Here’s What a General Strike Would Take

Hamilton Nolan April 1, 2020

Striking building workers raise their fists in salute during a rally in the Bois de Vincennes, Paris, 13th June 1936. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

You know that things are get­ting seri­ous when #Gen­er­al­Strike starts trend­ing on Twit­ter. It hap­pened last week, when Don­ald Trump was pub­licly mulling the idea of send­ing Amer­i­cans back to work by East­er, a move that would imper­il count­less lives. A gen­er­al strike has long held a strong utopi­an allure. But what would it take to actu­al­ly pull one off? We spoke to the experts about the real­i­ty behind the dream.

Amid a health­care cri­sis inter­twined with an eco­nom­ic cri­sis, with mil­lions of peo­ple fresh­ly unem­ployed and new wild­cat strikes and work stop­pages pop­ping off dai­ly, we are liv­ing through the most oppor­tune envi­ron­ment for mas­sive, rad­i­cal labor actions in many decades. Amer­i­ca has had great crises before, though — and it has nev­er had a true, nation­wide gen­er­al strike.

Is it even possible?

The gen­er­al strikes” in Amer­i­can his­to­ry have been con­fined to indi­vid­ual cities. The most famous was prob­a­bly the Seat­tle gen­er­al strike of 1919, when more than 60,000 (peace­ful) strik­ing union mem­bers induced a total shut­down of the city’s busi­ness. Peri­ods of intense social upheaval sparked oth­er city­wide gen­er­al strikes — most notably in 1934 in San Fran­cis­co, dur­ing the Great Depres­sion, and in Oak­land in 1946, just after World War Two. Joshua Free­man, a labor his­to­ry pro­fes­sor at the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York, notes that those suc­cess­ful strikes depend­ed on the com­bi­na­tion of estab­lished labor union coali­tions and a broad class anger, usu­al­ly at what was seen as an attack by busi­ness or police on legit­i­mate work­ing-class activ­i­ty.” A gen­er­al strike today would prob­a­bly require the same com­bi­na­tion. And while the union estab­lish­ment of 2020 is in some ways weak­er than it was a cen­tu­ry ago, the teach­ers’ strikes and oth­er mass labor actions of recent years show how quick­ly that can change.

That is a very tall order, and at the moment it seems to me quite unlike­ly,” Free­man says, but we are liv­ing in a moment of hyper­speed change. So who knows.”

Who knows?

Sat­u­rate them with urgency

The gen­er­al strike was cat­a­pult­ed into pub­lic con­scious­ness as a legit­i­mate pos­si­bil­i­ty ear­ly last year, when flight atten­dant union leader Sara Nel­son gave a speech (that went viral) call­ing on fel­low union lead­ers to con­sid­er it as a way to end the ongo­ing gov­ern­ment shut­down. Today, Nel­son still believes a gen­er­al strike should not be con­sid­ered an impos­si­bil­i­ty. Any labor lead­ers should be able to talk about this,” she says. A gen­er­al strike may seem over­whelm­ing, but it has the same fun­da­men­tals as prepar­ing for any strike.”

That means you have to sat­u­rate the think­ing of the gen­er­al pub­lic” with the impor­tance of the sit­u­a­tion, says Nel­son. In nor­mal times that is incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult, in a nation as big as ours; but right now, the public’s think­ing is already focused on the phys­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, and moral dan­gers of this cri­sis. If a nec­es­sary con­di­tion is, as Nel­son says, a wide­spread sense of urgency so intense that it feels like if you don’t take action right now, you’re gonna die,” we’re in luck — mil­lions of Amer­i­cans are hav­ing that very thought already.

Like Free­man, Nel­son believes any suc­cess­ful gen­er­al strike would have to be pow­ered at its core by unions. Not only do they have the exper­tise and infra­struc­ture nec­es­sary for the large-scale com­mu­ni­ca­tions, strat­e­gy, and logis­ti­cal needs of such an under­tak­ing, but they also have a key char­ac­ter­is­tic that oth­er groups don’t: They are broad-based orga­ni­za­tions of all types of work­ing peo­ple — all races, loca­tions, and polit­i­cal affil­i­a­tions, unit­ed by their iden­ti­ty as work­ers — rather than affin­i­ty groups that include cer­tain demo­graph­ics, but exclude oth­ers. That is vital, when it comes to pulling off some­thing that cuts across the lines that nor­mal­ly divide Amer­i­can soci­ety. You can’t rely on self-select­ing orga­ni­za­tions to run some­thing like this, because there are peo­ple who are going to feel that they’re not includ­ed,” she says.

Con­sid­er the alternatives

Ran­di Wein­garten, the head of the 1.7‑million-member Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers, thinks that pur­su­ing a gen­er­al strike today would be a mis­take — the focus, she says, should remain on Don­ald Trump’s hor­rif­ic and dam­ag­ing mis­han­dling of the coro­n­avirus cri­sis and the ongo­ing relief effort. I think we should not change the top­ic and let him have a fight about a nation­al strike,” she says. We should have the fight about his immorality.”

Wein­garten wor­ries about the ill effect a gen­er­al strike could have on those who do need to con­tin­ue work­ing, for the com­mon good. (Nobody I spoke with for this sto­ry advo­cat­ed an indis­crim­i­nate gen­er­al strike that would include health care or oth­er tru­ly essen­tial work­ers.) Instead of push­ing for a gen­er­al strike, the union leader advo­cates using more estab­lished path­ways like the courts. In the event that the gov­ern­ment were to order her mem­bers back to work before the dan­gers cri­sis had abat­ed, Wein­garten says her union would approach it as a health and work­place safe­ty issue, and seek assur­ances that mem­bers would not be at per­son­al risk. If we do not have that assur­ance, we would advise, at that moment in time, we’d go to court and try to stop the schools from reopen­ing,” she said. “[Work­ers] have a moral right and legal right to with­hold their ser­vices if their health and safe­ty are not a priority.”

Ener­gize the organizers

Still, vet­er­an labor orga­niz­ers say that con­di­tions today may be more con­ducive to unprece­dent­ed labor actions than they have ever seen before. One lit­tle-noticed stum­bling block, in fact, could be the estab­lished labor move­ment itself.

Lau­ren Jacobs, a long­time union orga­niz­er and staffer who now serves as the head of the Part­ner­ship for Work­ing Fam­i­lies, sees two chal­lenges. First, the chal­lenge of build­ing a sense of uni­ty in a huge class of work­ers who are wed­ded to var­i­ous iden­ti­ties oth­er than work­er” — blue col­lar and white col­lar, low­er class and mid­dle class, and even the new­ly unem­ployed. All of them must be acti­vat­ed in the face of a com­mon cri­sis, rather than see­ing them­selves in oppo­si­tion to one anoth­er. How does it start to get to the mid­dle class, to pro­fes­sion­al and man­age­r­i­al work­ers?” Jacobs says. You have to engage that stra­ta of the work­force. They are work­ers too, even though we often don’t talk about them that way.”

Jacobs believes that a gen­er­al strike would need the full pow­er of the labor move­ment to help orga­nize and take advan­tage of pow­er­ful but unfo­cused feel­ings of dis­sat­is­fac­tion and sol­i­dar­i­ty among the pub­lic. And while she ful­ly believes the labor move­ment still has enough inher­ent pow­er to do the job, con­vinc­ing it that it is pos­si­ble is the sec­ond chal­lenge. She is unafraid to talk about a wide­spread but lit­tle-dis­cussed issue: the fact that labor orga­niz­ers and union lead­ers them­selves, used to fight­ing los­ing bat­tles and being bru­tal­ized in var­i­ous ways by boss­es, can become gun-shy about rad­i­cal actions. Jacobs speaks of the impor­tance of not becom­ing a naysay­er,” and being hum­ble enough to rec­og­nize that major turn­ing points are not always pre­dictable in advance.

One has to do the same resist­ing that we work with our mem­bers on — to over­come, not let­ting fear rule them,” she says. How do you react when change is com­ing? Are we wed­ded to the insti­tu­tions we’ve crit­i­cized and strug­gled against?”

Fol­low the Money

Boyd McCamish, the orga­niz­ing direc­tor for the Mid­west­ern board of Work­ers Unit­ed, ticks off the harsh eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion that mil­lions are fac­ing already: unem­ployed or in ten­u­ous posi­tions, with a pal­try one-time $1,200 gov­ern­ment stim­u­lus pay­out and unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits that may or may not be enough to bal­ance out the lack of a rent freeze, and exis­ten­tial con­cerns over health insur­ance. The entire sit­u­a­tion, he says, will have the effect of allow­ing large num­bers of work­ing peo­ple to bare­ly cling to their mod­est means of sur­vival, as anger builds.

McCamish envi­sions one pos­si­ble sce­nario for a gen­er­al strike in the near future: If the coro­n­avirus caus­es an eco­nom­ic cri­sis sim­i­lar to (or worse than) the reces­sion of 2008, many old­er work­ers could be extreme­ly reluc­tant to return to work before they are absolute­ly sure it’s safe, giv­en their high­er vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to the dis­ease. Boomers are one of the system’s great­est social sta­bi­liz­ers because they con­sent to almost any­thing going on in the econ­o­my these days,” he says, but this might change that.”

If the nat­ur­al reluc­tance that is already appear­ing among many work­ers to risk their health in order to work were shep­herd­ed along — not only by the labor move­ment, but by state and local politi­cians, with wall-to-wall media cov­er­age — it is no stretch to imag­ine that most non-essen­tial busi­ness­es would not be able to reopen until work­ing peo­ple were good and ready. Though nurs­es and doc­tors are will­ing to risk their lives dur­ing this cri­sis, bur­ri­to-mak­ers and fac­to­ry work­ers very well may not be, espe­cial­ly if they feel sup­port­ed in that deci­sion by con­stant out­side rein­force­ment. That,” McCamish says, is as close as we would get to a gen­er­al strike.”

Care for each other

In any big labor action, the flashy parts can only exist with much work behind the scenes. Beyond the vis­i­ble things like pop­u­lar will and com­mu­ni­ca­tions infra­struc­ture, there are qui­et sys­tems of care that are crit­i­cal to pulling off a gen­er­al strike,” says Michelle Miller, an SEIU vet­er­an who runs Cowork​er​.org, an online orga­niz­ing plat­form. Peo­ple to acquire, pre­pare and deliv­er food. Main­tain morale through things like music, coun­sel­ing, and inter­nal con­flict res­o­lu­tion. Help with chil­dren. Tend to the sick. Deal with mon­ey, col­lect­ing it and allo­cat­ing it in a way every­one trusts. These are the sys­tems that sus­tain us over long peri­ods of hard­ship (and strikes are hard), and they give us an oppor­tu­ni­ty to mod­el the world we’re try­ing to cre­ate through our action.”

And remem­ber…

The strike is our tac­tic,” Sara Nel­son says. Sol­i­dar­i­ty is our power.”

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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