A blueprint for a general strike in our time

John Silence describes three ways to make a general strike happen in the US or Canada.

One of the biggest challenges to building a general strike in the current environment is that there are almost no unions with any experience in calling strikes outside of bargaining for a collective agreement. All union contracts include a no-strike clause (in Canada: by law) and are usually supervised to varying degrees, depending on the jurisdiction, by the relevant labour relations board. At the very least, a general strike would be outside of any of the processes contemplated by the relevant legislation and would probably be a violation of the laws that govern strikes in almost any legal jurisdiction. You aren’t going to simply call a general strike the way you would ballot for a strike in a conventional workplace dispute under the current legislation in the US in Canada. So how could a general strike be called?

Mass wildcats

One way that mass strikes, and even things that look a lot like general strikes, have happened in recent memory is basically a mass wildcat. People get upset and walk off the job, i.e. they vote with their feet. Some union officials may become de facto leaders and be put in a position to negotiate terms (provided the leadership did not oppose the strike action and lose legitimacy in the eyes of the strikers).

This has some advantages over calling strikes through conventional NLRB-supervised votes. The group dynamic involved can be very powerful. These strikes are also democratic and nimble: workers have direct control over the actions by virtue of participating, making top-down control by the union difficult, and problems are identified and resolved on the fly.

Spontaneity is a trade-off, however — everyone may go out together, but at some point there may be a time to go back, and you don’t want to hang your most militant people (who may be most reluctant to go back) out to dry. Group decisions made informally one minute can become a clique using informality to push their own agenda next. Ultimately, mass wildcats need to take the good with the bad, but they can be devastatingly effective, like the first strikes at Canada Post in 1966 or the all-trades solidarity strikes in the Alberta Oil Patch in 2007. Both had a profound effect on politics on the job and in the halls of power, forcing reviews of legislation governing these workplaces and spurring on-the-job militancy for years afterwards. The effect inside the unions was also felt as they brought in a new wave of leadership committed to militancy.

A vote by a labor central

On the other side of the spectrum is doing the strike through official channels and getting a vote in either a provincial or state federation of labor, or a district labor council. These labor centrals aren’t built for general strikes either; they are mostly built to coordinate lobbying, but they are central coordinating bodies between unions and do have some kind of official mandate to speak on behalf of the “house of labor.” Not all unions are in these bodies but enough are that they do carry some weight.

The problem though is inertia. Most labor centrals are designed to be lobbying machines in between elections and electoral machines during elections. They don’t really have a connection with workers on the job so much as they have contact with the union officers. They are also politically a very mixed bag and unless most of the unions are ready to go, there is not a lot of room for building momentum and engagement before the question of a strike is asked. You take that vote once and if it fails, the question is settled, and if it passes narrowly it is hand-waved away as insufficient support.

The promise and pitfalls of this way of organizing a general strike can be seen in the actions taken against Scott Walker in Wisconsin in 2011, where militants put forward the motion, there was a lot of work put into agitating in the streets by the IWW and other groups, and the motion passed. In the end, the general strike simply never happened as the higher-up officials (higher up than the district labor council level) ignored it and then later diverted energy towards a recall referendum and an electoral approach to back the Democrats. The result was a lost election for the Democrats, a stronger mandate for the Republicans, and a steep decline in union density in Wisconsin.


Another way to manage these strikes came up in the Quebec Student Strike of 2012, and it may be a better way to run a general strike than the two previous options.

Basically, in fighting a tuition increase, the students’ strike set what they called a “floor,” which was the number of participants that they thought would make people sufficiently comfortable to take strike action. So for example, a local organization, e.g. students in the faculty of arts at one school, would put word out that if they could get 30,000 people represented in other student associations pledging to strike with them, they were willing to walk out over the tuition increase. So say the philosophy department students at one university vote in favour of this and that carries with it 300 students; they are counted towards the 30,000. Then three days later, the engineering students at another school vote in favour and with them comes another 1,000 students. That’s 1,300 now towards the 30,000. After a few weeks of voting, various student groups would get the support needed (or not) and then take action when they reached the “floor” for action. Like in any strike vote, the majority carries the day and also carries the full weight of their membership towards the “strike floor.” This is important because it is a group decision made by the local organization and not a matter of individual conscience.

