General Strikes- a brief history
General Strikes: A Brief History
Although you may not have heard about them, general strikes have played an important role in American labor history. They have carved out key turning points, marking the emergence of a new kind of organization, a breakthrough in contesting political power, a new level of class consciousness, setting a tone for years of struggle to come. Legal or not, sanctioned or not, praised or demonized by the media, dramatized or ignored by history books, these strikes have been central to our history.
What are general strikes?
A general strike has usually involved workers from a broad range of occupations and industries, though with some geographic focus, such as a city or a state. While unionized workers have typically been at the core of general strikes, non-union workers, families, neighbors, students, and the unemployed have often joined in. These strikes have often started with economic demands, but they tend to move quickly to issues of procedure, rights, and justice. They might have begun as a solidarity/support action on behalf of a particular group of workers, but, in response to the behaviors of the authorities (repression by the police or militia, the recruitment of strikebreakers by employers, public disrespect by government officials), other unions, workers, and community organizations have extended the issues and demands of the strike to their own situations. That is, these strikes are about solidarity and self-expression at the same time. Above all, they are about power.
A general strike has usually included enough participants to shut down most production, transportation, and even government functions. Once they have shut down most business, general strikes have put workers and their organizations in the position of having to decide how to “manage” society – which services should continue, how their delivery should be structured, who should receive these services, etc. This “management” has necessitated the creation of new kinds of labor organizations, linking the economic and the political, creating a more direct voice than usual for rank-and-file members, as well as a voice for service recipients, consumers, and citizens. In short, general strikes are not only expressions of class power, but they can call into existence new vehicles of class power.
What circumstances have set the stage for general strikes?
Periods of economic difficulty have often provided the context for general strikes. Employers push wage cuts onto one group of workers, with intentions to generalize them to the next, and the next.
The situation embodies that old maxim, tweaked by Anne Feeney: “United we bargain, divided we beg.” At key points, employers might challenge the very existence of workers’ organizations, determined to have the power to unilaterally impose new wage levels, work rules, job descriptions, even a new organization of work.
When employers have found workers mobilizing resistance, they have turned to the government for assistance – the enforcement of laws which restrict picketing, an increased police presence to protect strikebreakers, the criminalization of protest, and the outright repression of labor organizations. In these situations, workers talk more and more in terms of their “rights” and they raise questions about “democracy” and “justice.” Such circumstances have given birth to general strikes.
What have been the outcomes of general strikes?
Few general strikes have succeeded in winning all of their articulated demands. Through these struggles, a wage cut has been restored, union recognition and collective bargaining have been won or preserved, and even a reduction in work hours has been realized. But such tangible victories have been difficult to achieve. In part, the circumstances which have set the stage for general strikes have been so severe that the other side has had a lot at stake, and has, therefore, been willing to put substantial resources into play. From the working class’s perspective, it has been the intangible gains which have been the most important. General strikes have been the birthplace of new labor organizations, new social and political movements, even new levels of consciousness, and they have provided the necessary foundation for new stages in working class advancement that were to come.
(The rest of the article can be read at http://generalstrikeusa.blogspot.com/2014/04/general-strikes-brief-history.html.)