The Creative Times Reports and The Guardian recently published an article by rapper Boots Riley of The Coup. In this short piece, Riley discusses the Fight for $15 living wage movement and what he feels are the best tactics.
Riley states that fighting for living wage legislation is not enough, and simply causing a headache for powerful people through protests is not enough. He instead believes that workers should form entirely new unions and engage in extended strikes that would completely shut down the corporate machinery until the workers’ demands are met.
In general, his position is right. If workers want a living wage, they need to inflict pain on the wallets of the ruling class. They need to shut down production until the corporate executives give in. Living wage legislation that takes effect at a snail’s pace won’t do you any good if the water bill is due at the end of the month.
However, something he said didn’t sit well with me.
The New Left did things differently: no more showing people that they could stop the machinery of industry, forcing the bosses to meet demands or lose profit. Instead, their goal was to cause enough of a scene on the street that the media would cover it and embarrass administrators or politicians into meeting demands. This approach may have had some success at the time, but it’s not the model that today’s workers should use.
Our power lies not in the streets but at the pivot point of capitalism : the workplace.
Unfortunately, this position seems common. I have to disagree. Firstly, there are many working-class issues that cannot be solved in the workplace alone. Better public transit, for instance, requires that workers mobilize in the streets. Even struggles for better public services for workers can and will raise class consciousness. The working-class isn’t stupid, they know who really controls their local government and its public services. And they know why the wealthy would bend over backwards to prevent them from having things like better medical care or a better bus system.
Secondly, to describe New Left tactics as simply shaming and embarrassing powerful people is inaccurate. If one reads Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals and Reveille for Radicals, you will see that he organized people to do more than just shame the rulers. He organized people to shut down business as usual in the community. His people did everything to obstruct or stop corporate and government machinery from running.
Thirdly, where would modern organizing be without the contributions of the Civil Rights Movement? Who can forget activists clogging up the jails to the point that the local police and courts couldn’t function? Do you think the civil rights marches were just for show? Do you think violating the rules of segregation was about embarrassment? No, it was intimidating to powerful white people. The idea that black people were no longer controllable scared them into making at least some concessions.
Finally, the workplace is indeed the turf of the workers, but so are the streets. Most people on the streets are workers. We don’t have fancy resorts or golf courses to spend our free time in. We hang out on the sidewalk, on the basketball courts in urban areas, in city parks kicking a soccer ball around, or even outside shops with our friends. That is why the ruling class has been militarizing the police in recent years. They need to control the streets in order to control the working-class. So many black people have been gunned down in cold blood by police on the street. Not in the workplace, in the street. Eric Garner died on the street. Sean Bell died on the street. Even poor white people like Kelly Thomas and James Boyd were killed on the street. Why? Because the streets are ours and the capitalists know that if they don’t control the streets, they don’t control us.
And what about the unemployed? Despite my best efforts, I have never had steady work. There has to be a place for the unemployed to join the struggle. Considering that, in many cities, close to 20 percent of 18 to 24 year olds are out of work, it would be unfair to the youth to exclude the streets or give them a secondary role. After all, someone has to organize the streets to support the strikes in the workplaces. Where would so many of the great historical strikes be without popular support from the streets? The Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions of the Arab Spring were won by workers stopping business as usual in both the workplace and the streets.
To ignore the power of mobilizing workers in the streets would be to ignore one of our class’ most valuable weapons. Yes, occupy the workplaces. Shut down production at work. Just don’t forget that the workplace is only one of the fronts that the class war is being fought on.