A general strike has two meanings that we can clarify with two separate names:
A general strike in the modern meaning of the term has its roots in any mass actions that swept across most of society and included walking off worksites, boycotting, and non-payment of taxes, and other forms of symbolic or direct action. While a modern general strike often collaborates with labor unions, it is not, precisely, a labor strike. General strikes are not prolonged, they are more commonly one-off, weekly, monthly, or annual days of mass non-cooperation and direct action.
Various events throughout history are recognizable as forebears to the modern general strike.
An early predecessor of the general strike may have been the secessio plebis in the Roman Republic where the Roman plebs withdrew cooperation from the Roman patricians.
The first Labor Day parade on Sept. 5, 1882 in New York City could be considered a modern general strike, since while it was organized by and lead by labor unions and their members, it lasted only one day and included virtually all members of society in a parade, picnics, speeches, fireworks, and dancing. History.com “Why Do We Celebrate Labor Day?” Accessed Aug. 27, 2021.
In the fight in the Indian Independence Movement lead by Mahatma Gandhi Gandhi promoted the use of what is called Hartal which translates seamlessly into the modern definition of a general strike: "A hartal is a mass protest, often involving a total shutdown of workplaces, offices, shops, and courts of law, and a form of civil disobedience similar to a labour strike." (from Hartal)
The modern history of Europe is punctuated with modern general strikes. The Spanish, French, and Italians in particular have effectively used single day-of-action general strikes to promote justice, freedom, and a worker-oriented economy.
See also: Solidarity action
A General Strike or Solidarity Strike was when various trade unions would go on strike sympathetically to help another trade union. General strikes were a sort of "nuclear option" for trade unions to all band together and go on a prolonged strike together.
Ralph Chaplin, editor of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) newspaper Solidarity and later of the Industrial Worker, identified four levels of general strike:
In the 1905 pamphlet The Social General Strike, published in Chicago in 1905, Stephen Naft had previously acknowledged the same four levels of the general strike:
[The name "General Strike"] is often used to designate the strike of all branches in one trade; for instance the general strike of the miners; when helpers and hoisting engineers, etc. are all out. Then it is used as: General Strike of a city, i.e., "General Strike in Florence", or a General Strike in a whole country or province, for the purpose of gaining political rights, i.e., the right to vote; as in Belgium, or Sweden.
The profoundest conception of the General Strike, however, [is] the one pointing to a thorough change of the present system: a social revolution of the world; an entire new reorganisation; a demolition of the entire old system of all governments...
Naft's 1905 pamphlet (translated from the German language) traced existing sentiment for this goal of the general strike to proletarians of Spain and Italy.
The premise of The Social General Strike is that no matter how powerfully the working class organises itself, it still has no significant power over a congress, or the executive (which has military force at its beck and call). Therefore, a general strike called by an "energetic and enthusiastic" minority of workers, might be embraced by the mass of workers who remain unorganised. Thus it may be possible,
...to completely interrupt production in the whole country, and stop communication and consumption for the ruling classes, and that for a time long enough to totally disorganise the capitalistic society; so that after the complete annihilation of the old system, the working people can take possession through its labour unions of all the means of production...
The Social General Strike noted the complexity of modern industry, identifying the many stages in the manufacturing process and geographic dispersal of related manufacturing locations as weaknesses of the industrial process during any labour dispute. The pamphlet notes the problem of hunger during a general strike, and recommends where warehouses are available for the purpose, that proletarians,
...do the same thing as the ruling classes have done uninterruptedly for thousands of years: that is, "consume without producing." This deportment of the ruling classes the working class calls exploitation, and if the proletarians do it, the possessing classes call it plundering—and socialism calls it expropriation.
However, the pamphlet asserts that,
The immense advantage of the general strike is that it begins entirely lawfully and without any danger for the workers, and for this reason thousands will take part...
The year 1919 saw a number of general strikes throughout the United States and Canada, including two that were considered significant—the Seattle General Strike, and the Winnipeg General Strike. While the IWW participated in the Seattle General Strike, that action was called by the Seattle Central Labor Union, affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL, predecessor of the AFL–CIO).
In June 1919, the AFL national organisation, in session in Atlantic City, New Jersey, passed resolutions in opposition to the general strike. The official report of these proceedings described the convention as the "largest and in all probability the most important Convention ever held" by the organisation, in part for having engineered the "overwhelming defeat of the so-called Radical element" via crushing a "One Big Union proposition", and also for defeating a proposal for a nationwide general strike, both "by a vote of more than 20 to 1." The AFL amended its constitution to disallow any central labour union (i.e., regional labour councils) from "taking a strike vote without prior authorization of the national officers of the union concerned". The change was intended to "check the spread of general strike sentiment and prevent recurrences of what happened at Seattle and is now going on at Winnipeg." The penalty for any unauthorised strike vote was revocation of that body's charter.
