Tomorrow, citizens around the world will make a statement by gathering to once again make May 1st the call to action it once was. (You can follow it here.) The NYC Occupy movement has called for a day of "mutual aid" and the day's activities will culminate in the offering of free education:
A major focus of May Day will be the Free University, which has been coordinated by college students throughout the city. They will be standing in solidarity with students from around the country and the world who are struggling for free or lower-cost education. Education is a human right, but more and more colleges and universities are raising tuition, closing off access and slashing workers’ jobs. The students in New York have been organizing for massive student walk-outs on May Day that will converge in Madison Square Park for an afternoon of free classes provided by college professors, which anyone can join.
Contrary to popular belief, general strikes are not illegal, they're just governed by specific laws. Workers and unions used to be a lot more effective when they were more willing to strike:
Perhaps the first nation-wide labor movement in the United States started in 1864, when workers began to agitate for an eight-hour day. This was, in their understanding, a natural outgrowth of the abolition of slavery; a limited work day allowed workers to spend more time with their families, to pursue education, and to enjoy leisure time. In other words, a shorter work day meant freedom. It was not for nothing that in 1866, workers celebrated the Fourth of July by singing “John Brown’s Body” with new lyrics demanding an eight-hour day.
Agitating for shorter hours became a broad-based mass movement, and skilled and unskilled workers organized together. The movement would allow no racial, national or even religious divisions. Workers built specific organizations—Eight Hour Leagues—but they also used that momentum to establish new unions and strengthen old ones. That year, the Eight Hour Movement gained its first legislative victory when Illinois passed a law limiting work hours.
The demand for an eight-hour day was about leisure, self-improvement and freedom, but it was also about power. When Eight Hour Leagues agitated for legislation requiring short hours, they were demanding what had never before happened: that the government regulate industry for the advantage of workers. And when workers sought to enforce the eight-hour day without the government—through declaring for themselves, through their unions, under what conditions they would work—they sought something still more radical: control over their own workplaces. It is telling that employers would often counter a demand for shorter hours with an offer of a wage increase. Wage increases could be given (and taken away) by employers without giving up their power; agreeing to shorter hours was, employers knew, the beginning of losing their arbitrary power over their workers.
My own city, Philadelphia, was the site of a general strike in 1910 that shut down the city over a raise for transit workers:
With the union threatening a general strike to hobble the city if strike breakers were brought in, PRT brought in 600 strike breakers, while denying they had done so. Trolley workers in Trenton, sensing the moment, went on strike, shutting their transit company down with a strike that would later fuel the rise of the Central Labor Union.
The final straw for calling a general strike was the National Guard and the Pennsylvania Constabulary entering the city to provide protection for PRT's few remaining workers. Members of other unions throughout the city saw this as a clear signal that the city and state governments were uniting in favor of the companies against the unions. When the well-trained, heavily armed Constabulary failed to immediately restore order, there was talk of bringing in the United States Army or Navy.
With the general population, newspapers, retailers and religious groups uniting against PRT, a general strike was called. All unions in all industries were asked to walk out, in hopes of adding financial burden to the city and PRT.
As city commerce ground to a near halt, the general strike had wider impacts, leading to sympathy walkouts along the East Coast. The public was hungry for reform and vengeance on the hated industries who controlled transportation.
The union's "scorched earth, take no prisoners" approach eventually brought PRT to the negotiating table, ending the general strike while the trolley walk-out continued.
Were general strikes effective, in terms of getting their listed demands? Sometimes. But they were a powerful tool for advancing their interests and being taken seriously by the bosses. Mothballing strikes meant the weakening of the union movement:
Others may question how the strike can be placed at the center of trade union strategy when unions typically lose strikes nowadays. We must remember, however, that what’s been proven ineffective is only the “free market” perversion of the strike. For over three decades, the labor movement has accepted a model of striking, collective bargaining, and trade unionism that makes no economic sense whatsoever. Standing on a picket line and watching scabs take strikers’ jobs has never worked for the labor movement. Of course it doesn’t work today.
As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka noted when he was leader of the United Mine Workers of America in the early 1990s, “the labor laws in this country are formulated for labor to lose. And if you play by every one of those rules, you lose every time.” To win strikes, trade unionists must recreate an effective strike which draws heavily upon traditional trade union theory and practice. In doing so, the labor movement will have to directly confront the system of labor control—a system of laws and court rulings specifically constructed to outlaw effective union tactics.
Admittedly, breaking free from the system of labor control will not be easy. Union officers, staff, and members operate within a given context. A set of established laws, trade union practices, and underlying values and assumptions of labor relations constitute the “rules of the game.” On a day-to-day basis, contracts are negotiated, advice is given, and decisions are made within this context. For any individual trade unionist, breaking out of this system will be difficult. That’s why the overall context—the “rules of the game”—must be changed.