labor This Is How the Next Great American General Strike Happens…
The next great general strike to captivate the United States will not be organized — it’ll be organic. And it could be the most transformative general strike this country has ever seen.
Right now, the head of the Transport Workers Union of America is threatening to shut down the second-largest commuter railroad in the nation; striking SAG-AFTRA and WGA members want to break up Hollywood; and militants within the UAW are still keen on bringing the Big Three automakers to their knees.
Add to that mix, increasingly-fed up Starbucks baristas and Amazon warehouse workers unable to organize or get a union contract. Add to that, too, grocery store workers, nurses, teachers, hotel workers and any number of others who’ve had the scales blasted from their eyes following the pandemic — and for whom the same old corporate tricks and shenanigans designed to placate or bully them into submission no longer work.
UPS, one of the largest shipping companies on the planet, may have flinched and been forced to release the pressure valve in the battle with its Teamsters-led workforce — but there’s still plenty of volcanic energy roiling beneath the surface to ignite transformative change for workers nationwide.
As Erik Loomis observes in the introduction to A History of America in 10 Strikes, “Many of us don’t enjoy our work. We don’t get paid enough. We have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet if we have a job at all. Our bosses treat us like garbage and we don’t feel like there is anything we can do about it.”
Back before the pandemic hit, then Amalgamated Transit Union VP Bruce Hamilton urged trade unionists across the country to start building towards a general strike.
“Workers really do want to engage in radical action with a clear chance of making their lives better,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton issued that call in 2019, in response to the threat of climate catastrophe. He said workers should only start building towards a general strike, however, rather than actually calling for one because he knew such an undertaking, given the state of the working class in America, would take a lot of time and coordination to pull off.
So much time and coordination that few, if any, within the labor movement at the time truly believed such a coordinated general strike was possible — no matter how dire the situation.
Nearly five years later, you’d still be hard-pressed to find anyone within the labor movement who sincerely believes any progress has been made planning for a general strike.
Today, the specter of climate catastrophe that worried Hamilton is just one element of existential angst gnawing at the guts of working class Americans.
Everyday working people are finding it increasingly harder to survive a predatory post-pandemic economy that continually funnels all the money to the top and leaves the rest of us, our families and our friends further behind and closer to the street.
What should be apparent right about now, however, is that a nationwide general strike with the potential to reverse that grim trajectory doesn’t actually need extensive planning or coordination at all — and it never did.
HOW A GENERAL STRIKE HAPPENS
“If you look at history,” Class Struggle Unionism author Joe Burns tells Work-Bites, “the way that we ended up with general strikes is that workers engaged in strike activity. And then when one group of workers got in trouble they put out an appeal — picket lines started to spread. Other workers joined in the battle — that’s how we got a general strike. So, I think if people want to see some sort of general strike or larger strike activity — the best way to do it, is to focus on building strikes and class conflict wherever we are.”
There are presently some 921 strikes and labor actions happening at over 1,400 locations throughout the United States, according to the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University’s Labor Action Tracker.
Conditions couldn’t be much more conducive for a general strike to erupt somewhere at some point then they are right about now.
Carol Lang is a Professional Staff Congress-CUNY delegate from Bronx Community College and a District Council 37 retiree in New York City who says the only way hard-pressed Americans are ever going to stop their post-pandemic decline is with a general strike.
She’s also part of a group called the United Front Committee For A Labor Party that seeks to “help organize workers to build a general strike that will challenge the bosses and capitalism in general.”
“And that basically means getting rid of the [union] bureaucrats because the bureaucrats are the ones that are handing us over,” Lang tells Work-Bites. “They’re not gonna do anything — they’re all on board [with the bosses’ agenda] so, they gotta go.”
Railroad Workers United [RWU] member and industry retiree Mark Burrows says too many now occupying the top slots of labor unions simply lack the “class struggle” gene necessary to confront the escalating assault on working class people today.
“They don't have it in their DNA,” Burrows says. “So, all they know — and all they are capable of — is just going with the status quo that they inherit.”
Labor leaders, according to Lang, are stuck because they don't want to break with the Democratic Party, and still think “some politician is going to be riding in on a white horse to save us.”
“There will be no victory for the workers until the union ‘leadership’ which supports capitalism, is forced to step aside leaving room for a class struggle leadership that will neither play ball with the Democratic Party or accept the limits of capitalism,” she says.
In Burns’ view, the strike activity occurring across the country right now cannot be separated from “the struggle within” our own labor organizations to “create fighting unions.”
“If you look at the Teamsters,” Burns says, “them taking on UPS was the result of decades of reformers, with Teamsters for a Democratic Union and other groups, demanding change and working to reform the union. The auto workers — the reason they have a change in leadership is because they got the one-member, one-vote as a result of the corruption scandals in the UAW. Then you had a rank and file group intervening, the court case, pushing for that, fighting for the constitutional change — and then, ultimately, electing a reformer.”
International Brotherhood of Teamsters President Sean O’Brien and his union may have just okayed a new pact with UPS averting a massive strike involving 340,000 workers. But the clock is quickly ticking down on the UAW’s existing contract with the Big Three automakers. It expires September 14 and union President Shawn Fain still does not have a deal.
