…most Americans have no knowledge of the history of the general strike in their own country, let alone familiarity with how it might work today.
By The Shutdown Collective Truthout | Report February 11, 2017
In the weeks immediately after Donald Trump won the presidential election, many people expressed serious concern about the content of his policies and platform. This isn’t surprising. Having lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million, Trump had the thinnest support of any incoming president in modern history. However, in the two weeks since he has taken office, these concerns have moved into a whole new realm. Widespread opposition to his administration is mobilizing now not merely around the content of his policies (what he does), but also the manner in which he is governing (how he does it).
President Trump has begun his term by governing by executive order, launching a rapid series of initiatives that threaten the democratic constitutional structure of the United States. These include: repeated attacks on the institutions of a free and independent press; silencing and summary dismissal of government employees, including the Attorney General; failure to divest personal business interests from the office of the presidency, or release his tax statements; the consolidation of power in a small circle of close friends (e.g., dismissing top military officials from the National Security Council to make room for political advisor and Breitbart executive, Stephen Bannon) and family (e.g., the appointment of his son-in-law Jared Kushner as a senior White House adviser).
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Perhaps most infamously, the administration has moved forward with a wide-reaching immigration and refugee ban that specifically targets people based on their religion and country of origin. Taken together, these signal a dangerously anti-democratic, even authoritarian impulse at the heart of the Trump administration.
We have seen this before. In other times and other places, authoritarian leaders have come to power through the manipulation of democratic institutions, often by exploiting major divisions within the general electorate. Even though they come to power in this semi-democratic manner, such figures recognize that they will not be able to maintain the broad-based support needed to remain in power, or accomplish anything while there. As a result, they frequently work to undermine the basic institutions of democracy, such as independent electoral commissions, the judiciary, and a free press.
Building the Resistance
History teaches us two things about measures such as these. First, they tend to spread. Tracking and targeting one identified minority community today makes it easier to do the same to others tomorrow. Second, once put in place, these measures are very hard to reverse. The slide from democracy to authoritarianism is downhill, and it is easier to stop a slide than to reverse one. Whether anti-democratic tendencies become full-fledged authoritarianism depends in no small part on what we, the general population, do, and when we do it. If we act quickly enough, affirming our willingness to stand up and resist, the downward slide can be halted.
People have already begun to do so. Mass protests are breaking out throughout the country. The Women’s March of January 21, 2017, attracted between 3.6 and 4.6 million Americans, roughly 1 person in every 100. These massive protests have started to have an effect, but we need to build more power and organize a more powerful resistance. Despite attempts by the Trump administration to dismiss and denigrate this show of popular resistance, throwing the time-worn insult of “paid protestors” and “outside agitators” at this truly grassroots upswelling of popular dissatisfaction, we are seeing an unprecedented national uprising. So where do we go from here?
Many are now calling for a general strike. One has been called for February 17, another on International Women’s Day on March 8, and yet another on May 1. What are general strikes? How do they differ from another protest march? What can they accomplish?
A general strike is not just another protest, rally or march. It is a strike. Unlike most strikes, however, it is not confined to one company, but rather cascades outward. In the past, such actions have targeted whole communities or cities, a complete industry, a sphere of gendered labor, or even an entire country. In the past, some general strikes have included employees in most or all public and private sectors, students, women, prisoners, even the military. In all cases, the aim of a general strike is not merely to protest, but to demonstrate the productive power of the people by halting all industrial and commercial activity for a definite period of time, and by interrupting normal patterns and subordinations of daily life, effectively bringing the economy and society to a standstill until demands are met.
One recent mass strike may serve as a good example for organizing a general strike in the United States. On May Day 2006, prompted by H.R. 4437 (The Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005), organizers called for a nationally coordinated “Day Without Immigrants” across major US cities. Between 1 million and 3 million people walked off their jobs and into the streets to demonstrate the importance of undocumented immigrant labor to the national economy. Organizers called for supporters to abstain from buying, selling, working and attending school. Undocumented families marched in the streets, and supporters of the boycott demanded amnesty and legalization programs for undocumented immigrants. In a show of international solidarity, labor unions and organizations around the world also engaged in a one-day boycott of US-made products.
