General strikes and the city

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jef costello's picture
jef costello
Joined: 9-02-06
Sep 9 2017 09:20
General strikes and the city

A few ideas that I have been wondering about for a while, interested in your opinions as I haven't researched any of this.

I was reading an article about the Great Depression and one of the arguments it made for the severity of the Great Depression was that due to the migration to the cities for paid work work an economic downturn meant that people would starve which wasn't the case when they were on the land where although they nwold suffer, and had done in previous economic crises, they would at least be able to eat. That reminded me of an article I read about austerity in Greece where they said that those with relatives in the country and therefore access to food were much better off than those that didn't.

With the rise of just in time delivery (shops no longer hold much stock, for example supermarkets used to have warehouses in the back which were as big or bigger than the shop floor which is not the case now) the actual supplies of food available are lower too.

In the event of a general strike this means that appropriation would have to start pretty quickly and would have to involve the supply chain fairly quickly too.

I am not sure if this actually makes any difference compared to the past, it's not as if most workers had large stocks of food and savings to fall back on during strikes in the pst.

Uncreative's picture
Joined: 11-10-09
Dec 18 2017 20:47

I kind of feel like the problem of all the necessities for life being produced far away overseas isn't necessarily a permanent thing. If i sound unsure in any of this, its because im largely thinking out loud based on articles i half remember reading a while ago.

So, to the extent I understand it, a major motivation in all the offshoring of factories and manufacturing was the spatial fix, right, as a response of capital to organised, militant workers with high wages in europe/the US? The onshoring that people talk about, to the extent it exists, is taking advantage of either the desperation for a job, any job, that now exists in some places to pay low wages in terrible conditions at non-unionised jobs (so the spatial fix has done its job, to an extent, and broken those workers) or relies on tech and increased automation (so the cost effectiveness of the technological fix has been judged greater than that of the spatial fix at ensuring profits).

So, while the talk of onshoring being this great thing that means all the jobs will come back (yay jobs...) is not true in terms of the quality of the conditions and pay at those jobs, or in terms of the number of people needed to operate the robots that do the jobs, it is potentially true that places where physical objects that people need are made could end up coming back, perhaps?

While Just In Time Production and toyotism and stuff works well enough at the moment (and i imagine any onshored jobs rely on it as part of their supply chain), helping make up for the increased cost of global transport from a-b by minimising storage costs, it is kind of vulnerable to disruption (by its nature). In the places ive worked that rely on it (post rooms, mainly, but i lost those jobs due to automation!), the system only works because the workers there weren't organised (i mean, there was a "union", but...) and trying to fight management for anything. In the run up to any hypothetical revolution or whatever, this would, almost by definition, not be the case. Just in time production relies on a cowed working class who wont cause any disruption. Without that, you're going to want to build up some stocks in case of disruption. The days our deliveries were late due to postie strikes and we were all sat around chatting doing nothing, management were really stressed.

If 3D printing becomes more of a thing, and presumably we arent yet at the peak of its development, that also makes it easier to maintain a more localised production thats capable of producing a variety of things with a relatively small amount of machinery. Not necessarily high quality stuff, no iPhone 20s delivered during the first few months of the revolution probably, but certainly capable of making some useful stand ins for odds and ends, id have thought.

Food production is the big concern though i suppose. I keep reading about stuff like this and wondering about its potential over the next few decades for providing a slightly more robust food supply for cities. Generally it doesnt seem to be considered an adequate replacement for importing food to cities, certainly not at the moment, but having a large number of those shipping container farms in a locale would possibly make any local element of a general strike more resilient? Also, in the UK, any lack of supply for cheap labour for agriculture resulting from brexit would either mean getting local workers to do the work for equivalent wages, or developing some kind of technological fix for that too, with the technological fix being the better long-term prospect domestically (not many 18 year olds clamouring to work on a farm for sub-minimum wage in dangerous conditions, after all) and a useful tech product to sell abroad. So scope for some attempts by capitalists to make domestic agriculture more productive, i guess, which could maybe be useful during some general strike or what have you to help keep the cities going?

Obviously all these things need power, of course, and supplies of various sorts, so taking over as much of the power infrastructure (both big plants and vast offshore windfarms, and distributed networks of private solar panels and whetever else), as well as supply chain and warehousing as soon as possible would be a priority, but yeah. I suppose im wondering if the current distribution pattern of agriculture and manufacturing will hold, or if its a child of its time thats going to end sooner or later, and if these potential developments (or others i havent heard of) could offset the problems we would face right now to some degrees, like perhaps we'd double the time it takes for us to starve? Cheery thought.

