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"'Pistol Packin' Mama, Lay That Pistol Down', the number one hit, echoed off all the buildings."
October 27, 2011 11:02 AM   Subscribe

In December 1946, 100,000 union members participated in a 54-hour general strike that effectively shut down Oakland, California. Since November,425 non-union retail clerks at Kahn’s and Hastings department stores had been picketing for several weeks, attempting to organize as the Retail Clerks (Local 1265). On December 1, after Teamsters refused to deliver merchandise to the stores in solidarity, the Retail Merchants Association, sent in 12 trucks driven by non-union strikebreakers, supported by a 300-member police escort [PDF]. The next day, "the bus drivers," remembers Secretary of the Alameda County Central Labor Council Robert Ash, "told the police that the carmen had never crossed a picket line, and so long as that cop picket line was across the street, they were not going to take the streetcars or the buses through."

Two days later, on December 3, the Alameda County AFL Labor Council, representing 142 member unions, called its members to join in a solidarity strike that they termed a "work holiday." So cohesive and serious was the action that crossing a picket line required police protection. Virtually every aspect of commercial and public life, barring essential services, was halted by huge crowds. (These photos show a General Assembly called at Latham Square, about two blocks from Frank Ogawa Plaza, the current site of Occupy Oakland. Fearing violence and overthrow, national Teamster leadership, who called it "more like a revolution than an industrial dispute," demanded an end to the strike two days later. Through negotiations with the County Labor Council, the city agreed, Ash remembers, that they "would not in the future use cops to break strikes."

A short documentary includes original footage of the strike. This version of the archival footage includes alternate voiceovers from the California Federation of Teachers.

TheOccupy Oakland General Assembly has called for a new general strike. Recalling the last U.S. general strike, organized just blocks away, may offer some opportunity for reflection on the evolution of labor and organizing tactics over the past 60 years.
posted by liketitanic (92 comments total) 119 users marked this as a favorite

 
Flagged as fantastic post.
posted by desjardins at 11:05 AM on October 27, 2011 [9 favorites]




Just last night on the way home I was semi-fantasizing about OWS turning into a nationwide general strike. Come on people, you can do it. Just a tiny bit of non-effort and you can HAVE healthcare and all the rest.
posted by DU at 11:09 AM on October 27, 2011 [25 favorites]


Fascinating. I didn't realize that there were nation-wide economic problems after WWII, I only recall that it was heralded as the end to the Great Depression. But it makes sense that war-era spending can't continue post-war, without some new industry (or industries) to replace the war industry.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:17 AM on October 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


Bars were allowed to stay open, but they could serve only beer and had to put their juke boxes out on the sidewalk to play at full volume and no charge. 'Pistol Packin' Mama, Lay That Pistol Down', the number one hit, echoed off all the buildings.

That is awesome and I hope Occupy Oakland is going to do the same thing.
posted by enn at 11:18 AM on October 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


They just might be able to pull it off, after the police critically injured a former Marine during the OWS "cleansing" a couple of days ago.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:20 AM on October 27, 2011 [6 favorites]


Just last night on the way home I was semi-fantasizing about OWS turning into a nationwide general strike.

Not going to happen. What would the unions get out of it?
posted by empath at 11:21 AM on October 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


In case anyone missed it, Iraq War vet Scott Olsen was critically injured by the police during the crackdown.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:22 AM on October 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


civil disobedient, that's awful...

also, never fully trust reports that students are throwing rocks at the police, that was the typical lie in my student protest days!
posted by Tarumba at 11:23 AM on October 27, 2011


What would the unions get out of it?

Um.
posted by DU at 11:24 AM on October 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


oh, hey, also, you can listen to "Pistol Packin Mama."

Okay, done now.
posted by liketitanic at 11:26 AM on October 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


Not going to happen. What would the unions WORKERS get out of it?

FTFY.

And the answer is "A LOT".
posted by hal_c_on at 11:31 AM on October 27, 2011 [10 favorites]


Fascinating. I didn't realize that there were nation-wide economic problems after WWII, I only recall that it was heralded as the end to the Great Depression

There was, in fact, a short recession in 1948-49. And, of course, Harry Truman was notorious for sending in federal troops to end the railroad strike in 1946.
posted by briank at 11:36 AM on October 27, 2011 [2 favorites]




There is no such thing as a "former" Marine.
posted by absalom at 11:43 AM on October 27, 2011 [9 favorites]


There is no such thing as a "former" Marine.

Tell it to Wikipedia.
posted by gurple at 11:46 AM on October 27, 2011


civil disobedient, that's awful...

There is a silver lining. The OWS movement frequently gets described as a bunch of hippies by the right-wing media. A Marine is precisely the wrong person you want to fuck with if you want to keep this little lie going. Marines do not abide this sort of bullshit.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:46 AM on October 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


In regards to this becoming a nation-wide event, the energy in big cities doesn't seem to be carried forward into smaller communities. I work outside of this Occupy group, and there are a few cars that honk, but it's limited to a few tents and a guy with a drum. Well, today the drum guy isn't there, so now it's a camp-out on the lawn, and apparently there was a split in the handful of occupiers here. The big rallies/gatherings look seem a lot more impressive, but here they look like homeless people who have chosen to camp in public. (At least, that's how my co-workers complain about it - I don't know enough about the local group to try and define their goals.)

Not going to happen. What would the unions WORKERS get out of it?

hal_c_on: FTFY.