In the first half of the twentieth century, general strikes were a useful tool for workers in the United States. However, extreme suppression and violent conflict with the state slowly removed this from the set of tools available to American workers. For instance, general strikes in the 1920s and ’30s were met with military repression, even massacres. In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, stating, “You may have to escalate the struggle a bit … just have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis.” He was assassinated less than one month after calling for this citywide general strike.
As a result of this history, most Americans have no knowledge of the history of the general strike in their own country, let alone familiarity with how it might work today.
The effects of a general strike can be dramatic and powerful for two reasons. States and corporations exercise an enormous power over our lives. However, they ultimately only do so because we permit this. Most of the time we don’t realize this fact because we are not unified enough to coordinate action against these more dominant actors. However, in the moment of a general strike, by freezing the social and economic gears of society, working people withdraw their consent to be governed. This demonstrates that the power over us is something we can take back.
But only if we do it collectively. This is the element of power-with. At the end of the day, the Constitution will not save us. Nor will public institutions on their own. The only thing that can prevent a slide away from democracy and toward tyranny is the collective action of the people. Through the mechanism of a general strike, we don’t just remind the government of this basic fact; we remind ourselves.
How to Organize and How to Strike:
General strikes are not easy to pull off. They take sustained organization, and rely on a foundation of already-existing relationships and cultures of resistance. So what can you do? Calling for a general strike on Facebook is a good start, but remember that general strikes do not spontaneously materialize just because someone puts out a call for one. They must be built from the ground, and everyone has a part to play in this effort. While there is no rulebook for how to proceed, here are some ways you can organize towards a general strike.
Identify your capacities.
To mobilize people, we have to organize them. Identify how much time you can give to organizing towards a strike action, and make a commitment to putting in the work. Have one-on-one conversations with your coworkers, friends and neighbors. Get to know the challenges they face in their workplace. Share why you care about a general strike, what it is, why it’s important to you and the people around you, and get them excited about joining in. While such conversations are hard work and take time, they are the backbone of strong movements. Set aside some time every week to have such conversations and attend an organizer training in your city if you can.
Expand your networks.
If only radicals, anarchists and communists struck, we wouldn’t have very much impact at all. While we need to hook into networks that we have existing access to, it’s important to remember that the long-term work of movement building requires us to organize outside our familiar networks, and to find points of leverage across coalitions, workplaces, ideologies and class lines. Are there proximate networks you can work with? For example, if you are a graduate student, can you help to organize student workers? Clerical staff? Janitorial staff? The Jimmy John’s cyclist who delivers your sandwich every night? If you are a warehouse worker, can you organize the truck drivers who come into the delivery yard every morning? Remember that you can start discussions about a general strike in all kinds of social spheres — in workplaces, schools, college campuses, outside a bar, churches, neighborhoods, on listservs, in homes, on buses and trains, etc. Pass the word along and create excitement around the fact that working people have a potential social power like no other!
Identify your networks.
Identify where you can be the most effective organizer: Where do you work, live or play? What networks are you already a part of, and who among them are most likely to be persuaded? Decide where you will focus your energy: Is your workplace inhospitable to the idea of a mass walkout? Does it feel daunting to walk out by yourself? Can you find two colleagues to strike with you? Five? Ten? Identify people you can move and turn out for a strike, and focus your energy on a few people at a time. If your workplace cannot be moved, organize your neighbors, your family or your friends.
Build an intersectional solidarity.
A strong general strike needs to stand against racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia and other intersecting forms of oppression. While it may be a common caricature for US working class subjects to be cast as cis, white, muscular men, the majority of the working class today is comprised of women and people of color. These are the people who are forced to endure the brunt of the state’s repression and discrimination, and endure subordinations from other, more privileged members of the class. A general strike needs to be as diverse as the working class it is composed of. The call for the March 8 International Women’s Strike envisions “a feminism for the 99%, a grassroots, anti-capitalist feminism — a feminism in solidarity with working women, their families and their allies throughout the world.” Remember that people of color are often the first to suffer reprisal, and that they go to work every day with an acute awareness of the precarious conditions under which they labor. Additionally, gender divisions of labor generally assign disproportionate burdens of unwaged domestic and care labor on women, queer people and trans people. To be truly general, a strike should also involve collective refusals of uneven care burdens, the collectivization of necessary care and domestic labors, and the imposition of such necessary labor on heterosexual men. The planning stages of a general strike should and must include the perspectives of women, immigrants, queer and trans workers, and workers of color across a range of industries. Build a defense accordingly.
