Originally published at Jacobin by Erik Forman on February 17, 2017.
A General Strike Is Possible
Calls for general strikes reflect the extraordinary times we live in. The Left should join in organizing them, not dismiss them.
Calls for general strikes began as soon as Trump was elected. They surfaced first on the traditional platforms of the labor left, and slowly crept toward the center, arriving eventually even in the Washington Post and Cosmopolitan.
For the radical left, this has been baffling — usually, the term “general strike” was only discussed on the fringe of the Left and labor movement. What could this mean, and what could it become?
So far, most commentators on the Left have been dismissive of calls for a general strike. This is the wrong orientation. A general strike is possible, but far from inevitable. The Left must do everything it can to make the move toward strike action successful.
The Moment and the Movement
To understand of the surge in interest in the general strike and its political potential, we have to understand what the term means to the millions of people who are likely hearing it for the first time in the pages of the corporate press or on a Facebook feed filled with anti-Trump messaging.
The call for a general strike has appeared because millions of people have lost faith in the political system. With a revanchist, reactionary, anti-democratic regime in power and moving fast, it’s clear to millions of people that disruptive mass protest — throwing sand in the gears of everything, as Frances Fox Piven advocates — is the only option left.
Three calls for general strikes have been made: a call for a national general strike today, one on March 8 for a Women’s Strike, and a May 1 call for an immigrant worker strike (after the smaller but very inspiring “Day Without an Immigrant” protests yesterday). Whether these calls will gain traction is hard to predict, but clearly thinking through of what is happening can take out some of the guesswork in our planning.
The calls for a general strike that are proliferating across the Internet are best understood as a move toward what Rosa Luxemburg once theorized as a “mass strike.” From her position in the revolutionary socialist movement in Germany, she wrote,
the mass strike is not artificially “made,” not “decided” at random, not “propagated”… it is a historical phenomenon which, at a given moment, results from social conditions with historical inevitability. It is not, therefore, by abstract speculations on the possibility or impossibility, the utility or the injuriousness of the mass strike, but only by an examination of those factors and social conditions out of which the mass strike grows in the present phase of the class struggle… that the problem can be grasped or even discussed.
Radicals often cite Luxemburg to argue that you can’t just conjure up a general strike. This is true. But they miss a more important point. In the current social conditions, we’re not calling for a mass strike– the mass strike is calling us.
The present moment is defined by a perfect storm of forces for escalating social conflict. The gerrymandered and intentionally undemocratic US electoral system has allowed a widely-hated demagogue to enter the presidency. Despite lacking popular legitimacy, Trump is launching rapid and extreme attacks on just about every group in society and has alienated a large segment of the US ruling class. He has broken with the bipartisan consensus on the role of the United States in maintaining the liberal postwar order, earning the enmity of the State Department, CIA, and most of the government agencies. Conflict is raging with the judicial branch. A campaign by the deep state claimed Michael Flynn as a victim this week.
In many state and local governments, liberal politicians are trying to at least appear to stand up to Trump (though their actual commitment to do so remains to be seen). In California, proposals for withholding income tax contributions are being seriously discussed, and a third of the state supports secession. In New York, Governor Cuomo overrode a dictate of the Port Authority to allow protesters to continue to access JFK airport to protest — an action that would have earned an arrest and potential terrorism charges in the Bush era.
Trump’s threats against immigrants have alienated a large section of corporate elites. Facing pressure from their employees, a slew of major corporations signed on to a lawsuit enjoining the federal courts to block his immigration order. In at least two cases, they seem to have condoned worker protest during work hours, with sanctioned walkouts at Google and Comcast.
The discontent of the ruling class is reflected in a media that is actively seeking to delegitimize Trump’s government. Never before has a president dealt with such a constant barrage of criticism. Despite the power of right-wing media, the result is plummeting approval ratings.
All of this has manifested in unprecedented levels of protest. The inauguration was overshadowed by rioting and civil disobedience, supplemented by a shutdown of the port of Oakland by the ILWU. The next day brought the record-shattering Women’s Marches across the US, followed soon after by spontaneous protests at airports, a taxi strike and bodega strike in New York, the tech worker walkouts, a smattering of student walkouts, and a prison uprising in Delaware. This week, a Day Without an Immigrant protests have spread to cities across the United States.