And the answer is "A LOT".


Oh, bother. I wanted an alot.

posted by filthy light thief at 11:48 AM on October 27, 2011


And the answer is "A LOT".

Tell me how you think this plays out. Have you worked in a union before? Dealt with union leadership?

Short of a complete collapse of civil society, we are not going to have a general strike in this country. Unions have too much to lose.
posted by empath at 11:49 AM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Please explain unions lose in a general strike.
posted by DU at 11:57 AM on October 27, 2011


Sounds like an excellent idea. If it happens, wow.

What's the position of the locals?
posted by Ironmouth at 11:57 AM on October 27, 2011


reading the first linked article, the unions seem to have totally let down the workers. so i can't imagine it would be any better today.

there is an Occupy group here in Harrisburg PA as well. it seems to be a few punk kids (literally punk, at least that's what they're attire looked like to me), and some older folks. some sort of hippie dude on a drum when i drove by. but yeah, it looks like a group of homeless people, unfortunately. and we have a lots of those here so i'm not sure if it looks different to anyone who doesn't know what's going on.

people who disagree with this sort of thing think that anyone getting hurt is getting what they deserve. sigh. yeah, it was totally hard to watch any video of the Oakland stuff, even the more sanitized version on the Maddow show, but still, all I could think was the way people cheered for the death of the uninsured guy at the Repub debate. are those people really going to be affected by the violence of cops, especially when they think those cops are right and would like to be out there busting heads themselves?

i'm not brave enough to be a protestor. if i had a job, i think i would strike in solidarity if there was a national strike. but i'd be afraid of police retaliation.
posted by sio42 at 11:59 AM on October 27, 2011


I do think they should have a local general strike, not a national one. Here's why: The localities are going to move against the Occupy people at various different times. The threat of a local general strike should be something that the localities are going to worry about. A single general strike shoots the wad right away. You won't get another bite at this apple.

The idea being that as you work up to the OWS people, you then call for the final, national general strike to deter action against the Wall Street people.

Creates build up, etc.

downsides, if one local general strike does not fly, you could lose momentum.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:00 PM on October 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


OK, I see from the Kos post that it is only a local one.

The thing that needs to be done is that the churches need to get involved--the African American ones.

That would be a shot across the bow.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:02 PM on October 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


Hey, whoah, what does this mean? (from the Occupy Oakland general strike proposal)

All banks and corporations should close down for the day or we will march on them.

What? "March on them"? They're calling for a general march, regardless, right? So what does it mean to "march on" businesses that stay open? That sounds pretty close to a threat of violence, to me.
posted by gurple at 12:03 PM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


DU: “Just last night on the way home I was semi-fantasizing about OWS turning into a nationwide general strike. Come on people, you can do it. Just a tiny bit of non-effort and you can HAVE healthcare and all the rest.”

empath: “Not going to happen. What would the unions get out of it?”

hal_c_on: “What would the WORKERS get out of it? And the answer is ‘A LOT’.”

That's not a very good answer to that question. Honestly, I think it's okay that people are protesting because of a sense of the overall injustice of the system, and I resent the cynical things I've heard from a lot of people who don't seem to have learned the lesson of the sixties: that people who want to change the world for the better need to be encouraged and supported, not mocked and resisted and put down.

But a general strike is different. Workers' rights matter a lot to me; but strikes where there are not very clearly defined demands tend to collapse into a malaise wherein it's very hard to get anyone to see the point of strikes any more. If you don't want to discourage future strikes – if you want to make it clear that the workers have power, are willing to use it, and will use it in the future to get what they want – you have to be careful to make clear, precise, exacting demands. For instance: demand a work week of a specific number of hours; or, demand a certain amount of pay.

Are there reasonable demands we could make in this case? I think so. Certain executives could be named as deserving of legal charges stemming from the collapse. Specific programs of health care could be insisted upon. But those things need to be specific.

The point of a strike is to make demands that are acceded to by virtue of the power of the workers. "Stop financial injustice!" is a perfectly good rallying cry, and moreover it probably should be the central goal of any reform of our society at this point. But it's not a demand that can be acceded to by any authority in hopes of ending a strike. To build justice, we'd need a series of general strikes aimed at various points in the system. And that can never be sustained if we make a broad demand no one group can ever accede to and thereby torpedo any chance of future strikes succeeding.
posted by koeselitz at 12:03 PM on October 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


There was, in fact, a short recession in 1948-49. And, of course, Harry Truman was notorious for sending in federal troops to end the railroad strike in 1946."

This was one of the excuses for driving women out of the workforce after WWII. Those jobs were supposed to go to men who would have to support families after they were discharged from the military, don't you know.
posted by QIbHom at 12:03 PM on October 27, 2011


The point of a strike is to make demands that are acceded to by virtue of the power of the workers.

Right. Strikes in the US are about contract disputes. The one in this post was about a contract dispute.

If somebody's paycheck isn't under direct threat you aren't going to see a single union strike, let alone a general strike. MAYBE a one day sick day or something like that at best.
posted by empath at 12:16 PM on October 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


I hope that they have a union or two already willing to show up. Otherwise, they are gonna look dumb and it will weaken the movement overall. If they have one union, they can get more. Just voting on it is dumb without hope of some support.

Do they already have some union support there?
posted by Ironmouth at 12:18 PM on October 27, 2011


Do they already have some union support there?

