Chilean Starbucks Workers Strike and Lessons from Rosa Luxemburg’s Mass Strike


In Black Orchid Collective, we are currently reading Rosa Luxemburg’s Mass Strike. One of the themes of Luxemburg’s piece is to point out how essential it is to see the overlapping between political and economic struggles, to see how struggles for unionization emerge in the context of broader political upheavals. Writing about Russia and Germany in the turn of the 20th century, Luxemburg describes workplace struggles as part of a fabric of broader political struggle against the state and its imperialist wars. At her time, the term “economic struggle” referred to what we could call “bread and butter issues” in workplace organizing, like higher wages or better safety conditions.  “Political struggle” meant struggles against feudal or capitalist states (some wished to reform and “democratize” these states, others wished to overthrow them).   She points out the dynamic relationship between economic and political struggle and how they enrich one another:

the economic struggle is the transmitter from one political centre to another; the political struggle is the periodic fertilisation of the soil for the economic struggle. Cause and effect here continually change places; and thus the economic and the political factor in the period of the mass strike, [...] merely form the two interlacing sides of the proletarian class struggle in Russia. And their unity is precisely the mass strike.

Luxemburg argues against two positions present in the European trade union movement at the time. One is a syndicalist position.  This program of action was to slowly build up unions in workplaces, with an aim to eventually call a general strike as part of a revolution.  Luxemburg’s response to this position is to point out that mass, militant unions are often born rapidly in the heart of political crises and struggle and that they are not necessarily built slowly over time. She argues that a general strike is not something that can simply be “called.” It emerges spontaneously in response to deepening social contradictions.  The second position Luxemburg argues against is the more conservative  tendency in her own organization, the German Social Democrats. Luxemburg chides the their gradualist, overly cautious approach to strikes and revolution. Many prominent members in her group argued the working class would never have the forces necessary to pull off a political general strike and therefore the party should simply focus on economic trade union activity coupled with parliamentary and electoral work on the political realm.  Luxemburg’s response to this is to point out that the working class in Russia at the time was spontaneously engaging in political strikes to intervene in various political struggles on the table, showing that the workplace struggle cannot be confined to economism, and that the poltitical struggle is more potent outside of parlaimentary maneuvering and elections.  Luxemburg encourages both the anarcho-syndicalists and the conservative social democrats to recognize the revolutionary potential within so-called “spontaneous” worker actions.

While Luxemburg doesn’t deny the need for revolutionary organization to positively intervene, deepen, and spread this spontaneity, her piece also challenges Lenin’s position in his pamphlet What is to be Done, where he argues that the working class only develops trade unionist consciousness spontaneously.  Lenin argued that the working class is only capable of fighting around its own immediate economic demands unless if a proletarian party intervenes and generalizes the struggle into a political assault on capitalism and the state.  Unlike Lenin, Luxemburg believes that the working class, through involvement in struggle, has revolutionary consciousness attained out of the constraints of their circumstances. Luxemburg, like Lenin, is interested in understanding how the struggle in and out of the workplace, combine together to show the “political and social proportions of the forces of the revolution.” Like Lenin, she is interested in developing and advancing the forces of the proletariat as a whole, not simply in the dynamics of one workplace.

How better to understand theoretical and historical texts like this, than look at contemporary events through those lenses? We look at the recent strike by Chilean Starbucks workers, a first for the international corporation, as an inspiring and much needed step toward global resistance against capitalism. Typically seen by mainstream labor unions in the US as “unorganizable” because of the expendable nature of the workforce, as well as the high turnover rate and low wages, service sector workers in stores like Starbucks have been organizing tirelessly against the corporation.  The IWW in the U.S. has been organizing for almost a decade building the Starbucks Workers Union through the framework of Solidarity Unionism. The strike by Chilean Starbucks workers against the meager pay ($2.50/hour), lunch pay, lack of maternity leave etc, show that unionization efforts are possible in the service industry. It is a positive vision for the hard work that militants put in trying to unionize in this industry.

