American womanhood had earlier mobilised to counter the super-patriotism of the White House, whose “Bring-em-on” belligerence had united the world’s terrorists and put thousands of young Americans in their line of fire. A nationwide support group of military mothers, spouses, sisters and sweethearts formed around the Website www.Lysastrata.org and called upon all US women to support their demand for the immediate return of their spouses, sons and daughters. The First Lady had praised their concern when they showed up 950,000 strong at the Women's March on Washington, suggesting they “channel their energy into Red Cross work.”
Now the Lysistratas were blocking government and military installations, getting themselves arrested en masse in nonviolent sit-ins. But as soon as they were released, the women came back, and the authorities couldn’t really hold them since the prisons were overflowing with more dangerous rebels – not to mention criminals and victims of the drugwars. They occupied some government offices for so long that the officials finally left, whereupon the women turned them into day care centers, thus releasing other women to enter the struggle. American women were also organized to protest poor schools, lack of aid to single mothers, no medical coverage, homeless working mothers, families with kids cut off the welfare rolls by Clinton and his successors. Women were also the backbone of neighborhood and community organisations in the cities. Many women had emerged as activists in the occupations, workers’ councils and strike committees. They knew they were in a revolution when their menfolk started washing their own socks.
On the labor front, spontaneous strikes were breaking out among retail and service workers, a vast, underpaid, mostly temporary workforce largely composed of young people, women and more-or-less documented immigrants whom union officials had considered too costly to organise. The strike-wave also spread to (mostly female) office workers, whose patience with the petty harrassment of stupid bosses had at long last given out. The national leadership of the AFL-CIO denounced the strikes as disorderly, hasty and illegal. However, this gave them leverage for a demand for round-table negotiations with the bosses, their golf partners.
The critical turn came when the strike spread to the transportation sector. For the first time in aviation history whole flight crews – pilots and cabin personnel together – went out on strike. Their strike was quickly endorsed by the mechanics’ union (traditionally radical) and the air traffic controllers’ professional association. All these groups were concerned about air safety, increasingly jeopardised by management “economies” cutting back on aircraft maintenance-time and rest-time for aircrews as well as by crowded airlanes and useless, humiliating, time-consuming “anti-terrorist” security procedures.
Working conditions in aviation had declined steeply after the bankruptcies and consolidations of the major airlines, when employees had been forced to accept deep cuts to pay off the enormous bank debts accumulated by management. Still the various competing craft unions (pilots, aircrews, mechanics, controllers) had defended their separate turf. Now all differences were swept aside as joint strike-committes were elected at mass assemblies organised in aircraft hangars at all the major hub airports.
Among the truck drivers, rank and file rebels and pro-democracy dissidents within the Teamsters Union took matters (and baseball bats) into their own hands and finally got rid of the mafia bureaucracy headed by Jimmy Hoffa III, who was patriotically supporting the President’s fight against “foreign interference” in the labor movement. Although Hoffa’s mob had already siphoned off most of the union treasury into offshore banks, the strikers were able to find enough cash in local union safes and bank accounts to distribute strike pay to the members.
The over-the-road drivers reverted to a tactic from the 1930’s and blocked the highways and truck stops. However, the strikers allowed certain trucks to go through and supply cities with foodstuffs and fuel. The oil workers took over the oilfields, and the crews of tankers – who had been ordered to anchor offshore while shortages drove gasoline prices up – mutinied, turning their cargoes over to the dock strike committees. The government and armed forces retained their own supplies of fuel, but these were limited. The country was paralysed. In many areas not a wheel could turn without the permission of the strike committees. The critical moment was approaching.
The balance of forces shifted. Previously, the employers, with their global reach, had nearly always been victorious in local skirmishes against scattered workers separated by geography, by language, by nationality, by trade, by union affiliation. In the rare instances where management was forced to make concessions in one country, the owners moved their operations to another country where the workers were poorer, more desperate, more docile. Now the tables were turned. Employees and victims of this or that corporation began to unite in every country where the multinational in question did business and counterattacked.
Everywhere strike committees, workers’ councils and popular assemblies sprung to life, debating every issue, joining into regional, national and international federations. Union officials tried desperately to “settle” the strikes by signing contracts with local corporate officials, but these diversions were ignored. Similarly, left political parties tried to deflect the crisis by proposing elections and legislative programs as alternatives, but nobody was paying them attention any more. The struggle was situated elsewhere.
Wherever bosses threatened to close their installations, strikers occupied them. By sitting down and occupying their workplaces, the workers symbolically declared their right to the means of production under which they had formerly been oppressed. The act of remaining together, of living a new, democratic, collective life within the workplace gave them a new identity, bonded them into a new human force. Meanwhile, their lovers, friends and family outside organised support, kept them informed, brought blankets, food and other amenities. Within the occupied facilities, the sit-ins were constantly connected to the Internet, comparing the corporate radio and TV reports of their struggle with the information they downloaded from independent sites and their own federated strike committees sources. There was also time for discussion, for recreation (for example playing “BvB” on a company computer!)
Outside, consumer boycotts were proving highly effective in putting a cash-flow squeeze on the targeted corporations. The strikers were receiving support from their neighbors, from non-striking workers’ groups. Small businessmen gave their families credit. Neighborhood assemblies and various local elected officials supported the occupations (immediately declared illegal by the authorities).
In order to fulfill their mandate, the international strike committees and workers’ councils had no choice but to ignore the legal rules of capitalist institutions like the World Trade Organisation, NAFTA and Maastricht. They were also obliged to bypass existing labor legislation authorising the monopoly power of union officials to negotiate the sale of labor power. Thus, the international strike councils’ call for global solidarity came into direct conflict with local unions’ attempts to divert the strikes into legal channels.
Everywhere, the workers were faced with the same question: Who could best represent them in this crisis? Union officials tied to the system? Or their own elected, revocable councils and strike committees? The issue came down to this: should working people negotiate the best price for their slavery? Or struggle to abolish it? There was little hesitation. In some unions, the leadership, won over or thrown over by the rank and file, officially endorsed the global strike. Where they didn’t, the workers tore up their membership cards and wildcatted. Internationalism proved to be the key that finally opened the floodgates of labor militancy, long held back and channelled into narrow petty meanders by the labor bureaucracy.