As the coronavirus pandemic tears across America, shutting down swaths of the economy and exposing society's failings, workers are on the frontlines.
Not only are millions of people suddenly jobless with no safety net, but workers deemed "essential" are being asked to put their lives on the line by exploitative employers for the bare minimum in return. At the same time, labor is under attack as the Trump administration's labor board suspended union elections, effectively blocking the formation of new unions during the pandemic.
Now, workers facing such dire circumstances are organizing labor actions aimed at improving their conditions, and everyone else's. The last few weeks have seen strikes, work stoppages, protests, and "sick-outs" from workers in the gig economy, Amazon warehouses, Whole Foods, General Electric, and many more. These workers are asking for better pay and protective gear, among other things, and the protesting GE workers demanded that their factories start producing life-saving medical ventilators for Covid-19 patients instead of airplane engines.
Coronavirus is bringing a strike wave to America, if it hasn't already, and there is the feeling that it is snowballing into something more, which the U.S. hasn't seen for 75 years: a general strike that encompasses everyone, not just workers at one company or industry. As Instacart strike organizer Vanessa Bain told us: "Bosses and CEOs across sectors and industries have failed to act, so workers are taking matters into their own hands. The time for a general strike is now."
Many good things that we enjoy today were the product of an active and empowered labor movement in the past, just two examples being the 8-hour work day and weekends. The things that the labor movement wins now, in this critical moment, could be even more impactful, even transformative. Society might never be the same after the coronavirus pandemic, but that's a good thing.
What is a general strike?
A general strike is when workers from not just one company but across different businesses and even industries go on strike together in pursuit of some common goal. If you live in the U.S., you’d be excused for having never heard of a general strike before, because they’re extremely rare and haven’t happened since just after World War II.
“You’re talking about a very difficult thing to pull off,” said Erik Loomis, professor of history at the University of Rhode Island. “It requires a lot more solidarity among American workers than has typically happened in American history.”
As we're now seeing, though, these times are anything but typical.
A key feature of general strikes is they don’t start off as general strikes. Historically, they've begun as a regular work stoppage by a single union. In the early 20th century, these would occasionally erupt into general strikes when the state tried to suppress it, University of California, Santa Barbara history professor Nelson Lichtenstein said in an interview; workers in other unions who ordinarily would have little skin in the fight suddenly realize that’s no longer the case.
“The state is seen to be clearly illegitimate in some fashion, or what they’ve done is illegitimate,” said Lichtenstein.
In the United States, three of the most well-known general strikes took place between 1919 and 1946: when shipyard workers in Seattle after World War I were trying to protect their wartime wages; the 1934 longshoremen's strike on the west coast shipyards to establish their organizing rights, and the 1946 Oakland general strike against the region’s Republican machine.
Such strikes can result in the strikers forming their own shadow government—the Russian word “soviet” literally translates to “council." The first such quasi-government was created during the general strike of 1905 in St. Petersburg to coordinate the strike and to provide basic services, as happened in the 1934 longshoreman's strike in America.
There hasn’t been anything resembling a general strike in the U.S. for almost 75 years. There are two reasons for this. First, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947—perhaps most infamous for establishing Right to Work states—specifically outlaws “sympathy strikes” or other union efforts to compel another employer to bargain. The second is that under U.S. labor law, the collective bargaining process has served to defuse worker unrest and, as Lichtenstein put it, “routinizing and bureaucratizing conflict.” Instead of workers taking it to the streets, their lawyers sit in conference rooms for months or even years on end.
Neither Loomis nor Liechtenstein thought a general strike was likely today, but they both acknowledge times are different now. Paradoxically, the labor movement has been so defanged by the restrictions placed on unions and steps taken to prevent union formation that fewer workers than ever are bound by the rules that make general strikes legally tricky for unions. Plus, large national unions have hardly been consistent allies in general strikes, which are inherently radical. For example, the head of the Teamsters, Dave Beck, essentially broke up the 1946 Oakland general strike without accomplishing the strikers’ goals of increased wages that kept up with inflation.
Likewise, the government’s disastrous response to the coronavirus crisis has lent further credence to those who perceive the administration’s authority as illegitimate. Add to that the outrage among people being asked to die for the companies that pay them peanuts to work during a pandemic, and you have exactly the type of scenario that creates big changes.
“Some of these big companies who want people to just go to work, and then Trump and that element sort of downplaying something that’s obviously real,” Lichtenstein said, “it creates an absolute sense of ‘you’re bankrupt, you’re intellectually and morally bankrupt. And therefore we have no obligation to work.’”
Neither Lichtenstein nor Loomis were willing to go so far as to predict a general strike, but neither do they predict the status quo will prevail. Workers, especially low paid workers, have more leverage than ever. The question is, will they use it?
What are labor organizers saying about a general strike now?
Strikes often come in waves, with each group of workers emboldening the next. In the past ten days alone, the country has seen a surge of “wildcat” strikes (unauthorized work stoppages) from coast to coast.
On Monday, Instacart gig workers across the country refused to accept orders from the grocery delivery app. Amazon warehouse workers in Chicago, New York City, and Detroit have walked out in protest of how the e-commerce giant handled cases of the novel coronavirus this week. And Whole Foods workers staged a “sick-out” on Tuesday demanding double pay and free coronavirus testing—the first collective national action in the company’s 40 year history. Poultry plant workers in Georgia and sanitation workers in Pittsburgh have also led work stoppages. It’s almost as if a general strike led by the pandemic’s frontline workers is falling into place organically.