All the Occupies have some level of union support. But there's a vast difference between people showing up to protest and a strike.
posted by empath at 12:19 PM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Your target demographic for mobilization is the Lutherans. They are pretty much the "x" ring for middle America.

When we were doing human rights organizing, we knew we were winning when the Lutherans came on board.
posted by warbaby at 12:20 PM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


hal_c_on: "And the answer is "A LOT"."

Really? Because, to get anything out of a strike, the people going on strike will need to demand something specific.

I just don't see that happening with OWS. They're angry, but they're not making specific demands. Yeah, demands for "less corporate involvement" are nice and all, but it's not an action item.
posted by schmod at 12:22 PM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Please explain unions lose in a general strike.

Have you ever been on strike? I remember when my dad was on strike. I remember not having enough food to eat because my parents couldn't afford groceries when my dad was striking. When you're already living on the edge, going without a paycheck for any length of time is no fun. Union guys aren't college kids. They can't just fuck off downtown for a few weeks on a whim. They have mouths to feed at home, mortgages to pay.

There better be something concrete in play before any union is going to do more than offer some financial support and some bodies on days off. There was a lot more directly at stake in Wisconsin, and even they didn't call a general strike.
posted by empath at 12:22 PM on October 27, 2011 [8 favorites]


What do the unions have to gain from showing our political leaders they've still got the power to shut everything down if their rights and their political interests aren't taken as seriously as they should be? When those very same leaders in states all across the country seem to think they can break labor's back by legislating and nickel and diming them out of existence? Seriously? You even need to ask this?

There are actual human rights at stake here--natural rights acknowledged as such across the globe for centuries even by institutions as conservative as the Catholic Church. Rights that are fundamental to Democracy as its been known throughout most of human history. Remember the old quote? Well, they came for the Trade Unionists first for a reason, you know...
posted by saulgoodman at 12:23 PM on October 27, 2011 [6 favorites]


We as fellow occupiers of Oscar Grant Plaza propose that on Wednesday November 2, 2011, we liberate Oakland and shut down the 1%.

We propose a city wide general strike and we propose we invite all students to walk out of school. Instead of workers going to work and students going to school, the people will converge on downtown Oakland to shut down the city.

All banks and corporations should close down for the day or we will march on them.


Ugh, I cringe about the bank ones. My wife works for a bank. Some of bank branches downtown have been "marched on" here in Vancouver already, and basically it hurts no one except the salaried staff who now need to stay late to finish their work, or the paid-by-the-hour part timers who get sent home early when they close the branch. It's like "try head office guys, no one here except maybe the manager makes over $40k, and a lot of us aren't even full-time." Pretty sure why people in New York occupied WALL ST.
posted by Hoopo at 12:23 PM on October 27, 2011 [5 favorites]


What do the unions have to gain from showing our political leaders they've still got the power to shut everything down if their rights and their political interests aren't taken as seriously as they should be?

A) they don't have that power any more and B) the political leaders care more about canvassing and campaign donations. If they want to get their attention, they can just close their wallets.
posted by empath at 12:25 PM on October 27, 2011


And, that's the other problem. Shutting down city services doesn't hurt the 1% in the slightest. They might not even notice it.
posted by schmod at 12:26 PM on October 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


And, that's the other problem. Shutting down city services doesn't hurt the 1% in the slightest. They might not even notice it.


This isn't about getting the support of the 1%. Its getting the 99% to vote together on these key issues. That's where we have them.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:30 PM on October 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


We as fellow occupiers of Oscar Grant Plaza propose that on Wednesday November 2, 2011, we liberate Oakland and shut down the 1%.

We propose a city wide general strike and we propose we invite all students to walk out of school. Instead of workers going to work and students going to school, the people will converge on downtown Oakland to shut down the city.


How about you wait a week and do your "liberating" on Election Day, so at the very least, you can do something useful and vote.
posted by madajb at 12:32 PM on October 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


DU: “Please explain unions lose in a general strike.”

What could they lose? The confidence of working people everywhere and the ability to ever organize a general strike again.
posted by koeselitz at 12:32 PM on October 27, 2011


Its getting the 99% to vote together on these key issues

Shutting down the subways is a surefire way to do that!

Maybe you could egg their front porches, too?
posted by empath at 12:32 PM on October 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm amazed by the audacity of unions to be proud of the fact that they are so threatening to law-abiding citizens that want to work that police escorts are needed. That is not "cohesion" or being "serious", it's threatening violence against someone who has done nothing to harm the strikers.
posted by saeculorum at 12:33 PM on October 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm not saying that a general strike is necessarily the best idea in this case, but that attitude is literally anti-democratic, defeatist, and above all, politically stupid.

General strikes should always be an implicit threat, as long as mass layoffs are.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:34 PM on October 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm very much of the opinion that unions need to look out for workers by fighting more tangible battles. I don't object to a union supporting OWS, but a strike is kind of the biggest weapon unions have.

it's threatening violence against someone who has done nothing to harm the strikers.


crossing picket lines harms strikers.
posted by Hoopo at 12:39 PM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


There was a lot more directly at stake in Wisconsin, and even they didn't call a general strike.

