(My thanks to ActivistGuy for providing the answers to FAQs 1) and 3).)
Talk about a general strike in Wisconsin has been growing over the past few weeks. There have been several diaries about the idea on DailyKos, and the comment threads have revealed that people have a lot of questions about what a general strike is, how it would work in Wisconsin and whether it's a good idea.
We thought this week's Anti-Capitalist Meetup would provide a good opportunity to provide some basic information about the general strike while providing a forum to discuss this old and controversial workers' weapon.
1) Who participates in a general strike?
2) What are the goals of a general strike?
3) Have general strikes been tried in the United States?
4) What kind of preparation is necessary for a general strike?
5) Is a general strike illegal?
6) Won't a general strike offend many people and hurt the Democratic Party?
1) Who participates in a general strike?
It's been a long time since there was a general strike in the US, not within living memory except for the very oldest of our fellow citizens. Fortunately, the single American organization most associated with general strikes, the Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW or "Wobblies", does still exist, and have reached back into their own records and institutional memory to prepare a pamphlet for organizers in Wisconsin to use should the decision to move forward with a general strike be taken.
Here are some of their thoughts on who should participate and how:
A general strike is a strike involving workers across multiple trades or industries that involves enough workers to cause serious economic disruption.
In essence, a general strike is the complete and total shutdown of the economy. A general strike can last for a day, a week, or longer depending on the severity of the crisis, the resolve of the strikers, and the extent of public solidarity. During the strike, large numbers of workers in many industries (excluding employees of crucial services, such as emergency/medical) will stop working and no money or labor is exchanged. All decisions regarding the length of the strike, the groups of workers who continue working, and demands of the strikers are decided by a strike committee.
The first step is to get as many workers to commit to the strike as possible. This needs to be done beforehand; not the day before the strike, and not after the strike has begun. We need to be able to trust the commitments of other workers, regardless of union affiliation. Talk about the general strike with people at rallies, at work, online, and at home with your friends, family, and neighbors. Ask your community about practical ways that they can aid a potential general strike or pass around the included leaflet to community groups in the area. Consider preparing a phone tree or online contact list to keep your friends, family, and fellow workers connected and prepared for emergencies.
It is important in a general strike to support other workers regardless of their positions in the workforce (unionized, non-unionized, public or private)-- to build the kind of relationship where an injury to one group of workers is an injury to all. ... Solidarity means uniting everyone: union and non-union, native citizens and immigrants, men and women, white and black and brown. A labor movement that turns away any worker isn’t anything but a powerless social club. We must believe all other workers can have a higher standard of living and gain the power and respect they deserve on the workplace. We will need to seek out individuals, organizations and community groups of all colors and creed. Their fight is our fight!
In other words, anyone that isn't the boss that wants to stand on the side of our fellow workers can participate. In some cases, it's actually more complicated for unions and union members to participate than it is for unorganized workers:
It may be difficult to get your union officials to agree to a general strike. Labor law is set up in the United States to discourage unions from standing together. Your union’s officials will be afraid of possible legal ramifications. They will also be afraid that no other unions will endorse the call or actually carry out the strike. Your union may have contractual agreements that union officers are worried about. Be prepared for these objections. Remind everyone that if the labor movement does not take a stand to stop Scott Walker today, there may not be a labor movement tomorrow. There are risks to building a general strike, but the much bigger risk is that Walker will accomplish his anti-union agenda.
Talk to your co-workers about the general strike. If you are meeting soon, there is a sample resolution to be found at madison.iww.org that you can bring to your local. If you aren’t meeting soon, talk to your coworkers and union stewards about holding an emergency meeting; most local unions have rules that allow for these types of meetings in their bylaws. Help educate your fellow workers by sharing this pamphlet and the news. Form an education and preparation committee to help organize your local.
If it seems that your union is opposing the desires of their rank-and-file to hold a strike, it is possible to act on a general strike without the consent of these leaders, as long as enough rank-and-filers stand together. A strike committee can be formed by a few elected representatives from each participating local who then gather into a larger coordinating body. These representatives should be elected by the rank-and-file members of each local and they should be able to be recalled by a majority vote of the workers they represent at any time. This body would have to hold together when (not if, when) one group is attacked or encouraged to strike out on its own.
If your shop decides not to go out, you can still strike “on the job”, that is, slow down or halt production through clumsiness, ignorance, or “work-to-rule”: following the rules so carefully that nothing gets done.
2) What are the goals of a general strike?
Defensive vs. Offensive:
There are serious risks in a general strike for the organizations and individuals who participate. For this reason, some have advocated that a general strike only be used defensively where there are few other options.
Wisconsin provides an interesting way to understand this distinction. Strictly speaking, a general strike called before the Governor signed the bill would have been defensive. It would have sought to prevent the Wisconsin legislators and/or Governor from taking action to take away collective bargaining rights. And again strictly speaking, a general strike would now be offensive, i.e. it would seek to get the legislature and Governor to repeal the law.
As a matter of public perception, however, a general strike even now might be understood as defensive. Public employees have had the right to bargain collectively for 50 years, and a general strike could be seen as a way of defending against the change before it becomes something viewed as settled and widely accepted.
A more clear-cut example of an offensive strike would be one conducted by public employees demanding collective bargaining in a state where collective bargaining rights had never been granted by law.
Economic vs. Political
A general strike can have economic and/or political goals that directly benefit some or all of the workers taking part. Wisconsin's South Central Federation of Labor, in their endorsement of a general strike, included demands of both kinds:
"The SCFL goes on record as opposing all provisions contained in Walker’s 'budget repair bill,' including but not limited to, curtailed bargaining rights and reduced wages, benefits, pensions, funding for public education, changes to medical assistance programs, and politicization of state government agencies."
The bolded items are examples of economic goals that directly affect some employees who would participate in a general strike. The items in italics are examples of political goals. Few, if any, of the workers taking part in the strike would have their "pocketbooks" affected by those issues, but the unions see them as political goals consonant with their overall societal goals. The other two items, the right to collectively bargain and the reduction of civil service protections, might be seen as a mix of political and economic since both might have indirect pocketbook impact, especially over the long run.
Building for a Revolution vs. Achieving the Revolution
The general strike is a militant, even radical tactic, and is advocated by some--though definitely not all--who seek to fundamentally change society through revolution.
Rosa Luxemburg took very much a minority position among Marxists in favor of what she called "mass strikes." (link strongly recommended despite the requisite Marxist anarchist-bashing at the beginning)
The mass strike, as the Russian Revolution [of 1905 not 1917] shows it to us, is such a changeable phenomenon that it reflects all the phases of the political and economic struggle, all stages and factors of the revolution. Its adaptability, its efficiency, the factors of its origin are constantly changing. It suddenly opens new and wide perspectives of the revolution when it appears to have already arrived in a narrow pass and where it is impossible for anyone to reckon upon it with any degree of certainty. It flows now like a broad billow over the whole kingdom, and now divides into a gigantic network of narrow streams; now it bubbles forth from under the ground like a fresh spring and now is completely lost under the earth. Political and economic strikes, mass strikes and partial strikes, demonstrative strikes and fighting strikes, general strikes of individual branches of industry and general strikes in individual towns, peaceful wage struggles and street massacres, barricade fighting – all these run through one another, run side by side, cross one another, flow in and over one another – it is a ceaselessly moving, changing sea of phenomena. And the law of motion of these phenomena is clear: it does not lie in the mass strike itself nor in its technical details, but in the political and social proportions of the forces of the revolution.
Luxemburg makes the unusual concession that the mass strikes achieved more along pocketbook lines for Russian workers than years of electoral political activity among her own German SPD (Socialist) party:
At the present time the actual working day in Russian industry leaves behind, not only the Russian factory legislation (that is the legal working day of eleven hours) but even the actual conditions of Germany. In most departments of large-scale industry in Russia the ten-hour day prevails, which in Germany is declared in social legislation to be an unattainable goal. And what is more, that longed-for “industrial constitutionalism,” for which there is so much enthusiasm in Germany, and for the sake of which the advocates of opportunist tactics would keep ever keen wind from the stagnant waters of their all-suffering parliamentarism, has already been born, together with political “constitutionalism,” in the midst of the revolutionary storm, from the revolution itself!
But more important for her was the way that mass strikes taught workers about class struggle and solidarity:
All these conditions cannot be fulfilled by pamphlets and leaflets, but only by the living political school, by the fight and in the fight, in the continuous course of the revolution.
For Luxemburg, the mass or general strike is an indispensable stage in the road to revolution.