Protesters intuitively realize that the logic of protest is that of escalation. Millions realize a general strike is a next logical step after the largest mass protests in US history on January 21. The movement is looking for a way in to the workplace. But will the move toward mass strikes succeed?
Factors that contribute to the likelihood of successful strike mobilization are concentrations of angry people in economic centers who will reinforce and validate each others’ feelings and actions, local liberal politicians in those areas who will be reticent to unleash repression on their constituents for opposing right-wing national-level politicians, tacit or even explicit support for protests from certain corporate interests, a media environment which is actively encouraging mass protests and even strikes, and a feeling by many that they have nothing to lose.
The main limiting factor is the present level of organization. The decline in union density in the United States is well-known, and the general rise is atomization in US society has been decried for decades.
But organization is not synonymous with unionization, or even membership in a formal group. As any good organizer can tell you, every workplace and community is already organized, but not by us.
Many of the mobilizations since Trump’s election seem on the surface to be unorganized, or “spontaneous.” This label merely means that we don’t know who organized it. This is a hopeful sign of the mobilization of thousands of people outside of existing activist networks. In truth, the actions of the past three weeks were organized by a patchwork of existing activist, religious, and nongovernmental organizations and unions that activated their networks, paired with a strange alchemy of exhortations from the media, and a wildfire-like spread of self-organization outside of existing formal organizations.
The magnitude of mass strikes to come will be determined by the degree to which this movement can be extended into the workplace. This is no easy task. However, we can draw some lessons from previous mass strikes.
Striking Without Unions: May Day 2006 “Day Without an Immigrant”
In 2006, Republican lawmakers advanced a bill that would criminalize undocumented immigrants, build a border wall, and increase deportations — exactly what Trump wants to do now. The Sensenbrenner Bill, introduced by Rep. George Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, was met with “A Day Without an Immigrant” protests — in effect, an immigrant worker general strike on May 1, 2006.
Inspired in part by the movie A Day Without a Mexican, over 1.5 million immigrant workers and their families took to the streets nationwide in protest. In some cases, employers granted workers the day off to avoid a confrontation — and to put pressure on Republicans who wanted to deport their workforce.
The result was that right-wing immigration reforms were stalled for over a decade, until being revived by Trump.
How did they organize it? Most participants were not in unions. Organizers activated existing relationships in the community by reaching out through churches, radio programs, or through the relationships that members of progressive unions and workers centers had in the community.
The Day Without an Immigrant was a political strike of immigrant workers, and it worked. It demonstrated that immigrant workers and workers who are not in unions can organize mass strikes and win. With the solidarity of a much broader social movement upsurge, we can surely win again.
Striking Against the Law: the Quebec Model
The 2006 immigration protests demonstrated that unionization is not required to build a mass strike. However, questions remain for those of us in unions, particularly in places where strike action is illegal, like New York’s public sector, or where no-strike clauses in contracts prohibit militancy. We can look to Quebec for an example of how the barrier of illegality can be overcome.
In 2012, over 300,000 students went on strike across Quebec against a proposed 78 percent tuition hike. To the outside observer, it seemed that the strike came out of nowhere. In fact, as this first-person account relates, it was built carefully by activists in the ASSÉ (a radical federation of student associations.)
Organizers began by securing commitments from the most militant student associations to strike once a floor of 20,000 strike pledges had been reached, taking the guesswork out of the kickoff. This would then trigger the second “wave” of strike authorization votes in the next tier of slightly less radical student associations, creating a snowball effect, followed by a third wave if momentum held up.
ASSÉ organizers also knew that the student associations in the less-radical FECQ and FEUQ federations would be slow to strike and quick to sell them out, so they built a temporary coalition with as many affiliates of the FECQ and FEUQ as the could. It was called CLASSÉ, and it effectively organized the base of the conservative student federations into the strike.