Not true: there were several groups advocating for that, and I saw many, many signs and t-shirts in Madison, but it never got any traction. I believe the Madison school teachers had a few "sick days" but I don't remember any other action along those lines.
posted by desjardins at 12:40 PM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


saeculorum: “I'm amazed by the audacity of unions to be proud of the fact that they are so threatening to law-abiding citizens that want to work that police escorts are needed. That is not 'cohesion' or being 'serious', it's threatening violence against someone who has done nothing to harm the strikers.”

First of all, I don't think it's fair to say there was "threatening" going on. Second of all, this claim of yours becomes more than a little more complicated when you consider the fact that it was policemen – that is, a policeman's union, at least in part – doing the "threatening."
posted by koeselitz at 12:42 PM on October 27, 2011


If corporations have a legal and moral obligation to pursue profits for their owners by any means necessary, then labor unions have a legal and moral obligation to pursue economic and political power for their workers just as forcefully and vigorously.

That pursuit might inconvenience some of us occasionally, but whenever something inconveniences as a result of corporations ruthlessly pursuing their interests, we're always told that's just the way capitalism works, and it's nothing personal--just how business is done.

Well. Same deal with general strikes and other labor actions. Only for years now, only one side has been playing its necessary part.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:44 PM on October 27, 2011 [8 favorites]


~And, that's the other problem. Shutting down city services doesn't hurt the 1% in the slightest. They might not even notice it.

~This isn't about getting the support of the 1%. Its getting the 99% to vote together on these key issues. That's where we have them.


If you think shutting-down city services will somehow galvanize the 99% to support you, I suggest you seriously, seriously re-evaluate your thought process in regards to the motivations of the general public in the US.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:45 PM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


A general strike in this manner would violate the Taft-Hartley Act, if I'm not mistaken. I need to read up on that.
posted by mollymayhem at 12:46 PM on October 27, 2011


but this account tells us that "In a direct outgrowth of the strike, the new labor-supported “Oakland Voters League” ran a slate of five progressive candidates for City Council, four of whom won seats in the next election, finally breaking the business-centric conservative cabal."

I don't think I agree with the upbeat tone of this sentence. While four progressives did make it onto the council, the conservative, pro business model was back in full force just a few years later. We have them to thank for downtown being shut off from "ethnic" neighborhoods by freeways, among other things.

Fascinating. I didn't realize that there were nation-wide economic problems after WWII, I only recall that it was heralded as the end to the Great Depression. But it makes sense that war-era spending can't continue post-war, without some new industry (or industries) to replace the war industry.

Yes. Huge gains in union membership were made during WWII, and when it ended unions continued to aggressively recruit, rightly fearing erosion of worker's rights in the face of large numbers of potentially unemployed. I think the strike was possible in the first place because of the nature of Oakland, and the Bay Area's workforce at the time: as many or more employed in service jobs as well as manufacturing, IIRC. Rivalry with the CIO prompted the AFL to work to organize the female retail clerks at Kahn's. When the Republican party swept the national elections, union calls for solidarity became more urgent as well. Solidarity was therefore primed by: fears of another depression; the memory of the weakening of labor after WWI; fears of losses of workers' gains, large numbers of new, formerly marginalized members; and a sense among all union members that labor was going to have to fight together.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:48 PM on October 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


here they look like homeless people who have chosen to camp in public

In Vancouver, the city has complained that too much money is being spent on police coverage of the protest. A counter is that the protest is saving the city money by operating a free homeless shelter. Obviously permanent housing would be far better, but it is keeping some people out of the rain.

One thing the Art Gallery site provides that shelters do not is a chance to be heard by a large, sympathetic audience. I went to my first General Assembly last night. At one point, a man who was clearly rather disturbed began wandering right through the center of the assembly with a sign saying "your voices sound hollow to me." Amazingly, the meeting was not interrupted by this. One person took him aside to talk. It turned out that his immediate problem was hearing impairment, so a call went out for an ASL translator (sadly, no one was available). Out of the many challenges he was facing, this was one we could at least try to address.

I've very rarely seen a group that skilled at listening to people who have been marginalized.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:48 PM on October 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


See? When labor does what it has to do, we blame labor.

When corporations do what they have to do, we blame ourselves. And labor.

Still, not sure a general strike is called for but jeez what a bunch of wimps. Maybe democracy is too hard for you.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:48 PM on October 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm not saying that a general strike is necessarily the best idea in this case, but that attitude is literally anti-democratic, defeatist, and above all, politically stupid.

It's only a meaningful threat as long as they keep it in their pocket. If they call for one and nothing happens, it's a threat no longer.

That pursuit might inconvenience some of us occasionally, but whenever something inconveniences as a result of corporations ruthlessly pursuing their interests, we're always told that's just the way capitalism works, and it's nothing personal--just how business is done.

That pursuit harms union members directly, in the short term. It's a sacrifice they are often willing to make, but they aren't going to do it for some ill defined political purpose. People are only going to strike if there is an exit strategy. What is the end game for a general strike right now? What do you expect to get out of it? "Striking fear" into politicians isn't going to be a great explanation for your kid about why mommy and daddy are eating ramen every night.

posted by empath at 12:48 PM on October 27, 2011


If corporations have a legal and moral obligation to pursue profits for their owners by any means necessary, then labor unions have a legal and moral obligation to pursue economic and political power for their workers just as forcefully and vigorously.