But why have we not seen a similar explosion of union activity in Starbucks stores here in the U.S., considering all the hard work, skill, and focus that militants have put into trying to unionize here?  It does not seem to be a coincidence, that the first ever Starbucks strike took place now, in Chile, where a broader mass movement is taking place. In the past six months, the Southern Chilean city of Punta Arenas with a population of 110,000 people, went on a general strike against rising costs of natural gas and removal of government subsidies. Within the past month, workers at major copper companies had also gone on strike, causing the price of copper to reach an all-time high. 45, 000 workers at the state-owned Codelco, the world’s 3rd largest copper producer, went on a month-long strike recently, and then walked out on their job after the strike formally ended, against privatization of the company and potential cuts to health benefits. The Codelco strikes followed the recent 16-day long strikes at its contracted underground mining facility in El Teniente, also the largest in the world. This was then followed by strikes at private copper mining companies in Chile, Escondida and Collahuasi.

In addition to workplace struggles at the copper mines, and general strikes in cities, students in Chile have also been taking over the streets in protest against Pinochet-era education policies, budget cuts and fee hikes. In Santiago, the capital city of Chile, students have organized strikes, illegal marches and set up barricades at various points in the city. As many as 100, 000 people took the streets to call for increased funding and access to education. The struggles of workers and students have been met with police repression, which is further inciting more organizing.

It is inspiring to know that the first strike against the corporate giant Starbucks took place in such a context of mass uprisings, part of the global wave of resistance against austerity.  Since July 16th, Chilean Starbucks workers have been on strike against their wages and working conditions. Starbucks management has resorted to hiring scab labor in an effort to replace the striking workers. Since Aug 4th, some of them have also been on hunger strike against the company’s unconceding stance and union-busting efforts. The IWW Starbucks Workers Union organized an international week of action in solidarity with Chilean Starbucks workers.  Here in Seattle, the local IWW set up pickets outside the international headquarters of Howard Schultz.  Members of Black Orchid Collective attended in solidarity. It appears that office workers from inside the building also expressed solidarity with the Chilean strikers.

IWW and friends outside of Seattle Starbucks headquarters

Solidarity from Seattle to Santiago!

We are inspired by the organizing that Chilean workers are undertaking, and the global impact that their organizing has. International solidarity such as small moments like this, are ways we can begin to imagine a global resistance against the capitalists who stretch their tentacles worldwide. Workers of the world unite!

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11 Responses to Chilean Starbucks Workers Strike and Lessons from Rosa Luxemburg’s Mass Strike

  1. Nate Hawthorne says:

    Thanks for this comrades. I’ve had that Luxemburg piece on my to-read list for ages but still haven’t gotten around to it. I recently read the final section of David Harvey’s Companion to Marx’s Capital, about what Marx calls primitive accumulation and Harvey calls accumulation by dispossession. Harvey has a lot of good things to say about Luxemburg. Following her, he argues that capitalists gain wealth by exploiting workers but also by expropriating workers’ lands and rights. He points out that this expropriation often generates larger uprisings than everyday exploitation does, and it often involves the state more directly. I think that’s worth thinking deeply about in our current moment, like in situations like in Madison, Wisconsin. I also want to add, according to Scott Nappalos, Luxemburg dramatically misrepresents some anarchist positions in the mass strike, in order to basically take up the same positions by another name. I can’t speak to that as I don’t know anything about european anarchosyndicalists in Luxemburg’s day. I will say, the early IWW tended not to have what you describe here as “a syndicalist position.” They didn’t try “to slowly build up unions in workplaces, with an aim to eventually call a general strike as part of a revolution” and often the program wasn’t strikes (because strikes cut off workers’ wages and access to the means of production) but rather occupations (sometimes called “a lockout of the capitalists”, with the first recorded sit-down strikes in the US happening in 1906 by IWW members — in this respect the IWW in its early days might be characterized as insurrectionary syndicalists.) When the IWW saw massive conflagrations break out it was precisely something “often born rapidly in the heart of political crises and struggle and that they are not necessarily built slowly over time.” For example, with the outbreak of WWI, copper and wheat production were effectively militarized, and the workers struggles in those sectors that the IWW took part in quickly took on a really intense character, sadly including the murder of IWW militants.
    take care,
    Nate

  2. mamos206 says:

    Thanks for your response Nate, I agree Luxemburg’s and Marx’s takes on primitive accumulation are crucial for our current moment and I’m looking forward to reading more. In addition to Harvey, Loren Goldner and Sylvia Federici have done some important work on the role of primitive accumulation in the current economic crisis.

