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Sunday, January 31, 2010

198 More Sundays: A Day Without Insurance Employees

I'm going to stick with economic noncooperation this week since I think that's an integral part of an intervention strategy to force Congress to pass real reform, as I outlined the other day.  I've generally thought that a combination of boycotts and strikes were the real key to success, hindering our corporate overlords' ability to function.  This general tactic has been employed in a variety of struggles, including for marriage equality, Indian independence and even resistance campaigns against the Nazis.

Today's gonna be a three-fer because I'm not entirely sure if there is a single form to use.  As Sharp observed:

The broad categories which must be used in classifying the many methods of nonviolent action are too rigid to suit the reality...Consequently, in every general class and subclass--such as the strike--there are some methods which also have one or more characteristics of another class (or do so under certain conditions) or which differ in at least one respect from the general characteristics of this class.

This is especially true in the case of the strike.  Normally, the strike is a temporary withdrawal of labor, but there are methods in which the withdrawal is, or at least intended to be, permanent.  Also, some methods are combinations of boycotts and strikes.  Other methods operate by withdrawing labor but do so only symbolically, so that they might also be included within the class of nonviolent protest and persuasion.

I have in mind some application of examples from three subclasses: Restricted Strikes, Multi-Industry Strikes, and Combination of Strikes and Economic Closures.  First, Method 112. Reporting "sick" (sick-in).  This is a form of restricted strike (i.e., not a total or general work stoppage):

Where strikes are prohibited by law, decree, or contract, or are not feasible for other reasons, workers may achieve anything from a slowdown of production to the equivalent of a full strike by falsely claiming to be sick.  This is an especially useful method when sick leave has been granted in the contract or law but strikes have been prohibited.

A great deal of feigned illness was reported among African slaves in the southern United States, sufficient to have had considerable economic impact.  Sometimes the illness ratio was nearly one sick to seven well.  Slaves were frequently sick on Saturday but rarely on Sunday, which was not a normal workday; more sickness occurred when the most work was required.

Although there was a great deal of genuine illness among the slave population, it is also clear that much of it was feigned in order to get out of work, to avoid being sold to an undesirable master, or to get revenge on a master (by feigning a disability while on the auction block and hence fetch a lower price).  Women pretending pregnancy received lighter work and increased food.  The Bauers write:

Of the extent to which illness was feigned there can...be little doubt.  Some of the feigning was quite obvious, and one might wonder why such flagrant abuses were tolerated.  The important thing to remember is that a slave was an important economic investment.  Most slave owners sooner or later found out that it was more profitable to give the slave the benefit of the doubt.  A sick slave driven to work might very well die.

One population that would be very good to have join in our efforts is employees of the health insurance carriers themselves.  Of course a full-blown strike in, say...billing or customer service likely is problematic for a number of reasons, but what if they used sick-ins, perhaps in the form of a "rolling" strike, to create work slowdowns in conjunction with stoppages in other tangential industries? 

Of course I wouldn't limit this form to just insurance workers.  An epidemic of HR676 Flu could have great impact on any industry, and the government.

We might also try a tactic used quite frequently and successfully outside the United states: 117. General strike (multi-industry strikes):

The general strike is a widespread stoppage of labor by workers in an attempt to bring the economic life of a given area to a more or less complete standstill in order to achieve certain desired objectives.  The method may be used on a local, regional, national or international level.  Wilfred Harris Crook defined the general strike as "the strike of a majority of the workers in the more important industries of any one locality or region."
While a general strike is usually intended to be total, certain vital services may be allowed to operate, especially those necessary for health...Crook distinguishes three broad types of general strike--political, economic and revolutionary.

A political general strike has the goal of achieving specific concessions from the government.  One great historical example is the series of strikes in 1893, 1902 and 1913 in support of electoral reforms in Belgium--actually, Belgians seem to love this Method for lots of goals.