That "if" is carrying a lot of weight, don't you think? Who here--or anywhere--would condone corporations threatening violence against people who oppose their political aims? It's not a good thing when people require police protection to carry out their lawful jobs (nor do I understand why it's any better if it's a policemans' union doing the threatening--I guess extralegal police violence is OK in some circumstances, eh?)
posted by dsfan at 12:50 PM on October 27, 2011


I'm addressing some of the more general attitudes above, like "strikes are impossible now," "my goodness! what thugs!" etc. Not specifically defending the calls for a general strike here.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:51 PM on October 27, 2011


Our ancestors were made of much sterner stuff, that's all I'm saying.

would condone corporations threatening violence against people who oppose their political aims

Are you kidding me? Do you not know what our troops have been doing in Nigeria for the last few decades? Or what authorities in the Republic of China did to their workers in the Mariana Islands? Or how many political dissidents "disappeared" during Chile's great economic miracle? Corporations have been using violence to control workers around the world, and they still do it to this day. Corporate thuggery, like all the manufacturing jobs, has just been outsourced.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:54 PM on October 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


Maybe democracy is too hard for you.

We should then perhaps pursue third party options for our representation, even if that pursuit may not succeed immediately. That might help effect long term social and economic changes as much as a general strike. Democracy is hard work, that way.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:54 PM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Okay, let's split into more factions instead. That's worked so well for us thus far.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:56 PM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Before we'll ever get the reforms needed to make a third-, fourth-, or Nth party possible without some form of regulatory capture gumming up the works and sabotaging the outcome, we'll need serious and meaningful financing and lobbying reform to restore the integrity of the current system.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:03 PM on October 27, 2011


we'll need serious and meaningful financing and lobbying reform

Perhaps one reason there exist populist movements is because the people who participate in them do not believe this reform will happen within the current arrangement.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:13 PM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Okay, let's split into more factions instead.

Mass movements need to rely on consensus, which means that you don't generally get radical action because most people are never going to be on board with that.

If you want radical action, you're going to deal with a hard core that is going to alienate the majority, and your only path to success that way is violence.
posted by empath at 1:17 PM on October 27, 2011


If corporations have a legal and moral obligation to pursue profits for their owners by any means necessary

They don't. Quit repeating this, because it's wrong. The board of directors of a publicly-held company could conceivably be sued by the shareholders for breach of fiduciary duty if they really bone something up, but this doesn't create a particularly strong legal obligation, and certainly not a moral one, of the sort that many people apparently believe. It is a choice that some companies put short-term profit uber alles, not a compulsion. There is a terrific mis-perception, which I think some businesspeople are happy to keep going, that "fiduciary duty" means acting like Gordon Gecko. It doesn't.

Also, courts in the U.S. have traditionally been very hostile to shareholder suits, so short of actual embezzlement there's very little that shareholders could even do if they think the company took an unprofitable direction.

And even further, in many states there are "corporate constituency" laws on the books (most passed since the 1980s) which specifically create duties to other constituencies besides just a financial one to maximize shareholder profits, in various situations. They vary, but even in the weakest forms undermine the idea of a corporate board being without discretion in profit-seeking.

There's a very interesting analysis of this, if you are interested, called Sacrificing Corporate Profits in the Public Interest(PDF), which disassembles the widely-believed "canonical account" that firms are required to profit-maximize, morality or the environment be damned. It's probably never been true and it's certainly not true in the prevailing legal environment in the U.S. today.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:18 PM on October 27, 2011 [15 favorites]


No, of course not, as long as the balance of real power remains what it is. Things have to reach the point where the public have as much power as they once had again to directly influence the political process by sheer numbers. That's why it's important to have some specific aims with these kinds of actions.

If you want radical action,

Striking and mass civil disobedience are not radical in a democracy, empath--even a democratic republic. That's what some folks don't seem to get. It's a necessary part of the system.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:21 PM on October 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


Who here--or anywhere--would condone corporations threatening violence against people who oppose their political aims? It's not a good thing when people require police protection to carry out their lawful jobs (nor do I understand why it's any better if it's a policemans' union doing the threatening--I guess extralegal police violence is OK in some circumstances, eh?)

I'm not sure why you're taking a specific example from the Oakland General Strike of 1946 to condemn strikes today. Not many people are beaten by mobs when they cross picket lines today in the US, just as not many strikers are beaten by employers' thugs as they were back then. American society was more violent in 1946 than it (generally) is today.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:21 PM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


They don't. Quit repeating this, because it's wrong.

I'm not repeating it, I'm quoting it, as it's a lie routinely used to hand wave away people's complaints about corporate practices.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:21 PM on October 27, 2011


I mean to say, I know it's not true. No one's humanity with all the moral and social obligations that entails stops at the front door to any office.

But it's the standard line you hear from the right, day after day.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:23 PM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


And also--many large corporations are currently exploiting and abusing actual human beings all over the world, regardless of what their true legal or ethical obligations may be, and the courts do often side with them against complainants, so it's a moot point.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:25 PM on October 27, 2011


If corporations have a legal and moral obligation to pursue profits for their owners by any means necessary

They don't. Quit repeating this, because it's wrong. The board of directors of a publicly-held company could conceivably be sued by the shareholders for breach of fiduciary duty if they really bone something up, but this doesn't create a particularly strong legal obligation, and certainly not a moral one, of the sort that many people apparently believe. It is a choice that some companies put short-term profit uber alles, not a compulsion. There is a terrific mis-perception, which I think some businesspeople are happy to keep going, that "fiduciary duty" means acting like Gordon Gecko. It doesn't.
Dodge v. Ford Motor Company, 204 Mich. 459, 170 N.W. 668. (Mich. 1919). Although it has never been overruled, the case did say that Ford had to distribute cash to shareholders instead of spending it charitably.

