What Would A General Strike Even Look Like?

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Above Photo: Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images

This week, as the coronavirus pandemic rapidly spread across the country and the president suggested that people should soon start returning to work in a desperate bid to stabilize the economy, the hashtag #GeneralStrike — calling on workers everywhere to walk off the job — began trending on Twitter. Writer and activist Naomi Klein tweeted that she was joining #GeneralStrike2020, and activist Bree Newsome Bass said that she supports “a general strike for all these workers who are deemed ‘essential’ but still aren’t earning livable wages while working in unsafe conditions.”

The possibility of a general strike seems more real than it ever has in America as labor conditions have become more dire than they’ve ever been in recent memory. Businesses across the country are closing and downsizing, which means people are being laid off in droves, many losing their employer-sponsored health insurance in the process. The Times reported on Thursday that 3.3 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, the most to ever do so in a one-week period. Companies and the government have been reluctant to provide meaningful support for workers in the form of paid sick leave, hazard pay, and other protections.

But while labor organizing is well underway in response to the COVID-19 epidemic, the demands and parameters of a general strike remain undefined, the hashtag still more of a rallying cry than a statement of purpose. The proposition of a general strike raises a lot of questions, but here’s a primer on what work has gone into the concept so far.

What is a general strike?

While the form a general strike would take is very much up for debate, the concept has been around for a long time. A strike is a work stoppage tactic used to pressure management to fulfill certain demands. Its power is as a collective action. Workers create value for their bosses, and without workers, companies can’t be productive. Strikes tend to be undertaken by unionized workers who are protected by law, but the tactic can be used by nonunionized labor too.

Whereas strikes in the United States are usually undertaken by workers at a single company (like McDonald’s workers going on strike last year to demand a higher minimum wage) or within a single industry (like a teacher strike), a general strike encompasses workers in as many industries as possible and might disrupt the market more completely. It therefore requires a significant proportion of all workers’ participation to be effective. The idea is to put pressure on the government to meet the people’s demands in the same way a work stoppage pressures a company to address grievances.

The concept of a general strike emerged from early-20th-century leftist thought. In 1906, Rosa Luxembourg wrote in The Mass Strike, her seminal text on the subject, “It is absurd to think of the mass strike as one act, one isolated action. The mass strike is rather the indication, the rallying idea, of a whole period of the class struggle lasting for years, perhaps for decades.” The general strike can take different forms. It might be one large action — like Seattle’s weeklong general strike of 1919 — or it might be a series of continuous actions, like France’s recent nationwide strikes over the government’s plan to reform the country’s pension fund system.

The general strike could even be a single day of action like the series of global strikes that have recently helped the concept gain visibility in the United States. Last year’s Global Climate Strike compelled hundreds of thousands of people around the world to walk out of work and school to demand action against climate change. After Trump’s inauguration and the massive concurrent Women’s March, a group of activists that included Cinzia Arruzza and Angela Davis called for a National Women’s Strike. The inaugural 2017 strike was held in dozens of countries around the world and has reconvened every year since. On this day, also known as A Day Without Women, the organizers encourage women to refrain from work and participate in collective actions like protests instead.

Why are people calling for a general strike now?

The General Strike Twitter hashtag started trending on Monday after Donald Trump announced an incredibly dangerous (not to mention futile) plan to revive the flagging economy by sending people back to work by April 12, against the advice of public health experts, who argue that the ploy would hasten the spread of the virus, amplify its worst outcomes, and endanger us all even more. Experts predict that such a course of action would be particularly life-threatening for the elderly, those who are immunocompromised, and the poor, who will be forced to choose between exposing themselves to the virus and continuing to go to work so they can afford basic necessities like food and shelter. If Trump followed through on his threat, some have suggested, a general strike could be a way to make counterdemands of the government.

Some had started calling for a general strike weeks ago in response to many large corporations’ refusal to expand employee benefits like paid sick leave and hazard pay during the crucial months in which the pandemic is expected to reach its peak. During this time, many workers in fields deemed essential in the crisis — like health care, delivery, food production, and sales — are still going to work and risking their health without additional protections from their employers.

Some workers are already striking

If the general strike is a phenomenon that begins in stages, gaining momentum as labor conditions become more absurd and worker demands more urgent, then perhaps it’s already building. Across industries, workers in the United States have been walking off the job and planning other collective actions to wrest some control from their employers.

Garbage collectors in Pittsburgh didn’t go into work on Wednesday to protest a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and hazard pay during the crisis. An employee named Sheldon White told local news WPXI, “We’re playing Russian roulette with every garbage bag that we’re grabbing. Half the people don’t tie their bags, so when the stuff spills out, they tell you to pick it up. There’s Kleenexes that people blow their nose and cough on.”

On Monday, Perdue employees in Georgia walked off their jobs on a production line over a wage dispute. One employee said in a Facebook Live video that management asked him and his co-workers to put in extra hours without a pay increase during the pandemic. Some Whole Foods workers have also announced a collective action in the form of a “sick out,” in which workers use all their sick days at once in order to strike. Their list of demands includes guaranteed paid leave for all workers who self-isolate and double pay for those who continue going in to work during the pandemic.