For anarcho-syndicalists, the general strike is not just a stage on the way to revolution but is the tool of revolution itself. As anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists have no desire to seize State power, either through the ballot box or insurrection. At the same time, they seek the end of private ownership of the means of production. How can one be achieved without compromising the other?
While not strictly an anarcho-syndicalist organization, the Industrial Workers of the World, who have called for a general strike in Wisconsin, provide a succinct statement of the strategy through Howard Zinn in A People's History of the United States:
Strikes are mere incidents in the class war; they are tests of strength, periodical drills in the course of which the workers train themselves for concerted action. This training is most necessary to prepare the masses for the final "catastrophe," the general strike which will complete the expropriation of the employers.
The great, final general strike is carried out with the goal of bringing Capitalism to a halt, bringing down the State and instituting what the Spanish call communismo libertario.
It's unlikely that many in Wisconsin's SCFL were thinking along the lines of either Luxemburg or the anarcho-syndicalists, but this is the historic tradition that comprises part of the general strike concept.
3) Have general strikes been tried in the United States?
There have been numerous General Strikes in US history, although the formalization of union bargaining rights by the National Labor Relations Act in 1934 and the criminalization of this form of working class solidarity in action under Taft-Hartley has dramatically curtailed them in the last 70 years.
It is widely agreed that the first true general strike in the US took place in St. Louis in 1877.
In 1877, like now, the U.S. was beset by a recession and a blistering heat wave. The railroad companies decided to institute ten percent pay cuts for its already low-paid workers (a brakeman, for instance, made only $1.75 a day). Railroad workers, righteously pissed off, went on strike all across the country.
In St. Louis, the Workingman's Party, whose membership included workers of all kinds, not just for the railroad, led the strike. They organized a massive rally attended by 5,000 people where speakers incited the crowd by saying things like, "Capital has changed liberty into serfdom, and we must fight or die."
St. Louisans were inspired. Calling for nationalization of the railroads, mining and all other industry, thousands of workers, both black and white, joined in a general strike. They succeeded in halting the railroads and production at meat-packing plants.
From Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States come descriptions of the remarkable solidarity, and the grim conclusion, of the St Louis General Strike:
The one city where the Workingmen’s party clearly led the rebellion was St. Louis, a city of flour mills, foundries, packing houses, machine shops, breweries, and railroads. Here, as elsewhere, there were wage cuts on the railways. And here there were perhaps a thousand members of the Workingmen’s party, many of them bakers, coopers, cabinetmakers, cigarmakers, brewery workers. The party was organised in four sections, by nationality: German, English, French, Bohemian.
All four sections took a ferry across the Mississippi to join a mass meeting of railway men in East St. Louis. One of their speakers told the meeting: “All you have to do, gentlemen, for you have the numbers, is to unite on one idea—that the workingmen shall rule the country. What man makes, belongs to him, and the workingmen made this country.” Railroaders in East St. Louis declared themselves on strike. The mayor of East St. Louis was a European immigrant, himself an active revolutionist as a youth, and railroad men’s votes dominated the city.
At another huge meeting of the Workingmen’s parts a black man spoke for those who worked on the steamboats and levees. He asked: “Will you stand to us regardless of colour?” The crowd shouted back: “We will!” An executive committee was set up, and it called for a general strike of all branches of industry in St. Louis.
Handbills for the general strike were soon all over the city. There was a march of four hundred Negro steamboat men and roustabouts along the river, six hundred factory-workers carrying a banner: “No Monopoly— Workingmen’s Rights.” A great procession moved through the city, ending with a rally of ten thousand people listening to Communist speakers: “The people are rising up in their might and declaring they will no longer submit to being oppressed by unproductive capital.”
In St. Louis, as elsewhere, the momentum of the crowds, the meetings, the enthusiasm, could not be sustained. As they diminished, the police, militia, and federal troops moved in and the authorities took over. The police raided the headquarters of the Workingmen’s party and arrested seventy people; the executive committee that had been for a while virtually in charge of the city was now in prison. The strikers surrendered; the wage cuts remained; 131 strike leaders were fired by the Burlington Railroad.
Since that remarkable early example of labor militance and solidarity, there have been numerous general strikes in US history. The first national general strike in US history was to have global repercussions that shape the worldwide labor movement and workers struggle to this day.
The British Socialist Party website tells the story well:
In 1868, after the Civil War, the US Congress passed an eight-hour law but it was enforced only twice. A Minnesota railway was fined just $25 in 1886 for making its workers work more than 18 hours a day.
