Image: Picketers behind explosion overlay; red background. Text: Manifesting the General Strike

Manifesting the “General Strike”

Manifesting the “General Strike”

by Rich J

NOTE: The text of this essay is based on a speech given at ROC DSA’s annual May Day Picnic, held May 5, 2024.

One of the reasons this holiday is so meaningful to me is that our fellowship is not just with each other. It’s with workers who have been struggling in our cause across time—back to the Haymarket martyrs, and all the way to the first worker who said “why am I working my ass off so someone else can make money?” Our cause is historically just, and we will own the future as long as we acknowledge and celebrate our past.

Toward that end, I want to talk today about the concept of the general strike. If you’ve spent any time in left organizing spaces over the past ten or twenty years, especially online, you’ve probably heard people say “we’re having a general strike! Everyone out!” And then predictably, nothing happens. It’s almost an inside-joke among left organizers that if you say “general strike,” they’re the magical words that will make everyone go out of work.

Speaking of our fellowship across time, I was reading Rosa Luxemburg’s famous book The Mass Strike, which she wrote in 1906 as a response to the Russian Revolution of 1905. And the very first paragraph is her citing an 1873 Frederick Engels essay critiquing the anarchists’ theory of the general strike: “The general strike, in the Bakuninists’ program, is the lever which will be used for introducing the social revolution. One fine morning all the workers in every industry in a country, or perhaps in every country, will cease work, and thereby compel the ruling class either to submit in about four weeks, or to launch an attack on the workers so that the latter will have the right to defend themselves, and may use the opportunity to overthrow the old society. The proposal is by no means new: French and Belgian socialists have paraded it continually since 1848, but for all that is of English origin.” That fellowship with our peers in the past includes calls for general strikes as magical words that we whisper and hope will make them materialize. 

There’s an understandable allure to it, because the general strike is like the working class’ atom bomb. Or, if you prefer a less fraught metaphor, our dragon. It’s a weapon that can’t be defeated. There’s no defense against it. If we can stop our labor, if we can put our tools down, we bring an end to the thing that gives capitalists their power—our surplus labor. On the other hand, we must recognize the problems with it: We depend on each other to work as well. If we all go out of work, we have to create alternative ways of organizing our society in order to make it function at all. This of course is the point, but it is the challenge around which we organize.

I want to talk about a couple historic general strikes. Moments where workers did go out en masse, and workers did fight for these alternative futures through this tactic of the general strike. 

The first general strike I want to talk about is one that is currently politically relevant for us. It’s the 1936 Arab general strike – the Palestinian-Arab general strike that kicked off the Arab revolt, which lasted from 1936-39. If you’re not familiar with the context of the 1936 Arab strike, at the time Palestine was under control of the British Empire. It was a mandate with the imprimatur of the League of Nations, which was another way of saying it was a colony of the British Empire. And the British Empire ruled Mandate Palestine like it ruled all its colonies: through a divide-and-conquer strategy of privileging certain ethnicities and elites over others. What made Mandate Palestine different from say, India or Kenya, was that among the elites who were privileged were Zionist settlers who were given special rights to immigrate to Palestine, and then once in Palestine were given special authority to rule and to buy land, and to otherwise displace and dispossess native Palestinians.

Palestinians being searched at gunpoint by British police. SOURCE: Library of Congress

After fifteen years of divided, fractured, ineffective opposition to British rule and to Zionist settlement, a number of Palestinian organizations, starting with the dockworkers in Jaffa, laid down their tools and called for a general strike. And this time, the general strike took off. The conditions were ripe for the general strike to come into being because it was a national liberation movement. It was the first real organized blow of a decolonization war against the British Empire and against their Zionist props in Mandate Palestine. And so over the course of the next six months, Palestinian workers in Jaffa, Haifa, and Jerusalem, stayed off work despite repeated attempts to force them back on the job. To force them back to making goods transport, to getting the port operational. And the general strike under the force of this repression eventually evolved into an open rebellion; an armed revolt that lasted for the next three years and unfortunately ended in the brutal suppression of the Palestinian movement in that moment of unity and organization toward a potential better future—one free of colonization and one free of Zionist settlers.

Even though this general strike was a failure, what it showed was the political possibilities embedded in working-class self-organization. It wasn’t that they were just fighting for better wages or better conditions on the docks, they were fighting for their own future, for their own vision of a better society. That’s what’s possible in a general strike. That’s what makes it so tantalizing as a goal for us to work toward.

