By Hamilton Nolan
In These Times
You know that things are getting serious when #GeneralStrike starts trending on Twitter. It happened last week, when Donald Trump was publicly mulling the idea of sending Americans back to work by Easter, a move that would imperil countless lives. A general strike has long held a strong utopian allure. But what would it take to actually pull one off? We spoke to the experts about the reality behind the dream.
Amid a healthcare crisis intertwined with an economic crisis, with millions of people freshly unemployed and new wildcat strikes and work stoppages popping off daily, we are living through the most opportune environment for massive, radical labor actions in many decades. America has had great crises before, though—and it has never had a true, nationwide general strike.
Is it even possible?
The “general strikes” in American history have been confined to individual cities. The most famous was probably the Seattle general strike of 1919, when more than 60,000 (peaceful) striking union members induced a total shutdown of the city’s business. Periods of intense social upheaval sparked other citywide general strikes—most notably in 1934 in San Francisco, during the Great Depression, and in Oakland in 1946, just after World War Two. Joshua Freeman, a labor history professor at the City University of New York, notes that those successful strikes depended on the combination of established labor union coalitions and “a broad class anger, usually at what was seen as an attack by business or police on legitimate working-class activity.” A general strike today would probably require the same combination. And while the union establishment of 2020 is in some ways weaker than it was a century ago, the teachers’ strikes and other mass labor actions of recent years show how quickly that can change.