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Dreaming of a General Strike

Issue 222

It would be the first in U.S. history

Peter Rugh Feb 21, 2017

American labor is flexing its muscles against the Trump administration. Loosely coordinated work stoppages took place across the United States in February, and more are on the horizon.

On Thursday, Feb. 16, thousands of workers walked off the job for a “Day Without an Immigrant” protest, leaving restaurants closed and construction sites empty from Washington to San Francisco.

“The owner was telling the workers they were going to get fired,” if they didn’t come in to work, Emanuel, a busser at a West Village restaurant, told The Indypendent. He declined to give his last name because of his immigration status, but said that despite the threats, half of his coworkers joined him in refusing to clock in. “You can see in all the restaurants it is 80 percent immigrant. If all the immigrants decide not to go to work, they’re going to shut down those businesses.”

More strikes occurred the next day. Planned through a loose federation of labor groups and individual activists, approximately 100 job actions occurred from coast to coast under the banner #Strike4Democracy. Its stated demands included a halt to “the authoritarian assault on our fundamental, constitutional rights” and an end to attacks on “women, Muslims, immigrants, racial and ethnic groups, the LGBTQ+ community, working families, journalists, and all who offer criticisms of the [Trump] administration’s policies.”

The strikes come on the heels of the Women’s March, nationwide protests at airports against Trump’s travel ban, mass civil disobediences against deportations, and a strike by Yemeni bodega owners in New York City. They are part of a growing push to go beyond demonstrations and use economic power against the Trump administration. More walkouts are planned, including a national women’s strike on March 8, International Women’s Day.

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“Everyone is searching for various ways, for the widest range of ways to resist,” novelist Francine Prose told The Indy. She wrote an op-ed article on January 30 in the U.K. Guardian calling for a national general strike, “a day… on which we truly make our economic and political power felt, a day when we make it clear: how many of us there are, how strong and committed we are, how much we can accomplish.”

Both Strike4Democracy and the organizers behind the Women’s Day protests have labeled their days of action a general strike, a term that has been met with some derision for lacking realism.

“Calling for a general strike now bears no relation to what mass strikes have meant in the past,” Alex Gourevitch, an assistant professor in political science at Brown University, wrote on Feb. 3 for the blog Current Moment. “The flight from reality shows up in activists’ blasé attitude to history and their very distant relationship to the working class.”

A number of citywide general strikes took place during the first half of the 20th century, in Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis, Rochester, New York, and Stamford, Connecticut among others. Another happened in Oakland in 2011, at the height of the Occupy movement. But there has never been a nationwide general strike or, for that matter, a gender-wide strike, in the United States. With just 11 percent of the U.S. workforce unionized, down from 20 percent a quarter-century ago, calls for a general strike today are more aspirational than practical, but organizers of the upcoming strikes are banking that the national wave of revulsion to Trump will inspire people to act. They note that 200,000 people were expected at the Jan. 21 Women’s March in Washington, and more than twice that number arrived.

“We’re starting to see new forms of struggle emerging and new ways of conceiving of these struggles,” says women’s strike organizer Kate Doyle Griffiths, an adjunct professor at Hunter and Marymount colleges. “I hope that people who are organizing in their workplaces will take this call as a time to do a shop floor action, to walk out of work, to help build their networks in their workplaces.” People who aren’t already engaged in workplace organizing can use the strike as an opportunity to start, Griffiths added.

According to Jeremy Brecher, author of more than a dozen books on labor and social movements, there’s power in simply raising the specter of a national walkout.

“The idea of a general strike shows, ‘Oh yeah, well of course, if everybody stops working, obviously they would have a tremendous power to determine what’s going on in society,’” he says. Putting it out as an idea, “even if it’s not an immediately realizable strategy,” is a crucial step to making a general strike a reality.

Brecher describes the organizing efforts underway now as an attempt at performing “exemplary actions”—“relatively small groups of people deciding that they’re going to do something and doing it in a way that gives other people the idea, ‘Hey, we could do that, too.’”

These general-strike calls are not coming from traditional unions, from already existing organizations, or even from specific movements, other than what might be broadly defined as “the resistance.” Some of the people involved are veterans of past social movements — Occupy, Black Lives Matter, opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline — but others are not. But as news of the “Day Without an Immigrant” and Strike4Democracy spread on social media, it prompted people to talk with their coworkers and to participate in the strikes, with little advance planning.

Not unsurprisingly, traditional labor unions were largely absent. The Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, commonly known as the Taft-Hartley Act, forbids political or sympathy strikes. It also requires unions to give employers advance notice before walking out.

If American workers want to flex their political power beyond the confines of Taft-Hartley, Brecher says, one direction they will have to explore is a strategy long championed by anarchist groups, such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). It entails creating informal unions that act as unions structurally but refuse to sign contracts, to avoid the ensuing legal restrictions.

“You can already see it in unions in ‘right-to-work’ states where union rights are severely restricted; in a lot of experiments with unions that are not certified under the National Labor Relations Board procedures,” he says. “And you definitely are seeing it with the Fight for $15 in a way that’s quite reminiscent of the IWW. I know in some of the Fight for $15 organizing efforts, in Chicago in particular, they actually have informal unions, working within fast-food enterprises and other low-wage employers.”

That informal-union strategy might become more pertinent in the years ahead. Since 2011, six states, all in the industrial Midwest, have outlawed the union shop. A bill to do that nationwide has been introduced in Congress, and Trump has endorsed the concept.

More job actions are in the works for May Day. “Once you have people in motion it is hard to contain them,” says Griffiths. “And once you have ideas floating around like the general strike, like women organizing together — they’re not easy to hold in place. They tend to build their own momentum. A year ago, I wouldn’t have thought this was a very practical thing to do, but things are different now.”

Only during rare instances have Internet-based calls to action been enough to drive people out of their workplaces and into the streets — the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street — and they have never proven enough to sustain social movements over the long haul. Whether activists can maintain the momentum they have attracted, let alone launch a successful general strike, will likely depend on their ability to build organizations that can sustain themselves in the years ahead.


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