Why People Are Talking About Skipping Work for a General Strike

February 3rd 2017

Organizers are hoping to pull off a nationwide strike this Feb. 17 on a scale never seen before in the United States. The idea of a "general strike" — put forward in an editorial written by The Guardian's Francine Prose — is that workers take a day off and abstain from shopping to show their opposition to President Donald Trump and his controversial executive actions.

Prose argues a general strike would be "a day on which we truly make our economic and political power felt, a day when we make it clear: how many of us there are, how strong and committed we are, how much we can accomplish."

The spirit of activism has been remarkably strong in the weeks since Trump took office. The Women's March following his inauguration saw more than three million people take to the streets; his executive order barring immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries inspired spontaneous demonstrations at airports across the country; and a boycott of the ride-share service Uber prompted its chief executive to step down from a White House advisory committee.

But a general strike would be an entirely different kind of movement. Though other countries, primarily in Europe, have seen national strikes, labor protests have largely been confined to the manufacturing industry in the U.S. — when General Electric employees refused to work in an effort to negotiate wages and benefits in 1969, for example. And protests like that are rare in the 21st century.

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There are two reason general strikes are more common in Europe, Fabio Rojas, a sociology professor at the University of Indiana and expert on social movements, told ATTN:.

"Number one, in some countries, protest is more institutionalized," Rojas said. "France is the famous case where labor unions and other groups — they even have a schedule. 'OK, it's time to renegotiate our hourly wages. We're going to a strike on this issue on this day in three weeks. Everybody get ready for it.'"

"Number two," Rojas said, "the extent to which people use protest as a way of pushing policy issues is more common in other places."

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The real challenge of the proposed general strike, however, concerns its participants and messaging. In order to influence federal policy decisions, it's not enough to simply strike en masse in a show of collective opposition to Trump's executive actions. There has to be a "link from expressive protest and solidarity to concrete action," Rojas argued, adding:

"If they have a general strike and it's all about building a movement and expressing your feelings, that has value but it's not going to translate into things changing. What's going to translate into things changing is knowing that some of these Republican party leaders will lose their Senate seat... or for Democrats to lose their primary because they did something that made the base unhappy. That would matter."

Another challenge for the general strike is the lack of union representation in the U.S.. Only about 11 percent of U.S. workers were part of a labor union in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — down from 35 percent in 1954. Unions played a central role in organizing strikes to negotiate wages and collective bargaining rights during the mid-19th century.

But organizers are hopeful that — if they can pull it off — the economic disruption a general strike would force the Trump administration to address their concerns.

Organizers have posted a list of demands on a Facebook event for the strike:

  1. No Ban, No Wall. The Muslim ban is immoral, the wall is expensive and ineffectual. We will build bridges, not walls.
  2. Healthcare For All. Healthcare is a human right. Do not repeal the ACA. Improve it or enact Medicare for All.
  3. No Pipelines. Rescind approval for DAPL and Keystone XL and adopt meaningful policies to protect our environment. It's the only one we've got.
  4. End the Global Gag Rule. We cannot put the medical care of millions of women around the globe at risk.
  5. Disclose and Divest. Show us your taxes. Sell your company. Ethics rules exist for a reason and presidents should focus on the country, not their company.

"On February 17th we will show Donald Trump and his cronies in Washington that our voices will be heard," the organizers wrote. "No work will be done. No money will be spent. We will not support his corrupt government. We will STRIKE!!"

Share your opinion

Would you participate in a general strike?

No 17%Yes 83%