Is America Ready for a General Strike?
Photo by Luc Kordas
The beginning of Donald Trump's presidency will be remembered not just for his provocations, but for the powerful responses they inspired. A day after Trump took the oath of office, millions of people gathered in Washington, D.C., and across the world for a Women's March. Thousands more mobilized at airports to assail Trump's Muslim ban. Yemeni business owners, their shops shuttered, knelt in prayerful protest in front of Brooklyn's Borough Hall.
And it's not just Trump and his enabling cast of Republicans who are feeling the heat. Earlier this month, thousands of people showed up at Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer's home in Park Slope, demanding to know why he had voted for three of Trump's cabinet picks. More than 200,000 people deleted their Uber accounts after the rideshare app turned off surge pricing in an apparent effort to break a taxi workers' strike protesting the Muslim ban, forcing the company's CEO to resign from Trump's economic advisory council. New York City students walked out of their public school classrooms to protest the confirmation of a billionaire Michigan lobbyist as education secretary. These demonstrations have been mighty, but even if they continue, are they enough?
Renowned novelist and critic Francine Prose, writing in the Guardian last week, proposed a national general strike: a collective withholding of labor and purchasing power in opposition to Trump.
"Let's designate a day on which no one (that is, anyone who can do so without being fired) goes to work, a day when no one shops or spends money, a day on which we truly make our economic and political power felt, a day when we make it clear: how many of us there are, how strong and committed we are, how much we can accomplish," she wrote.
Such talk has been spreading at least since the day after the election. National Women's Liberation called for a women's strike on Inauguration Day, which some seven thousand people participated in. Facebook events have cropped up in multiple cities proposing a general strike on February 17, the Friday before Presidents Day, a call echoed by producer David Simon. Strike4Democracy, a group of online organizers, has been disseminating information across social-media platforms to help strikers coordinate. The organizers behind the mammoth Women's March have said they're planning a strike, with the date to be announced. A group of prominent radical feminists, including Angela Davis, has called for an international women's strike on March 8. And at least one union, the SEIU United Service Workers West, in California, is calling for a general strike on May 1, International Workers' Day.
"If you could summon all workers in all industries to stop working, you will have accomplished social change," Thai Jones, a historian and expert on radical American social movements at Columbia, told the Voice. "The idea is that it would be the least violent, most effective, egalitarian mode to revolution."
Large-scale general strikes are far more common elsewhere in the world: Last year, thousands of women in Poland went on strike to protest that country's abortion laws. Workers in Argentina declared a general strike in 2014 to demand higher wages and lower taxes. Last year, millions across India struck for higher wages in the public sector, an effort that led to a raise in the minimum wage for low-skilled workers. The French are famously amenable to general strikes — in 1968, millions of students, members of the middle class, and blue-collar workers alike went on strike for a full month, effectively halting the country's economy, including newspaper distribution, airlines, and railways, bringing the state to the brink of collapse. The unrest occurred in tandem with global protests and strikes worldwide, in places like Senegal, Italy, Spain, and Mexico; hundreds of student protesters were killed in Mexico City ahead of the 1968 Summer Olympics, where John Carlos and Tommie Smith would raise their fists in a Black Power salute from the medalists' podium.
But while strikes have been a tool of protest for the oppressed and working classes in America since at least the mid–nineteenth century (W.E.B. Du Bois described black slaves' abandonment of white plantations during the Civil War as a strike), they have, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, mostly been limited to efforts made by labor unions opposing workplace changes such as pay cuts, though they have on occasion garnered significant outside participation. In 1934 San Francisco's longshoremen struck, and citywide, workers joined in. Sanitation workers in New York City waged prominent strikes in 1968 and 1981, the latter a walkout that lasted seventeen days. In Oakland, Occupy protesters shut down the port in 2011; a union strike there did likewise in 2015, and some local businesses shut down in solidarity.
Yet there are few examples of broad ruptures that spread beyond the interests of a single sector. Joshua Freeman, a history professor at CUNY's Graduate Center, cites the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 as the closest the United States has come to experiencing a general strike on a national level. It began in West Virginia after the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad company slashed wages by 10 percent, the second cut in under a year. Workers in Martinsburg refused to operate trains, shutting down the railways for four days. The governor dispatched the militia in an attempt to end the strike by force — and, when it was unsuccessful, called in federal troops.
The country was four years in to an economic depression, and the abuses of railroad company executives, Freeman says, represented a "new class at variance with American values as [workers] understood them."