This could easily work in a workplace context where locals and smaller unions, depending on their own politics, take votes and then commit their membership to the action if they reach a majority. The floor could be set, say if the combined membership of locals committing to a general strike totalled 30,000 people then the locals would commit to taking action. In the student strikes, many student organizations voted to join the strike after the pickets had started going up and it was clear the momentum was there. This allowed the students to build strength after they walked out as opposed to many workplace strikes where it’s a matter of holding on to support after the members walk out the door (and stop getting paid). An important part of the plan is that no one walks until there are sufficient numbers, as determined by the strike floor, to walk. The purpose of this is to not have the early adopters and militants isolated before their willingness to act can be used to get the groups that may be on the fence to commit to action.

A caution about mass meetings

Different organizations are going to have different cultures, but overall the votes need to carry the day for the strikes to happen. Mass meetings tend to regress to the lowest common denominator and end up making fairly conservative decisions. If you simply call a meeting out of the blue without getting the members ready first, you won’t build for the strike. The union needs to communicate the need and reasons for this kind of political strike action early on at the level closest to the shop floor as possible (that is, working through the membership ranks). They also need to use as direct contact as possible – face-to-face, or phone calls if necessary. There are lots of resources and trainings for how to have these kinds of conversations, like the IWW’s Organizer Training 101 or Labor Notes’ Troublemakers Handbook, but the key elements are listening to people’s concerns and explaining how a general strike would build the union’s power and give them the ability to take on more issues on the job.

What to expect after you walk

In all likelihood, the powers that be will frown on these actions, not because they are morally wrong but because they are effective.

The primary way of disciplining unions in the current period is fines against the union and against the officers of the unions themselves. The best response to this is to make sure that dropping the fines, and obtaining a written commitment against retaliation, becomes one of the primary demands and a precondition for an end to the strike. The option of calling the strike through a mass assembly rather than a union business meeting is important here too because union officials do not have to wear the decision themselves, and if coordinated outside the existing union rules it can be considered unofficial.

Another likely response are court injunctions served or sought by the Labor Relations Board. There are various ways to address this. One is to switch targets frequently, and target places where there is a lot of money on the line for moving goods and where delays cost businesses and/or government a lot of money. Shipping and transportation as well as large-scale industrial installations are all vulnerable to these kinds of actions.

Court injunctions, at their very fastest, require a few hours to acquire and are usually made against particular groups. Cross picketing, where various groups pledge to picket each other’s targets, plus a long list of targets that changes frequently, can make the damage too high to make the injunctions effective. Complying (temporarily) with the injunction may make tactical sense, though at some point defiance of these injunctions is likely to be necessary. Dropping any retaliation against picketers will also need to be a demand that goes to the top of the list, otherwise demoralization will set in pretty fast as workers feel that they can’t possibly beat the fines and the strike is not seen as more powerful than the government.

If you run through all of these lesser forms of discipline (fines and injunctions), you may see jail time back on the table like it was in the 1970s. The leadership needs to be prepared for this — repression should always be discussed beforehand. Inoculating against what they are likely to do to you removes half the sting; it also allows those who are willing to take the hit to rise to the occasion, and those who are not willing or able to take a back seat. Don’t create a situation where you have to shame those who can’t take the risk but also don’t let other people’s inability to do what needs to be done to get in the way.

The only way to do minimize leaders being singled out is to put all of the major bargaining decisions in the hands of a body coordinating between the assemblies that gave the strike vote in the first place, and putting any decision to end the strike in the hands of those assemblies and those assemblies alone. No individual, no matter how important, can call this off. To give anyone that power is to paint a target on their back.

