What chance a general strike in Manhattan?

If the Occupy Wall Street protests included labour strikes, they would have the power to inflict heavy economic losses.

protest shout wall street
Because of the layout of the Wall Street area consists of windy, narrow lanes; police would have a hard time controlling the movement of the protest march if labour unions joined [GALLO/GETTY]

More an observer than an active participant, I have been stopping by the Occupy Wall Street encampment now for a couple of weeks. At first, I viewed the movement as more of a local curiosity, but after attending a galvanising protest last Friday I began to develop a very different impression. 

Called in response to police brutality and pepper spraying of protesters a scant few days before, the demonstration was a raucous and energetic affair which stood out against the normally staid and bland activist scene here. 

Building on this momentum, Occupy Wall Street carried out yet another protest on Wednesday which, remarkably, included many rank and file labour unions. Though the protesters failed to challenge the police on many occasions, the march reportedly drew some 20,000 people, an astonishing and unheard of figure for an anti-corporate demonstration of this type. In light of these remarkable developments, many will now wonder: What’s next?

Judging from Occupy Wall Street’s call to “shut it down”, many protesters already have a fixed idea. To me, “shut it down” conjures up the notion of a general strike, which, if carried out properly in Lower Manhattan, could prove to be very devastating to business as usual in New York and inflict heavy economic losses. 

“A general strike would be the perfect escalation for the Occupy Wall Street movement, offering the opportunity to engage workers, students, professionals and retired folks throughout the city (not just lower Manhattan),” notes Mike Locker, the president of Locker Associates, a business and consulting firm working on behalf of many unions.

A general strike would be the perfect escalation for the Occupy Wall Street movement.

– Mike Locker, president of Locker Associates

Locker, who I interviewed in a previous Al Jazeera column dealing with the role of organised labour in future protests, adds that demonstrators “could organise local assemblies to discuss organisation, demands and ongoing activities to build our power (more occupations),” during a general strike. “In the afternoon we could have a super march toward Wall Street from all over the city,” he says. 

It’s an intriguing idea to be sure, but how to tactically, politically, and psychologically appeal to New Yorkers in such an unprecedented effort? I don’t pretend to have all the answers, yet as someone who grew up in Lower Manhattan and who has been an off-again, on-again activist over the years, I can hazard some thoughts.

An overlay of the local area

If they were to formally call for a general strike, the protesters would enjoy a number of logistical advantages. Unlike Midtown, which has longer blocks and broader streets, Lower Manhattan is built on a smaller scale and has some windy lanes and warrens. As a result, the police will find it more difficult to control and direct political protest. 

In this sense, the Occupy Wall Street movement differs somewhat from anti-war demonstrations aimed at President Bush in April, 2003. Though some of those protests took place around Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, other demonstrations occurred in Midtown where the police were able to set up metal gates and effectively corral activists.  

At the time, I recall how some protesters debated whether to conduct direct action down in the Wall Street area, but for whatever reason, the idea never materialised. That is a pity, since New York activists tend to underestimate the actual power they can exert within the New York City milieu. 

During the build up to the war in Iraq, organisers carried out huge demonstrations, but in the end the actions failed to derail Bush’s plans. Looked at in hindsight, activists might have been able to cause more disruption with fewer numbers if they had instead concentrated their efforts in the downtown financial area.

Occupy Wall Street differs from the Iraq protests in other significant ways, perhaps most crucially in that the movement has an actual base of operations in Liberty Plaza. In the winter of 2003, activists used to congregate around United Nations Plaza, but the area never took off as a permanent encampment. Perhaps that is not too surprising given the actual geography: Located on the East River, the United Nations is physically and psychologically removed from the busy lives of many New Yorkers. Liberty Plaza, by contrast, is located right in the middle of one of the busiest thoroughfares in all Manhattan.

From a logistical standpoint, the Wall Street area displays all kinds of advantages. Because Manhattan is narrowest at this point, demonstrators can maximise their numbers for optimal effect. In addition, nearly all New York subway lines run through the area, including the 1, 2 and 3 lines, 4, 5, and 6 lines, A, C, and E lines, J, M, and Z lines, as well as the N, R lines. Moreover, the Staten Island ferry disembarks a scant few blocks from the Occupy Wall Street encampment and the entrance to the all important Brooklyn Bridge is located just a stone’s throw away. 

The Holland Tunnel, which connects commuters to and from New Jersey, also lies nearby and commercial streets like Broadway run just adjacent to the Occupy Wall Street headquarters. In the event that Mayor Bloomberg adopts a draconian policy toward protesters, local activists won’t have to travel far to make their grievances known, as City Hall is only a mere ten minute walk from the permanent encampment.