"In some cases, they hated railroad companies [because they were] monopolies, an imperialist symbol of a new industrial autocracy undermining American democracy," Freeman notes, adding that the political climate then is similar to ours today, one defined by "widespread disagreements about the heart of what this country is or should be, and how it's changing."
The anger spread quickly to other industrial employees in fourteen states across the Northeast and Midwest, including iron and steel workers, factory hands, miners, and even black sewer workers seeking pay equal to that of their white peers. Cities like Chicago, Toledo, Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Reading, Pennsylvania, all saw citywide general strikes with stores and factories shutting down. At the height of the protests, more than 100,000 people are thought to have joined. At least half of the country's freight was halted. Around 100 people were killed in bloody confrontations with state militias. At least 1,000 more were jailed. Despite widespread support and sympathy for the workers, their pay was not raised, and the government beefed up militias and strengthened anti-union legislation, foreshadowing the anti-union sentiment among corporate bodies that would give rise to the labor movement — and positioning strikes as workers' chief weapon.
But the first action to be explicitly remembered as a "general strike" in the U.S. happened in Seattle in 1919, having begun as a maritime strike provoked by wage grievances in the aftermath of World War I, with shipyard workers walking out on January 21 of that year. A couple of weeks later, on February 6, most of the city's other unionized workers — some 65,000 people — went with them.
Cooks who were on strike made hot meals that were delivered to communal food halls, and people hauled laundry and milk across the city. Streetcars stopped running. War veterans patrolled the streets, unarmed, to discourage conflict. The city was essentially shut down for just under a week.
Ultimately, the shipyard workers didn't earn higher wages as a result of the strike. But Jones says Seattle's rejection of capitalism carried symbolic weight: "In that time you had people policing their own communities, feeding and clothing one another. When you stop [normal wage labor] and see in practice that there are possibilities out there, that's the power of a general strike."
Moving down the left coast, the United Service Workers West's call for a general strike on International Workers' Day is meant to oppose Trump's immigration policies and threats to women's reproductive-health rights. Citing California's long labor history, union president David Huerta said the present circumstances bring to mind the widespread protests against harsh immigration legislation introduced in 2006 by Wisconsin Representative James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Republican, which would have required the construction of a 700-mile border wall, hastened deportations of undocumented immigrants, and criminalized those who house them. In Los Angeles, half a million people marched in the streets and staged a "day without an immigrant" strike, SEIU union members among them. The bill was defeated in the Senate.
"If we take that lesson from 2006, it's possible to re-create that considering the current crisis we are living with in this country with this new administration," Huerta said.
Unions are relatively strong in New York, and some have vocally opposed Trump and staged small-scale strikes, namely the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, whose members are largely black, brown, and Muslim. The union organized a one-hour strike during demonstrations at JFK last month and released a searing statement of opposition to Trump's targeting of Muslims: "We know all too well that when government programs sanction outright Islamophobia, and the rhetoric of hate is spewed from the bully pulpit, hate crimes increase and drivers suffer gravely. Our Sikh and other non-Muslim brown and black members also suffer from anti-Muslim violence. We stand in solidarity with all of our peace-loving neighbors against this inhumane, cruel, and unconstitutional act of pure bigotry."
A spokeswoman from the Taxi Workers Alliance said that while any official endorsement of a general strike would require a membership vote, the union remains supportive of ongoing resistance to Trump's shaky immigration ban.
Meanwhile, the property workers union 32BJ SEIU sent members to a march a day after Trump signed the Muslim ban — Rabeeya Khan, a Muslim airport worker and union member, was assaulted by a man who invoked Trump in January. And members from the city's construction unions, including Teamsters Joint Council 16 and Mason Tenders District 9 (whose national president met recently with Trump), have all participated in marches. (Calls to some of the city's most prominent unions — including Teamsters Joint Council 16 and 32BJ SEIU as well as 1199 SEIU and the Transportation Workers Union, whose 33,700 workers walked out on the job in a 2005 strike, stranding millions of New Yorkers four days before Christmas — were unreturned by press time.)
Unlike with many general strikes of yore, the calls for this month's seem to have begun outside union channels immediately after the election, though it's not clear who first proposed the idea. One Facebook group created for the February 17 strike has 21,000 RSVPs.
"We're working to organize this into a targeted strike," said Andrew Thornebrooke, a graduate student at Fordham who is involved in organizing the February 17 event in New York. "We're redefining our demands to be targeted toward [New York] senators and representatives to reaffirm that their office will uphold the Constitution and actively oppose any attempt by [the Trump] administration that contradicts that."
