What is a general strike? Why does it matter?


In the U.S. left, discussions on the question of a general strike come up frequently. Socialists favor the re-introduction of the general strike as a tactic in the working-class arsenal, but we must pose the questions—what is a general strike and how is a mass general strike organized?

One-day strikes and stay-aways

This year, Cooperation Jackson called for a “General Strike to End the COVID-19 Crisis and Create a New World,” but the result was decidedly modest. Additionally, a May Day 2020essential workers general strike” failed to reach the sort of mass numbers that signify a genuine general strike.

In 2006, El Gran Paro Americano 2006 (Great American Boycott) on May Day 2006 took on the character of a mass political strike, with millions of immigrant workers and their supporters engaging in mass protests and withholding their labor for the day. This followed an April 10 mobilization of more than 2 million immigrant workers. In 2006, Socialist Action newspaper characterized the May Day protests as the first nationwide political strike in U.S. history. This protest opened political space in unions and broader social movements for pro-immigrant actions and positions. The movement was met with repression as well as attempts to channel the energy into the Democratic Party. (Later experience under the Deporter-in-Chief, Obama, proved that the Democrats are not friends of immigrants.)

The Occupy movement of 2011 unsuccessfully attempted to resurrect the general strike slogan. However, the Occupy Oakland port shutdown on Nov. 2, 2011, was referred to as a one-day general strike, sparking discussion about the general strike as a weapon of the class struggle.

The general strike, as a tactic, is common enough in other parts of the world. An example is the massive one-day general strike on Nov. 26, 2020, in India of an estimated 250 million workers and farmers, followed by a march on Delhi and highway closures led by farmers’ organizations. The Indian strike, organized by 10 unions as well as farmers’ organizations, was the fifth one in six years.

General strike activity was a factor in the mass mobilizations against the regime in Sudan last year, contributing to the downfall of two heads of state in 48 hours and pushing the pro-democracy movement forward. Similarly, the mass movement in Algeria combined mass mobilizations numbering in the hundreds of thousands with the use of the general strike against the regime.

In Chile, the Nov. 12, 2019, walkout was considered the most effective general strike in that country since 1990. A series of general strikes in October and November of last year were called by unions and social movement organizations and held in the context of a generalized mass upsurge against the Piñera regime.

In recent years, International Women’s Day has been marked in many countries by mass demonstrations accompanied by informal stay-aways and official work stoppages by a significant section of the labor movement. The Fourth International Women’s Commission situated feminist strikes as “a new method of struggle”:

“The feminist strike appears as the new method of struggle of this cycle of mobilizations, not only for its articulating power but fundamentally for what it means by questioning and broadening the strike as a tool of struggle. The feminist strike breaks the division between the productive and the reproductive, pointing out the connections between the two, and putting the emphasis especially on the reproductive sphere as a strategy to put life at the centre.

“The classic strike has never been free of the reproductive aspect: to maintain a strike you need provisions, in an insurrectionary general strike you need to articulate mechanisms of supply, of reproduction of life, of organizing life in another way.”

Which class shall rule?

The one-day, so-called “general strikes” are often limited in having a symbolic character, though they are not unimportant in demonstrating the strength of the working class. They are frequently organized by union bureaucracies in a routine and even ceremonial fashion (like the ILWU longshoremen do each year on a smaller scale on behalf of certain social causes). Workers often use sick time or other methods to stay out of work for a day, march around the city for a while, and then return to work the next day. While ILWU actions do have a small ripple effect on the supply chain, the bosses are not much hurt by such events, and sometimes they even stockpile goods in anticipation that they will take place.

The South African COSATU federation used to call one-day “stayaways” on a frequent basis. Again, it was not unimportant to see hundreds of thousands of Black workers demonstrating in the streets, but such events had nowhere near the power of more extended general strikes, when workers unite across many industries and withhold their labor power for an indefinite time period. These types of extended general strikes really do have insurrectionary possibilities, as workers graphically pose the question of which class should rule.

In U.S. labor history, there are examples of powerful general strikes—for example, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, Seattle in 1919, or the San Francisco longshore strike in 1934—that galvanized the labor movement and shook the ruling class.