    I don’t know enough about early 20th century European movements to weigh in heavily, but I’ll take Scott’s word for it about the anarchosyndicalists, since it seems Luxemburg is arguing primarily against what conservative social democrats SAID about anarchosyndicalists not what actual anarchosyndicalists did in real life. In other words the conservative social dems said ” the anarchist position is to build up unions and then call a general strike, but that’s nonsense since by the time we build up all those unions we may as well just run for office and win”, or something like that. This is probably a straw man argument, a characterature of syndicalism. But Luxemburg argues both against that straw man argument and the conclusion the conservative social dems drew from it. She is saying since mass political strikes can break out before unions are formed, we don’t need to focus only on parliamentarian maneuvering, and the strike can be one of the working class’s most powerful political weapons. I agree, this position is probably very similar to the most sophisticated anarchosyndicalist positions, especially ” insurrectionary syndicalist” positions.

    I agree with you the early IWW did not fit the pattern of the supposedly anarchosyndicalist method she is critiquing, and I imagine that many of the European anarchosyndicalist groups didn’t either.

    The IWW also participated in mass strikes , including political strikes like one of the latter phases of the Bread and Roses struggle in Lawrence, MA, which essentially became a spontaneous strike against police repression.

  3. mamos206 says:

    That being said, I do think it was problematic that the early IWW tried to remain formally apolitical. It was good the IWW didn’t let itself get controlled by Daniel DeLeon and his group, and the apolitical stance prevented the union from becoming a pawn for formations like this. But their persistent apolitical stance ceded too much of the political ground to the Socialist Party USA. The idea became, “do economic struggle through the IWW and political struggle through the SP.” But the SP was largely electoralist, and at times dominated by a reformist wing. Key revolutionary Marxist and Anarchist militants like Parsons, Flynn, and Haywood were in both the IWW and the SP but they never made moves to build their own explicitly political revolutionary organization that could overlap with the IWW and engage in coordinated political struggle. As a result, their whole milieu collapsed under the dual blows of Palmer-era state repression, and efforts from the right wing of the SP to purge the revolutionary left wing, who were then left with no organizational protection in the face of police terror. The left wing of the SP, after it was expelled, became pro-Bolshevik, and entered the 3rd International (Comintern), eventually becoming one of the building blocks of the Communist Party USA. Partly this was out of enthusiasm over the success of the Bolshevik revolution, and partly it was because they needed strong organizational backing or they would have spent the rest of their lives in jail or would have gotten killed. So the end to the story is really tragic: great organizers like Flynn and Parsons ended up in this decrepit Stalinist organization because they had nowhere else to go, every other political formation got smashed or destroyed. Imagine if they had built a political grouping of the best, most seasoned IWW class warriors in the nineteen-teens, capable of engaging in political agitation against World War I with the underground apparatus necessary to withstand the resulting repression? If they had done this the CPUSA would have had serious competition early on, and it may not have been able to suck in and later purge out or deform the best anti-authoritarian militants of the whole early 20th century upsurge.

  4. “I agree, this position is probably very similar to the most sophisticated anarchosyndicalist positions, especially ” insurrectionary syndicalist” positions. ” – what are these insurrectionary syndicalist positions you are talking about? I only know one person who calls himself that, and I haven’t seen anything written about it (except for his forum comments)

  5. mamos206 says:

    I was just referring to Nate’s use of the term in the comment I was responding to above… he used it to talk about how the IWW built rank and file driven unionism but also participated in mass upsurges against the state. I wasn’t attempting to define or refer to a larger category.

  6. bernardo says:

    It’s also important to note that Chilean labor law, despite the fact that it was probably written by some Pinochet apparatchik, is still superior to US labor law, and allows for much easier union recognition.

  7. Nate Hawthorne says:

    hi Mamos,

    I don’t understand your point about being apolitical and building another organization. The IWW was explicitly revolutionary and sought to make more workers so. There’s a very good IWW piece by Justus Ebert, I forget which but it was quoted recently in the Industrial Worker, it’s an old-time IWW peice, that says “the IWW’s not apolitical, it’s ultrapolitical.” In any case, in the days of the early IWW “apolitical” was about the ballot box — that’s what the ‘political struggles’ of the SP were.

