Which Way to the Barricades?

What was the mass strike and what would a successful one look like today?
Steve Fraser Nelson Lichtenstein
May 1, 2017
1933 Dressmakers' Union strike demonstrators take a break in a diner.


Rise, like lions after slumber,
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many—they are few.


Shelly’s “Masque of Anarchy” has been a spectral presence for nearly two hundred years, summoned at climactic moments of civil warfare. Composed to memorialize the 1819 Peterloo massacre, the poem commemorates the sixty thousand people who gathered at the very dawn of the industrial revolution to demand a radical expansion of suffrage, especially to those laboring in England’s dark satanic mills. Dozens died, hundreds were wounded.

The poem wasn’t published for over a decade, until the Chartist movement took it up in 1832. Another ten years after that, it became the anthem of an almost nationwide general strike. Participants referred to the time leading up to that moment and the strikes that preceded it as “holy days.”

Since then “Ye are many—they are few” has inspired rebellion, resistance, and liberation again and again. The New York garment worker strikes of 1911, the sit-down strikes of the 1930s, May 1968 in Paris, and, most recently, the pro-democracy congregations during the Arab Spring and the Occupy uprisings of 2011 are all etched in our collective memory.

There are also largely unknown, but hardly less remarkable, general strikes: not just those that shut down Winnipeg and Seattle in 1919, London and the Midlands in 1926, and San Francisco in 1934, but also Amsterdam under the Nazis in February 1941 and again in April 1943, Turin and Milan on April 25, 1945 — which Italians now celebrate as the penultimate moment of their liberation — and the Algerian general strike of January 1957, which closed schools, shops, and factories in support of the independence movement. In 1972, Quebec saw a series of province-wide general strikes that linked a quest for national identity with a cross-class protest against austerity.

The general strike in Poland, which lasted just half a day on March 27, 1981, engaged more than twelve million workers and citizens. It announced to the world and to the thin strata of Communist functionaries still in power that Solidarity constituted a majoritarian and national movement. From that moment on the elite had but two choices: military repression, which it invoked later that year, or a regime-changing, world-historic capitulation, which finally came in 1989.

Shelly’s immortal lines were not heard during the recent calls for a Women’s Strike or General Strike against the Trump regime or even as planning proceeds for the upcoming May Day strikes, which a number of trade unions in New York, Illinois, and California have endorsed. But what is sometimes loosely called “the resistance” certainly gestures in that direction. It’s as if something in the air evokes the “unvanquishable number,” the “lions” shaking “chains to earth like dew.”

How else can we explain the sudden announcements of general strikes when nothing on the ground suggests that they might happen? Less than a decade ago, elements within Occupy Wall Street issued regular calls for mass action without any chance of realizing their plans. Novelist Francine Prose’s call for a general strike in January went viral before fading — another immaculate conception, subsequently aborted.

The idea that something radical and forceful must be done persists in the most unlikely places. In February, fifty Hollywood writers, producers, and creatives held a house meeting in Hancock Park, California, to plan their response to the Trump administration. A strike, general or otherwise, was high on the agenda.

After listening to two labor historians brief them on past insurgencies, the organizers announced that they had already hired a PR firm to write a press release and organize publicity for their movement. The firm’s suggested slogan — “Strike for Democracy” — isn’t bad, even if the aging leftists in attendance blanched at their method for coming up with it.

Three weeks later, Salud Carbajal, Santa Barbara’s newly elected House representative, held a district meeting — that new locus of resistance politics. The event was packed with constituents who cheered the spokeswoman from Planned Parenthood, expressed solidarity with advocates for immigrant rights, and heartily denounced GOP efforts to gut the Affordable Care Act.

But when he tried to answer “what is to be done,” Carbajal got an exceedingly cool reception. He told the energized crowd to write and e-mail Congress and then prepare for the off-year elections. A veteran of the 1960s, now retired after a distinguished career as a UCLA physician, objected, recalling the years when he and his comrades at Columbia “shut it down.” The crowd agreed.

From the sublime to the ridiculous. But then again, this desire to conjure up something forceful could still produce results — maybe not a general strike, which demands a high level of organization and preparation, but perhaps upsurges, rebellions, boycotts, demonstrations, protests, and job actions of the most varied and unexpected sort.