However, although the rule in Dodge has never been reversed, the prevailling holdings have whittled away this rule somewhat: Ivanhoe Partners v. Newmont
Mining
, 535 A.2d 1334, 1341-42 (Del. 1987) according to the Harvard Law paper, holds that a Board under some circumstances may consider impacts on other constituents in matters regarding illegality, and Paramount Communications v. Time, 571 A.2d 1140, 1153 (Del. 1990), holds that in merger discussions directors can consider impacts on non-shareholder constituencies.

The problem with that article is this. It's central premise on page 23-24 is flawed: "The result is that, under the business judgment rule, courts are extraordinarily willing to
sustain decisions that apparently sacrifice profits (at least in the short-run) on the ground that they may conceivably maximize profits (at least in the long-run). Because just about any decision to sacrifice profits has a conceivable link to long-term profits, a large degree of effective authority to sacrifice profits in the public interest is created." I think the idea that "just about any decision to sacrifice profits has a conceivable link to long-term profits" is not supported by the case law. You do have to basically make profits for your shareholders. You cannot for the hell of it throw these things away. It all boils down to what the court considers reasonable. Generally, this reasonability won't allow more than a few percentage points of lost profits--see A.P. Smith Mfg. Co. v. Barlow, 13 N.J. 145, 98 A.2d 581, 1953 N.J. 39 A.L.R.2d 1179, which held that Corporate gift-giving is an allowable method of increasing goodwill, but the gift should be less than 1% of capital and surplus and directed to an institution owning no more than 10% of the company stock.

This is why regulation is the key. You cannot expect a capitalist entity to do the right thing. You must enforce that with laws and litigation to support those laws. And you aren't going to get corporations to do much that isn't profit generating.

There is some case law counter to this, such as the famous Wrigley Field Lights case, Shlensky v. Wrigley, 95 Ill. App. 2d 173, 237 N.E.2d 776 (1968). However, that case did turn on whether or not in the end the Cub's profits would possibly be negatively affected by the installation of lights. The court said possibly no.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:51 PM on October 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


Striking and mass civil disobedience are not radical in a democracy, empath--even a democratic republic.

A general strike is radical. The evidence of this is how few times it has happened.
posted by empath at 2:33 PM on October 27, 2011


A wide and deep general strike is the only way things are going to change. Period.

We are way past the point of hoping that civil exchanges and incremental changes are going to stop the massive table-shifting that started 40 years ago. The tipping point has been passed, and the winning side simply has to do nothing for things to stay in their favor.

But we can't look to unions as the catalyst. They've been castrated (on purpose, and for this very reason). Sympathy strikes are legally dubious, anyway, unless you are a Teamster.

Until a huge swath of the American public is angrier than they are scared it ain't gonna change. I think that point is closer than it's been in a long time, but YMMV. It will be loud and it will be angry, but the day the public says with one voice WE ARE SHUTTING THIS WHOLE MOTHERFUCKER DOWN, it will be short - and things will change.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 2:51 PM on October 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


I think the idea that "just about any decision to sacrifice profits has a conceivable link to long-term profits" is not supported by the case law.

What has conceivable links to what is not a matter of law. It's not a matter of law that donating to charity can be conceived of as part of the marketing budget, for instance.

I mean, it may well be that there are other regulations that are in play here, or indeed other things that do come down to case law, but conceivable links? Surely those go beyond law.
posted by kenko at 3:02 PM on October 27, 2011


Union guys aren't college kids.

What about union women?
posted by spitbull at 4:14 PM on October 27, 2011


Back in college -- this was the early 90s -- I was part of a group called CISLA: Committee In Solidarity With Latin America. This was back when the Left still gave two shits about the fucked up the lives of the people down south, mind you.

So we have this meeting to discuss how we can call attention to the plight of this or that group of campesinos working in coffee fields. And one of the co-conveners seriously suggests that we get a large group of people to go to the local Waffle House; everyone orders coffee; then, in unison, we all knock over our coffee, making a huge mess and shouting some kind of slogan and then marching out. Without paying.

This was the big plan: make a huge fucking mess for people in a small town, making less than minimum wage, to clean up -- no tip, and an already small tab. But by god, it would have been a statement! And we were speaking truth to power! Yeah! Damn the Man!

Thankfully, the idea never came to fruition and I believe we had some kind of vegetarian chili cook-off to raise money.

This call for a general strike is precisely the same damn thing, writ large.
posted by gsh at 4:16 PM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


General Strike!
posted by The Whelk at 4:35 PM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


What about union women?

Them too.
posted by Hoopo at 5:09 PM on October 27, 2011


And the answer is "A LOT".

Tell me how you think this plays out. Have you worked in a union before? Dealt with union leadership?

Short of a complete collapse of civil society, we are not going to have a general strike in this country. Unions have too much to lose.
posted by empath at 11:49 AM on October 27 [1 favorite +] [!]


Sure. Please look up recent general strikes...you don't see many of them in the states, but you will find a lot that shut down various european cities. Bakers not getting fair wages...NOBODY works, the trains even shut down. Soon enough, bakers end up getting fair wages. In the US, we just don't have a culture of supporting other workers. We all have this republican mentality about "I gots mine...fuck them". I will take shots at France every chance I get...but god damn it, us workers can learn a LOT from a country whose motto of "fraternité" is taken seriously. All we have is some shitty pursuit of happiness.