    You suggest that folk should have formed another organization, but they were already in an explicitly revolutionary one — the IWW — that waged intense class struggle, educated members on practical and theoretical aspects of the class struggle, including publishing a range of marxist theory. So what are you saying folk should have done differently? Build another group, but made up of whom? To do what?

    cheers,
    Nate

  8. mamos206 says:

    Hi Nate,
    Maybe I’m mistaken on my historical facts on this. I thought “political” agitation like opposition to World War I or support for revolutions abroad was done more through the left wing of the Socialist Party than it was through the IWW. I thought it was mostly IWW militants who were doing this, and it was associated with the IWW, but not done primarily through the IWW. Is this incorrect? Did the IWW explicitly take anti-war stances, agitate soldiers, organize unemployed councils, publish revolutionary literature, support the Irish and Russian and Mexican revolutions, etc. on it’s own? If so, that’s great, and another organization wasn’t necessary. From reading Lucy Parson: An American Revolutionary, Rebel Girl, and Revolution in Seattle, I got the impression that a lot of this stuff was done through the SP or through independent political newspapers and clubs that overlapped with the IWW but never consolidated into a national organization. I could be wrong though, my historical knowledge of this time period is limited.

    If “political” meant “electoral” back then, well, it’s good the IWW was “apolitical” because I don’t think electoral work would have gotten them anywhere positive. I like the idea of the IWW being “ultrapolitical.”

    Regardless of whether there was a need for another overlapping cadre organization during the 19-teens, we should ask ourselves why were the best IWW militants unable to survive as an organized anti-authoritarian force past the red scare/ palmer raids and the rise of Bolshevism? What caused the decline of the IWW? Why did so many of the IWW’s best working class revolutionaries get swept into the Communist Party? What was missing? Was it an underground apparatus able to keep the IWW going through the increased repression? Was it lack of a clear analysis of what was going on in Russia, which caused a lot of folks, even anti-authoritarians, to romanticize the Bolsheviks? It’s not like the CPUSA was Stalinist from jump… at it’s very beginning it came out of a milieu that included a lot of anti-authoritarians… why were they unable to continue the IWW as a revolutionary organization and/ or build an alternative to the CPUSA instead of joining the CPUSA and building it?

    I think it’s important to answer these questions so that we don’t end up getting sidelined by authoritarian Leftists again in the future.

  9. Nate Hawthorne says:

    hi Mamos,

    I agree with you on the pressing nature of those questions, I just have a different assessment of the early IWW than you do. (And, FWIW this is not because I’m currently an IWW member, honestly – the IWW of old and the IWW today are very different organizations, the IWW today is a shadow of the early IWW, I care about the early IWW not because I’m committed to the IWW today but becuase the early IWW is I think an underutilized resource to draw on and learn from).

    The IWW was initially very enthusiastic about the Bolshevik revolution and actively sought contact with the Bolsheviks, who were also initially enthusiastic in return, hence the IWW-Bolshevik correspondence (I thought I mentioned this last time but apparently not, I can send you links if you want) and IWW attendance at the initial RILU conference. This enthusiasm cooled rapidly on the IWW side because of their dislike of the direction the Bolsheviks took. This was a conversation all throughout the IWW, at all levels, including the membership via referendum and via internal debate, formal and informal. I don’t know about the IWW and the Mexican revolution except to say that I know numerous IWW members participated individually, I’ve always thought this was unofficial but I can’t say for sure either way how much if any organized or official IWW conversation there was about that.

    About IWW and the war. I don’t know if the IWW organized soldiers, I doubt it. I know the IWW organized key production industries that the war relied on, which posed a big threat to the war and are part of why the IWW faced increasingly lethal force in the 1910s. The IWW also issued this resolution — http://www.iww.org/en/history/resolutions/Convention_war_1916 — though I think resolutions mean less than other actions. The IWW also consistently put out revolutionary propaganda in its publications from the very beginning (including the works of Marx, in early publications there are numerous ads for Marx works available cheap, and early publications regularly ran serialized marxist political economy courses etc). It’s a shame that more of this material isn’t readily available electronically – the IWW had a vibrant intellectual culture that’s largely overlooked and not kept around as a resource today, unlike say the internal debates within the CP, many of which are online.