The Eight-Hour Movement launched by workers' organisations was given vigorous new life in 1884 when the new Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions of the United States and Canada resolved: "Eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labor from and after 1 May 1886.
"Unless employers institute eight-hour days, the union will stop work at those plants. Across the nation, if necessary."
The slogan was, in the words of one of the songs of that movement: "Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will."
THE UNIONS grew fast. In 1885 The Knights of Labour increased its membership seven-fold to 700,000. The capitalists were increasingly frightened at the prospect of widespread strikes.
The New York Herald wrote about Wall Street's worries: "Two hours, taken from the hours of labour, throughout the United States by the proposed eight-hour movement, would make a difference annually of hundreds of millions in values, both to the capital invested in industries and existing stocks."
[How touching, their concern for the values of "existing stocks".]
On 1 May 1886, in the first national general strike in US history, 500,000 took part in demonstrations across the country.
As a direct consequence, tens of thousands saw their hours of work substantially reduced - often down to an eight-hour day with no loss in pay.
The employers lost no time preparing their revenge.
Legality was never the aim, revenge was. The Chicago Tribune gave the game away with the headline: "Hang an organiser from every lamp-post."
Read the article at the British Socialist website for the whole bloody story, and how that American national general strike became the universally celebrated Workers Day everywher ein the world except the US.
No American labor organization is more closely associated with the General Strike than the IWW. They organized and led general strikes in places great and small, from Butte, MT and Toledo, OH to Little Falls, NY and Paterson, NJ. Probably best remembered of all the many Wobbly general strikes was Lawrence, MA, in 1912
Lawrence was a new kind of strike, the first time such large numbers of unskilled, unorganized foreign-born workers had followed the radical leadership of the I.W.W. John Golden, president of the A.F.L. United Textile Workers denounced it as "revolutionary" and "anarchistic" and attempted unsuccessfully to wrest the leadership of the strike away from the I.W.W.
"It was the spirit of the workers that was dangerous," wrote labor reporter Mary Heaton Vorse. "They are always marching and singing. The tired, gray crowds ebbing and flowing perpetually into the mills had waked and opened their months to sing." And in the American Magazine, Ray Stannard Baker reported:
It is not short of amazing, the power of a great idea to weld men together. . . . There was in it a peculiar, intense, vital spirit, a religious spirit if you will, that I have never felt before in any strike. . . . At first everyone predicted that it would be impossible to bold these divergent people together, but aside from the skilled men, some of whom belonged to craft unions comparatively few went back to the mills. And as a whole, the strike was conducted with little violence. ...
Throughout the strike, Haywood urged strikers to maintain an attitude of passive resistance. But this took many forms. One innovation in strike technique was an endless chain picket line of thousands of strikers who marched through the mill districts wearing white arm bands which read, "Don't be a scab." Large groups locked arms on the sidewalks and passed along the business streets. When this tactic was disrupted by the police, huge crowds of mill workers would move in and out of stores, not buying anything. As the acting head of the police later testified in Washington, "They had our shopkeepers in a state of terror; it was a question whether or not they would shut up their shops."
By far the most dramatic episode of the strike involved sending the strikers' children to sympathetic families in other cities, a measure of strike relief which bad been used in Europe by French and Italian workers. About 120 children left Lawrence on February 10 and were met at the station in New York City by 5000 members of the Italian Socialist Federation and the Socialist Party singing the "Internationale" and "The Marsaillaise."
On February 24 when a group of 150 more children made ready to leave for Philadelphia, fifty policemen and two militia companies surrounded the Lawrence railroad station. They tore children away from their parents, threw women and children into a waiting patrol wagon, and detained thirty of them in jail. A member of the Philadelphia Women's Committee testified under oath:
When the time came to depart, the children, arranged in a long line, two by two in an orderly procession with the parents near at hand, were about to make their way to the train when the police . . . closed in on us with their clubs, beating right and left with no thought of the children who then were in desperate danger of being trampled to death. The mothers and the children were thus hurled in a mass and bodily dragged to a military truck and even then clubbed, irrespective of the cries of the panic-stricken mothers and children. We can scarcely find words with which to describe this display of brutality.
This clash between the children and the police was the turning point of the Lawrence strike.
