Read: ‘This kind of strike is really something new’
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.
Read: Republicans bend, but don’t break, on the shutdown
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.