The general strike action only became a feature of the political landscape with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. For the first time in history, large numbers of people were members of the industrial working class; they lived in cities and exchanged their labour for payment. By the 1830s, when the Chartist movement was at its peak, a true and widespread 'workers' consciousness' was beginning to awaken in England.
The first theorist to formulate and popularise the idea of a general strike for the purpose of political reform was the radical pamphleteer William Benbow. Closely involved with planning the attempted Blanketeers protest march by Lancashire weavers in March 1817, he became an associate of William Cobbett and passed his time "agitating the labouring classes at their trades meetings and club-houses."
On 28 January 1832 Benbow published a pamphlet entitled Grand National Holiday and Congress of the Productive Classes. Benbow began to advocate direct and even violent action for political reform, in particular he advanced his idea for a "national holiday" and "national convention". By this he meant an extended period of general strike by the working classes, which would be a sacred or holy action (hence "holy-day"), during which time local committees would keep the peace and elect delegates to a national convention or congress, which would agree the future direction of the nation. The striking workers were to support themselves with savings and confiscated parish funds, and by demanding contributions from rich people.
Benbow's idea of a Grand National Holiday was adopted by the Chartist Congress of 1839, Benbow having spent time in Manchester during 1838-9 promoting the cause and his pamphlet.
In 1842 the demands for fairer wages and conditions across many different industries finally exploded into the first modern general strike (the 1842 general strike). After the second Chartist Petition was presented to Parliament in April 1842 and rejected, the strike began in the coal mines of Staffordshire, England, and soon spread through Britain affecting factories, mills in Lancashire and coal mines from Dundee to South Wales and Cornwall. Instead of being a spontaneous uprising of the mutinous masses, the strike was politically motivated and was driven by a hard-headed agenda to win concessions. Probably as much as half of the then industrial workforce were on strike at its peak—over 500,000 men. The local leadership marshaled a growing working-class tradition to politically organise their followers to mount an articulate challenge to the capitalist, political establishment.
The mass abandonment of plantations by black slaves and poor whites during the American Civil War has, controversially, been considered a general strike. In his classic history Black Reconstruction in America, W. E. B. Du Bois describes this mass abandonment in precisely these terms:
Transforming itself suddenly from a problem of abandoned plantations and slaves captured while being used by the [Southern] enemy for military purposes, the movement became a general strike against the slave system on the part of all who could find opportunity. The trickling streams of fugitives swelled to a flood. Once begun, the general strike of black and white went madly and relentlessly on like some great saga.
The next large-scale general strike took place over half a century later in Belgium, in an effort to force the government to grant universal suffrage to the people. However, there were periodical strikes throughout the 19th century that could loosely be considered as 'general strikes'. In the United States, the Philadelphia General Strike of 1835 lasted for three weeks, after which the striking workers won their goal of a ten-hour workday and an increase in wages. Later general strikes include a one-week general strike of workers in the Central Pacific Railroad, a general strike that was not widely reported in the press or studied in literature because it was peaceful., and the more violent and disruptive 1877 Saint Louis general strike, which grew out of the events of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 across the United States and the 1892 New Orleans general strike. The year of 1919 saw a cascade of general strikes around the world as a result of the political convulsions caused by the First World War—in Germany, Belfast, Seattle and Winnipeg.
The Russian Revolution of 1905 saw a massive wave of social unrest across the Russian Empire, characterised by large scale general strikes on the part of the industrial workers. The 1926 United Kingdom general strike started in the coal industry and rapidly escalated; the unions called out 1,750,000 workers, mainly in the transport and steel sectors, although the strike was successfully suppressed by the government.
After the passage of the anti-union Taft–Hartley Act in 1947, the general strike changed from a tool of labor strike solidarity into a general form of social, political, and economic protest. Congress passed the law in the wake of the women-led 1946 Oakland General Strike. It outlawed actions taken by unionized workers in support of workers at other companies, effectively rendering both solidarity actions and the general strike itself illegal. Before 1947 and the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act the term general strike meant when various unions would officially go on strike in solidarity with other striking unions. The act made it illegal for one union to go on strike to support another. Hence, the definition and practice of a general strike changed in modern times to mean periodic days of mass action coordinated, often, by unions, but not an official or prolonged strike.
