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.
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!