The second general strike I want to talk about is one that happened ten years later, in Rochester New York. The Rochester general strike of 1946. That’s right, folks: Rochester has a militant labor history, if you didn’t know. It’s there, and I’m happy to talk about it at length to anyone who will listen. 

Unlike the decolonization struggle of the Palestinians, the general strike of Rochester in 1946 was much more focused on job security in the aftermath of World War Two. During World War Two, the United States Government effectively took over the economy. It was the organized productive might of the world working class—of Russians, British, French, and Americans—that defeated the Nazis. It wasn’t the free-market capitalists. But after the war ended, the United States government was very committed to ending all that control. So wage controls, price controls—those went away pretty quickly. And the capitalists spent the year after World War Two trying to reassert their power. Trying to get wages back down, trying to get workers back under control. Unions across the United States understood this to be a critical moment. There were multiple strikes nationwide, to the extent that 1946 was in some ways a nation-wide rolling general strike of which the Rochester General Strike was a small piece. 

What happened in Rochester, was the City government—at the time we didn’t have a Mayor, we had a City Manager—got into a labor dispute with the City Public Works Department, and he responded by firing all of them. Five-hundred workers, almost, were put out of work with the intention of replacing them with privately contracted workers. A very familiar story to many of us: taking good, high-paying, government union jobs and finding much lower-paying private sector jobs to replace them with. The response among the local unions was immediate. They treated this as an emergency. They called all their assemblies together and started organizing immediately to pressure the City government to restore the sanitation workers and to recognize their union, the predecessor to AFSCME—American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

Over the course of two weeks in May 1946, the local unions under their still divided umbrellas—AFL and CIO had not come back together yet, they were still at odds with each other—for this moment, came together to fight and staged increasingly intense pickets against the city government. There was one picket outside the Dewey Avenue garage where police arrested fifty protesters. There was another one where police arrested more than two-hundred protesters. Some people say it’s still the largest mass arrest in Rochester Police Department history. I don’t know if that’s still true after 2020, but it’s still up there. There was a patriotic convention at Eastman Theatre, and the picketing workers—many of whom were recently returned World War Two veterans—went to Eastman Theatre, entered the Theatre, and protested inside the Theatre to break up the convention. They were there to highlight the contradictions between the city elite celebrating patriotism, while pushing the veterans of World War Two who had just defeated the Nazis, out of the job. These same vets made the connection explicit, repeatedly comparing the city administration to the Gestapo.

This all led to a labor holiday. That’s what they called it. On May 28, the city labor unions called for every worker in the city, with the exception of restaurant workers and people delivering vital services like food, delivering milk, etc., to walk off the job and gather for a mass rally in Washington Square Park. And anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 workers in Rochester did not go to work that day. There was no transportation running. There were no businesses open, except for the ones mandated by the strike committee. There was a pure work stoppage citywide. 

This general strike worked. The next day, the city government came to terms with labor leaders, rehired the Public Works workers who had been fired, and recognized AFSCME as a legitimate representative of public workers in the city of Rochester. So this one day of action, after two weeks of build up, succeeded in rescuing the cause of labor in the city of Rochester from a moment of crisis and peril. Again, this shows the power of a general strike. Just one day of lost labor shut the city down. It showed that we are in fact all essential workers, and they depend on us to make everything work. And if we stop working, their power goes away very fast. 

I don’t share all this to enchant us with the magical words general strike. But I do want you to circle a date in your mind, or in your calendars: May 1, 2028. Shawn Fein and the United Auto Workers have purposely set May 1, 2028, as the date their contracts expire, and they’re calling on other union leaders in the country to negotiate their contracts such that their contracts also expire on May 1, 2028. Shawn Fain isn’t just saying the words “general strike,” he’s putting organizing muscle behind it. And so May 1, 2028, promises to be a general strike. It promises to be a moment where we as workers can come together and actually achieve the possibilities of a general strike. To achieve more politically and in the workplace than we’ve ever been able to before, at least since World War Two. 

So to that end, we have four years to organize for this. And so this is my challenge to all of us: The next four May Days ought not be just picnics, they ought to be organizing events. We need to start thinking about how we’re going to organize ourselves as a chapter, as workers, as oppressed peoples of this world, to build toward that general strike. Because this is our hope. We have a date, we have a time, we just need to start getting ourselves prepared for it. And so on this May Day, I wish you the very best. And I wish for us all to have a better future four years hence. I hope we’re all here again on May 1, 2028. (Or after, I don’t know when the dates are actually going to fall for a picnic.) But we’ll be celebrating something, I promise you that. So Happy May Day comrades. I’m very pleased to see you all here, and I look forward to the struggles ahead and May days to come.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *