Are Americans Ready to Strike?
It was April 2012, and I was standing outside a Brooklyn subway station, handing out fliers for the May 1 general strike. Organizers were calling on employees to refuse to go to work and for students to refuse to go to school. We were urging everybody to gather in the streets instead for a festival of resistance and to demand economic justice.
“Just try running this city without our labor.”
Our fliers said “No work, no school,” and we meant it. We knew that getting even 5 percent of the city’s workers and students to strike would show the 99 percent’s willingness to walk away from an economy that exploited them. “Just try running this city without our labor,” we wanted to say.
But when May Day came around, we found most businesses bustling. Shopping and banking went on without a hitch. Even though thousands of people in cities across the United States participated, our organizing just hadn’t been strong enough to make a dent in business as usual.
Today, there are new calls for strikes in response to the actions of the Trump administration. The novelist Francine Prose published the first of these at the Guardian website. “Let’s designate a day on which no one (that is, anyone who can do so without being fired) goes to work, a day when no one shops or spends money, a day on which we truly make our economic and political power felt,” she wrote. Shortly after that, the creator behind the TV show The Wire, David Simon, suggested the date of Feb. 17 on Twitter. “No one spends, no one produces,” Simon tweeted in response to a critic. “The metric they understand is profit.”
Organizers quickly put together a website and are organizing local events in almost every state via a Google doc. This strike has two specific demands, according to its website, both of which ask members of Congress to stand up for the U.S. Constitution.
But Feb. 17 is just the beginning.
Feb. 17 is just the beginning.
A group of women authors, including civil rights leader Angela Davis, is calling for a second strike on March 8. This one is less focused on Trump and more on building “a feminism for the 99 percent” and maintaining the momentum from the Women’s March on Jan. 21, in which as many as 5 million people took the streets.
“The idea is to mobilize women, including trans women, and all who support them in an international day of struggle—a day of striking, marching, blocking roads, bridges, and squares, abstaining from domestic, care and sex work, boycotting, calling out misogynistic politicians and companies, striking in educational institutions,” the organizers wrote.
And there is even talk of another strike date on May 1, with organizing just getting started.
Will the results of these new strikes add up to more than the one I worked on in 2012?
There is some evidence that they just might. But, even if they don’t, the currently planned strikes offer the people a chance to practice a political tool that has recently helped Europeans push back against far-right governments and austerity. Americans who oppose Trump’s government would do well to learn that history and to think about how large-scale strikes could work here.
Europe’s successful strikes are not limited to purely economic issues.
First of all, organizers are looking carefully at Europe, where unions and other groups have staged 63 general strikes between 2000 and 2016. These strikes “caused governments to change or drop the proposals that had provoked the strike” an impressive 42 percent of the time, according to an analysis in the Washington Post. The most successful strikes were ones that opposed economic legislation affecting large swaths of the population, such as bills to cut pensions.
Europe’s successful strikes are not limited to purely economic issues. Just a few months ago, millions of women and male allies in Poland boycotted work and school and spent Oct. 3 in the streets. They were striking against a proposed anti-abortion bill that would have criminalized nearly any termination of a pregnancy—including in cases of rape and incest. In response, Poland’s conservative government walked back the bill.
Meanwhile, this year’s strikes are already showing signs of creativity. The March 8 strike in particular is taking a tack different from Occupy, and the results could be exciting. In addition to drawing inspiration from that history, the organizing for the March 8 strike is led by women of color. That’s affecting their approach in ways that seem likely to broaden participation.
Tithi Battacharya is a professor at Purdue University and one of the co-authors of the March 8 call to strike. She doesn’t call it a “general strike” because anti-striking laws and low union density currently block that possibility—and retaliation against strikers would likely hit vulnerable women of color the hardest. She prefers the term “mass strike,” a notion that’s designed to be more inclusive: “We are calling for demonstrations, walk-outs, sex strikes: a range of actions that will be a show of collective resistance by women, which will take different forms depending on the local context.”
This year’s strikes are already showing signs of creativity.
Battacharya reported that she’s been in talks with the organizers of the general strike called for Feb. 17, as well as those behind the Jan. 21 Women’s March. A number of others are considering adding their support, including the Chicago Teachers Union, leaders affiliated with Black Lives Matter, and several groups that advocate for the rights of Palestinians.
Large feminist organizations are also interested in the plan. “The National Organization for Women’s methods have always included direct actions, like marching and striking,” said Terry O’Neill, the group’s president. She confirmed that her organization, which reaches hundreds of thousands of people, will work to bring them out for the March 8 women’s strike. She can’t describe the details just yet—her staff of nine has been busy with efforts to fight Donald Trump’s cabinet nominations—but she says much of the work will be carried out by the organization’s local chapters, which operate autonomously.
“At this moment, direct action, general strike, talking to your neighbors about the white supremacist agenda of the Trump administration and the Republicans in Congress—that’s the way to get the word out,” O’Neill said.
A recent piece by Alex Gourevitch in Jacobin pointed to the bloody history of traditional general strikes in the United States, which provoked harsh, militarized reactions from the government. Gourevitch concludes that today’s organizers are trying to “leapfrog all the hard, long-term political work” and are “severely disconnected from reality.”
A traditional general strike is out of reach.
Gourevitch is right that a traditional general strike is out of reach. But the organizers of the March 8 strike are acutely aware of that fact, and are looking to women’s uprisings for another way forward. The Polish women’s strike never seriously attempted to shut down all commerce across the country. It was more like a giant march in which participants across the country boycotted work and school wherever they could—and a number of large companies shut down in solidarity. That turned out to be enough to help defeat the right-wing government’s abortion ban.
Of course, it’s possible that we in the United States just aren’t angry enough to follow in their footsteps. The Trump administration, after all, has not asked Congress for a blanket ban on abortion like the one that led to the Polish women’s strike. And we haven’t seen cuts to social programs like the ones that led to many other general strikes in Europe—at least not yet.
Still, activists were able to bring out as many as 5 million people for the Women’s March last month. If just a fraction of those millions join in on Feb. 17 and March 8, people in this country may learn how to get their strike on again—in a way that makes sense in this moment and centers those with the most to lose. The best way to start is to show up on Friday ready to learn.