To go on strike basically means to stop working until some particular demand is met.
Since Trump was elected, I have received two calls for a general strike. One was for January 21, the other is pending, February 17. No exact demands accompanied on either one. I think it’s dangerous business, but must be considered.
What Is a Strike?
The word comes from British sailors who would “strike sails” and refuse to take their ships to sea. A “general strike” in a given area means that everybody, not just one particular organization or category of people, stops working until their demands are met. General strikes may not be over economic issues, but political.
Since the U.S. government moved against the union movement in 1947, the only union strikes we have seen were limited to one union, the few other unions legally able and willing to participate, and whatever community support a local union could get. Usually since 1947, American union locals have faced their employers virtually alone.
Prior to 1947, in fact in 1946 in Houston, there were general strikes in America. Probably the most dramatic and best-remembered was the strike for the 8-hour day, worldwide, May 1, 1886. Like most general strikes with potential for change, it was met with armed violence from the employers and their government.
We hear of general strikes in other countries from time to time. Over there, unions are involved but it is unlikely, given their legal situation, that organized labor would call any general strike in America today. That doesn’t mean somebody else couldn’t!
Strikes Are Part of Economic Struggle
A strike is not the only form of economic struggle, as differentiated from armed struggle or electoral struggle. Any kind of refusal to cooperate with the employers’ system of production fits the description. Workers might, for example, try a “slowdown.” Lately, union leaders call it “work to rule” and ask employees to do only what they are required to do legally and by contract, nothing more. In modern strikes, especially since Reagan, people sometimes lose their jobs. With slowdowns, there’s less risk of job loss. But a slowdown is a harder to organize and carry out.
Economic boycotts are economic struggles. The United Farm Workers carried out an effective one in the early 1970s against grape growers. Economic boycotts, like general strikes are very easily called by some unthinking hothead, but extremely difficult to carry out.
The employers and the government may be counted on to team up quickly against any kind of economic struggle by workers.
Who Wins? Who Loses?
According to the employers, workers always lose every strike. Even if the strike has short duration, the workers at minimum have to go some time without income. The strain on families and friendships is terrific. Nowadays, when many workers are carrying heavy loads of debt, the thought of a strike, even for a few days, terrifies everybody.
According to the workers, we win pretty much every strike. Even if our demands weren’t met, we feel that we’ve stood up for our dignity and for the dignity of all working people.
But putting points of view aside, the actual winner of a strike is generally the side that holds out one day longer than the other side. “One Day Longer” makes a good workers’ slogan and is the title of one of my songs.
“Winning” for us means getting whatever we wanted. “Winning” for the bosses means getting whatever they wanted plus the ability to take retaliatory action against every worker that crossed them.
A Strike Is Serious Business
A successful strike is one that grew out of careful analysis of the situation and had good planning and strong leadership. A good example was the three-month strike recently carried out by the Fort Worth Symphony Musicians. Somebody needs to write a book about that one.
Calling a strike without careful analysis, good planning and strong leadership is irresponsible and likely to get lose and get people fired. It isn’t much better than calling “fire” in a crowded movie theater.
But We Need Economic Struggle, and We Need It Now
I can only think of one thing worse right now than an irresponsible call for economic struggle — and that is no call for economic struggle.
Every American who is not a fool knows we need to resist the attacks underway. Economic struggle is, right now, our best option.
Don’t Go Off Half-Cocked
We need careful study and careful planning to win any economic struggle. Fortunately, we have the ability to do that thanks to modern communications. We could, for example, call for a “virtual strike” over a certain demand and for a certain day. We could make our preparations virtually. We could sign up the people willing to participate and, afterward, evaluate the results. Then we could call another one and see how it goes.
Study up, think it through, and share your thoughts.
I talk about these things on KNON.org’s “Workers Beat” program at 9 Central Time every Saturday. 89.3FM in Dallas. If you want to know what I really think, click here.