Around the time of Trump’s inauguration, when America’s maximum diffuse liberal rage was seeking an outlet, there was discussion of a general strike. Then, it was an implausible fantasy. Now? Let’s have a serious talk.
It’s important not to let your idealism exceed reality by such a wide margin that it can’t pull reality along behind it. A true nationwide “general strike,” which would shut down large sectors of the economy across America, is not possible today. Such a thing would take an awesome amount of organizing under the best of circumstances, and we do not live in the best of circumstances. The vast majority of working people are not organized. There is no central authority or group able to persuade most people to strike, even if they were politically inclined to do so. Only one in ten workers in America are in a union, and less than 7% of private sector workers are. If your dream is a real, Industrial Era-style general strike in this country, spend the next 30 years organizing labor. Then we will be at least... a little bit closer, maybe.
But all is not lost. It is possible to think big without leaving the real world entirely. Let’s look at what can be accomplished. There are more than 17 million union members in America. This is the group of workers that is organized. More than 12 million of them are members of the AFL-CIO, and more than five million are members of another coalition of major unions including the SEIU, the Teamsters, the Communication Workers, and the Auto Workers. This is a group of working Americans who could conceivably be mobilized for a major political event.
On the day of Donald Trump’s inaugurations, all of our fears about what was coming were still theoretical. Now they’re real. Many of the things that we feared have already come to pass. The incompetence and incoherence of the Republican Party is the only thing has stopped it from being even more apocalyptic. The greatest legislative achievement of the Trump administration thus far, the tax cut bill that will likely soon become law, is an economic attack on working Americans. It is an assault on the non-rich. It is class war in its purest form. And because of that, it is an invitation to the working people of America to stand up for themselves and fight back.
Actions of organized labor are not quite the same as political protests. The biggest and most powerful labor actions are not pleas for party-based political change; they are demands. They don’t just seek to grab the attention of powerful officials; they concretely demonstrate that if injustices are not rectified, the labor necessary to the smooth functioning of the system will stop. And the system will stop with it. Truly successful labor strikes are one of the most terrifying things that capitalists can ever experience, because they cannot be begged or threatened away. They say more clearly than anything else: We, the people who do the work, demand a change, or everything will stop.
We can’t pull off a general strike of everyone. But we can pull off a general strike of existing union members. On the day after Trump’s inauguration, an estimated five million people around the world turned out for the Women’s March. That was a historically large figure. It is also less than one in three American union members. If the AFL-CIO and the other large unions came together to plan a one-day union general strike that turned out even half of existing union members, it would qualify as the biggest protest in American history. There are, of course, logistical and contractual barriers to having millions of employees walk out for a day or more. But these problems are minor, in the grand scheme of things. The real issue here is one of will. We have moved past the raw, partisan, political phase of our national crisis. We have spent our adult lives in an age of inequality, and now an economic agenda that will exacerbate inequality and take money from lower and middle class people to pay the rich is becoming a reality. Next up is a plan to slash the social safety net. These are not Democratic or Republic issues. They are humanitarian issues. They are blows being struck against all working people. Organized labor is the functional representation of working people. Who better to lead the fight against our own economic eradication?
Unions have been losing membership for decades. They have been demonized in the media, marginalized in popular culture, and set adrift on a small, shrinking island of relevance. The drastically diminished ability of unions to influence our nation’s political and economic policies is one of the biggest reasons why Republicans are now able to do what they are doing. The rich have systematically weakened the institutions that protect the middle class, and now they are free to rob us. Fortunately, there are enough union members left to pack a punch. An enormous, successful public strike would demonstrate to the 90% of workers who don’t have a union that, yes, there is something left out there for you to join. You are not alone. People still need unions. And unions really need more people.
Imagine the force of members of every major union stopping work for even a single day. The factories stop. The food service stop. The casinos stop. The trucking and shipping stops. The government services stop. The schools stop. The railroads stop, the TV shows stop, the airlines stop, and the construction work stops. Everything fucking stops. And everyone who works for a living turns to Washington and says: You can’t step on us. You are nothing without us.
The class war will continue as long as the wealthy believe they still have a dollar left to win. They are rich in resources, but few in number. Working people are the vast majority. Yet working people are losing this fight. Read the fucking news. It’s grim. Turning around a bad fight will take a million little things, but it can start with one big thing. One big strike. Labor is everyone. Look around. There is no one coming to save us. We can only save ourselves.