But this isn't how it always is.

Oh, you want my creds:

I joined a UFCW local at 16 when I got my first job working for Jewel.

I have a BS in Labor Studies.
I've done various courses at the AFL-CIO in DC.
I have organized for Teamsters, UNITE-HERE in (DC, Chi, SoCal).
Those are my academic labor chops.

My last job in the states was as a SHRM certified (SENIOR PHR) HR Director in LA. I caught several execs saving on "costs" by shaving hours off non-english speaking employee timecards on ADP (yeah...I had no idea anyone would be so brazen in this day and age).

Being in HR, I was not able to actively organize as it would create a conflict of interest, and possibly a "company union". My JOB was supposed to look out for the company, but I could not do that and still sleep at night. I learned *some* law and learned how I could work within the confines of my job.

I was promptly fired after someone ratted me out for a $0.50/hour raise. I went ballistic and launched an organizing campaign. 30 workers got fired. We went to the NLRB and I also became head plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against the company.

Then they paid local triads to take me out for $30K. Lucky for me, triads who I had hired (everyone should get a second chance) for the warehouse really liked me and told me about it even though they were not willing to go to the cops (I don't blame them).

Lawsuit was settled with these results:

1. All 30 employees rehired with full backpay and retention of all benefits.
2. 6 figure settlement for employees...which ended up being 5 figures for each member of the class action (SoCal Mexicans KNOW how to party during the holidays with an extra 5 figures lining their pockets).
3. I was to not contest my illegal termination...for an additional 100K added to the class action, and a years salary for me.
4. Unofficially...I was told that the $30K was a business decision...and there would be no reason for the company to pursue it after the settlement. So yeah...that factored in as well.
5. We drop NLRB complaints and they allow for a redo of union elections after the 30 workers were reinstated.

It took a while for a judge to sign off on it, but it finally was settled.

The COOLEST thing about this whole process was that the Teamsters found out about this campaign...and they considered it a "picket line"(seriously though, it was a sad looking picket line). They stopped taking deliveries from this company and it completely obliterated their business model which was based on discounted ground shipping rates from UPS. It was because of a DIFFERENT industry/company's workers who were willing to support our fight that helped us win. I will never forget that. I have absolutely NOTHING in common with Teamsters...but we considered them our brothers in arms. 26 year old white dudes were willing to risk their jobs so that 48 year old 1st generation immigrant mexican women would not be taken advantage of by their employer.

Holy shit. I have NEVER seen that kind of solidarity anywhere in my life. Before then, or since then. I didn't even know it could exist. I mean what the fuck do a bunch of 26 year old dudes named tom smith who drive trucks have to gain by risking their job to support the stance of a middle aged esmeralda sanchez who cannot even speak to them? holy fucking shit...a class war?

Also, a few months later, I found out that the big boss who actually dealt with the triad asked for a "refund" and was told that if he ever approached them again, he would be be their next target. I have no idea if someone there liked me, but I'm kinda guessing USC MBAs typically get that kind of treatment when asking organized criminals for a $30K refund.

After UPS broke their contract by not picking up their deliveries from them, they looked elsewhere for shipping. The company now ships exclusively through FedEx (read: NON-UNION)...which sucks.

And yes...this is why I support general strikes. We didn't have a general strike...we just had some sympathizers...and that broke the back of my former dirty employers.

Just imagine what a general strike based on the idea of class brotherhood could do in America.
posted by hal_c_on at 5:34 PM on October 27, 2011 [39 favorites]


What could they lose? The confidence of working people everywhere and the ability to ever organize a general strike again.

You do realize what a general strike is, right? It means EVERYBODY stops working.

That means that you can't go to someone else for cheaper labor unless you are willing to leave the area you are in...you have to negotiate with your workers.

You claim that unions could lose:

1. confidence of workers everywhere
2. ability to ever do it again

Well 1. is already done. Regardless of why you think it is the way it is, unions aren't very powerful in the states anymore...

2. I don't understand this. So you are saying people should not engage in a general strike because they could lose the ability to do it if they engage in it.


That's like saying "I don't play outside because if I play outside I may get too injured to play outside ever again. So I just don't play outside." Makes no sense.
posted by hal_c_on at 5:41 PM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


How about you wait a week and do your "liberating" on Election Day, so at the very least, you can do something useful and vote.

I love this idea. How many people are thought to not vote because they can't make it to a polling place, and what would that demographic be? I don't know if encouraging 'get out the vote' really matches the OWS aims though, it seems to have a strain of 'they're all the same'.
posted by jacalata at 5:45 PM on October 27, 2011


I have been wondering about the counter intuitive lately. I should support crazy corporate agendas, I should help erode personal rights and I should be a cheer leader for any move that marginalizes and disenfranchises more and more people. I should actually party all the way to a collapse of civil society. It's not that much different to what many people are already doing, but I'm sure I could do it better.

I think this just as I intuit that perhaps change will start to emerge in unexpected places, and when good things start to happen there is no point opposing it just because of where it's coming from. There are probably a lot of smart people with lots of money who don't want a collapse of civil society.