Belgium has a long tradition of mass industrial strikes. In 1886 a great series of strikes broke out first in the neighbourhood of Charleroi, then in Liége and over a large part of the Walloon provinces. The main demand was universal suffrage; but there were economic demands as well in some places.

Then in May, 1891, a mass strike of some 125,000 workers put forward a demand for changes in the electoral system. In April, 1893. another strike, embracing about a quarter of a million workers, broke out around a similar demand. The outcome was a universal, but unequal, franchise, the votes of the rich and “cultured” counting for two or three times those of workers. Dissatisfied, the workers called another mass strike nine years later, demanding a complete revision of the Constitution.

An even bigger strike – in which 450,000 workers took part – was called by the Socialist Party and trade unions to achieve electoral reform in 1902, and again in 1913.

Another general strike, which wrested a forty-hour week and paid holidays from the capitalists, took place in 1936. In 1950 a general strike led to the abdication of King Leopold.

In 1958-9 the coal-miners of the Borinage spontaneously began a general strike not merely for wage demands but for the nationalisation of the mining industry.

Our reformist tradition in the United States also includes general strikes, usually in support of labor, such as the Seattle General Strike, the San Francisco General Strike and Textile General Strike.  It wouldn't be much of a stretch for Americans to use such tactics to achieve other forms of social change like universal healthcare.

The final strike Method I've been musing about is 118. Hartal (combination of strike/economic closure).

The hartal is an Indian method of nonviolent action in which the economic life of an area is temporarily suspended on a voluntary basis in order to demonstrate extreme dissatisfaction with some event, policy, or condition.  It is not used to wield economic influence, but to communicate sorrow, determination, revulsion, or moral or religious feelings about the matter in question.  Although the form of this method is largely economic, the effect is one of symbolic protest.

The hartal is usually limited to a duration of twenty-four hours; it may rarely be extended to forty-eight hours or even longer in an extremely serious case.  The hartal is usually city-wide or village-wide, although it may occur over a more extended area, including the whole nation.  Generally speaking, there is greater emphasis in the hartal than in the general strike on its voluntary nature, even to the point of laborers abstaining from work only after obtaining permission from their employers.  Also, shop owners and businessmen fully participate by closing their establishments and factories.

This is one of the forms of nonviolent action known to ancient India, where it was used against the prince or king to make him aware of the unpopularity of a certain edict or other government measure.  The hartal is also used at a time of national mourning.

Gandhi employed this ancient method in resistance movements he led.  He often used the hartal at the beginning of a struggle with the intent of purifying the participants in the struggle, of testing their feelings on the issue, and arousing the imagination of the people and the opponent.  It was used, for example, at the beginning of the nationwide satyagraha campaign in India against the Rowlatt Bills in 1919, and at the beginning of and during the 1930-31 satyagraha campaign for independence, especially to protest the arrest of important leaders.

Gandhi emphasized the inward readiness required to begin a struggle.  Can we implement an Americanized version of hartal?  Perhaps it would lack some of the explicit spiritual aspects (attending vigils could count), but include the voluntary component (no union asking membership to strike), the notion of asking for permission to not work (maybe in the form of using sick or personal time), the limited duration (24 hours) and intent (protest more than true economic intervention).  Maybe use this specifically in DC as opposed to nationwide?

As usual, I don't have a specific formulation of how to apply these just yet, and am looking for other people's thoughts on their practicality and usefulness particularly in the fight for HR676.  I do think peace and justice activists need to consider updating tactics and strategy to work more effectively in the current political, economic and media environment, and one or more flavors of strike really ought to be part of the discussion.


PS--I appreciate the feedback from some commenters at Great Orange Satan about my timing of these posts, so introduction of new Methods might move to a day other than Sunday.

(Post at Pax Americana, Dohiyi Mir, Green Mountain Code Pink, Corrente and Daily Kos.)

January 31, 2010 in Pax Americana, Why We Fight | Permalink


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