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The audacity of a general strike against Trump

Michael Knigge
February 9, 2017

Regardless of how it turns out, efforts to stage a general strike in the US are unprecedented in the modern era and show how deep the opposition against President Trump is. But the planned protest also raises questions.

U.S. President-elect Trump
Image: Reuters/J. Ernst

Can't remember the last time a general strike shut down the United States? That's because it has never happened.

"General strikes don't happen in the United States," Kevin Boyle, a historian at Northwestern University who specializes in modern American social movements, told DW.

What do happen are general strikes on a local level, but even those are exceedingly rare, explained Andrew Wender Cohen, a history professor at Syracuse University.

"The last major general strike was in Oakland, California in 1946," he said. Back then tens of thousands of workers walked off their jobs in a fight over unionization in the city.

Extraordinary idea

While regionally based general strikes like the one in Oakland - involving more than 10,000 workers and shutting down a local economy - happened earlier in the United States in places like San Francisco or Philadelphia, even those regional general strikes always were unusual.    

"It is very, very uncommon in US history," Cohen told DW, adding that for some time now there have been only 20 to 30 larger strikes per year in the entire country. 

Against that backdrop, calls for a general strike by the organizer's of the Women's March as well as by other groups are not just noteworthy, but daring.

"The idea of it is really quite extraordinary," said Boyle. "It tells us something about the real depth of the opposition to the Trump administration that people are even talking about such a thing. I think it tells us something about really dramatic mass mobilization of the last couple of weeks in the United States."

Upset and angry

His colleague Cohen concurs that it is an indicator that people are "really upset and angry."

The big question though, argue the scholars, is whether the strike will be successful since Americans generally have far fewer labor protections than Europeans and the unionization rate is also far lower than in Europe, where general strikes are more common.

"It really is a question of whether the organizers can convince people to risk being fired or the wrath of their employer," said Cohen.

"I think this idea of a strike also carries with it a kind of class bias that I don't think is a particularly useful thing," said Boyle.  "It's a heck of a lot easier for professional people to take an hour out of work than for working class people. That's a tough thing to say for millions and millions of people. That's not going to go down well at the local Wal-Mart."

Risky move

What's more, he added, unless the turnout is truly extraordinary and has a great impact on the national economy, calling for a general strike runs the risk of falling short and having it labeled a failure, even if many people attend.

A more apt vision of what may be achievable, said Boyle, would be the moratorium to end the Vietnam War on October 15, 1969, which was initially planned as general strike but then reconfigured as a moratorium. Instead of a general strike, huge protests were held across the US and globally to be followed by more protests one month later. 

Francine Prose, a writer and former president of the PEN American Center, whose article in Britain's "Guardian" newspaper has been widely credited with having spawned the idea of a general strike, is less concerned with organizing tactics or the possible perception of planned events. 

Washington Women's March Trump Proteste
The organizers of the Women's March have called for general strike against Donald Trump Image: DW / F. Kroker

Europe as a role model

 "I am not an organizer," she told DW. "I just threw this idea out there."

"I spent a lot of time in Italy, so I have memories of waiting for the bus in downtown Rome and it would never come," said Prose, adding that she is of course aware that general strikes are far less common in the US than in Europe. And she also knows that it is far more risky and difficult for many Americans to participate in a strike than for Europeans. 

The reason why she still called for a general strike, she said, was simply that while she feels that all protests against the Trump administration have been important, "there is some part of me that thinks the only thing that these people care about is money and commerce. And perhaps the only way to really get to them is to shut it down for a day or to make things difficult, to make things uncomfortable."

But that doesn't mean, said Prose, that the success of a general strike should be measured only by its effects on the economy.

Metric for success

"Let's say every single American walked out of a job, didn't buy anything, didn't travel for a single day - I don't think that would convince Donald Trump to step down," said Prose.

More important than focusing on a single event or a single mode of opposition, she said, is to view every event broadly as a practice and preparation for the next move. Someone who can't take to the streets to protest could perhaps make phone calls to a member of Congress. 

Because the tangible results of the protests against the Trump administration's plans can be hard to measure, Prose suggests a different metric. "We can only imagine what would have happened if it wasn't made clear that a significant percentage of the American people oppose these things."