard to say where it’s going to lead but certainly it’s a really important step. A lot depends upon what comes next, but I think it’s changed the narrative of economic issues in this country and it’s clearly been a very positive thing.

[Rick Smith]: General strikes…not something that we think about here in the U.S. very often.  That’s something you generally think about in France or Belgium or somewhere in Europe because there I think they have a little different class consciousness than we have here in the U.S. But still, when you can get…I saw reports up to 20,000 people out in the streets, I think that’s a pretty good event.

[Erik Loomis]: Yeah, it’s an impressive achievement. The general strike is only very rarely used in American history.  There have only been three or four that have really gotten off the ground before this. So, you would have to say that this is one of the top five general strikes in American history…it’s a very difficult tactic.

I think you’re right that in Europe there’s a greater sense of class consciousness. And, of course, it’s harder in the United States because of legal restrictions against unions joining in sympathy strikes.

[Rick Smith]: You look back and you go…the Republicans are talking…and Rob Andrews’ statement during our opening…that the Republicans want to defund and get rid of portions of the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board], I’m sure they don’t want to get rid of the parts that restrict us from sympathy strikes and restrict us from doing certain actions. The fact is that the folks out in Oakland…many of the unions could have gotten in trouble for participating.

[Erik Loomis]: Absolutely. The key law here is the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947–the most insidious, anti-labor Act in American history that essentially made it very, very difficulty for the unions to operate in any kind of class solidarity. Among its specific provisions is making it illegal to engage in a sympathy strike, meaning going out on strike in support of another union, which is, of  course, what a general strike is.

[Rick Smith]: You know, there’s part of me, the labor history part of me…I guess you can romanticize the days when we had millions of people on strike and people fighting and saying “we’re not going to put up with this poor treatment anymore…going back to the days of “hey, let’s get into the streets and solve this.” OK, take the Labor Relations Board away, or like in Ohio, for instance, taking collective bargaining rights away.

What most people don’t understand about Ohio is that before they had collective bargaining rights, Ohio had the most strikes in the country of public workers.

[Erik Loomis]: Yeah, yeah. We’re entering a phase in American history where all of the protections that have been gained over the past century are being rolled back and because of that…because the middle class is going away and you’re seeing a rise in poverty and a rise in desperateness…people are going to revive the tactics that weren’t really necessary in the 50s, the 60s, and into the 70s when people were…when working class people were increasingly part of the American dream instead of being shut out from the American dream. Not surprisingly, old tactics are becoming much more relevant again.

[Rick Smith]: You know, yesterday was free speech day. Yesterday, I think it was in Seattle–or, in Spokane–they had 150 people arrested back in 1909 because of the free speech fights that were going on out there. It’s tied into all of this stuff and it’s amazing how, if you look back  to history, the same themes keep coming around. The same inequality, the same divisions being put in, the same–I go back to Jay Gould, “I could easily pay half the working class to kill the other half”–where’ you’ve got National Guard or police or militia against the workers and the people. It’s the same thing.

[Erik Loomis]: You hit a really important point there, that police are working class people too. They come from working class backgrounds for the most part, they’re not making that much money, and it’s always been an interesting challenge for labor movements to create solidarity with police because of the culture that is promoted among governments to use police against working class people. That division has always been there and it’s always been very difficult to overcome and you see it with some of the behavior that was happening in Oakland late last night with the violence against the protesters.

[Rick Smith]: Yeah, you know, when we were in Wisconsin back in February, I gotta be honest, there was a massive police presence.  But when you took the time and you talked to each one of those cops–and I talked to a bunch of them–they didn’t want things to go wrong. The people who were in charge of the police department said as long as nothing happens, we’re not doing anything crazy, and there was a good relationship there. I’m under the impression with Oakland being the…they seem to be the epicenter of this right now…they’ve had some problems over the years–the community and the police force–that is a bigger part of it as well.

[Erik Loomis]: I think that’s absolutely right. Oakland has always had a history, going back a long time of violent police and certainly that was one of the centers of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s where you had the assassination of Black Panther Leaders and police violence has been an issue, generally toward communities of color. The Occupy Oakland tends to be relatively white for various reasons, so it’s a different kind of constituency, a different group. But, that history is strong in Oakland.

The other thing you have in the Bay Area is a larger concentration of committed anarchists, which is a very small part of the Occupy Oakland group, but nonetheless those relations can be pretty strained, and tensions between those small groups of anarchists and the police can rise fairly quickly, which I think is a problem that they’re having to face now.

[Rick Smith]: Well, like I’ve said, in any of these large groups where you have, in that case 20,000 people, you’re going to get a couple of A-holes who are going to cause trouble and who are going to do dumb things that are going to grab the attention and heighten the alert level of the people who are supposed to be there doing their job.

[Erik Loomis]: I think that’s what’s happening and, of course, the other issue is…maybe some of the people causing the problem are anarchists, but maybe they are provocateurs as well, which is always a tactic that companies and police have used. Within labor movements it’s to infiltrate them with provocateurs to create violent situations so that they can then crack down. You’ve seen that in an action in Occupy DC a few weeks ago where you had a right-wing blogger choose to become an agent and then brag about it after he got pepper-sprayed invading one of the museums. These people could easily be right wingers who want to give this movement a bad name.