Concerned over the public reaction to the hearings, and the possible threat to their own tariff protection, the American Woolen Company acceded to all the strikers' demands on March 12, 1912. By the end of March, the rest of the Lawrence textile companies fell in line. Wages were raised for textile workers throughout all of New England. And on March 30 the children who had been living in foster homes in New York City were brought home.
US entrance into World War I put a major damper on labor radicalism, but shortly after its conclusion one of the most spectacular general strikes in US history erupted in Seattle, in 1919. Again from Zinn's People's History:
The war was hardly over, it was February 1919, the IWW leadership was in jail, but the IWW idea of the general strike became reality for five days in Seattle, Washington, when a walkout of 100,000 working people brought the city to a halt.
It began with 35,000 shipyard workers striking for a wage increase. They appealed for support to the Seattle Central Labor Council, which recommended a city-wide strike, and in two weeks 110 locals -- mostly American Federation of Labor, only a few IWW -- voted to strike. The rank and file of each striking local elected three members to a General Strike Committee, and on February 6, 1919, at 10:00 a.m., the strike began.
A Labor War Veteran's Guard was organized to keep the peace. On the blackboard at one of its headquarters was written: "The purpose of this organization is to preserve law and order without the use of force. No volunteer will have any police power or be allowed to carry weapons of any sort, but to use persuasion only." During the strike, crime in the city decreased. The commander of the U.S. army detachment sent into the area told the strikers' committee that in forty years of military experience he hadn't seen so quiet and orderly a city. A poem printed in the Seattle Union Record (a daily newspaper put out by labor people) by someone named Anise:
what scares them most is
That NOTHING HAPPENS!
They are ready
They have machine guns
But this SMILING SILENCE
Is uncanny. The business men
That sort of weapon . . .
It is your SMILE
That is UPSETTING
On Artillery, brother! It is the garbage wagons
That go along the street
by STRIKE COMMITTEE." It is the milk stations
That are getting better daily,
And the three hundred
WAR Veterans of Labor
Handling the crowds
For these things speak
Of a NEW POWER
And a NEW WORLD
That they do not feel
At HOME in.
That this anonymous poet was entirely correct was confirmed by a later statement from the Mayor of Seattle:
The so-called sympathetic Seattle strike was an attempted revolution. That there was no violence does not alter the fact. . . . The intent, openly and covertly announced, was for the overthrow of the industrial system; here first, then everywhere. . . . True, there were no flashing guns, no bombs, no killings. Revolution, I repeat, doesn't need violence. The general strike, as practiced in Seattle, is of itself the weapon of revolution, all the more dangerous because quiet. To succeed, it must suspend everything; stop the entire life stream of a community. . . . That is to say, it puts the government out of operation. And that is all there is to revolt -- no matter how achieved.
Frightened by the Seattle General Strike, not to mention events overseas, the US establishment cracked down sharply in the postwar years. The first full-fledged "Red Scare" featuring roundups of labor radicals ordered by Woodrow Wilson's Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, the infamous "Palmer Raids", the creation and recruitment of the American Legion to serve as an anti-labor vigilante force (the legion’s National Commander, Alvin Owsley, stated: “Do not forget that the Fascisti are to Italy what the American Legion is to the United States.” ), and the adoption of "criminal syndicalism" laws in most of the states relentlessly eroded the Wobblies, until by the time of the Great Depression, the organization had been reduced to a mere shell of itself.
But the memory and the lessons of the successful general strikes the Wobblies had led lived on with the new generation of working class activists that arose in the crucible of the Depression years. And they weren't the only ones who did so. The mere threat of a general strike in Toledo, OH in 1934 brought the Auto-Lite company to the bargaining table with the forerunner of the UAW. That same year saw two of the most imposing and dramatic general strikes, in Minneapolis and San Francisco.
