The general strike in US history: What it is and why it’s still needed

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Read our more recent article on the subject of general strikes: “The General Strike: vital tool of workers’ power”

During a protest on the evening that Wisconsin’s state senate passed its notorious union-busting bill, many union members and their supporters chanted “general strike!” They were not just venting about assaults on wages, benefits, and union rights. They were considering what it would take to stop the attacks.

Workers around the world — in the U.S. as much as anywhere — have often found the general strike to be a powerful weapon for improving their conditions or defending their rights. Can those pages from history be today’s playbook for the toilers itching to fight back?

Labor history 101. A general strike encompasses workers from a broad range of occupations and shuts down the delivery of all private and public goods and services in an area, such as a city or state. They usually occur at a time of heightened economic tension, when employers are demanding big concessions from labor, or even trying to destroy unions. Sometimes a defensive struggle of one union can spread as other unions — as well as non-union workers, students, and the broader community — join the fray to express solidarity and broaden the demands of the struggle to include their issues.

Many of these titanic battles have erupted on U.S. soil. The “Great Upheaval” of 1877 started as a railroad strike against wage cuts that spread from the east coast to the Midwest. Entire communities joined in, challenging the power of banks, manufacturing corporations, and even state and local governments. Federal troops pulled out of the South after Reconstruction quelled this uprising. But the nationwide wage-cutting craze was slowed considerably.

During the 1919 Seattle General Strike some 60,000 workers walked off the job in support of striking shipyard workers. Organized by the Central Labor Council, the strike brought city businesses to a standstill. For five days workers’ committees operated everything, from mass strike kitchens to essential services such as hospital deliveries. An historic lesson was taught — the working class can run society. And without the bosses!

In the depth of the Great Depression, in 1934, there were general strikes in San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Toledo. Industrial unionism was proving its mettle, and unions used audacious tactics, including sit-down strikes and roving pickets. When bosses compelled local governments to launch crackdowns or even summon the National Guard, many workers, both employed and unemployed, came to the defense of strikers. It was the ferocity and tenacity of those fighters that pressured Congress to pass the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, establishing the collective bargaining rights that so many are trying to preserve today.

Glimpses of a better world. The strikes above showed working people the tremendous power they have, and inspired them to imagine a better world, where exploitation is not inevitable and unending.

Unfortunately, these lessons are lost on many current labor officials. In Wisconsin, leaders of large teachers and public employee unions have reined in mass protest and put the kibosh on any talk of a general strike, instead focusing all energy into electoral recall campaigns intended to get more Democrats into office.

Embattled unionists and their community allies don’t need another pile of promises from politicians. So what can a general strike deliver?

For starters, such a strike can demand from the government real solutions to the economic crisis. It can declare: “It is time to create jobs for all, insure the survival of poor people, and provide quality public services like healthcare, childcare and education. It can be done — end the wars and tax the rich and corporate profits NOW! And hands off our collective bargaining rights!” When the working class doesn’t show up for work, thereby bringing the economy and all profit making to a screeching halt, these reasonable demands more easily penetrate the pro-corporate skulls of the politicians.

Also, the general strike can unite all the toilers. Public and private sector unions, students and workers, public employees and the people who need the services they provide, the employed and the jobless — all can come together and build solidarity that will last long after the big strike.

Yet the strike cannot achieve everything. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) places great importance on the general strike, sometimes calling it “the ultimate tool of change.” But there is also a crucial need for an independent political voice for working folks. The general strike can’t substitute for organizing a labor party that challenges the twin boss parties, or for building a revolutionary party that can provide the leadership to sink capitalism and put workers at the helm.

Building a weapon of mass inspiration. Concerted action by the whole working class, even in one city, doesn’t just happen. It has to be built for with rabble rousing and education.

A starting place is to spur confidence of rank and filers with job actions such as sick-outs, work slow-downs, picketing, or even one-day strikes. This can also push reticent union leaders to take bolder stands.

Another strategy is to organize for working peoples’ assemblies, described in the adjacent article, which can weld together the varied battalions needed to grow the current upsurge. These are the very folks who would garner the broad solidarity needed to make any strike a success.

Unionists can spice up local union or labor council meetings with education about general strikes. Presentations can also be done at colleges, worksites, and before community groups.

Some material for this already exists. The South Central Federation of Labor in Wisconsin formed an ad-hoc education committee that developed pieces about the basics of general strikes — the labor council in your area could do the same. Or resolutions can be taken to unions, like the one passed by UPTE CWA 9119, Local 1 in California that commits support for Wisconsin workers and any general strike called.

Working people are mad as hell about union busting, the lack of jobs and social services, and the fact that General Electric Co. paid zero in taxes last year. Escalating protests in scores of states, led by public workers, prove that they are ready to fight. Learning about one of the most powerful weapons workers can wield, the general strike, can help prepare them for the battles ahead.

Hoffman, a county labor council delegate for Wash. Federation of State Employees Local 304 in Seattle, can be reached at stevhoff@earthlink.net.

Also see: Pushing forward: Strategies for a resurgent labor movement

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