The result was that the strike involved over 300,000 students rather than just the 80,000 members of the ASSÉ. In the end, the strike continued for six months, prompting the Liberal government to call for snap elections to renew its legitimacy. It miscalculated. The student movement had legitimacy, the Liberals lost, and the tuition hike was renegotiated.
Quebecois activists successfully transposed the organizing techniques of the student movement onto labor organizing in 2015, when they built an illegal quasi-general strike of 30,000 public sector workers on May Day.
Could we do it here? There are few unions in the United States that would strike for a day against Trump. But there may be more that would strike if there was a pledge from tens of thousands of other workers to do so as well.
Activists can build these “common fronts” by first getting strike pledges from the more radical unions or informally organized groups of workers, and then approaching more cautious groups once an initial floor for participation has been reached. It is very different to ask someone “will you go on strike?” than “will you go on strike with 50,000 other workers?”
Striking Without Striking: the 1969 Moratorium Against the Vietnam War
The biggest thing holding workers and union leaders back from striking is fear of retaliation. The word “strike” scares off some workers, because it is associated with lost income and the potential for losing your job. It terrifies employers, because it means disruption, lost profits, and potentially more power for workers.
But a political strike is different.
A political strike is directed not at employers, but at the government. In a context where many major corporate employers are opposed to the slide into protectionism and chaos represented by the Trump regime, we already see examples of tacit or even explicit employer support for strike action. For example, in yesterday’s Day Without an Immigrant, many restaurants in cities like New York claimed to have closed “in support of” their immigrant workforce, as in 2006.
Of course, this could be a face-saving gesture by companies that really had no other choice because their workforce would strike, or it could be genuine. Either way, any pledge to give workers the day off to participate in the movement helps reduce workers’ fear of retaliation. We should take that as far as we can. While we do not want to be organized by employers, we should not dismiss the opportunity to organize the employers by convincing as many as possible to allow or encourage worker participation.
There is historical precedent for this strategy. In 1969, activist and business owner Jerome Grossman floated the idea of a nationwide general strike to end the Vietnam War. The idea was that the strike would be for one day in the first month, add a second day the next month, and continue to add days each month that the war dragged on.
Grossman’s colleagues liked the concept, but felt that the term “general strike” would not resonate with the middle class liberal and student base of the anti-war movement. Instead, they decided to call it a “moratorium,” and focus on where the movement had the strongest base: the universities. The strategy combined bottom-up organization of political strike action at universities with attempts to convince administrators to cancel classes for the day so that students would be able to attend teach-ins and protests.
The first Moratorium on Wednesday October 15, 1969 was an enormous success, with over two million people nationwide participating in a wide range of actions that reached beyond the campus bastions of the Left. The second moratorium on November 15th brought over 750,000 people to Washington, DC for a massive anti-war march. It was a breakthrough moment of mass participation for an anti-war movement that millions of Americans still viewed as traitorous, and it paved the way for greater defiance in the years that followed.
The key innovations of the Moratorium were to provide a focal point for action which allowed a diversity of tactics within the broader framework of stopping business as usual on a certain day. Organizers maximized participation by “organizing” university administrators to cancel classes or amnesty student participation.
Could we bolster mass strike participation by building a moratorium to shut down higher education institutions across the United States to bring students and education workers into the streets against Trump?
Ageneral strike is possible, but it is not inevitable. The question for us on the Left is if we want it to happen, and what we can do to make it happen.
If we want strikes to happen, the Left should focus on the work of building a new layer of organization in workplaces and neighborhoods. We can apply the lessons of previous mass strike mobilizations. As with any strike, we can gather strike pledges from different workplaces, potentially tied to a certain “floor” of participation. In some cases, as with several immigrant worker strikes at restaurants, it may be possible to get amnesties from employers or universities for strike preparation in advance. We can build toward a general strike by providing a date and a framework for collective action, with planned repetition, so that participants can be confident that the movement will continue and escalate.
It’s a lot of work and it’s a long shot, but we know from history that a general strike is possible. Strikes may not materialize on a large scale today or even at some of the other dates called in the future. But we will learn how much organization we have, and what we need to build.