In Minneapolis, what had begun as a relatively small strike by truck drivers for the city's coal yards mushroomed into a citywide drivers strike, and then by extension to warehouse and loading dock workers. As in Lawrence, 1912, it was an act of wanton violence by the authorities that led to the victory of the strikers:
Movement of trucks in the city again came to a standstill, and on July 20, the most violent episode of the strike took place, later to be named "Bloody Friday". A large group of unarmed workers, who were rumoured to have been lured to a street corner by deputies in what the group believed was a scab truck, were fired on by over 100 police officers. Two pickets, John Belor and Henry Ness, were killed and over 65 others, many of whom were shot in the back, were wounded by the hail of bullets that came down upon the workers. The police violence left the working class of Minneapolis stunned, and offers of support and donations flooded in from other unions, and many workers took part in strikes to protest the shootings, including a one day strike of all of the city's transport workers. The Minneapolis Labour Review reported a crowd of 100,000 people in attendance at Henry Ness' funeral. A public commission set up after the strike later testified that, “Police took direct aim at the pickets and fired to kill. Physical safety of the police was at no time endangered. No weapons were in possession of the pickets”. source
In that same month of July, 1934, a strike in San Francisco by the International Longshoremans Association suffered a lethally bloody police attack, with two strikers killed and over 100 injured. This led rapidly to a mobilization of workers and labor organizations that erupted into an almost complete shutdown of business in San Francisco and much of the eat bay for four days. However, control of the strike had been gained even before its initiation by conservative leaders of the local labor establishment, with the ILA's leader Harry Bridges himself removed from the strike committee. When the city's political and financial establishment demanded unconditional surrender, the conservative union leadership complied with nary a whimper of resistance nor any gains achieved, and thus ended the last significant general strike as of this date in US history.
4) What kind of preparation is necessary for a general strike?
That obviously depends on how long the strike is intended to last and how broad it is hoped to be, and both of those factors depend on the strike's goals.
Some strikes are intended as demonstration strikes to raise awareness of an issue or to show the potential power behind a demand. They could last as short as a day, exactly what has been proposed for Wisconsin so far. Even a one-day strike would benefit from a considerable amount of organization. If widespread participation is sought, it will be necessary to publicize the strike widely and get as many unions as possible to buy-in. Since it has been so long since Americans have gone out on general strike, it's important to educate as many workers as possible about what a general strike is and why it's appropriate. It would be no fun to have a party where only a few showed up.
Beyond that, several types of retaliation can be expected in response to a general strike, and there should be preparations to deal with those. If workers are fired for participating, will they be provided with legal representation aimed at saving their jobs? If unions face lawsuits and de-certification, will there be resources to respond? If there are demonstrations in connection with the strike, will there be representation and bail for people who are arrested?
Other strikes aim at winning something specific and organizers expect them to last as long as it takes to win. If a general strike of that sort is called, all the issues considered with a short demonstration strike are still present, but added to those is the issue of striker financial survival. If a strike fund sufficient to provide subsistence for general strikers along the line of traditional business strike funds is considered a pre-requisite for a general strike, then a general strike will never take place. It takes years to build up an adequate strike fund to handle even one strike in one bargaining unit. A strike fund for a general strike is not a realistic idea. That reality does not rule out efforts to organize mutual aid among strikers or soliciting outside donations.
Strike funds don't really make a lot of sense for general strikes anyway. Consider the old UAW bargaining pattern. They picked one auto company out of the Big Three to target for a strike. While they were out on strike, the strike target had no product and was losing sales to competitors. If the union had a big enough strike fund, it had a chance of outlasting its target and winning the strike.
That's not how general strikes work, and that's why militant unions like Spain's CNT and the IWW have never been big on strike funds. Quite frankly, with a general strike other than a short "demonstration strike," the idea is to demonstrate the power of workers to make society unworkable unless their demands are met. Such a statement may sound shocking in our society where worker passivity is taken for granted, but that's what the folks in Seattle in 1919 and San Francisco in 1934 believed.
Rosa Luxemburg's history of Russian mass strikes also provides a lesson about planning. Of course, planning and organization are good, but general strikes, by their nature, end up going in unexpected directions:
Further, there are quite definite limits set to initiative and conscious direction. During the revolution it is extremely difficult for any directing organ of the proletarian movement to foresee and to calculate which occasions and factors can lead to explosions and which cannot. Here also initiative and direction do not consist in issuing commands according to one’s inclinations, but in the most adroit adaptability to the given situation, and the closest possible contact with the mood of the masses. The element of spontaneity, as we have seen, plays a great part in all Russian mass strikes without exception, be it as a driving force or as a restraining influence.
Adaptability is at least as important as planning because the general/mass strike is ultimately a bottom up phenomenon.
5) Is a general strike illegal?
In short, yes, but a longer answer is necessary before rejecting the idea of a general strike on legal grounds alone.
What kinds of tools are available to workers who want to back up their demands with action? Even in the relatively recent history of the United States, labor activists have employed a wide variety of tactics, some of them very militant.
