You say you want a general strike

Marianne Garneau takes a critical look at general strikes in Europe, and considers what it would take to import the tactic to North America.

There’s a lot of excitement on the left about the tactic of the general strike. People hope to use it for everything from overthrowing Trump to stopping restrictions on abortion. But so far, calls for general strikes have been unsuccessful.

You can tell how serious people are about organizing — general strikes or anything else — by how interested they are in specifics: the nuts and bolts of organizing strategy, hard data about the historical record, and an unflinching analysis of a tactic’s usefulness. The saying goes: “Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals talk logistics.” If someone just waxes poetic about the revolutionary importance of a particular form of action, or about the urgency of the current moment, or romanticizes the past in a way that doesn’t do much beyond conjuring sepia-toned images of worker militancy — then they are not serious.

This article takes a look at the use of general strikes in Europe, tracing how they came to prominence in the last few decades, and assessing how successful they have been. It turns out that not only would it be difficult to import these kinds of general strikes to the North American context, but there’s reason to be skeptical whether we would even want to. They are not the display of power we take them to be.

What is a general strike?

Scholars of European general strikes define them as national work stoppages, called by at least one national union confederation, against governments, in order to protest some policy proposal or other. It’s worth taking each of these things in turn.

  • National union confederations

First, they are called by national union confederations. There are two such confederations in the US: the AFL-CIO, and Change To Win.

In Europe, on the other hand, there are many: communist confederations, socialist confederations, Christian confederations, etc. They have a more explicit political identity than the AFL-CIO / CTW here. And they have a greater tradition of militancy and political unionism.

They also compete with one another. They compete for members, and they compete for political leadership both inside and outside of the workplace. When it comes to general strikes, they are in a contest over who can best mobilize the population to challenge austerity. We’ll return to this.

  • National work stoppages

General strikes do actually involve workers walking off the job and closing businesses and factories. They are one-off actions that generally last a few hours to a full day (though sometimes more than one general strike is called on a particular issue). Researchers I spoke to said it is extremely difficult to get reliable information on the economic impacts of general strikes, or rate of participation.

One thing to understand is that, in many countries in Europe, workers can belong to a union without that union having to be the sole bargaining agent in the workplace. So, a factory of 100 workers can have a handful of workers who belong to one union, and another handful of workers who belong to another union, neither of which has a majority presence. This makes the political differences between unions significant, as there is basically an ongoing struggle between them to attract members and provide leadership in the workplace.

When it comes to organizing a workplace strike, directed against the employer, a vote will be held in the workplace, and all workers are eligible to participate, regardless of their union affiliation. There are also constitutional protections in many European countries for the right to strike, whether you belong to a union or not.

When it comes to organizing a general strike, a national trade union confederation will put out a call, but not hold votes workplace by workplace. Members of unions in that national confederation may walk out, and so may other workers who do not belong to those same unions.

In fact, the call is really directed at the entire population, because general strikes are meant to gather all workers, and not just workers, but students, retirees, and so forth, for a massive mobilization.

  • Protesting government policy

This brings us to the third aspect: protesting policy. General strikes in Europe are directed at governments, not employers. A government will propose some policy change or other, like raising the retirement age, or cutting welfare benefits, and the unions will decide how to respond, from attempting to negotiate directly with the government, to calling a general strike. The general strike is meant to mobilize social unrest (and some economic penalties), to pressure government to back off from that proposal.

General strikes are most successful when called close to elections, because the goal is to influence support for the party in power: listen to us, or we’ll vote you out.

As noted, the union confederations in Europe have a more explicit political identity, and there is a greater tradition of militancy and political unionism in Europe. Moreover, the right to strike for some political goal is legally protected in many countries. Even where it is not, governments might hesitate to legally pursue the union confederations, or judges might hesitate to entertain prosecuting the unions. (In Germany and the UK, where there categorically is no protection for political strikes, there simply are no general strikes.)

Unions in Europe are also coming from a position where historically, they have had much more of a seat at the table with government in negotiating policy than their counterparts in North America. For one thing, the unions have direct party affiliations – with the socialist party, the social democrats, the Christian democrats, etc. – and when those parties form governments, unions can be directly integrated in policy-making. But even aside from that, unions have had input.

General strikes cannot be understood outside of the context of how the relationship between unions and government has evolved in Europe over the last few decades.

The historical context: neoliberalism and union decline

Like in the US, labor unions in Europe have experienced significant decline, beginning in the 1980s. Their membership numbers have decreased, their strike frequency has decreased, their collective bargaining coverage has decreased, their ability to wrest concessions from employers had diminished, and with all these, so has their political power.

This has happened in spite of them having more of a seat at the table where policy is concerned. We may remember Ronald Reagan busting the air traffic controllers’ union, or Margaret Thatcher destroying the miners’ union: times when government in the US or the UK clobbered unions from the outside. The story on the continent is subtler, and you might say more insidious, because unions had a hand in the decline of workers’ social position.

In the 1980s and 1990s, European countries began consolidating their economies through the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) and other institutions of the European Union. Joining the EMU involved stipulations about how much public debt a country could carry, how much its currency could fluctuate before joining the Euro – which meant having to control inflation — and so on. To meet these stipulations, countries had to pass policies to “adjust” their economies, in three main ways:

  • Putting downward pressure on wages,
  • Scaling back the welfare state, and
  • Making the labor market more “flexible.”

Of course, all three of these had negative impacts on workers and citizens, and so all three were unpopular. To soften the blow – and to protect themselves against backlash at election time — governments would partner with unions to negotiate how these changes were to be implemented. So for example, the unions would negotiate making it easier to fire a worker, in exchange for limiting the number of temp jobs. Or the unions would consult with each other and come to an agreement with government on how to limit overall wage increases, so as to limit inflation.

These partnerships, where governments involved unions in the implementation of policy changes – rather than just passing legislation unilaterally — were referred to as “social pacts.” On the one hand, it sounds good for unions to be made a negotiating partner. But looked at from another perspective, the unions basically helped implement neoliberalism and austerity. In so doing, they buffered governments from blame, and demobilized their constituencies, by lending legitimacy to the changes. In fact, governments would reach out in particular to unions that weren’t spontaneously engaging in wage concessions. Granted, if the unions weren’t getting what they wanted at the table, they had the ability to threaten strikes or general strikes, but there was a hard limit on what the governments would (or could?) negotiate, and the final agreement was something unions would turn around and sell to their members.

After the 2008 Great Recession and 2009 Eurozone crisis, external constraints on European governments (from the IMF, the World Bank, the European Central Bank, etc.) got even more severe… but instead of reaching out to unions to soften more bad news, social pacts declinedOne researcher argues that this is because, by this point, unions had become so weakened – in terms of losing members, and losing mobilizing capacity — that they were neither able to credibly threaten strikes (their real source of power, or stick), nor did they have a significant constituency they could quell (their carrot incentivizing government to negotiate with them).

The turn to general strikes has to be understood against this backdrop of creeping neoliberalism, and in the context of labor’s overall decline. General strikes became more frequent once unions began getting cut off from direct negotiation with government through social pacts. They also became more frequent as actual workplace strikes decreased. They are an electoral strategy that weakened unions began to turn to after they lost their ability to mobilize workers at the “point of production.”

General strikes are the tactic of weakened unions

From the North American perspective – where we don’t have such events (though not for lack of suggestion, lately) – general strikes look like an inspiring manifestation of labor’s power. But in Europe, these are weakened unions trying to prove their continuing legitimacy: “Okay, we can’t bargain raises anymore, we don’t have as many members, we don’t have as much to offer members, but we’re still relevant because we can mobilize these general strikes.”

One has to understand what the national trade union confederations are doing, politically, when they call general strikes. Let me excerpt from a superb 2017 podcast episode featuring two scholars of general strikes in Europe, John Kelly and Kerstin Hammann. Kelly is speaking:

When a government reform is announced – let’s say a pension reform: they want to raise the retirement age, raise the contributions, lower the entitlements that people receive – [the different] confederations will debate and decide how to best respond. Should they lobby ministers? Should they call a demonstration? What are the pros and cons of calling a general strike? And there are a number of cases in Portugal [for example] where the socialist confederation was wanting to open talks, trying to negotiate reforms with ministers, and the communist confederation, seeing the socialists move in that direction, said, “Ok, we’re in competition for members in various parts of the country. We can now steal a march on the socialists. If we call a general strike, that will show workers we are serious about fighting these reforms. The socialists just want to go out and talk. We are the movement of action.”

Recall that there are significant political differences between union confederations in Europe, and that they compete with one another for leadership, even within a workplace.

In calling a general strike, union confederations are doing a number of things besides just trying to oppose a reform. They are:

(1) Trying to demonstrate their political relevance or agency in general – in spite of their overall loss of workplace organizing and negotiating power

(2) Trying to attract new members, and seem relevant to existing members

(3) Trying to make themselves relevant again to government, where they used to have a seat at the table, by showing they can still influence policy, by influencing electoral outcomes.

In doing all of these things, the union confederations are looking sideways at each other. That’s who their competition is in the race for leadership and legitimacy.

There is also significance to the fact that the union confederations call for general strikes in relation to very broadly unpopular policies. They are not just summoning their own members; they are signaling to the entire population that they are capable of political leadership on an issue. So in a way, they are running ahead of existing political momentum, as well as running to the left of other, rival political leadership.

It bears noting that sometimes a general strike is a flop: sometimes the mobilization simply does not happen. So there is some risk to calling a general strike, which is the embarrassment of demonstrating your inability to mobilize people.

Even though the union confederations are competing with one another for political leadership, they are more likely to pull off a general strike, and win some concession from the government, if they join one another in putting out the call. Therefore, it’s not even really the case that the trade union confederations can demonstrate single-handed leadership here; they’re sometimes just trying to beat each other to the punch. There’s some grandstanding going on.

Finally, it’s worth looking at the track record. Hammann and Kelly count 117 general strikes between 1980 and 2012. They estimate that “unions have secured concessions from governments in the form of reform alterations in 40 percent of cases.”

Forty percent is a decent track record, but not a decisive one. Moreover, even when these general strikes win some concessions, what they achieve is some kind of compromise: unemployment benefits are kept at their current rates, but eligibility is cut. The retirement age is not raised, but the amount workers have to pay in is increased. Breaking down the 40% figure, Hammann and Kelly noted major concessions in 10% of cases, and minor concessions in 30%.

Within the framework of social pacts, general strikes were sometimes deployed to improve the unions’ bargaining power at the table with government as it implemented neoliberal reforms. Even outside of that framework, general strikes are a defensive strategy against unpopular reforms that only wins major concessions in ten percent of cases. One has every reason to believe that those concessions would not have occurred had the population not engaged in a general strike. Therefore, the tactic remains valuable and important. However, it simply isn’t as powerful as many in North America take it to be, and certainly not in terms of gaining new ground.

Could we import general strikes to North America, and would we even want to?

As noted at the outset of this article, some contingents in North America want to replace mass mobilizations with general strikes.

On a legal or technical level, there are significant differences between the European and North American contexts, such that it would be impossible for unions to replicate what is happening in Europe. For one thing, we do not have a vibrant political competition between multiple national trade union confederations. For another thing, we do not have a legally protected right to engage in political strikes. As mentioned, in places in Europe where political strikes are illegal, they do not take place. Returning to the podcast (Kelly is speaking again):

In the UK, a political strike directed directly at government is unlawful. If a group of railway workers shut down the trains and went out on a general strike, they wouldn’t be committing a criminal offense, but the employer could sue the union for lost business, and in effect that would bankrupt the unions. So one reason unions don’t do general strikes in Britain is they would be destroyed financially.

Considerable excitement was generated earlier this year when Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, talked about a general strike in the context of the government shutdown. But her remarks were carefully chosen: they were about exploring the possibility, having a conversation within the unions. A similar thing happened in the UK a few years ago, when a motion was passed at the Trade Union Congress to look into the possibility of a general strike. Unsurprisingly, it found the tactic to be impractical. Quite simply, the trade unions there and here are constrained by legislation and penalties, and could not themselves push for a general strike, from above, without wiping themselves out of existence.

If the unions cannot call general strikes here, as they do in Europe, perhaps someone else can?

Indeed, the general strikes that have been called in North America have been called by segments of the radical left — to the extent that it is clear who is calling them at all. Often this appears to be a strategy of running to the left of existing mass mobilizations, calling for a more radically-identified mass mobilization: “Not a Women’s March, a Women’s Strike!” “Not an inauguration protest, a general strike!” “Not a pro-abortion protest, a pro-abortion strike!” This has a parallel in the European context, where the labor confederations run to the left of each other in jockeying for political leadership.

The difference is, the leftists in North America calling for a more “radical” mobilization aren’t tapping into a constituency. The national labor federations in Europe have a constituency, both in terms of union members, and their overall historic role. In North America, the AFL-CIO — miserable as you may think it is — has a constituency in the form of its 12 million members. So does the Democratic Party. But most far left groups in the US do not. They have no one but their own small, marginal group of like-minded activists. So they simply don’t have the ability to call massive mobilizations by running to the left of the Democrats or others, no matter how righteous their messaging.

The giant mobilizations in North America that do materialize tap into existing constituencies like churches, unions, community groups, and schools, using existing infrastructure like non-profit and civil society groups, and above all, the Democratic Party. They also tap into very popular issues and sentiments – opposing Trump, or concern about climate change or gun violence. The organizers of these mass protests draw on their networks, but by riding on a tide of existing sentiment and momentum, they can somewhat shortcut the organizing (not every single person who shows up has to be personally brought out; people will see the call and join spontaneously). This is not entirely unlike how general strikes are organized in Europe, where no vote is held, and union confederations capitalize on broad resentment of proposed reforms.

Still, there are lessons to be learned from general strikes in Europe, which can be used in organizing here, to deploy similar if not identical tactics. But to do that successfully, organizers have to be interested in the historical record. They have to be “serious.”

The historical record in Europe shows that general strikes are most successful when they target a particular policy proposal (or narrow set of proposals), placing a particular demand on a particular government (and party in power) to back down on that proposal. They are also most successful when doing so as close to an election as possible.

By contrast, general strikes that adopt broad aims, opposing austerity in general, or railing against the whole suite of neoliberal policies – as has happened repeatedly in Greece – generally accomplish nothing.

Looking at the North American record, the closest analogue to a European-style general strike was the Day Without an Immigrant in May 2006, where hundreds of thousands of immigrants stayed out from work. The action also had a very specific demand. The target was the draconian Sensenbrenner bill, which would have criminalized giving housing or food aid to immigrants. The bill did not pass the Senate.

The radical left in North America have been running to the left of the Democratic party to try to supplant the Dems’ leadership with their own. Their strategy has been to embrace more radical demands (not a Green New Deal, an ecosocialist Green New Deal), broader demands (not just dumping Trump, dumping capitalism), and more demands, period (immigration and police brutality and student debt, etc.). But this is not likely to be successful in spurring policy change.

That doesn’t mean we have to give up on more ambitious or radical demands. But those demands won’t be won with one-day general strikes and mass protests. According to the historical record.

Of course, the other possibility is that policy change isn’t really the primary goal of these groups after all. Perhaps the goal, for now, is simply to attract followers. One has to believe that unions in Europe are genuinely interested in opposing austerity. However, as noted above, their actual political objectives are slightly orthogonal to that (as is their track record). Their objectives are to establish their political leadership and hegemony, in competition with other trade union confederations, and in relation to the population in general. And they are pursuing this strategy instead of workplace organizing, instead of developing their original basis of power. Unions originally developed a constituency by serving workers, that is, by helping them fight employers and win concessions. Their new method of developing a constituency is much more vague, and arguably less powerful.

The same can be asked of the radical left here: is it building a constituency through service, by delivering wins? Or is it trying to shortcut a constituency by seducing people to its righteous leadership?

Conclusion: chin up, the task ahead is easier than it seems

When picturing “general strikes,” a lot of people in North America may be looking at Europe, at these stunning mobilizations, but they are likely imagining things like the Seattle General Strike or Winnipeg General Strike of a hundred years ago – times when cities were shut down for long periods of time because enormous swaths of the workforce had walked off the job and refused to go back.

The fact that European general strikes are way tamer than that is both good news and bad news. The bad news is that they’re not as exciting or as powerful as we think they are. The good news is that we’re not missing out on some slam-dunk tactic, so we can relax about trying to emulate that here.

The other good news is that task ahead of us is not so enormous as to pull every worker off the job at once. As we have seen, European general strikes, although genuine withdrawals of labor, are also a bit of political theater, capitalizing on deeply unpopular proposals to mobilize limited events, and taking advantage of the legal protections for political strikes. They are not all-out, ongoing, city-wide strikes, where workers put their individual and collective well-being on the table until they get a better deal.

My goal is to demystify strikes and organizing and get down to nuts and bolts. The real source of worker power – as the European historical record shows as well – is in the workplace. General strikes are the tactic of unions in decline. These are a pivot to the electoral arena and a retreat from the workplace strike.

But isn’t it so much easier to imagine organizing a workplace strike?

Labor is severely weakened in North America, as it is in Europe, but as experienced organizers will tell you, it can be rebuilt, and the steps for rebuilding its power are not mysterious.