Can a General Strike End the Government Shutdown?
As the government shutdown stretches into its fourth week and workers struggle to survive without paychecks, the words “general strike” have been popping up in news articles and on social media. But what exactly is a general strike?
The IWW places a high importance on the general strike as a weapon of mass inspiration. However, a general strike cannot substitute for building independent political voices and the development of revolutionary leadership that can sink capitalism.
What is a General Strike?
The term general strike describes a situation when a large number of workers refuse to work. This can be achieved by a single union or a coalition of different ones, as was the case with the Seattle general strike of 1919.
The Seattle general strike lasted for multiple days and was a major event in 20th-century labor history. This archived collection includes complete copies of the daily newspapers that covered it, including a day-by-day record from the first week of the strike.
The current global wave of mass protests is often referred to as a general strike because it involves millions of people refusing to go to work. The UK last saw a general strike in 1926 when the TUC called one in defence of 1.2 million miners. Legislation now prevents the TUC from calling a general strike, but this does not stop individual unions from coordinating their strikes with other workers across the country.
Why do we need a General Strike?
Many workers today are concerned about attacks on wages, benefits, and union rights. But can they take a page from history and fight back with a general strike?
A general strike involves people from all different industries stopping work at the same time to force change. It’s an extremely powerful tool because it can paralyze the economy and expose the underlying issues that must be changed.
The IWW believed that the general strike could be a way to unite workers across all sectors of society, including those who aren’t affiliated with a trade union. It could also bring in support from non-workers like students, people who depend on public services, or community activists. In the case of the Seattle General Strike of 1919, it even brought in solidarity from enslaved African Americans!
How do we organize a General Strike?
A general strike is a massive form of protest that involves workers from a wide range of industries in the same area stopping work at the same time. It is difficult to pull off and requires the will of a large population. This is why it usually happens as a last resort.
During a general strike, organizers will need to ensure that all participants are cared for. This includes building out community systems to support people during the strike. It is also important to have a clear message that reflects the demands of the strike. It is best to make these messages as simple as possible, so everyone can understand them.
Before 1947, when Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act in the wake of the Oakland general strike, unions would often go on strikes in solidarity with other unions. However, since that law, the idea of a general strike has been nearly impossible to execute. A general strike is only a possibility when multiple unions have a legal right to go on strike and have a common set of political goals they want to advance.
How can we win a General Strike?
As the government shutdown drags on and federal workers struggle to pay their bills without income, the word “general strike” has been appearing with more frequency on social media. On January 20, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA President Sara Nelson suggested that a general strike could end the shutdown.
The idea of a general strike isn’t new, but it’s hard to win one, and requires a massive amount of preparation. First and foremost, it’s important to build mutual aid networks and community systems of care that will be there for people during a general strike.
It’s also important to educate people about the basics of a general strike so they know what it looks like and how to support it. This could be done through a variety of ways, from teaching classes at local schools to passing resolutions at unions, like this one passed by the CWU in support of their strike against Royal Mail. The 1919 Seattle general strike was the first 20th-century solidarity strike to be referred to as a general strike, and it taught an historic lesson: the working class can run society without the bosses.