On Sunday, Sara Nelson, the head of the flight attendants’ union, gave a rousing speech at an AFL-CIO dinner, denouncing the government shutdown for endangering airline security and forcing workers to labor without pay. “Go back with the fierce urgency of now to talk with your locals and international unions about all workers joining together,” she told her fellow labor leaders, “to end this shutdown with a general strike!”
Nelson’s call for a general strike to solve the shutdown is particularly surprising, given the brief and limited history of general strikes in the United States and the mainstream labor movement’s hostility to such approaches. But as the shutdown drags on and the suffering spreads, it may be just what is needed to reopen the government.
American radicals have long dreamed of general strikes, but have rarely actually employed them. The Industrial Workers of the World, the radical syndicalist union that reached the peak of its influence in the 1910s by organizing the nation’s most exploited workers, often talked of a general strike as the precursor to the workers’ revolution, but could never pull one off. Despite the legal and logistical challenges they pose, there have been five notable general strikes in American history.
The first took place during the Civil War, when slaves walked off plantations throughout the South, heading toward Union lines and undermining the ability of the Confederacy to fight. The scholar and civil-rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois rightfully termed this a “general strike” in his 1935 book Black Reconstruction. Though unplanned and disorganized, it was perhaps the most important labor action in American history.
In 1892, workers in New Orleans, both black and white, conducted a general strike to demand recognition of their labor unions. Led by three racially integrated unions, the strike showed the potential for organized labor to overcome racism, even as Jim Crow descended on the South. When the city’s leaders attempted to race-bait the strike out of existence, the rest of the city’s unions called the general strike. It continued until the New Orleans Board of Trade agreed to submit to binding arbitration and to negotiate with unions that had both black and white members. The working-class racial harmony proved short-lived, but it was still a major union victory.
The 1919 Seattle General Strike stirred fear of revolution among the nation’s reactionary political and business elite. It took place against the backdrop of the Red Scare, when many radicals were imprisoned, like Eugene Debs, or deported, like Emma Goldman. The two-day strike itself, supporting an action by longshoremen, was entirely peaceful. Unions fed thousands of people, kept hospitals running, and ensured order in the streets. But Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, saw the strike as a threat to his own power and to the conservative unionism he preferred, and he ordered it ended. Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson agreed completely. He followed the end of the strike with a national tour to bring awareness to the threat of radical worker action and, he hoped, a chance at the presidency in 1920. That didn’t happen, but the strike’s premature conclusion left the labor movement in Seattle decimated for the next decade.
In 1934, San Francisco workers walked off the job in support of striking longshoremen, after the governor of California used the National Guard to open up the docks. In this case, though, the general strike was more conservative than the original stoppage, as many of the unions involved were distinctly uncomfortable with the communist leanings of the longshoremen’s leader, Harry Bridges. The strike lasted four days before the unions themselves suggested the longshoremen accept arbitration, which Bridges rejected. That decision led to more violence, although federal mediation did eventually grant the union many of its demands.
Perhaps the most relevant general strike is the most recent. On December 2, 1946, more than 100,000 workers in Oakland, California—all members of AFL-affiliated unions—walked off the job, shutting down the city for three days. The strike started with department-store workers, mostly women, fighting for higher pay. But when the city’s Republican power structure—including the police chief, the county sheriff, and the father of Senator William Knowland of California, who owned the Oakland Tribune—decided to break the strike, the city’s AFL-affiliated unions called a general strike. They hoped not only to support the demands of the department-store workers, but also to break Oakland’s Republican machine.
For two days, the city shut down. Bars’ jukeboxes were placed outside so strikers could literally dance in the streets. With department stores closed, workers put on Santa suits so children could engage in their favorite holiday tradition. “Strangers met in the middle of the night on the picket line, and you would think they’d known each other all their lives,” one Teamster later recalled. The strike could have continued, but Dave Beck, president of the Teamsters, felt that was too radical, and pulled his union out. The general strike crumbled by December 5.
So Nelson’s call is remarkable not just because general strikes have been so rare, but also because she offered it to a room full of labor leaders—precisely the audience that’s often been most skeptical of the general strike as a tactic.
And yet, her call reflects the strong turn toward community-based unionism in recent years. Rising income inequality, declining union rates, stagnant incomes, high student-debt loads, and an increasingly dysfunctional political system have made previously middle-class jobs all too precarious. A major reason for the success of the teachers’ strikes of the past year is that they are fighting for their communities as well as themselves. By demanding librarians and nurses in the schools, smaller class sizes, and enough money so they can sleep instead of working a second job, teachers have made the case that they are fighting for quality public education, which connects with the needs of children and the hopes of parents.
A general strike to demand the reopening of the government so federal workers will get paid would similarly emphasize the needs of communities. Demanding higher wages and better benefits could divide these workers from average Americans, but nearly everyone wants the government to open and federal workers to receive paychecks. Fully staffed airports and functioning national parks are not controversial goals, even if the tactics to achieve them might be.
Nelson is not arguing that government workers themselves should engage in a strike without support from private-sector unions. The workers she represents labor for the airlines, not the government. Labor law has declared sympathy strikes largely illegal, which helps explain the lack of general strikes since 1946, but the National Labor Relations Act allows for strikes when workers face extremely dangerous conditions, which the airline unions are already claiming have resulted from the shutdown. Even so, it is illegal for federal workers to strike, but that has not always stopped them. In the 1970s, there were dozens of federal workers’ strikes, kicked off by the postal workers’ strike in 1970, which won significant concessions from the Nixon administration. That era ended abruptly when Ronald Reagan fired the air-traffic controllers during their 1981 strike.
But Trump now faces a very different landscape than Reagan did in 1981. The Reagan-era Federal Aviation Administration had prepared for the possibility of an air-traffic controllers’ strike for years, and had contingency plans on how to deal with it. The Trump administration, by contrast, is completely unprepared to replace the controllers, TSA screeners, and other federal workers who keep air travel functioning. The air-traffic controllers had alienated both the general public and other unions in the decade before their fateful strike through their robust demands and actions that repeatedly disrupted air travel. But federal workers today are not asking for large wage gains or other new benefits. They just want the government to open so they can pay for rent and food. Because of this, they would likely enjoy much more widespread public sympathy.
It may well take the direct action of federal workers to end the government shutdown. Ultimately, they cannot continue to work without pay. Any federal strike, of course, poses a very real risk to workers’ future employment. But with the president indifferent to the suffering of workers in the face of his desire to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, something has to give. Soon federal workers will face little choice but to take action, whether by quitting or taking matters into their own hands on the job.