Is There a General Strike in America?
As the federal government shutdown continues, union leaders have begun calling for a general strike. Whether or not such a strike is possible, however, depends on many factors.
One of the biggest is the political climate. Another is the current high level of public support for unions. But, a look at labor history shows that the effectiveness of strikes has varied widely across time and place.
The Origins of the Modern Strike
As the government shutdown enters its fourth week and hundreds of thousands of workers are out of their jobs, the word strike seems to be on everyone’s lips. Union leaders and activists are discussing the possibility of a general strike, but there has not been one in America since 1946.
A general strike is “a large-scale worker uprising organized by a trade union to address an economic issue,” according to historian Mark Singer. Unlike run-of-the-mill work stoppages or even more militant wildcat strikes, a general strike is typically not called—rather, it spreads from one group of workers to another.
The general strikes of the past—which ranged from a single day’s protest by New York journeymen tailors to a nine-week action by Houston janitors—showcased the power of solidarity among workers. But a general strike is also incredibly dangerous to the people in power. If successful, it lays bare the structural and legal inequalities that the 1% seeks to protect.
The Oakland General Strike
The last general strike in America took place in Oakland in December of 1946, a massive “work holiday” that shut down the entire city for 54 hours. It was the last of the mass strikes that swept the country following World War II and ushered in a new era of deindustrialization and unemployment that continues to this day.
The strike started when 400 retail clerks from Hastings and Kahn department stores walked off their jobs to protest the firing of one of their number for union activities. The strike quickly grew as more and more workers joined the rank and file. Eventually 142 local labor councils affiliated with the Alameda County AFL declared a work holiday and 142 companies halted operations in the city.
The streets were a ghost town. Picket lines swelled as the city’s street cars and Key System ferries stopped operating. The only way that capitalist businesses could get their business back was to break the strike and bring in scabs. This they did by hiring police to beat and arrest strikers.
The Great Railroad Strike of 1877
In the summer of 1877, railroad workers played a role in the first general strike since the Civil War. The upheaval began in Martinsburg, West Virginia when workers for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad walked out of work in protest of their employers slashing their pay by 10 percent. In the following days workers began to walk out of their jobs and act in solidarity with each other on significant rail routes across the country.
The resulting actions resembled more of a mob uprising or socialist revolution than the squabbles between union and management that typically marked most strikes. However, unlike the Bolsheviks or the Paris Commune of 1871, there was no central leadership to direct and coordinate these actions; most were spontaneous acts of resistance triggered by news of a similar action in another city.
While the strike did not last long, its legacy was profound. It demonstrated that working class people could mobilize with tremendous power and it disseminated socialist ideas about the nature of capitalism in the United States.
The Great War General Strike
The end of World War I saw working people face a sharp reversal in wage gains and an explosive rise in labour conflict. This sparked the first general strike of the 20th century.
On Bloody Saturday, riots between pro- and anti-strike veterans erupted during a parade. Two strikers were killed and many others injured. Police and company-hired thugs beat up picketers. Thousands of black workers, who couldn’t join unions because of racial prejudice, were brought in as strikebreakers.
The striking unions wanted to win the support of returned soldiers, who were highly respected for their service and viewed as moral role models. They could sway public opinion with their moral authority. To this end, they tried to gain the undivided support of the Great War Veterans’ Association (GWVA). When the GWVA refused, Captain F.G. Thompson formed his own anti-strike organization, the Loyalist Returned Soldiers’ Association. Both sides lost the battle, and the general strike was crushed.