    Getting back to your questions about the IWW’s survival and the outflanking by the CP, those are good ones and I don’t have answers. I’m skeptical that a new organization was the answer. The best I can do isn’t very good, just to say that it’s like boxing, sometimes a boxer bring their best fight and still just gets beat by their opponent (and people in the class struggle have even less control about when the fights happen than boxers do). That’s not a very satisfying answer and I/we definitely could/should learn more about the specifics of what went on in order to be able to give better and more detailed descriptions of the IWW’s terrible decline, but I don’t know that we’re going to be able to find definitive answers or where we can pinpoint and say “if they’d done this differently, that’s the real wrong turn.”

    take care,
    Nate

    ps- I’ll look for that ultrapolitical quote and will email it to you if/when I find it.

  10. mamos206 says:

    Thanks Nate, this is all really eye opening. I didn’t know a lot of this history, and hearing about it definitely changes my stance on the need for a separate organization back then.

  11. Ben Seattle says:

    mamos Aug 6:
    —————–

    “So the end to the story is really tragic: great organizers like Flynn and Parsons ended up in this decrepit Stalinist organization because they had nowhere else to go, every other political formation got smashed or destroyed. Imagine if they had built a political grouping of the best, most seasoned IWW class warriors in the nineteen-teens, capable of engaging in political agitation against World War I with the underground apparatus necessary to withstand the resulting repression? If they had done this the CPUSA would have had serious competition early on, and it may not have been able to suck in and later purge out or deform the best anti-authoritarian militants of the whole early 20th century upsurge.”

    mamos Aug 9:
    —————–

    “Was it lack of a clear analysis of what was going on in Russia, which caused a lot of folks, even anti-authoritarians, to romanticize the Bolsheviks? It’s not like the CPUSA was Stalinist from jump… at it’s very beginning it came out of a milieu that included a lot of anti-authoritarians… why were they unable to continue the IWW as a revolutionary organization and/ or build an alternative to the CPUSA instead of joining the CPUSA and building it?”

    “I think it’s important to answer these questions so that we don’t end up getting sidelined by authoritarian Leftists again in the future.”

    comment by me:
    —————–

    First, my apologies for my delay in replying to some of the interesting comments on this thread. This thread (and others threads on this site) have been on my mind, but I needed to make the time to comment.

    My view is that the CPUSA was the best-organized and most revolutionary organization that has ever existed in the United States–at least prior to its degeneration in the 1930’s.

    The mid-1930’s degeneration (ie: into subservience to the bourgeoisie: becoming the tail end of Roosevelt’s Democratic train) was directed by Stalin. Stalin was alarmed about Hitler’s rise to power and the eventual nazi invasion of Russia, and was desperate to make any concessions he could to the Western imperialists, in the hopes that they might make a deal with him to put a leash on Hitler).

    What lessons does this offer for the development of the kind of revolutionary mass organization which we need?

    The primary lesson, in my view, is that we need an organization which is resilient and resistent in the event of disorientation or betrayal by its leadership.

    The CPUSA lived, so to speak, by imported consciousness. The Soviet revolutionary experience was quite advanced (in the early period around 1920) compared to the experience of the class struggle here in the U.S. So it was natural that the bolsheviks had great influence in the development of the CPUSA.

    But if you live by imported consciousness, they you may die by imported consciousess. And this is what happened.

    When the Soviet revolution degenerated, this degeneration was eventually exported worldwide.

    The masses at the base of the organization must be aware of the struggles within the organization for its direction and destiny.

    This is the primary lesson.

    The masses at the base of this organization must participate, and be completely engaged, in these struggles. This is the only way that the disorientation or betrayal by the leadership can be successfully opposed.

    But doing things in this way requires that the “internal” struggles of a revolutionary mass organization also be public. This is because any mass organization–in which the members and supporters at the base are involved in struggle for the future of the organization–will not be able to keep these struggles secret from friend or foe.

    We must understand and accept this.

    I have written about this more elsewhere. My conclusion is that we should think of the primary organizational principle as being “democratic communication” rather than “democratic centralism”. Democratic communication means that all members and supporters of an organization (and all activists, including those outside the organization’s circles of influence) _have a right to know what the fuck is going on_ with the organization–and have a right to make their voice (and the weight of their bitter experience) felt.

    The operation of this principle, at the present time, is that criticism of revolutionary organizations must be _public_. The more revolutionary and important the organization is–the greater will be the corresponding need for _public criticism_ from activists. This public criticism will constitute a _conscious force_. And it is _only_ this conscious force that can keep the organization on the right track.

    All the best,
    Ben Seattle

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