During the UAW's drive to organize the automobile industry in the 1930s before the Wagner Act applied, they used plant occupations. In the famous occupation of GM's Flint plant, UAW members, under the leadership of the Reuther brothers, engaged in an all night pitched battle with scabs and police to defend the occupation. The UAW won the strike, and tens of thousands of new members joined the UAW within days.
The Wagner Act sought to civilize the "Wild West" of American labor relations by setting up a basic set of rules for labor-management relations refereed by an administrative agency, the National Labor Relations Board. In brief, the game was played as follows. A union had the right to try organizing the workers. Usually, they engaged in organizing activities and then sought to be certified as the official bargaining agent for workers within a particular "bargaining unit." An election was held, and the union was certified if it won a majority of the votes. From that point on, the union and the employer were supposed to bargain. If an agreement could not be reached, the union could call a strike or the employer could lock out the employees.
The Wagner Act, as it's been interpreted by the courts and the NLRB, took away the plant occupation along with the sitdown and slowdown as available strike tools. In Fansteel Metallurgical Corp., the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that the Wagner Act did not protect collective action in the form of sitdowns and plant seizures. Even though the company had committed numerous violations of the Act, it could still fire union members who engaged in such activities. Within a few years, the courts and NLRB ruled that slow downs, refusals to work overtime and wildcat strikes were all unprotected activities.
Moreover, management took the position at bargaining tables across the country that they would not enter into any collective bargaining agreement unless it contained a no strike clause. This meant that any union that called a strike during the life of a contract risked being de-certified.
The balance had been struck by the courts and the NLRB in favor of the employers in nearly every instance of interpreting the Wagner Act.
Still, that was not enough for the Capitalists. In 1947, the Republican Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act that explicitly defined new "unfair labor practices" applicable only to unions, including jurisdictional strikes, wildcat strikes, solidarity or political strikes, secondary boycotts, secondary and mass picketing. In addition, unions were required to provide 60 days advance notice of strikes and submit to mediation during that period. The power to enjoin strikes was granted to the executive branch of the federal government, and federal courts were given jurisdiction in cases suing for damages against unions that violated no-strike clauses.
Truman vetoed the bill, but both houses over-rode the veto with many Democrats joining Republicans.
Labor's hope that the federal government would serve as a fair referee in labor disputes died with the passage of Taft-Hartley, and the Democratic Party's promise to repeat the Act has never been fulfilled in the 60+ years since passage.
So yes, a general strike would run into several legal problems. State employees in Wisconsin can be fired for striking. Unions comprised of non-public employees would violate no-strike clauses of their contracts and the Taft-Hartley Act.
That is exactly as the Capitalists have intended it: a completely de-fanged American labor instead of the militant and effective movement that existed prior to the Wagner and Taft-Hartley Acts.
6) Won't a general strike offend many people and hurt the Democratic Party?
Among the most common objections on DailyKos against a general strike is that it will shift public opinion away from the workers and in favor of the Republican Governor. So far, that's only been asserted by Democrats from Washington to New York to Madison who oppose a general strike. I've seen no poll data to confirm it. If direct action turned the coveted independent voter against the workers, then why hasn't the occupation of the Capitol and dozens of demonstrations done that already? So far, direct action has had the opposite effect.
Even if we were to concede that a general strike has the potential to give Walker a respite from his cratering poll numbers, that alone would not be a reason to rule out the strike. It's fair to say that no general strike has ever been called with the goal of inducing the ever-vacillating "independent voter" to move--for this week at least--from the "leaning R" category to the "leaning D." Those who advocate general strikes do not view politics as a never-ending struggle to please a fickle 5-10% of the electorate.
A general strike is largely an effort to build class solidarity. It's effectiveness in doing that has been proven many times historically, and America has no greater need in these times than to increase class awareness and class solidarity. Clinging to a self-concept of "middle class," many of us have looked the other way as one group of workers after another saw first their rights and then their livelihoods taken away. Many of the workers now under attack in Wisconsin were once members of that mythical "middle class," well-educated professionals who thought their jobs and benefits secure. Walker would make that a thing of the past and his brother governors around the country are ready to do the same for other public workers.
General strikes remind us that we are all workers who live off the labor we perform with our hands and brains. They make it clear who is on our side and who opposes us. They demonstrate the power we have in numbers as long as we remain united. They create a situation where we depend on ourselves and our fellow workers, not the good faith and integrity of politicians or judges.