A number of people who have pledged to strike this Friday will do so in nontraditional ways. Michelle Rodino-Colocino, 47, an associate professor in media studies at Penn State and Strike4Democracy organizer, rescheduled meetings set for Friday, delayed an afternoon class to give students a chance to participate in demonstrations, and won't make any purchases on the day of — an alternative form of protest those who cannot safely miss work are being encouraged to participate in. At Penn State, campus demonstrations are planned during students' lunch hour.
"I think you're going to see a significant turnout of people who are gonna do a variety of actions. It will show that there is reason to continue building the strike as a means to stand up as citizens," said Rodino-Colocino.
Despite the enthusiasm on the internet, Freeman believes a national general strike is unlikely to happen quickly. "I certainly could see in heavily blue states demonstrations of workers stopping work for a while, but I think it would be limited," he said. "Workers have a whole range of opinions and many work under contracts. Non-unionized employers have the right to say 'you're gone' if you go on strike. There are risks involved. I don't see the level of unity or agitation that would lead to this right now."
Jones suggests that any national general strike today would have different consequences given the outsourced, globalized nature of the American economy. "A one-day general strike is not going to bring American capitalism, imperialism, or Trumpism to its knees," he says. "What it will do is provide a vision for an alternative order."
Talk of a general strike "speaks to a form of politics that opposes traditional leaders and emphasizes individual and communal action," Jones says, such as the community-based leadership seen at Standing Rock and, on a smaller scale, during Occupy Wall Street. "The logical reaction [to Trump] would be to organize within the Democratic Party and be thinking about midterm elections and to be doing standard party organizing. This is not just a reaction to the outcome of an election but the sense that there is something much bigger at stake, as represented by Trump. This is a mass outburst of symbolic resistance."
In this light, lessons for a general strike in 2017 might be gleaned from the examples of Seattle in 1919 and Oakland in 1946. That citywide general strike came as veterans were returning home from a global fight against fascist regimes abroad; costs were high, wages were low, and corporate profits were booming.
Retail clerks picket for fair wages at Kahn’s and Hastings department store, November 1946.
Image courtesy of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment Library, UC Berkeley
The strike began, like many social movements, with women. Low-paid retail workers at the Hastings department store walked out on October 23, 1946, and were joined by women who worked at another store, Kahn's, which was across the street. Teamsters soon joined their picket, and support for their efforts spread. The city ramped up policing in an attempt to break the strike, in one instance running over a man with a tank. His injuries radicalized the rest of the city: In early December, some 130,000 workers withheld their labor for two full days. Most stores (excluding pharmacies and food markets) were shut down; bars were allowed to stay open provided they put their jukeboxes on the street, for everyone to enjoy. The city pledged police neutrality in future labor disputes and most people went back to work two days later, but the retail strike continued for another five months.
Today, even though union leadership may not be eager for a general strike, some rank-and-file members see an opportunity for a broader movement.
"If we focus our attention on the person Trump, then our focus is too narrow. It's not like if we impeach Trump we get rid of systemic racism, institutional racism," said Jia Lee, a sixteen-year veteran public elementary school teacher at the Earth School in the East Village.
Lee recently ran an unsuccessful campaign against United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew as part of the Movement of Rank and File Educators, an opposition caucus within the union.
UFT members are prohibited from formally striking, and Lee is skeptical that big unions entrenched in the Democratic Party will get on board for a general strike, especially one organized hastily. But that might not be a problem, she said, since the real value of such a strike could be as a test run for would-be activists who have just begun attending marches and want to know what's next. Lee says the widespread dissent surrounding the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as education secretary is just one example of an awakening.
"It's parents, grandparents, students in college who grew up in the No Child Left Behind era, whose eyes are open. They're flooding their senators' offices to the point they've been pressured to vote no. It's pretty powerful," Lee said. Building on this momentum, a general strike could eventually be successful, even if it takes a few tries.
"People have decided they need to be really loud and in mass levels, a mass movement of people saying, 'We're not going to be a part of this if this is how you're going to play,' " said Lee.
Christian Walker, 24, works at a Chipotle restaurant in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and secured time off to participate in the February 17 strike. Walker is Native and grew up near Flint, where tap water is still unsafe to drink. The Dakota Access Pipeline, restrictive immigration policies, and the rights and safety of the LGBTQ community are among Walker's chief concerns, and if strikes continue, the Michigander plans to keep walking out.
It's a risk. But that's the whole point.
"Under Trump and all the people pulling the strings, Bannon and the alt-right who are becoming empowered, it's a lot more important to fight for these rights," said Walker. "This was an in-between job. It's more important for me to fight for these things than to keep my job."