[Rick Smith]: Yep, because they think that they’re gonna be the next James O’Keefe or one of those people who [Andrew] Breitbart is going to make a star out of.

[Erik Loomis]: That’s exactly right. And the media feeds off this…yeah, that’s a big problem.

[Rick Smith]: What I love is…if you remember back during the Wisconsin thing, this guy Ian Murphy made the phony phone call to [Gov.] Scott Walker — how he got through, I don’t know — but, he brought that up. He said, “hey, we could send in some trouble-makers” — and when you have a sitting governor go, “well you know, we thought about that but we decided to do something else first.”

I’ve been taking the position that that’s what sparked that whole thing in Wisconsin. Those kids get labor history in that state. Very few states get that.

[Erik Loomis]: Certainly in Wisconsin as well as in California you have…one of the biggest general strikes in American history, that I wrote about in that article, was in Oakland in 1946, where you had the streets were absolutely occupied by workers for a couple of days. One of the other large general strikes in American history was in San Francisco in 1934. So, like in Wisconsin, it’s not surprising that you would have a center of resistance to the problems of our nation right now. In the Bay Area, these places have history and people remember that history.

[Rick Smith]: The great thing is that we’ve not changed the discussion and this is one of the things that I give the Occupation movement credit for. They’ve completely changed the discussion in this country. We are now actually talking about people being in the streets and being OK with it, and incoming inequality, and workers’ rights…a whole plethora of things–good government stuff.  The way I see it is the difference between them and the Tea Party, because people want to draw lines, is that the Tea Party wants to destroy things. These people [Occupy movement]  actually want to use…from what I’ve read…the legislative process to have good government.

[Erik Loomis]: Right.  Two things come to my mind. One is that people talk about violence, or whatever, in the Occupy movement, but it was Tea Party members who would bring guns to rallies. You don’t see guns at the Occupy rallies. These are peaceful people. You know, these are people who’ve just had enough.

The other thing is that Occupy, the Occupy movement — you’re absolutely right, they’ve completely changed how people are talking about these issues in this country. It really struck me as a history professor that you never know what’s going to cause change to happen. You never know what event is going to create massive change. I mean, you never would have guessed that four kids in 1960 siting down at a lunch counter that was segregated in Greensboro, NC would have sparked this enormous, student led part of the Civil Rights Movement.  But it did. Similarly, a couple of months ago when a few people started occupying Wall Street, who could have guessed that this would have changed the way people are talking about income inequality in Americas. But it has and it’s a huge success already.

[Rick Smith]: Yeah and in fact that lunch counter thing–this week in history–I mean, it was just the other day back in, I think it was 1960 that that happened, right?

[Erik Loomis]: Yeah, 1960, yeah.

[Rick Smith]: And it’s amazing how you tie these things into what’s going on…I’m struck by how, how…things…they pretty much stay the same, it’s just this constant cycle.

[Erik Loomis]: I think that we went through a period where…there was a time when the labor movement was less radical — and there are many reasons for that…one of them is that people’s incomes were growing. People were living a better life. People were able to send their children to college. People were able to buy a home. And that’s going away. And now we’re getting back into a period where you have more poverty and the problems that come with poverty.  And, you know, I’m really impressed by the level of fighting back that’s happened both in Wisconsin and in Ohio with the attempt to…almost certainly successful attempt to over turn SB5…in Oakland, New York, all over the country. It’s been a great night.

[Rick Smith]: Absolutely. You know, just what you said there, I think of George Meany who was the president of the AFL-CIO back during the 60s  and 70s and I remember him saying “it’s hard to get someone to go on strike when they’re making $10,000 a year, which back then was a lot of money. You know, they were a victim of their own success. They had done so well for their members that they were fat and happy, they weren’t willing to fight anymore. They got theirs. Now we’re moving to a period when all that being taken away.

[Erik Loomis]: Yeah, and you know, one of the lessons from that period when it seemed like everything was OK is that even in the 1950s and 60s, companies were not happy paying these kind of wages to workers. They were already looking for ways to undermine the labor victories of the 1930s and 40s — beginning to move plants to the South and then eventually to Mexico and overseas. So, even no matter how, no matter what the level of success is that unions will achieve in the past and in the future — I think you have to be on your guard constantly against the company’s always looking to increase profit by cutting wages. I think that people are realizing that again.

[Rick Smith]: As we move more toward Right to Work nation…if that’s the…if we vote for Mitt Romney, he’s already pledged it, “Right to Work Nation,” or any of the Snow White and the seven Dwarves…that’s where they want to take us. Scary times ahead.

Again, great piece, “Shutting it All Down: The Power of General Strikes in U.S. History,” we’ve got a link at the RickSmithShow.com. Just click on professor Loomis’s name, it will take you right there.

Professor, I appreciate the time, I’d love to have you back on.

[Erik Loomis]:  Thanks a lot, it was great to be here.

About Editor, Raging Chicken Press

Kevin Mahoney is the Founder and Editor Zero of Raging Chicken Press. When he's not rabble-rousing on Raging Chicken, he's teaching rhetoric and writing at Kutztown University. Contact: Website | Facebook | Twitter | More Posts

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