The Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) has often advocated the use of general strikes to win social change, from stopping the Iraq war in 2003 to fighting union-busting in Wisconsin in 2011. As an organizing tactic, general strikes both showcase the power of workers and help build it. Today, as neoliberal globalization brings ruling class wealth — and arrogance — to new heights, resistance by ordinary people is surging. Mass mobilizations and strikes, including large-scale ones, are increasing.
A general strike involves labor in many industries, public and private. It shuts down economic activity by stopping the delivery of goods and services in an entire area be it city, state or country. It generally starts with unionized workers, but often spreads to the non-union, unemployed, students and community.
Workers mobilize on this large scale in response to major employer or government calls for concessions or attacks on unions. In the course of the struggle the actions often grow to include demands for all working people.
Regionwide walkouts grew along with the working class, from the 1800s to today. Some start spontaneously, others are called. In the U.S., a mighty example of the first kind was detailed by the great historian and Marxist W.E.B. Du Bois in his classic work Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880. During the Civil War, slaves left plantations in droves and aided the Union Army. Those who couldn’t conducted sabotage. This under-recognized general strike ensured the defeat of the Confederacy and won Black freedom.
Other regionwide actions are discussed in “The general strike in U.S. history: What it is and why it’s still needed,” by Steve Hoffman, Freedom Socialist, June 2011.
Internationally, the most successful mass strike, also not called by leaders, began the Russian Revolution of 1917. Women workers in Petrograd walked off the job on International Women’s Day, calling everyone out and sparking the rebellion that overthrew the czar.
Large work stoppages continued periodically throughout the 20th century, and have extended into the new one. In 2019 and early 2020 alone, there were at least five. Three are considered here.
French national strike. President Emmanuel Macron attacked the national pension system, which serves all workers, public and private. Macron’s “reform” drastically cut benefits and raised the retirement age for many. Those at the bottom, particularly women and the marginally employed, are hardest hit. The logical endpoint is privatization.
Led by transport workers starting December 5, the strike spread to teachers, airline staff, firefighters, ski lift operators, and healthcare, energy, communications and dock workers. Even doctors and lawyers, musicians and ballet dancers struck and demonstrated. Oil refineries were blockaded. Students, protesting years of cuts to universities, and the Yellow Vest anti-austerity movement supported the strike in the streets.
Transport strikes lasted over two months. The Paris Metro, national and international rail system and air travel were affected. Strikers held democratic assemblies to decide policy. The walkout hugely impacted the nation and economy and essentially shut Paris down.
While some industries got limited concessions, the overall “reform” was not ultimately stopped. But there was so much opposition in Parliament that the government had to put the law into effect by decree, exposing the undemocratic nature of French capitalism.
The fight did forge fresh consciousness of the power of labor solidarity. Participants took new initiative. While union heads kept announcing limited strikes, the ranks refused to go home and called on new sectors to join. These are skills to build on.
India walkouts short but huge. The reactionary government of Narendra Modi inspired one and two-day nationwide work stoppages in 2016, 2019, and 2020. Each was the largest labor action in world history up to that date, each larger than the last.
This year’s was an estimated 250 million strong. Called by the 10 major federations and a number of independent unions, it shut down government offices, transport, industry and the financial sector across India. It engaged union, nonunion and informal sector workers, farmers and students. It drew large numbers of women and Muslims.
Unions called for broad social programs and higher minimum wages. Above all they opposed Modi’s new nationality laws against Muslims. While the government’s anti-labor and xenophobic policies have not yet been stopped, the action built unity and warned that a giant is no longer sleeping.
Labor shakes Haiti. The country has been in a state of rebellion since July 2018 when Pres. Jovenel Moïse tried to raise the price of fuel by up to 50 percent. In this poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, massive demonstrations and a two-day nationwide work stoppage called by the opposition forced him to back down.
But people continued to mobilize throughout 2018 and 2019 as a corruption scandal unfolded. Members of the previous and current administration siphoned nearly $2 billion from the Petrocaribe fuel subsidy program sponsored by Venezuela. A national walkout brought the economy to a halt for two and a half months in September, October and November 2019. The only thing that has kept an increasingly authoritarian president in place is the backing of the Trump administration. But a reckoning is inevitable.
The future. 2020 has already seen a general strike of millions of women throughout Mexico on March 9 against femicide and discrimination. There’s a reason why mass walkouts have come back on the world stage. Capitalism has proven itself interested only in enriching a handful, while most people and the planet fall into ever deeper crisis.
Even when these walkouts don’t win everything they demand, they unite broad sections of the working class and assert workers’ power as few other actions can. An extended general strike, with bold political leadership, can raise the need — and ability — of workers to take over organizing society from the bosses. They can do it better.