Since then, in the US and Europe the general strike has become a tool of mass economic protest often in conjunction with other forms of electoral action and direct civil action.
In 1966, in a study of revolutionary socialism, Milorad M. Drachkovitch of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace (a conservative think tank), noted two tactical options which divided late 19th century and early 20th century anarchists from socialists: electoral politics, which the socialists embraced, but anarchists generally opposed; and, the general strike as a mechanism to prevent war, which anarchists supported, but socialists refused to endorse.
As a group, the socialists of the period repeatedly rejected the general strike as a tactic; however, a number of socialist leaders advocated its use for one reason or another. Socialist leaders who embraced the general strike tended to see it as an instrument for obtaining political concessions.
Drachkovitch identified five types of general strikes:
Drachkovitch perceived the first two concepts, the socialist-friendly general strike for political rights within the system, and the general strike as a revolutionary mechanism to overthrow the existing order—which he associated with a "rising anarcho-syndicalist movement"—as mutually exclusive. Drachkovitch believed that the difficulty arose from the fact that the general strike was "one instrument", but was frequently considered "without distinction of underlying motives."
Milorad M. Drachkovitch also observed the variable success of the general strike in actual use:
In Belgium a general strike movement, broken off in one instance without damage to the organizing forces, eventually led to universal suffrage; in Holland a general strike collapsed with disastrous consequences; in Sweden, a general strike was conducted and terminated with disciplined order but did not attain the desired results. In Italy, general strikes had been both socially effective and politically unproductive. On the other hand, the events of January 1905 in Russia once more seemed to underscore the suitability of the general strike as a decisively revolutionary action.
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) began to fully embrace the general strike in 1910–1911. The ultimate goal of the general strike, according to Industrial Workers of the World theory, is to displace capitalists and give control over the means of production to workers. In a 1911 speech in New York City, IWW organiser Bill Haywood explained his view of the economic situation, and why he believed a general strike was justified,
The capitalists have wealth; they have money. They invest the money in machinery, in the resources of the earth. They operate a factory, a mine, a railroad, a mill. They will keep that factory running just as long as there are profits coming in. When anything happens to disturb the profits, what do the capitalists do? They go on strike, don't they? They withdraw their finances from that particular mill. They close it down because there are no profits to be made there. They don't care what becomes of the working class. But the working class, on the other hand, has always been taught to take care of the capitalist's interest in the property.
Bill Haywood believed that industrial unionism made possible the general strike, and the general strike made possible industrial democracy. According to Wobbly theory, the conventional strike is an important (but not the only) weapon for improving wages, hours, and working conditions for working people. These strikes are also good training to help workers educate themselves about the class struggle, and about what it will take to execute an eventual general strike for the purpose of achieving industrial democracy. During the final general strike, workers would not walk out of their shops, factories, mines, and mills, but would rather occupy their workplaces and take them over. Prior to taking action to initiate industrial democracy, workers would need to educate themselves with technical and managerial knowledge in order to operate industry.
According to labor historian Philip S. Foner, the Wobbly conception of industrial democracy is intentionally not presented in detail by IWW theorists; in that sense, the details are left to the "future development of society". However, certain concepts are implicit. Industrial democracy will be "a new society [built] within the shell of the old." Members of the industrial union educate themselves to operate industry according to democratic principles, and without the current hierarchical ownership/management structure. Issues such as production and distribution would be managed by the workers themselves.
In 1927 the IWW called for a three-day nationwide walkout—in essence, a demonstration general strike—to protest the execution of anarchists Ferdinando Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. The most notable response to the call was in the Walsenburg coal district of Colorado, where 1,132 miners stayed off the job, and only 35 went to work, a participation rate which led directly to the Colorado coal strike of 1927.
On 18 March 2011, the Industrial Workers of the World website (www.iww.org) supported an endorsement of a general strike as a follow-up to protests against Governor Scott Walker's proposed labour legislation in Wisconsin, following a motion passed by the South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL) of Wisconsin endorsing a statewide general strike as a response to those legislative proposals. The SCFL website states,
At SCFL’s monthly meeting Monday, Feb. 21, delegates endorsed the following: "The SCFL endorses a general strike, possibly for the day Walker signs his 'budget repair bill.'" An ad hoc committee was formed to explore the details. SCFL did not CALL for a general strike because it does not have that authority.
The largest general strike that ever stopped the economy of an advanced industrial country—and the first general wildcat strike in history—was May 1968 in France. The prolonged strike involved eleven million workers for two weeks in a row, and its impact was such that it almost caused the collapse of the de Gaulle government. Other notable general strikes include:
((cite web)): CS1 maint: url-status (link)