Turning the tables on the labor board

Labor relations boards under the Wagner Act model include three kinds of people, all of whom are considered “labor relations professionals.” These are: employee reps, employer reps, and “neutrals.” Employee reps are appointed by employee groups, i.e. unions and other labor associations; employer reps are appointed by employer groups, usually from the business world (with the occasional public sector manager); and neutrals are people who make a career on being arbitrators, or else they come from a side and start working for the other side to build a reputation for impartiality. [Ed note: All appointments to the NLRB in the US are made by the President, and they are not formally classified in this way.] In fact, many labor relations professionals have worked on both sides of the table, in human resources departments, as union staff, or even for unions when bargaining with their own staff unions. In all three of these categories, sometimes these people are lawyers, and sometimes they just are people with a lot of labor relations experience through their jobs.

“Employee reps” are something the labor movement needs to keep an eye on in relation to unconventional job actions like general strikes. They are there to enforce the tripartite system (between workers, employers, and government) that governs employment law under the Wagner Act model in Canada and the US. This means that when the time comes for the labor relations board to make rulings, they are going to make rulings against unions engaging in a general strike. While their hearts may even be with the unions, their legal obligations and their oaths of office will prevent them from playing a positive role. This isn’t a judgement of their character, it’s a legal fact.

Some of these interventions will be made informally with the unions they have a relationship with. They may in good faith relay the various moves the labor board will threaten to get the unions in line. Again, inoculating against these moves is key. This means discussing beforehand threats that unions who don’t fall in line will be decertified, or threats that the unions will pay stiff penalties. As mentioned before, a commitment not to enact any of these measures needs to be a condition of any cessation of strike activity. It’s a strategic imperative that these actions be defended. Labor-side reps need to be told they will only be taken seriously as union reps if they back the union, and neutrals need to have it explained that on the question of labor’s right to mount general strikes, there is no room for neutral ground and their positions on this action will influence future decisions on agreeing to use them.

Unions under the Wagner Act model have one other piece of leverage in this system that should be considered: withdrawal of their support for it. The Wagner Act model is one of discipline and incentives but the labor board can only really discipline through the legitimacy conferred by labor through their participation in this system. Withdrawing support from board employee reps would have a similar effect to when the board withdraws certification from a union. If done on a large enough scale (again, setting a broad and representative “floor” for actions), it could create a real problem for the board. This problem, if wide-scale enough, would be existential and turn the relationship between the board and the unions on its head. Instead of worrying about whether or not unions are recognized by government, the labor board would be concerned about whether or not it has the legitimacy it needs to do its job as mediator between labor and employers.

While many reps will stay with the board in spite of the recall, and some unions may refuse to recall their people, even posing the question turns the question of legitimacy on its head and calls into question what the labor board’s “neutrality” really means. The stronger the move to recall (again, done through the assemblies that created the strike mandate in the first place in order to shield the union officials), the more it undercuts the labor relations board itself.

Bargaining by any other name

Short of outright revolution, every fight for working people will end with a negotiated settlement. Every strike is a bargaining exercise for the working class except for the last strike. Bargaining during a general strike is not like bargaining during a conventional strike, though. In fact, it is much more like an outright insurrection than conventional labor relations and that will color how it is conducted. The government and corporate leaders’ first instinct is going to be to feel out strike leaders to put pressure on them personally.

In important respects, all industrial disputes are rehearsals for revolution, but a general strike is a dress rehearsal that can quickly slide into something that looks more and more like opening night. This pressure will seem insurmountable to many union leaders and a lot of political allies, and for that reason the dynamic will need to be managed by the movement as a whole. Putting this kind of pressure on individual leaders, even when they ask for it, is unfair and unrealistic if our goal is to win.

Again, the easiest way to handle this dynamic is to put the ability to call off the strike in the hands of the mass assemblies that called the strike in the first place. Bargaining will not be done by skilled professionals or even well-meaning amateurs in a board room but by voting a proposal up or down in a mass meeting. The process will be slow, which is fine, because the money they will be losing is power we are gaining.

This piece is part of our series, “Reconsidering the Strike