“There’s a gravitational pull bringing this movement together,” a lead organizer of the Whole Foods sick-out, who asked to remain anonymous because she feared retaliation, told Motherboard. “A general strike is something we’ve talked about idly before but it has become a recurring conversation for us once corona broke out. We couldn’t have anticipated how neatly a general strike has started to coalesce this week. We didn’t know Instacart and Amazon workers were also going to strike.”
Organizers at Whole Foods, Amazon, Instacart, and Target told Motherboard that the coronavirus pandemic is radicalizing many workers for the first time to support collective action against their employers, in large part because going to work now means putting their families and communities’ lives at risk.
“It’s not just about their jobs,” said Zachary Lerner, the lead labor organizer at New York Communities for Change, who helped organize Monday’s walkout at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, told Motherboard. “Amazon workers are striking because of the impact that this will have on their families and communities.”
Across these worksites, the demands are similar, perhaps making it easier to envision those of a general strike: Workers want hazard pay, comprehensive paid sick leave that doesn’t require a positive Covid-19 test, and basic health and safety precautions and measures during the pandemic, especially when their colleagues fall sick.
“What I’d personally like to see is real coordination of our movements and timing of work stoppages,” the Whole Foods organizer said. “Our economy is reduced to essential jobs. Right now there are not that many workplaces and the ones that do exist have very similar needs and demands. We all need health care and more money.”
“It’s no coincidence that all of these wildcat strikes and walk-offs are happening simultaneously—Covid-19 has brought capitalism to its knees,” Vanessa Bain, a lead organizer of the Instacart strike, and a gig worker in Menlo Park, California, told Motherboard. “We are watching long-held cultural mythologies about societal value unravel before our eyes. Rank and file workers have always been the backbone of society, but coronavirus is the lens through which this has become undeniably evident. Bosses and CEOs across sectors and industries have failed to act, so workers are taking matters into their own hands. The time for a general strike is now.”
“Before coronavirus happened, workers at Target were always told: ‘This isn’t a real job. This is a starter job for people who are trying to transition to higher careers,’” said Adam Ryan, a Target employee in Christiansburg, Virginia and a lead organizer of Target Workers Unite!, which has organized hundreds of Target employees across the country. “But there’s been a huge qualitative shift in people’s minds. Now we’re essential workers. The virus has helped radicalize and mobilize people and Target workers are pressing for strike action. The longer we go on and the more severe things get, the more folks want to do it.”
How to strike during a pandemic
Covid-19 has heightened some existing barriers to mass actions—it's difficult for workers to safely take to the streets en masse—but the same forces have also driven workers to take matters into their own hands and radically improve working conditions as companies drag their feet.
"The most effective strikes have been by people who were essential to the flow of goods and bodies," said Veena Dubal, an associate professor of law at the University of California, Hastings. “People that are most essential right now and responsible for the transport of goods to individuals who desperately need them are, ultimately, the gig economy workers—the delivery drivers and the shoppers and the people who are producing the food as well.”
Dubal compared strikes by app-based workers to the 1934 longshoreman strike, which was sparked by workers at the dock, but eventually reverberated down the supply chain and halted the flow of goods into the city completely. They ultimately won key concessions.
"I can imagine something like that being really effective and happening again in this context where you have [app-based] grocery shoppers who refuse to handle goods that are not being handled by unionized grocery store workers,” she added. “Delivery drivers who refuse to deliver goods that are being packed in non-unionized Amazon warehouses where workers are striking for better conditions. That kind of supply chain slowdown or shutdown could result in the unionization of these industries and better working conditions."
While workers—simultaneously essential and exploited during a pandemic—have already started carrying out those very actions, they will still need to tackle new and old problems. Strike funds are in short supply, but Dubal pointed to mutual aid networks as a possible workaround.
Strike actions during a pandemic that requires social distancing will need to look a bit different than during normal times. On Monday, General Electric workers did just that as they demanded the company convert its unused manufacturing capacity to ventilator production while standing or marching six feet apart.
Organizers told us that social media groups and encrypted messaging apps like Telegram and Signal have served an important role in uniting workers across worksites and cities, and will play a crucial role in organizing any coordinated mass action at a time when many workers are confined to their homes or under increased surveillance from employers at work.
For actions that do not require social distancing, the options are endless. Walkouts, work stoppages, and strikes at key production facilities, peak demand times, or across the country are all on the table.
Even during a pandemic, it’s not hard to imagine striking ride-hail drivers from Uber or Lyft creating driver caravans parked outside of apartment complexes, neighborhoods, or public places with signs and materials explaining why a strike is happening and how to learn more or support it. The same goes for striking Instacart or DoorDash drivers who could create caravans, inform passersby, and also raise awareness outside of grocery stores and restaurants still open during this time.
A movement towards a general strike will also have to contend with the stimulus package and its federal unemployment insurance which may satiate some workers.
"Their anger and agitation is going to [be] lulled in so much as they might not feel the desperation that would push them into organizing or joining an organizing movement,” Dubal said. “But I think it's going to take long enough for people to get these checks that there's going to be a lot of agitation and anger and desperation before anyone can get anything from either the state or federal government, and it might just be enough time to create a sustained movement."
For years, the idea of a general strike has been derided in certain circles as unrealistic. In the span of just a few weeks, that derision has collapsed into anticipation. Strikes have happened across the history of this country, and every other on this planet. They can happen again.