” … it is about that small but vital place where an organizing campaign or movement meets the public sphere.”Paul Kuttner, CulturalOrganizing.org
Calls have been circulating fast and furious on social media for a nationwide general strike on February 17. But what does that really mean?
A classic general strike happens when a substantial percentage of the workforce refuses to work, thus crippling a nation’s economy, and forcing major concessions, or even a change of government. In our era, with a weak labor movement, but a nationwide political crisis, workers (and non-workers alike) need to creatively reinvent the tactic.
First, let’s get over the mythical notion of a general strike where every worker sets down their tools because a union calls for it — or someone sends a tweet suggesting it. Neither is going to happen. But effective general strikes have happened in lots of other ways. In 1919, workers, led by longshoremen and the IWW, shut down the city of Seattle with a general strike. “Stay-aways,” mass actions where workers and students stayed away from work and school, were an essential part of bringing South Africa’s Apartheid regime to its knees in the mid-1980s. One of the largest mass mobilizations in U.S. history was the “Day Without Immigrants” on May 1, 2006, when hundreds of thousands of people all across the country left work and school — at some predominantly Latino high schools in Chicago, three-quarters or more of the students walked out. In 2016, thousands of women in Iceland protested gendered wage disparities by leaving their jobs at 2:38pm, the point after which they would otherwise in effect be working for free. What we learn here: General strikes come in lots of flavors: they can start in one city or one sector and spread; they don’t have to start or end with labor unions; they can be largely symbolic or physically interrupt business as usual.
Fundamentally, a general strike is about mass non-compliance. Even if we don’t have the conditions or capacity to pull off what general strikes have classically looked like in the past, there is much we can do to demonstrate our mass non-compliance and strengthen the broader strategy of making ourselves “ungovernable.” On February 2, 2017, 800 Yemeni grocers went on strike to protest Trump’s Muslim travel ban. Many women’s organizations are calling for a “Day Without Women.” Successful strikes at scale are often preceded by rehearsal strikes to test the waters — little acts of resistance with super-low barriers to entry that build up our courage and solidarity, and allow us to “exercise our general strike muscle.” One such call to action that’s circulating reads: “At 2:14pm on 2-14, Valentine’s Day, everyone stop what you’re doing, step outside, and tell a stranger what you love about America and why you’re willing to fight for it.”
If you can’t stay home from work or school on February 17, think about all the other ways you can contribute to a day of resistance: boycott companies with ties to Trump (and contact them to tell them you’re doing so); flood Trump’s businesses with protest calls; make resistance visible in your community by postering, leafleting, or stickering; join a protest on your off hours.
We’re in a political moment where almost anything is possible, and a well executed general strike might be called for. However, it won’t happen by magic. It needs wide support, focused mobilization, strategic escalation, and some creative reinvention. Let’s use February 17 to think about and practice how we might build our way towards one.
By Andrew Boyd