Once the Milwaukee Bucks committed to striking and sitting out Game Five of their NBA playoff series, the rest of the league seemed to fall swiftly, like dominoes chasing the end of the line.
A handful of players asserted their will, and in doing so reoriented an entire locker room’s priorities in the aftermath of Jacob Blake’s killing at the hands of Kenosha, Wisconsin, police. Soon, voices from other teams started rising, notably that of fiery Oklahoma City point guard Chris Paul and the Lakers’ 16-time All-Star LeBron James. It didn’t take long for players across the league to agree that sitting one game wasn’t enough. Soon, the movement grew beyond basketball; even Major League Baseball players decided to sit out games.
And just like that, the threat of a general strike was on.
A general strike is one that cuts across multiple groups and industries, going further than an action at one company. While strikes have long been a staple of American resistance (and labor union movements, specifically), general strikes have been far more elusive in history. It’s a testament to how challenging it is to coalesce people from various backgrounds, classes and disciplines.
But the surging power of the athletic strike in August, backed by tremendous praise from mainstream voices, can’t be ignored. This feels like the most fertile time for a major American strike in recent memory — a time when the pain of coronavirus, economic depression and racial injustice is piling up into a grotesque panorama of broken American ideals. It didn’t matter to LeBron and Co. that they were giving up paychecks, losing fans or risking the future by striking. It was a flex of righteous anger, and unless my eyes are deceiving me, it appears that wide swaths of America feel exactly the same.
Sports were supposed to be a soothing balm for hard times. Instead, it turned into a parable for how nothing, certainly not paychecks and revenue, can whitewash the pain of racism.
Within days, NBA players figured out a plan to create a more equitable, activism-minded league, and have decided to resume the season. Was it just a powerful moment in time, or a blueprint for the rest of us? It’s hard to imagine how average workers, whether white collar or blue, can reach across company lines in a singular embrace of change. And change for what, exactly — racial injustice? Police reform? Economic assistance? All of the above?
These are the complicated questions that a general strike requires. There have been a few actions this year already, including an essential workers’ strike in May. In fact, one just kicked off today, September 1st, with the agenda of cutting off consumer spending and employment activity for 24 full hours. It’s unlikely to make the news, because of the patchwork nature of actual strikes.
But with tens of millions of Americans facing job insecurity, low funds and health threats under COVID, it’s a good bet that larger and larger strikes will come. And given how the GOP and President Donald Trump have devastated America’s pandemic response while also lining the pockets of corporate allies, it’s obvious that any Trumpian attempts to hijack the election will trigger mass unrest across the country.
To plan how to actually make a general strike happen, we have to reconcile an intimidating fact: There has never been a real nationwide general strike in U.S. history. What have succeeded are general strikes focused within single cities, in which workers have more leverage to change day-to-day life and bring attention to the cause.
The best example is the 1919 general strike in Seattle. Waitresses, street car workers, waste collectors, laundry washers and other workers, 65,000 union members strong, all walked off the job on February 6th in support of shipyard workers who were striking to shine a light on dangerous conditions and low pay. The city ground to a halt overnight. Incredibly, other people stepped in to keep the city’s basic services running, with food distribution, trash pick-up, policing and other tasks handled by Seattle volunteers, acting in solidarity with the striking workers. No crime was reported during the five-day action.
But laying the groundwork for the general strike took years. It also benefitted from Seattle’s union membership skyrocketing between 1916 and 1918 (it grew by 300 percent). Not only did pro-union sentiment increase, so did support of radical direct action — the use of strikes, boycotts and civil disobedience to enact change. Everyone in 1919 still remembered what happened in the Everett Massacre of 1916, in which union workers were attacked by a local mob of citizens, led by the sheriff of Everett, Washington. Five people died from gunfire, while 30 others were badly injured and many more were beaten and jailed.
The ensuing distrust in elected leadership, the state and its law enforcement simmered until it reduced into a boil years later. The parallels to 2020 are hard to ignore. The Grand Canyon-sized hurdle in the way, of course, is the very obvious change in union dynamics in the 21st century. Union membership is sliding down to historic lows, and while union participation will be critical for a major general strike, it’s clear that they will not muster the same numbers of radical workers like they used to.
But if a network of union leaders combine forces with grassroots tenant unions, immigrant advocates, Black Lives Matter activists, farmworker nonprofits and even small businesses, a strike could help startle, energize and educate everyone else watching from home. A strike that melds the stressors of racism and economic injustice would — perhaps more than an election vote ever could — channel urgency toward elected leaders to create fundamental, rather than piecemeal, change. It would be the shining zenith of two decades of unrest and civil disobedience in the name of progressive politics.
And while legitimate examples of U.S. general strikes are limited, having taken place largely in the first half of the 20th century, activist, author and labor expert Steve Early suggests that we may already have momentum to motivate such broad protest. He notes the “day without immigrants” protest in 2005 helped shift mainstream attention to injustice in America’s immigration process, with 5 million people in 160 cities coordinating to stop work, one day a month, for three months straight. The action was built by local organizers working across borders to network, not by large bureaucratic unions, he argues.
“All kinds of foreign-born workers — feeling threatened 15 years ago by the same proposed draconian GOP-backed anti-immigrant legislation — participated in the one-day strike activity, probably most of them not showing up for work in non-union workplaces … and responding to appeals from non-labor, community based groups,” Early told Salon. “Today a similar mix of workers with formal union representation and ‘unorganized’ groups without it are already engaging in an impressive amount of single workplace ‘quickie strike’ activity over demands related to better workplace protections, hazard pay, paid time off, if sick or quarantined, etc.”
The mass protest activity of 2020 means that a significant amount of groundwork has been laid for a general strike. While battles against the Feds, police and politicians rage on, it’s also a fertile time for organizers to start pondering the upside of stopping work for days, especially within the context of a single city and its communities. More and more voices are calling for a general strike.
Building solidarity between multiple classes of workers in disparate industries, through the lens of one unified issue, is an alchemist’s dream when it comes to political organizing. It’s as tantalizing a goal as it is tricky, and it may require a heavy dose of rhetorical compromise to get so many different minds and demographics on the same page.
Then again, with so many people crumbling under the weight of life in America, it’s not surprising an old, radical tune is gaining new fans — even if athletes continue to play on.