One of the few positives to come out of the Trump administration so far is a renewed excitement around political action. People are taking to the damn streets, and it’s beautiful. Between the Women’s March, the Bodega Strike, the airport protests, and numerous other actions around the country, it’s been incredibly inspiring. Now that people are in the streets, the next logical question is, “What next?” One of the most popular answers has been “a general strike.”
Calls for a general strike have gained steam across leftwing media and social media. Francine Prose wrote a call to action in The Guardian, a February 17th strike is gaining traction on Twitter and Facebook, and now The Women’s March has announced that they will organize a general strike at some point in the future. Even some celebrities are getting in on the action.
If you believe in America, show it by refusing to work on the Friday before President's Day, Feb. 17. Let them know. #NationalStrike— David Simon (@AoDespair) January 28, 2017
It seems the only people on the Left who aren’t rushing headlong toward the general strike banner are the people you would actually need to organize one: labor unions and labor journalists. Alex Gourevitch poured cold water on a hastily organized general strike in his recent piece for Jacobin, “You Can’t Fake It.” Gourevitch offers a stern historical assessment of the kind of consequences a general strike can have, and what forces need to coalesce in order to organize one. He writes, “Calling for a general strike now bears no relation to what mass strikes have meant in the past. The flight from reality shows up in activists’ blasé attitude and their very distant relationship to the working class.”
Gourevitch reminds us that strikes are dangerous, and points to examples from American history from the 1800s to the 1990s where workers bled and died during strikes. Even if there isn’t a violent reaction, striking workers -- especially in low wage jobs -- can expect retribution in the form of returning to a “temporarily closed” shop, or even being replaced. Gourevitch then asks what the workers would get from a general strike. If there are no concrete demands, “is the point just a generalized ‘no?’ A massive expression of discontent? None of the significant costs of a general strike are worth it if it’s just a grand gesture of refusal.” Some prominent proposals for general strike demands circulating online have failed to include agitation for $15 minimum wage, fighting the ACA repeal, or opposition to right to work laws; in short, the major issues that actually affect workers. Perhaps Gourevitch’s most scathing sentences are aimed directly at Prose’s article: “... Francine Prose added the qualification, which I have seen repeated in a number of places, that only those ‘who can do so without being fired’ should go on strike. This must be the first time someone called for a general strike but exempted most of the working class.”
Prominent leftist activists have echoed Gourevitch’s critique. The general consensus is that a general strike needs the support of labor to be a success. Unions can assist with and reduce potential retribution. Unions can help build a list of demands that are relevant to workers. Unions can throw their support behind a strike, thus guaranteeing forceful, effective numbers on the day of the strike.
Organizing a 'general strike' means that you have to provide resources for workers who would be severely impacted by losing their wages...— #FreeBresha (@prisonculture) February 6, 2017
We need a General Strike. But to aim for late feb is absurd, gives workers little chance to organize and prepare. We should aim for May Day— Natasha Lennard (@natashalennard) January 31, 2017
If you belong to a non-labor community organization, reach out to local labor unions. Ask how you/your group can support them in a strike.— Delete Your Account (@deleteuracct) February 4, 2017
More mainstream outlets have also voiced their skepticism. Three Washington Post writers put together an article looking at a general strikes’ chances of success by comparing the ideas floating around regarding an American general strike to past European general strikes. In Europe, general strikes are fairly common and fairly successful. The Post starts out by defining a general strike in concrete terms that have not yet been met by any of those calling for a strike: “For us, a general strike is a national work stoppage called by at least one union confederation against governments in their roles as legislators.” The authors evaluate the strikes in terms of goals: earning a concession, whether it is dropping proposed cuts to social security or passing a labor law. The implicit critique here is the same as Gourevitch’s: without concrete demands, a general strike falls flat. No matter how much we want it to be true, Trump’s resignation is not a demand that we can plausibly strike over.
A Vice reporter interviewed a labor professor and got a similar answer: for a strike to work there must be “overt and specific demands” and “you have to get some of the employers to join in on or make allowances for the protest.” The Independent pointed out that the online organizing so far has taken place largely without union support.
Does this mean there is no hope for a general strike? Don’t despair yet, young radicals. It might still happen. The SEIU West, a prominent union that represents “service workers, nurses, hospital staff, nursing home care providers, building services and security guards” and is behind Fight for 15 has endorsed a strike on Facebook. Hopefully, this will translate to an official call or a May 1st strike on a national level in an official statement.
If the SEIU coordinates with the Women’s March, who have a huge reach following their incredibly successful action, you would have union experience coupled with popular appeal to non-union workers. This would allow organizers with very real grievances from marginalized communities to develop demands alongside labor organizers. This would also create a space to develop the kind of strategies and assistance that could ensure success.
On the Left today, there is a feeling that anything is possible when it comes to resisting Trump. We shouldn’t lose this optimism, but we should also remember the value of organization and solidarity. Some jobs aren’t so easy to walk away from, and for a general strike to be successful, we’ll have to unite to help each other take a stand.
Either we take the time to hear from and coordinate with as many voices as possible, or we fail.