General Strikes! Looking Backward, Looking Forward

It began on July 14, 1934.  That day the San Francisco Labor Council pushed by radicalized rank-and-file workers declared a General Strike, and this led to four days of intense class struggle, the likes of which has rarely if ever been seen in this country.  The aim of the General Strike was to support the port’s longshoremen who had been striking with other longshoremen up and down the coast from Seattle and Portland to San Pedro since early May — and joined by unions for the merchant seamen — for a coast-wide contract, a union-controlled hiring hall, reduced working hours, and a wage increase.  Faced off against them was a common front of the cities’ big business communities, the mayors, a competing company-aligned union, sell-out national union officials, and the right-wing Hearst-owned newspapers.  Two members of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) had been shot to death by the San Francisco police on July 5th, “Bloody Thursday,” during a pitched day-long battle between thousands of workers and hundreds of cops to stop strikebreaking trucks from going into the docks.  The solemn and dramatic mile-long funeral procession for the two men was attended by thousands of dockyard and shipboard workers, their supporters, and onlookers.  But the Governor of California had subsequently called out the National Guard who came armed with machine guns to reopen the docks and provide protection for the scabs, thus endangering the strike.

The General Strike took off and bit back.  Workers of all sorts around the Bay Area left their jobs.  Truck drivers in the Teamsters Union refused to make deliveries.  Over 60 different unions got involved, and many non-unionized workers picked up the spirit of fight-back against the bosses as well.  Business executives were annoyed that they had to carry lunch boxes to work like blue-collar workers did because the restaurants they favored were closed and that they had to walk up the stairs to their offices since the building elevator operators refused to run them.  Small businesses — even movie theaters and night clubs — shut their doors in a show of sympathy for the striking port workers.  The powers-that-be turned loose savage vigilante violence against the “Reds” whom they blamed for the strike, but the city was basically shut down except for those operations which the unions permitted to operate.  The employers’ economic losses were mounting into the millions of dollars.  After the General Strike was called off on July 20th, the employers agreed to submit the issues to federal government arbitration — from which the longshoremen ended up with much of what they had been fighting for.  Their union, renamed the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), remains to this day one of the most militant at defending workers’ rights in the United States and at taking up broader political causes.  With help from members of the Occupy Movement, the ILWU recently won a battle against an anti-union grain port operator in Longview, Washington.

Now that Occupy Los Angeles has issued a call, taken up enthusiastically by Occupies around the country, for a nationwide General Strike on May Day, it behooves us to take a look at the history of General Strikes.  In a regular strike, workers put down their tools, leave their jobs, and refuse to go back until their demands are met at a particular workplace or against a particular employer.  A General Strike is a mass strike across workplaces and employers.  It may be citywide or nationwide.  Commonly, as in the case of the 1934 San Francisco strike, General Strikes have been launched by the labor movement to put additional pressure on particular employers (or, in that case, an association of employers) to settle with their workers who are on a long, hard-fought strike, although sometimes General Strikes have raised economic and political demands directed at governments.  During General Strikes, striking workers and their unions have often organized systems of distribution for food and medicine and kept other essential services running in ways that are prefigurative of a new kind of society without the need for the capitalist and managerial classes.  This has empowered workers — much as the Occupy Wall Street park encampments have done lately — and the capitalists (along with their class-collaborationist buddies in the mainstream unions) have deplored them also for this reason.  Some anarchists, especially anarcho-syndicalists (like the Wobblies here in the U.S.), and some Marxists (like the German firebrand Rosa Luxemburg) have put forward the General Strike as the most effective (and least violent) way to get rid of capitalism.  A General Strike was nearly successful at bringing down the Tsarist Regime in 1905.  But other revolutionaries since Engels have challenged the notion that all or most workers in an advanced capitalist country could ever be organized to stop work together and bring down the state as improbable and said, in any case, if workers had become that powerful already then a General Strike would not be a necessary step for making a revolution.

In Western Europe, non-revolutionary General Strikes are not that uncommon.  A huge General Strike spearheaded by the coal miners, railway workers, and dockers paralyzed Britain for nine days in 1926.  Just this year, on March 29th, the two largest unions in Spain organized a countrywide General Strike against the new conservative government’s severe cuts to social spending, wage freezes, and privitizations.  Here in the United States, while there is some historical tradition for us to learn from and build on, General Strikes have been rather less common.  A five-day General Strike occurred among workers in Seattle in 1919 in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution (and there was a radical General Strike that same year in Winnipeg, Canada).  Also happening in 1934, coming before the San Francisco General Strike, other unionized workers had struck in Minneapolis in order to support striking teamsters there.  And, of course, May Day as the International Working Class holiday upon which Occupy this year is calling for a nationwide General Strike originated right here in the U.S. from a General Strike for the 8-Hour Day on May 1st, 1886.  To commemorate the Haymarket Martyrs from that epic battle, the Socialist International adopted May Day in 1891 as an official labor holiday and its celebration spread around the world where it continues to this day (although falling on harder times here in the country of its birth since the repression of the 1950s McCarthyite period and not really being resuscitated in a big way until the immigrant rights marches in the last few years).

The last General Strikes to take place in the U.S. — that is, prior to Occupy Oakland’s attempt to pull off one last November as a protest against police brutality and to support port workers there — occurred way back in 1946.  During that one year alone, which was a year of widespread industrial strikes, the biggest strike wave ever in American history, there were eight General Strikes (although often referred to at the time as “labor holidays”) — Stamford and Hartford, Connecticut; Rochester, NY; Lancaster and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Camden, New Jersey; Houston; and Oakland.  These were citywide General Strikes either starting spontaneously or called by unions to support workers who were already out on strike or who had been fired for seeking union recognition (a right supposedly protected by the National Labor Relations Act enacted during Roosevelt’s New Deal).

So why are General Strikes less common in the U.S., with none having taken place since 1946?  A big reason is that the notorious anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act passed by the Republican-controlled Congress in 1947 prohibits political and solidarity strikes (along with sit-down and wildcat strikes).  It also led to the purge of a great many radicals from the AFL-CIO unions.  Ever since then, these mainstream unions and their leaders have largely become loyal partners of the capitalist system willing only to bargain collectively and occasionally, if at all, to risk a strike for somewhat better wages and working conditions.  Today, since the economic crisis has hit hard and taken its fearful toll, the number of strikes has fallen to a historically low level, with only five strikes involving more than 1,000 workers in 2009.  Nevertheless, while unions may well face fines and jail time under Taft-Hartley, its strictures do not apply to Occupy or other groups that may try to call for a General Strike.  Recently, some union leaders have realized they need Occupiers to do things on behalf of workers and the 99% that they feel they cannot openly, legally endorse.  In some places as with West Coast dock workers and New York City subway workers, unions have given Occupy actions their sub rosa approval and support.  And, as one of my comrades in Occupy Central Vermont has observed, hopefully this year’s May Day General Strike — with various actions to interrupt business-as-usual scheduled for 115 cities across the country — will put some sharper teeth back into the strike tactic in general.  Even though a true (and unprecedented) nationwide General Strike against capitalism does not seem to be in the offing this year — it’s more a wishful dream (thank goodness for the dreamers in Occupy!) — with the crisis brought on by the 1% showing no end in sight and the populace angry as hell, May 1st 2012 promises to be a major and perhaps turning point occasion in the history of U.S. class struggle.  Don’t miss it!

For more on the history of General Strikes, see “General Strike!”; “Seattle General Strike Project”; and the Holt Labor Library’s resource page on the San Francisco General Strike.

Jay Moore is a radical historian who lives and teaches (when he can find work) in rural Vermont.

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