Building social and political coalitions in the area

From a multi-class and multi-racial perspective, the area holds out some intriguing possibilities. Though Wall Street itself is a white collar area, many working class folk also frequent downtown or have jobs in the vicinity. 

In particular, Chambers and Church streets are heavily black and Latino by day and presumably many of these workers are feeling the economic pinch. Borough of Manhattan Community College, which is directly situated on Chambers Street, makes sense as a key outreach and organising target.  

Realistically, if the protesters want to maximise their impact they would be wise to keep to the Wall Street area and stay out of Tribeca and Soho, neighbourhoods which are overrun by tourists. Both districts serve as the party grounds for stockbrokers and the affluent but do not offer any tempting or tangible political targets. Nevertheless, if Occupy Wall Street continues to grow, then setting up information points in other key and strategic areas of Lower Manhattan might make sense, say in Washington Square, Union Square and Tompkins Square Park.

The protesters have another political advantage in that organised labour has a distinct presence in their area.

Whether they recognise it or not, the protesters have another political advantage in that organised labour has a distinct presence in their area. Indeed, the headquarters of 32 BJ of the Service Employees International Union or SEIU is located nearby, and getting the union’s support could prove crucial in the days ahead. The union, which represents doormen, security guards and maintenance workers, plays a significant role in the Wall Street area. “Practically all buildings in the vicinity of the demonstrations,” notes Locker, “are 32BJ buildings.”

Right across the street from Liberty Plaza is Ground Zero, and every day construction workers make their way to the site. If the demonstrators haven’t thought of it already, they should consider setting up a dialogue with the workers, who operate in an area of vital economic importance for the city. What would be the response from such workers to a general strike? That is anyone’s guess, but history does not suggest that construction workers would be so amenable to radical entreaties.  

Indeed, as this interesting article from Dissent magazine points out, nationalistic New York construction workers took great relish in physically attacking anti-war students on Wall Street in May, 1970. The disturbances, which came to be known as the “hard hat riot”, underscored the profound cultural gap separating the counter culture from the working proletariat of that era.

Today, notes Dissent, the construction workers still “keep their distance” from proteStreet. Nevertheless, times may be changing. At Liberty Plaza, the protesters and construction workers have been engaged in a “careful dance”. The workers, notes the article, “practice studious inattention. They look, but don’t look”.

But how realistic is a general strike?

So far, only youth protesters have organised direct action [GALLO/GETTY]

Judging from what I have seen thus far, it is students and young people, and not organised labour, which are more willing to engage in militant tactics. It is they who seem to be driving the protests, and labour is participating, albeit in a rather non-committal and lacklustre way.

To be sure, during Wednesday’s protests certain labour contingents were visible. But when the police tried to cage protesters behind steel rails on Chambers Street, it was young people, and not labour, which ignored the entreaties of the authorities and briefly toppled barricades.

Whether other New Yorkers, let alone labour, are willing to engage in more direct and confrontational political tactics such as a general strike remains to be seen. Judging from my own observations over the years, I have my doubts. Fundamentally, the protesters may find that the biggest obstacle to obtaining a greater following is the city’s unstated psychological code.

Ask many Americans what they think about New Yorkers, and they may reply that we are unfriendly. I would say it’s not so much that, however, as a go-it-alone type attitude and a tendency to mind one’s own business, which in turn makes collective action more of an uphill climb.   

Assuming, then, that Occupy Wall Street did put out a call for a general strike – and it remains to be seen what the protesters would specifically hope to achieve through such action – how would the public react? The problem is that we are essentially in uncharted waters here. As a general rule, labour has shied away from using the radical weapon of a general strike, and the most historic instance in which such tactics were employed – in Seattle in 1919 – had ambiguous results.  

The lessons of Seattle

In that case, 65,000 local labourers walked off the job for four days in solidarity with shipyard workers who had opposed wage cuts. During the strike, labour demonstrated that it could effectively govern within local communities by serving food, supplying hospitals and keeping order in the streets.

Unfortunately, the walkout collapsed amid pressure from the mayor, federal troops and an unsupportive American Federation of Labor. Not only did the shipyard workers fail to achieve wage increases, but union-busting and red-baiting were quick to follow. In the long term, however, the strike inspired generations of workers who strived to build a more socially progressive order.  

Needless to say, of course, 1919 was a vastly different era from today and labour was much more radical and willing to engage in provocative tactics. Nevertheless, Locker is upbeat. A general strike in New York, he says, “could spark a nationwide strike and bring the movement to a whole new level”. 

In the meantime, we shall have to wait and see. One thing is for sure: If Occupy Wall Street is going to put out any call, it had better do so soon. With the weather already turning cold, the political energy could soon dissipate and, along with it, any chance to spark a more combative political response to entrenched corporate power.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left. Visit his web site here.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.