In These Times - April 1, 2020

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.”

... 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. ...
Read full report at In These Times