Have a strategic conversation.
Have a strategic conversation to map out the communities, coalitions and organizations you can work with in your city. While disagreements between and among groups may be unavoidable, see if you can move organizations to embrace the diversity of approaches that may be necessary to build the coalitions we need. What do workers and socially oppressed communities want? How can the strike serve their interests? What existing campaigns can a general strike be tied to? Who can you work with? What work is already being done that you can help to amplify or contribute to? Remember, too, that the law is heavily pitted against workers. We are in a landscape where few workers are unionized, can easily be replaced, where legal protections are poorly enforced, and where few workers can carry out a strike without breaking the law. A general strike is a big ask under these conditions. If it is by workers and for workers, how will we mitigate the risk and harm we are asking all workers to bear?
Build a strike fund.
Not everyone can afford to walk off their job site without worrying about how their families will eat the next day. To make a general strike truly feasible for the working class, build a strike fund in your city or your workplace. The more money you can raise to support striking workers, the longer they will be able to strike, and the more damage we can cause to the economy.
Work with the unions.
Establishing relationships of solidarity between movements and labor unions is a crucial element of organizing a strike action. Today, only 11 percent of US workers are part of a labor union — down from 35 percent in 1954. Whereas unions used to be at the forefront of the labor movement, decades of attacks on organized labor have wrecked the power of working people across the country. While this has put labor on the defensive and under leadership that tends to shy away from bold moves like a general strike, working with unions remains an essential element of solidarity. Think about those unions that are under attack and have the strongest incentives to get involved: teachers, transit workers, postal workers, scientists — many workforces in the country are being scapegoated, attacked, punished, and threatened with mass layoffs. These specific challenges can help to establish links between movements and organized labor.
Identify the targets.
When we come together, we have the power to halt traffic, stop businesses and build power. Where will we go when we walk out of our workplaces? Downtowns are a frequent site for marches, but consider where you could have the most economic impact. What do we shut down? Where do we shut down? Where do you have the most leverage to halt commercial and industrial activity and to interrupt the normal subordinations of daily life? While the optics and symbolic elements of a protest — such as convening on the steps of the state capitol — may capture media attention, they may not be crucial nodes of economic activity. Think strategically about where you can have the most leverage. What industries have driven gentrification in our cities? What corporations have ravaged our rural areas? What companies have exploited our suburbs?
Target transportation corridors.
“Shutting down the economy” is not merely a symbolic expression; the economy has physical conduits. Airports, highways, ports and distribution centers are important choke points in the flow of industrial and commercial exchange. While unions may have historically been a crucial front of the general strike, a mass interruption of the daily flows of economic activity can also be a forceful way to achieve a strike action. Consider how much the commercial activity relies on the transportation corridors that bring goods into and out of the city every day. What would happen if the ports were blocked, the highways shut down and distribution warehouses occupied? Getting rail workers, longshoremen, truckers, aircraft workers, cab drivers and mariners on board is helpful in making such shutdowns more effective. Target the main thoroughfares of trade and remember that it’s going to be much more effective to shut them down the first time than the second time. The police may have figured out how to respond to highway shut downs by now, but they may be less prepared to organize repression if you can identify fresh targets they may not foresee.
A general strike will be the first of many.
If a February 17 general strike fails, let’s build for the next one on March 8, and then another on May 1. General strikes are not spontaneous. They build on existing worker militancy and resistance. Even “failed” strikes mobilize us, politicize us and embolden more forceful resistance in the next attempt. We have a movement to build, and this is just the beginning.
The time to strike is now. Power to the people!
Note: A “Guide to the General Strike” pamphlet based on an abbreviated version of this piece is available here. The Shutdown Collective encourages people to print these out and distribute them widely to support organizing toward a general strike.
Copyright Truthout permission
The Shutdown Collective came together to help build for the general strikes this spring and is composed of organizers from Minneapolis, San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City and Southeast Michigan.