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The 1911 Furniture Workers Strike, labor militancy and radical imagination after COVID-19

April 16, 2020

On April 19, it will be the 109th anniversary of the 1911 Grand Rapids Furniture Workers Strike. On that day in 1911, thousands of furniture workers went on strike, with demands for better wages, safer working conditions, an 8 hour work day, and the right to form a union.

The strike lasted for several months before it ended and while the 1911 Grand Rapids Furniture Workers Strike didn’t win every demand, it did demonstrate the power of organized direct action.

However, there are several lessons we can learn from the 1911 strike, lessons that we can build on. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the banality of Capitalism and we need to not allow things to go back to normal. We can’t be happy with just getting rid of Trump, instead we need to develop and employe a radical imagination about what can of a world we really want to live in.

The first lesson we can learn from the 1911 Furniture Workers Strike is the power of solidarity. Not only did thousands of workers go on strike, they took care of each other, provided support and mutual aid to make sure that people’s daily needs were met.

A second lesson was the importance of creating a narrative about what took place during the 1911 strike, particularly from the perspective of the working class. Viva Flaherty, a socialist, created a powerful narrative about what happened during the 1911 strike, which was in stark contrast to the narrative created by one of the furniture barons R.W. Irwin. For a look at the contrasting narratives, go to this link

A third lesson is that workers during the strike were not afraid to engage in militant tactics. When the furniture barons brought in scab workers, those on strike attempted to prevent them from entering the factories, even by throwing bricks at them. If you look at the 1911 strike monument in downtown Grand Rapids, you can see that the woman in the monument had bricks at her feet, just under her dress. We have to be willing to defend ourselves and our livelihoods and not allow those in power to try to crush us.

A fourth lesson we can take away from the 1911 strike is how the strike exposed the class warfare that the furniture barons engaged in against the workers. This class warfare was not just reflected in the tactics used to break the strike, but it was made apparent by the massive wealth gap between the workers and the furniture barons

A fifth lesson from the 1911 strike is that those with economic and political power were five steps ahead of the labor movement. The system of power in Grand Rapids changed the political structure of the city, by changing the ward system, in order to consolidate power

Expanding on the Lessons of the 1911 Grand Rapids Furniture Workers Strike

It is not enough to just learn from history, but to critically engage history and create a new vision for how to move forward. Those in power are certainly thinking about how to do things different once the COVID-19 crisis is over, which means that we must also strategize and radically imagine a different world.

First, we need to reclaim the radicalism of organized labor. The labor movement has such a rich history of fighting back in this country, from the early days of the Knights of Labor, to the Wobblies and the CIO. Hell, even the UAW started as a more radical union and did not shy away from engaging in direct action through the wildcat strikes that forced the auto industry to accept their demands, beginning with the 1936-37 Flint factory occupations. We need to utilize the tactics of strikes, walkouts, workplace occupations, boycotts and even a general strike, which are all actions that give us real power. These kinds of actions are being utilized right now and we cannot stop using them even after the pandemic.

Second, we need to redirect financial resources toward organizing where we are. For decades the labor movement has been pumping millions of dollars into electoral politics instead of organizing in the workplace and building capacity amongst workers to have the skills to do radical politics. Workplace democracy is arguably more important than voting in a system of representative democracy. We need to create thousands of workplace organizers so that anyone of us can take action when it is needed, instead of just waiting for the next election cycle to see change.

Third, we need to stop thinking about elections as the main strategy. Virtually every major struggle we can think of in this country – end of slavery, women’s rights, worker rights, civil rights, environmental justice and LGBTQ rights – did not come about from elections, they came about through direct action and struggle. Elections have to be seen as simply a tactic in the larger strategy and in a radically different way. We know how to turn people out for actions and to vote. Doing so does not require a ton of money, since most election money is spent on electronic advertising.

But before we turn people out to vote, we need to think differently about voting. If we have stronger coalitions of grassroots groups, we can create a collective platform that candidates must endorse before they get our support. This way they can’t get the pro-choice vote without the pro-LGBTQ vote, or the Climate justice vote without an Anti-Racist vote. Think of it this way, we don’t endorse candidates, they endorse/embrace our collective platform. We have to stop giving away our votes without demanding anything. Candidates need fight to get our votes.

Fourth, we need to have a broader, more radical vision beyond the workplace. What we saw during the Sanders campaign from the grassroots was a call for Medicare for All, Housing Justice, Climate Justice, immigrant justice, an end to White Supremacy, an end to state violence and the prison industrial complex, food justice and food sovereignty, an end to homophobia, transphobia, ablism and misogynistic patriarchy. We need to smash the system of Capitalism and build a movement of movements!

Fifth, we need to practice Mutual aid and Solidarity. It is amazing how many people are rising up taking care of each other during the COVID-19 pandemic. Everything we need is already in our community. We know how to do this work and we can continue to practice new ways of taking care of each other outside of what bell hooks calls the white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy.

Lastly, we need to create new and radical ways of living. This one might be the hardest for us to think about, since most of us don’t know of any other way of organizing society. However, there are lots of examples from neighborhoods to villages and even cities. These forms of cooperative systems of living can be learned from indigenous communities, worker-run collectives, anarchist struggles and even religious communities like the Quakers and other liberation movements.

This is not just a pipe dream, but a real possibility that we need to serious investigate in our struggles for greater justice. These new ways of living with each other also might not be enough, especially considering the urgency we face through climate change. If humanity is to have a future, we have to radically rethink how we are going to both resist the current systems of oppression and how to form new and liberating systems based on justice, cooperation and revolutionary love.

Returning to normal is not an option!

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