In fact, Fain reportedly threw management’s latest offer in the trash earlier this month, and recently declined a ceremonial handshake with the bosses. [The union has since voted to authorize a strike].
In union after union what we’re witnessing, according to Burns, is members who are ready to fight the status quo. “It's just a question, in many cases, of getting the leadership — either new leadership or existing leadership — to pick up that banner,” he says.
What’s still required, according to Lang is a “massive upsurge” from the rank and file determined to realize the change they want to see — even if that happens without the support of union leadership.
“That's what happened in the 1930s when dock workers went out on strike and Teamsters went out on strike — they went out defying their bureaucrats,” Lang says.
But we don’t need to go that far back. The 2018 West Virginia’s teachers strike also shows what can happen when rank and file workers take the lead.
Maybe that’s why the Republican candidates for president are so determined to “break the backs of the teachers’ unions”?
Strikes are always incredibly hard on workers. And in this country transformative strikes aimed at challenging the bosses and uplifting working families can be fatal.
Nearly 90 years ago this summer, workers in Minneapolis shut down the entire city in solidarity with the striking Teamsters of that era. The bosses responded to working families demanding a decent living by sending in police and shooting picketers. Nearly 70 were injured on July 20, 1934 — many shot in the back. Two of them, John Belor and Henry Ness, were killed.
“This is one of the hardest things a worker can do, right? Especially, when they’re providing for their family,” labor organizer Denise Diaz, deputy director for Institutional Advancement at Jobs With Justice, tells Work-Bites.
But because nobody wants to strike — including the money men with guns and a depraved willingness to kill — history shows strike threats alone can be powerful things.
They just have to be credible.
“[The Teamsters] didn't have to go on strike [against UPS],” Diaz says. “They had a real credible threat. And with that sort of strike, that was enough for the victory.”
As part of a militant organization seeking to nationalize the railroad industry, nobody needs to convince Burrows about the power of a general strike to change the course of the country.
At the same time, Burrows hasn’t forgotten standing shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of thousands of other workers in Washington, D.C., fists in the air, shouting, “strike, strike, strike” in support of PATCO workers and thinking revolution was just around the corner.
That was in 1981 — just before then-President Ronald Reagan betrayed his labor supporters and fired all the air traffic controllers.
After experiencing that — as well as current President “Labor Joe” Biden forcing a contract agreement on U.S. railroad workers and blocking their right to strike — Burrows says he’s “learned the hard way to be cautious about how I analyze things.”
“If I were a betting man, I’d say I don’t think this is gong to be the catalyst for a big general strike — but I don’t rule it out either,” he says.
In New York City, where retired trade unionists are beating back attempts by the most powerful public sector union leaders in town to privatize municipal health insurance in conjunction with the wider nationwide effort to undermine traditional Medicare — talk of expanding the fight and a general strike are, to say the least, unwelcome.
Lang, 72, is routinely shut down at retiree rallies anytime she attempts to get near a microphone to raise the issue.
“I say to them, ‘Let's go to the bus depots and to the Sanitation depots and hand out flyers and get people to come,’” Lang says. “Nobody wants to hear that because they're stuck in this strategy that's a loser, in my opinion. Organizing a general strike will unite the working class, which will fight for unified class demands. Without that, depression and war is a certainty.”
The catalyst for a naturally-occurring general strike may continue to be elusive despite the ongoing struggle facing working people throughout the country. But that can change as workers across all sectors continue to drown in student debt, are unable to afford decent housing, and are forced to forego needed medical care.
“Things are fluid,” Burrows says. “Even though things look very conservative and status quo today — with unforeseen circumstances — you know, things can change quickly.”
Note from a reader: Unfortunately, it is difficult to say how many strikes are presently occurring for a number of reasons. You could state that U.S. workers have organized over 900 (or nearly 1,000) strikes across the U.S. since the beginning of 2021. You could also state that over 200,000 workers were on strike in July, which is the highest monthly total since January 2021.
Joe Maniscalco is a journalist and freelance writer based in New York City. His work has appeared in a variety of news outlets ranging from the NewYorkPost.com to CommonDreams.org. He’s collaborated with Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist David Cay Johnston at DCReport.org where he’s covered the abuse of Amazon warehouse workers, the plight of migrant farmworkers, the assault on the USPS, and more. He is a proud member of the International Workers of the World Freelance Journalism Union.
Work-Bites: We’re a team of dedicated labor writers with decades of combined street cred covering every facet of the American Labor Movement, and dedicated to upholding the public’s inalienable right to know. Like the rest of our working class sisters and brothers, we’re fed up with powerful people playing the rest of us like chumps. We’re resolved to applying the highest standards of journalistic integrity to chronicling workplace injustices — spotlighting exploitation — revealing criminality — and heralding the truly heroic.
If the worldwide corona virus pandemic has done anything, it’s obliterate the outdated notion the bosses have any concern for us or our families. Despite the elites, we remain essential — and we know it. Work-Bites is dedicated to telling those stories and telling them to you straight.