Could a General Strike Against Trump Actually Work?
A modern protest would likely need specific demands and backing from major employers.
Image via Flickr user Lorie Shaull
On Friday, February 17, people around the country (and possibly the planet) are going to refuse to work to protest President Donald Trump. It's a continuation of the host of protests that have sprung up in opposition to the new commander-in-chief's hardline anti-immigration policies as well as, y'know, his general vibe. But the Women's March on Washington and the pro-refugee rallies at airports around the country were conventional demonstrations. A general strike, where people sacrifice a day of work to show their seriousness, would be a much heavier thing. But would it have any appreciable effect?
Though there's been lots of social media chatter about the strike, it's not clear how many people are actually considering it. The largest Facebook event for the proposed strike is currently only sitting at 8,300 confirmed attendees—a far cry from the 234,000 who clicked "going" on the Women's March event page, or the millions around the country who took to the streets that day.
The notion of a general strike was first proposed by the writer Francine Prose in the Guardian. In an op-ed, she asked all those who are able to do so without risking their livelihood to refrain from working for the day, and asked everyone to avoid exchanges of money to underscore the economic impact of the strike. For many on the left, looking to do something to oppose Trump, this is a very appealing idea. Even David Simon, creator of The Wire, tweeted his support for the strike:
Zoe-Zoe Sheen, a graphic designer in Los Angeles, plans to participate in the strike as a thank you to her immigrant parents.
"It's my privilege to be a first-generation Chinese American," Sheen told me. "My parents' hard work laid the foundation for me to live my life more freely than they could. I'm grateful for their sacrifices. It's my responsibility to them—and any human—to do whatever is in my power to allow others to live their best lives in harmony and peace."
Challenging the feel-good but oftentimes transient and ineffective nature of protests, Prose pointed to the economic disruption of last weekend's peaceful airport demonstrations as small-scale models for impactful resistance. "It's hard to think of a nonviolent movement that has succeeded without causing its opponents a certain amount of trouble, discomfort and inconvenience," Prose wrote. "And economic boycotts—another sort of trouble and inconvenience—have proved remarkably successful in persuading companies to cease supporting repressive governments."
Nelson Lichtenstein is a UC Santa Barbara professor and director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy who has written extensively on the subject of strikes. When I called him to ask whether a general strike could result in real change, Lichtenstein told me he believes that with the amount of political energy lingering after the Women's March and renewed with each controversial Trump action, this call for a strike "could easily balloon into something absolutely real."
But he tempered that statement with cautions that for a general strike to work, there must be specific and overt demands. Because the flashpoint of this proposed strike is clearly immigration-related, Lichtenstein suggests that the movement more explicitly asks for "a complete rescinding of Trump's anti-immigrant executive order."
"For a general strike to be truly considered successful," he added, "you have to get some of the employers to join in on or make allowances for the protest."
Lichtenstein pointed to the Day Without Immigrants March of May 2006 as a recent example of another de facto weekday general strike. Companies like Tyson Foods temporarily shut down plants voluntarily that day in order to avoid strife within their factories. With the current levels of rancor being directed at Trump, Lichtenstein thinks it's entirely possible that mayors of major cities or titans of Silicon Valley might put their support behind such a nationwide protest.
We tend to think of strikes as tools for classes of workers to wrest better pay and benefits from management. But general strikes—where everyone stops working, period—are much more politically and philosophically charged. William Benbow, a London-based radical, first proposed the general strike in an 1832 pamphlet demanding national holidays after decades of organizing laborers into more concentrated demonstrations. In this proposal, The Grand National Holiday of the Productive Classes, Benbow suggested a month without work as a means of starving the rich out of their idle, carefree lives built upon the backs of the working class. Then, Benbow hypothesized, the rich would elect a more worker-friendly congress who would, in turn, grant the citizens a national holiday of rest, debt-forgiveness, and even freedom for some prisoners.
So, that obviously didn't really happen. But in the years that followed general strikes would be invaluable tools in the procurement of guaranteed minimum wage, safe working conditions, the concept of "the weekend," and a variety of other now-taken-for-granted labor laws. The general strike was also used by civil rights activists in the mid-20th century—the key political moment of the civil rights movement, the March on Washington, was as much an economic movement as one for civil liberties. After all, the event's full name was the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." The 1963 march took place on a Wednesday, meaning the roughly 300,000 participants were not at their work and thus participating in a de facto general strike. The march was a massive show of popular force, and it helped push through the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 24th Amendment, which banned racist poll taxes.
Not every activist views the anti-Trump general strike in a positive light. Michah White, one of the founders of the 2011 Occupy movement, recently tweeted that general strikes not backed by a willingness for violence have no chance of real success. (Presumably, few strikers want to break windows or intimidate businesses.)
Only time will tell if the proposed general strike manifests into anything substantive or transformative. That said, Lichtenstein seemed optimistic based on how massive and peaceful most of the anti-Trump protests have been so far.
"Trump has actually helped construct this unified demand for change for us, and I think it's clear the people are already behind it."
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