Joined: 25-12-11
Dec 18 2017 23:40

This article from AWW might be of interest:

Here the capitalist dynamic is blatant: of 2.2 million workers in the sector only 0.5 million work in food manufacturers, whereas 1.6 million work in ‘non-residential catering’, meaning canteens and restaurants. While not all restaurant work is socially superfluous, it is nevertheless largely catering to individual consumption patterns – but then the food has to be cooked and prepared and the production process in a restaurant will not be much more or less productive than a collective kitchen for a domestic unit of 200 to 250 people. Productivity rates of restaurants can’t compare with those in factories, for example in four factories in Southall Noon Foods produces 2.4 million meals per week, employing roughly 3,000 workers including managers and admin staff and workers engaged in snack production. That equates to roughly 200 meals per worker per day. It is also interesting to note that these factories are not very mechanised but rather labour intensive.

For our insurrectionist, ‘blocking the economy’ and looting friends: out of personal experiences of working in the retail warehouse chain and in the food processing industry we can say that the average supermarket stock of groceries in London lasts for about 24 to 48 hours. The main warehouses are located outside of the city margins and might hold a maximum of two to five days of stock. Supply for the main food processing plants often comes from the agricultural hinterland (chicken farms, flour mills, potato farms) or from abroad (fresh fruits). The communisation-fun might last three days max!

Mike Harman
Joined: 7-02-06
Dec 19 2017 10:18

Also posted here with a short discussion: - might be worth resurrecting that thread, going to have a read myself.

Hieronymous's picture
Joined: 27-07-07
Dec 21 2017 05:54

The opening post is a very, very relevant question, especially as food shortages were exploited during the 9-day U.K. General Strike in 1926. News of hording panics and possible food shortages, referencing the situation in Britain 8 years earlier, were spread in a coordinated effort by bourgeois news media to undermine the 4-day citywide San Francisco General Strike in 1934.

Should we ever, hopefully, face the same problem again there are many lessons to be drawn from those past experiences. As for the States, one factor is that at least 40% of food goes to waste. If a general strike spreads with insurrectionary intensity into a revolutionary upheaval, communizing food production, distribution and consumption would clearly have to eliminate the market-based squander of resources. So in that process, there would be 40% more expropriated food into people's mouths. Yet the system would have to be completed reconfigured to meet the needs of a human community, as well as being ecologically sustainable, and the transformations in a mass strike would have to be the beginning of that process.

And I agree with Uncreative's mention of a critique of globalized production using Beverly Silver's categories of "fixes" to withstand crises, avoid overproduction, and stave off workers' power (the fixes being: 1. spacial, 2. technological, 3. product, and 4. financial). But the ability of capital to apply these fixes to food has many more limitations than other industries -- like textiles or electronics -- due to factors like climate, fertility of the soil, access to water, ease of transport, etc., etc. It would also depend on the level of food dependency or self-sufficiency of the region. But some current practices, like heavily chemical-dependent forms of agribusiness -- done on a mass scale like in California's Central Valley -- would have to be undone. I imagine in a revolutionary situation we'd begin to adapt local food production based on permaculture and its applicability to the environmental conditions of the regional watershed.

I think our understanding of the amount of "offshoring" of production from the core industrialized countries tends to get overblown. The "domestic content" in U.S. manufacturing still averages about 85-90%, compared with the global average of 72%. As the UN pointed out, “Large economies, such as the United States or Japan, tend to have significant internal value chains and rely less on foreign imports" (UNCTAD 2013, World Investment Report 2103, Geneva: United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, pp. 130-131). Concerning food, the U.S. is the world's greatest net exporter, so this would have to be taken into consideration in reconfiguring food distribution for the world.

An inspiring example of acts of solidarity involving material assistance like food comes from a veteran of the 1934 Minneapolis General Strike that began with Teamsters shutting down the movement of goods in that city. Jake Cooper was blacklisted for his involvement in the '34 Strike, so he took over his family grocery store. But using his connections with farmers and suppliers, and using his own beat-up tractor trailer, he was able organize sizable food caravans for the 1948 Minnesota packinghouse strike, the 1959 Wilson strike (in Albert Lea, Minnesota), and again he was able to coordinate hundreds of tons of food, with thousands of bags of groceries, delivered by a massive supply effort to support the Hormel P-9 meat packinghouse workers strike in 1985. And soon after, this same solidarity supply chain was able to move by caravan additional hundreds of tons of food to striking coal miners in Appalachia. Should we face a general strike again that reaches a level of success that paralyzes the economy, providing food would have to be among the top priorities.