U.S. Socialist Workers Party leader Tom Kerry discussed the Seattle General Strike of 1919 as part of a series of lectures he delivered in 1976 on U.S. labor history. Kerry pointed out that “a general strike is social dynamite with a burning fuse. The question immediately arises: Where does the power of decision reside in matters concerning the life of the city? Who is to police the city? The cops are not viewed as ‘friends’ of the strike; to the contrary, their role is that of chief strikebreakers for the boss class. The union strike committee must establish its own police force. How is the city to be fed? What institutions are to be permitted to remain open? And who is to supervise those permitted to operate? It is impossible to detail here all of the problems that are immediately posed.”

Ultimately, the general strike poses the question of which class holds power; it is a political as well as an economic strike. Kerry said: “Alongside the regularly established governmental power and its apparatus, there comes into existence the general strike committee with its apparatus, to establish a form of dual power. The dynamic of the dual power is that more and more the strike council is compelled to take over the functions of the state. A situation of dual power cannot, by its very nature, exist for long. It must be resolved by the hegemony of one or the other of the great contending classes. One or the other must prevail.”

Avoiding formulas 

The general strike slogan should not be reduced to a sectarian formula like “a general strike to free Mumia,” or “a general strike to end the war(s).” A general strike is a serious matter for revolutionaries alongside other methods of working-class mobilization. These include strikes, workplace occupations, work-to-rule, and mass marches. The general strike, like these other working-class methods of struggle, cannot be imposed from the outside—by bypassing working-class organizations.

It’s equally important to avoid fetishizing the general strike or generalizing the tactic into a strategic outlook. The general strike tactic must be approached seriously and prepared through patient, systematic work in the working class and its mass organizations. Any strike action, to be successful, must stop production and must be thoroughly prepared in advance. A recent class on the Minneapolis Teamster strikes does an excellent job of driving home this point.

Over the past couple of years, we have seen an uptick in strike activity—such as the “Red State” teachers’ strikes and the  GM strike, which idled almost 50,000 workers at 50 plants. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “In 2018, there were 20 major work stoppages involving 485,000 workers. … The number of major work stoppages beginning in 2018 was the highest since 2007 (21 major work stoppages). The number of workers involved was the highest since 1986. … Educational services and health care and social assistance industry groups accounted for over 90 percent.”

Jeremy Brecher cites a number of strikes and jobs actions demanding COVID protections:

  • More than half the workers at the Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine, stayed home demanding that their employer clean up the plant.
  • In Warren, Mich., Fiat Chrysler workers struck to demand hot water for washing.
  • In Birmingham, Ala., bus drivers struck for protection from infected passengers.
  • Pittsburgh sanitation workers struck for protective equipment and hazard pay.
  • Two hundred Kroger warehouse workers walked out when a worker came down with coronavirus—and to protest a 97-hour workweek.
  • In Kathleen, Ga., 50 workers at a Perdue poultry processing plant struck. One strike leader said, “We’re up here risking our life for chicken.”
  • Cooks and cashiers at a McDonald’s in San Jose, Calif., walked out to protest lack of hand soap, gloves, masks, or hand sanitizers.
  • Twenty McDonald’s workers in Cicero, Ill., walked out to demand the sick pay they were entitled to under state law.

This list does not include various actions at Amazon facilities. 

In On Strikes, Lenin writes, “Strikes, therefore, teach the workers to unite; they show them that they can struggle against the capitalists only when they are united; strikes teach the workers to think of the struggle of the whole working class against the whole class of factory owners and against the arbitrary, police government. This is the reason that socialists call strikes ‘a school of war,’ a school in which the workers learn to make war on their enemies for the liberation of the whole people.”

A wave of strikes, culminating in general strikes, will undoubtedly come to the fore in working-class battles of the not-too-distant future. We are in a new situation, unlike the previous period of retreat. We face economic catastrophe, a continued health crisis, and social polarization. As interrelated tasks, this requires taking a serious approach to work in the unions and a serious approach to building the type of revolutionary organization we will need in the coming period.

Illustration by General Strike Graphics

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