The General Strike in the US is a multi-faceted, poly-centered resistance movement responding to the general crisis of capitalism and corporate power triggered by the Covid-19 crisis. The pandemic is revealing to millions what was always well hidden: America is a house of cards.
The bosses and their government have no interest in defending the life and liberties of working-class people. Quite the opposite. In order for corporations to achieve their control over us, they are driven to undermine our human and political rights — just as they are driven to maximize profits. Their strategy is to hollow out and weaken all the democratic and representative functions of the government, the two-party system, even trade unions.
After four decades of retreat by organized labor; after the double defeat of the Sanders campaign; after Citizens United legalized bribery; after the multi-trillion dollar bailouts of the ruling class passed by a united and unanimous Congress — we are on our own. The General Strike is an attempt to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of representative democracy.
The General Strike is anti-Trump but it is also against the system that produced Trump. So many still want to believe the system can work for us if we elect the right leaders; that elections are actually on the level; that justice will prevail if we get the right person on the Supreme Court. We tried all this and failed.
And as inspiring as the general strike is, it is a prelude to what is coming. In a mere ten years, we will be lost to irreversible, war-driven climate chaos. The pandemic is the opening act of humanity’s greatest drama. It is now time to “fish or cut bait” and we have been cutting bait for far too long.
Neither the incremental change internalized by far too many union officials nor the incremental change of nordic social-democracy sold by democratic-socialists will be permitted in the USA. Even a moderate reformer like Bernie Sanders or a common-sense anti-war politician like Tulsi Gabbard will never ever be let near the real levers of power — unless they surrender. Why? Because we are at the very center of the empire and if the bosses lose here they have lost it all.
But we can start right here, right now. There will be real resistance no matter what because people face life and death issues. The lose/lose choices people face between food or rent or healthcare will provoke resistance. Should we stand aside and call this wave of resistance nothing: just a strike here, just a strike there? Some unhappy tenants over here or some nice mutual aid efforts over here? Or should we provide the material and symbolic support for what workers have already decided to do? We face an unprecedented crisis and millions of unemployed workers, tenants, essential workers, the poor are on the move. Let’s catch up with them.
The General Strike does not simply harken back to early 20th century models or follow normal union channels. The general strikes of long ago occurred before the US empire achieved its global dominance and stepped up the tactics of oppression used abroad against its own people at home. McCarthyism was that war at home and it went right for the labor movement’s throat. The 1947 Taft-Hartly “Slave Labor” Act essentially made general strikes led by existing unions illegal.
While corporations were always powerful it wasn’t until approximately 1980 that they finally completed their merger with the state placing their interests above and in direct opposition to all others.
For a more useful history, we should look to the waves of resistance that have occurred since the 1999 “Battle for Seattle.”
Perhaps most important was the immigrant-led one-day general strike called the “Great American Boycott.” On Mayday 2006 approximately one million people in 50 US cities avoided work, school and shopping to be part of one of the largest days of protest in American history.
In 2011, protests in Wisconsin were followed by Occupy which created millions of new activists around the world. The idea that we belonged to the 99% resonated with millions of people and gave new life to class consciousness and class solidarity by reinvesting “class” with its broadest possible meaning. Economic democracy became a mass aspiration.
The General Strike is much closer to the never-realized ideal of social movement unionism in which workplace struggles must be connected to social movements if they want to win.
But whatever historical examples you find important, today’s General Strike is based upon an actually existing resistance movement. General Strike 2020 introduced their efforts by saying:
We started this organization after we saw working class people launch a wave of labor strike and rent strike actions across the world in response to the severe negligence of our “leaders” as the pandemic has emerged. We were inspired into action by the workers and tenants and debtors who have already begun fighting and the hundreds of mutual aid systems which have spontaneously popped up everywhere.
There have been over 150 strikes since March 2020. These are the latest episode in a rapid upswing in strike activity since 2018. Many of these strikes are wildcats where strikes occur before unions were formed or are on the margins of an existing union structure. This worker self-activity should push unions, and all of us, into action.
The General Strike is also the emerging strike support networks, the expanding and unprecedented rent strike movement, the approximately 1000 active Mutual Aid projects, strategic boycott efforts targeting Amazon, Wholefoods, Trader Joes, Walmart, Tysons and more. The General Strike also means alternative supply chains and resources produced by all sorts of communal efforts from community gardens to cooperatives such as Cooperation Jackson.
The Green Party and other parties outside of the chokehold of the two-party system have been rejuvenated. And the growth of third parties will continue to the degree that we turn ourselves into the electoral wing of the social movements — or in this case the electoral wing of the General Strike. The activists associated with Popular Resistance are playing just such a role commuting back and forth between the Green Party and General Strike.
The general strike is the sum of all these struggles.
The general strike may not live up to expectations or rigid categories based on backward-looking models, but in fact, it far exceeds them because it is based on the actually existing concrete conditions of this historical moment. We cannot love our categories more than we love the life that appears before us. While was must learn from history we do not get to go back in time.
We cannot disentangle the multiple social forces at work that produced the General Strike. In fact, the organizing task is just the opposite. By seeking synergy and building networks, we will discover the organizational forms that give life to solidarity. Can we innovate the next generation of the Original Rainbow Coalition or something like it?
Our moment is one of deep crisis and opportunity. Guess what? It’s tangled and messy. Making history always is. We don’t get to select the circumstances of our engagement with history, but engage we must.
The overarching goal of the General Strike is democracy: economic, workplace, and community democracy. Representative democracy is largely broken. Direct and participatory democracy — on a mass scale — is the best response to the deeply interlocking crisis of pandemic, climate chaos, empire, and corporate rule.
We need a mighty movement to transform the political climate. For that, we need a big coalition and the political skill to find unity without uniformity. Can we build a movement of movements? For that, we need the General Strike and we need all its many parts to stay in motion.