Surprisingly, these recent calls for strike come primarily from middle-class activists, usually without the faintest connection to the labor movement. They summon people to deploy a weapon linked, since Peterloo, to an oppressed working class in revolt while decrying what they understand as white working-class backlash. The very incongruous timing and social location of these calls makes them odd, awkward, and naive, but also socially and culturally imaginative.

After all, what remains of the organized labor movement has avoided strikes like the plague for a long time; unions are simply too weak to conduct them. As late as 1975, each year witnessed more than four hundred strikes, involving more than a thousand workers. Today, ten or fifteen work stoppages occur, mostly for defensive reasons — to preserve pensions, wages, or health insurance against an aggressive employer.

Strikes have cropped up among unorganized, low-wage workers, sometimes assisted by outside unions. The Fight for $15 movement has generated a good deal of social energy and achieved some legislative success on the state and local level. But as important and even heroic as such struggles are, these strikes-cum-referendum-campaigns hardly disturb the country’s economic machinery.

Critics have blamed an ossified trade union bureaucracy, a Democratic Party elite that has marginalized the interests of the working class, and a growing conservative hegemony openly hostile to workers, regardless of the pseudo-populist rhetoric its spokespeople sometimes trot out.

However we account for it, the strike as a theater of combat has faded. As a mythic ideal, however, it is flourishing.

This year’s calls for work stoppages have relinquished their once-organic connection to the work site and relegated the labor movement to the margins. Nevertheless, this new, often middle-class sensibility resurrects the strike in a kind of hyperactive afterlife. It has become the newly powerless’s dream state in the wake of an election from hell.

Unlike its working-class antecedents, today’s strike does not arise out of relationships formed on the factory floor, at the water cooler, or near the checkout counter. On the contrary, today’s would-be picketers have highly atomized working lives, pervaded by notions of self-fulfillment both on and off the job. Contemporary labor has dissolved solidarity’s connective tissue, damning the strike before it even begins.

For decades, the working class has been forcefully reminded how little it counts in the affairs of the nation. The political and cultural right has captured and channeled this disillusionment, not only in the North American Rust Belt but also in Britain, France, and other polities where social democracy once flourished.

Brexit and Trump’s electoral victory may have made a substantial proportion of the white working class feel momentarily powerful, but the rest of the working class — immigrants and people of color — as well as the cosmopolitan and once-solid middle class saw the election as illegitimate, profoundly disempowering, and an affront to their moral sensibilities.

They now face the kind of insecurity and exclusion that America’s alienated and unorganized blue-collar workers have long experienced. High school teachers, retired architects, and medical professionals all feel as disrespected and insecure as Walmart clerks and McDonalds grill cooks.

They earn a lot more money, but these energized middle-class workers — especially among that cohort labeled “millennial” — is nevertheless affronted by the profound inequities, self-seeking, and imperial arrogance of the new ruling elite. At least under Obama, they could recognize parts of themselves in the coalition. Now, to many, electoral democracy and the conventional institutions of political life appear hollowed out, corrupt, fake.

If power is no longer accessible through party politics, if the “system” rolls on unperturbed, glacially indifferent to the well-being not only of the working class but also of the vanishing middle classes, then reaching back to a more combative past seems imperative.

This is happening not out of the blue, but at a moment when mass action has become a flesh-and-blood reality once again. The 2006 “Day Without Immigrants” was a revelation; it resembled an actual strike and conjoined political, economic, and cultural identities and desires. In Greece and all though Central and Western Europe — not to mention Latin America and the Middle East — social conflict has escaped the boundaries of conventional politics or carved out new spaces on the electoral map, making way for insurgencies that didn’t originate in the voting booth. Reveries of recaptured power might be nurtured in this soil, where the strike implies more than a commercial impasse and becomes synonymous with taking a stand.

The article continues

Steve Fraser is a historian, writer, and editor-at-large for New Labor Forum.

Nelson Lichtenstein teaches history at the University of California, Santa Barbara where he directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy.

May 2, 2017