From an investigation of the Supply Chain Research group, applied to a hypothetical blockade of everything (based on industry studies, like those of the American Trucking Associations among several others), we've come up with the following time frames for urgent shortages that would most likely occur in the U.S.:


    • Food shortages will begin to develop within 1 day
    • Supplies of essentials-such as bottled water, powdered milk, and canned meat-at major retailers will disappear in 2-3 days
    • Perishable food will run out in 3 days
    • Consumer panic & hoarding will cause runs on stores, depleting stocks 3 times as fast
    • Clean drinking water will run dry in two to four weeks (as deliveries of chlorine for purification occurs every 7-14 days)
    • All clean water supply will be exhausted & water will be safe for drinking only after boiling; as a result: gastrointestinal illnesses will increase


    • Most supplies are delivered daily to hospitals, pharmacies, nursing homes & other healthcare facilities using inventory-less just-in-time methods
    • Essential basic supplies, such as syringes & catheters, are not ordered until the supplies are depleted; these systems depend on trucks to deliver needed supplies within hours of order placement; supplies would run out within hours
    • Hospitals could share supplies inter-departmentally, but only for a few days
    • Hospitals & nursing homes will exhaust food supplies in as little at 24 hours; without warehoused supplies food would be unavailable after 24-48 hours
    • Some specialty diagnostic and treatment materials have effective lives of a few hours
    • Oxygen supplies would only last 7-10 days


    • Gas stations would run out of fuel in 1-2 days; busy stations get replenished multiple times in a single day; the average service station gets deliveries every 2.4 days
    • Within 1 week nearly all automobile travel will cease (think Mad Max)
    • Air, rail & maritime travel will be grounded within days; all mail delivery will cease
    • Fuel shortages will affect public transit, waste disposal & personal access to work, basic supplies for subsistence & healthcare
    • Lack of waste removal will cause spread of infectious diseases, vermin, insects & health problems; large areas will be literally buried in garbage
    • Large amounts of agricultural goods & processed foods will go to waste & create toxic conditions in turn

Retail & Banking

    • ATM machines & bank branches will run out of cash; ATM are replenished by armored truck every 2-3 days
    • Without cash, retail will cease in 1-2 days
    • Banks will shut in 1 day, unable to do routine procedure based on legal paperwork
    • Warehouses will close, ports will be unable to unload cargo, and manufacturing of needed commodities will come to a halt

As our comrades in the Angry Workers in the World caution to our erstwhile insurrectionary and communizationizing comrades, be careful what you wish for!.

There would be no time to waste, we would have to expropriate the expropriators if we would like to see an effective mass strike generalize into something more radical than mere widespread work stoppages and blockades -- and to stave off starvation and mass misery. The process of securing food and other vital resources for everyone during an indefinite general strike would entail a massive restructuring of society, as the means are realized in the ends.

Mike Harman
Joined: 7-02-06
Dec 21 2017 09:37
Hieronymous wrote:
Should we ever, hopefully, face the same problem again there are many lessons to be drawn from those past experiences. As for the States, one factor is that at least 40% of food goes to waste.

Another issue in at least most of Europe and the US is that a lot of agriculture is given over to grain for meat factory farming. Going to assume that no-one's going to volunteer for factory farm shifts, so switching that grain directly to human consumption is something that could be done pretty much immediately, also reduces water requirements per calorie on top of land.

Actual pasture livestock farming is often on land which might not be easy to convert so this doesn't even imply zero meat, just no industrialised meat - quinoa isn't good for calories-per-acre either.

Looking at as much as 10-15 times the calorie production for the meat that's replaced, just by cutting out a stage. This is something that could happen in days/weeks independently of more structural changes to food production (urban gardening, vertical farms etc.).

Joined: 25-12-11
Dec 21 2017 09:59

I think redirecting grain from animal feed to human consumption on a timetable of days to deal with food shortages is a little unrealistic, although I agree this is a potential solution to food shortages in the long term. Aside from the turnaround time on food/feed production from raw grain stocks, and issues with food safety and quality, what happens to all the animals that would normally eat that feed? Are they just left to starve or do we draw lots for who has to go into the factory farm and slaughter them all?


Mike Harman
Joined: 7-02-06
Dec 21 2017 12:33
jolasmo wrote:
what happens to all the animals that would normally eat that feed?

Eat them?

In practice it'd probably be a case of immediately stopping breeding, putting some animals out to pasture if it's feasible, eating the rest. That process could be started in days, I think you're right it's weeks/months before the grain could be redirected though so a question of how quickly it would actually kick in compared to repurposing space to urban gardening and similar (at least 3 months before first harvest?).

Joined: 25-12-11
Dec 22 2017 10:27

Aye fair enough, but OP was asking about feeding the city during a general strike as opposed to "After The Revolution" - I think this is an important question notwithstanding Uncreative's comments about the future of food security and production etc.

A mass slaughter of livestock in the days following the onset of a general strike/insurrection/whatevs could provide a glut of food that might help tide us over whilst we reconfigure the logistics of local food production - but it would be a pretty unpleasant task for whoever had to do the slaughtering!