I don't know what striking does in this day and age, but I know what eroding the working conditions and pay of a worker does. It drives despair and I'm all for that kind of thing.
posted by vicx at 6:27 PM on October 27, 2011


Awesome story, hal_c_on, but for a second I did think you had hired triads to kill your employer in retaliation.
posted by snofoam at 7:36 PM on October 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hal_c_on. You were striking for a specific reason that had to do with work rights at your specific company. That's a far cry from a broad based strike for ill defined political reasons.
posted by empath at 7:41 PM on October 27, 2011


hal_c_on, that story is fucking awesome and it's flagged as fantastic. But for me, while I agree with the idea of general strikes I still don't get OWS or what specifically a general strike would accomplish in solidarity with them. OWS seems a bit esoteric for a general strike.
posted by Hoopo at 9:30 PM on October 27, 2011


Hoopo, i agree. I dont think a general strike would really do anything for ows.

But if general strikes werent so unpopular in the US, we would not have had a reason to do ows.

Empath, yes, i agree.
posted by hal_c_on at 10:25 PM on October 27, 2011


we are not going to have a general strike in this country. Unions have too much to lose.

Since many unions have reached cozy "accommodations" with employers in recent decades - and become part of the problem - it's high time to them to re-evaluate their positions.

They have a LOT to lose if they choose poorly. Unions can be replaced VERY quickly.
posted by Twang at 8:38 AM on October 28, 2011


we are not going to have a general strike in this country. Unions have too much to lose.

Since many unions have reached cozy "accommodations" with employers in recent decades - and become part of the problem - it's high time to them to re-evaluate their positions.

They have a LOT to lose if they choose poorly. Unions can be replaced VERY quickly.</em

no. they cannot.

This is one area where I know the law like the back of my hand. A union election results in the recognition of that bargaining unit being recognized for 3 years. Its called the contract bar.

Otherwise, you have to do a decertification election. Very hard to win that one. Having represented unions before the NLRB and FLRA, a decert election is hard to win and takes a lot of organizing and money, just like the original election.

I've represented insurgents and its quite hard to win.

There's a universal assumption in this thread that because unions aren't doing what the protesters want that somehow they are selling out the workers. That's bullshit. The members elect the union and populate the leadership. And they aren't just gonna strike because someone else calls for it. They are going to hold a strike vote. Its their union and their call.

I hope the Oakland Occupy people already have the support lined up.

posted by Ironmouth at 12:07 PM on October 28, 2011


There's a universal assumption in this thread that because unions aren't doing what the protesters want that somehow they are selling out the workers. That's bullshit. The members elect the union and populate the leadership. And they aren't just gonna strike because someone else calls for it. They are going to hold a strike vote. Its their union and their call.

Here, here.
posted by hal_c_on at 12:20 PM on October 28, 2011


I fully support the unions' decision one way or the other here. But still stand by the position that the threat of general strike should never be completely off the table or dismissed as some ancient relic of "a different time" in a working democracy.

Like Faulkner said: "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past."
posted by saulgoodman at 1:30 PM on October 28, 2011


I fully support the unions' decision one way or the other here. But still stand by the position that the threat of general strike should never be completely off the table or dismissed as some ancient relic of "a different time" in a working democracy.

Like Faulkner said: "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past."


Sure, as long as they can follow through with the threat. Empty threats weaken. I hope they have unions already lined up like in NYC.

I was reading the Occupy California blog and it was way out there. Like they think that anarchist communes are right around the corner, as in next month or two.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:33 PM on October 28, 2011


Occupy Washington, DC is blockading the building across the street, denying people exit from the building and changing we can't get in, you can't get out. Seems not cool to physically restrain persons from inside the building from getting out. I guess Sallie Mae is in there.

Not every action will be smart, I guess.

Hopefully they will let people out.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:49 PM on October 28, 2011


>> They have a LOT to lose if they choose poorly. Unions can be replaced VERY quickly.> no. they cannot.

I guess you didn't understand. Union members CAN WALK and start a new Union of their own any time they want. They don't need anyone's permission. A union is a bunch of people working together for their common welfare.

While their abandoned Union which hasn't been serving their interests (once they realize that) may continue to exist like the legal fiction it is, it has no hold over them. They need not belong. They can start anew. Any day, any hour.
posted by Twang at 2:27 PM on October 28, 2011


Just fyi, there are usually multiple unions covering a given industry in most European countries I'm familiar, which excludes the U.K., meaning no union has a monopoly. I gather this helps prevent union leadership from selling out the workers, while also ensuring that minor grievances may be aired through partial strikes that cost the company money, but don't totally obliterate service.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:01 PM on October 28, 2011


Union members CAN WALK and start a new Union of their own any time they want. They don't need anyone's permission. A union is a bunch of people working together for their common welfare.

Yeah, well, there's theory and there's practice. In theory, a union might be a "bunch of people working together for their common welfare," but in practice, at least in the U.S., unions are a very specific type of organization operating under very specific legal provisions of things like Taft-Hartley.

I'd argue that modern unions in the U.S. don't even draw their power from strikes or the threat of strikes anymore; they draw it from their ability to engage and obtain government sanctions. Yes, occasionally there are strikes, but they're rare and vastly less common than disputes resolved via binding arbitration or in court. Which, if you believe that our system of government is basically capitalist and the capitalist system is inherently hostile to labor, makes modern unions (insofar as they are effectively agents of that system) very different from what they were in the past and may still be in other places.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:16 AM on October 30, 2011


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