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Can You Join a National General Strike?

By Maddy Buck, Esq. on July 31, 2022 9:00 AM

This depends on your risk tolerance, whether you're part of a union, and the nature of the general strike, if one ever occurs in the United States.

If you're hanging out on social media these days (aren't we all?), you may have seen "Let's all just strike" or #generalstrike calls in the past few years. They've popped up in response to the pandemic, the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, and frustration with the current burnout reality of work.

What Is a General Strike?

A general strike is a form of protest where working people across industries, but generally in the same geographic area, stop working all at the same time. The goal of a general strike is to shut down economic activity so seriously that it pressures the intended change to happen.

A national general strike would involve people across the country all striking for the same cause at the same time. Such a strike would require extreme coordination and the will of a huge population of people. Although American labor history includes general strikes, the United States has never seen an organized national general strike.

Have There Ever Been General Strikes in the US?

Yes, but the answer to this question is also open to interpretation. Because the general strike is a broad concept that could show up in different ways, sometimes it's nuanced whether a general strike has occurred.

Was There a General Strike During the Civil War?

In a sense, yes. The scholar and African American civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois believed that the U.S. saw a momentous general strike during the Civil War. Enslaved Africans helped to cripple the Confederacy's power when they stopped working and escaped plantations to join the Union army. The words "general strike" may not have been used, and it wasn't organized by traditional labor organizations. But a group of workers stopped working, their actions impacted multiple industries, and, ultimately, they secured their labor goal: freedom.

Were There General Strikes in the 20th Century?

Yes. The most significant ones were in Seattle and Oakland. In 1919, the workers of Seattle shut down the entire city for multiple days, in what is known as the Seattle General Strike. The other most significant general strike in U.S. labor history was the 1946 Oakland General Strike, which lasted more than two days.

Is the 'Great Resignation' a General Strike?

That depends on how you look at it. Some suggest that the "Great Resignation" is like an unofficial, unorganized "general strike," occurring across industries because American workers want better working conditions and higher wages. But it's not really a general strike. Calling it a "general strike" is a way to describe a phenomenon that happened because of the way the COVID-19 pandemic transformed work. It was not an organized action like the Seattle General Strike or the Oakland General Strike.

Can a Union Organize a General Strike?

Probably not. Unions may organize strikes against the employer of a unionized group of employees. But ever since Congress changed the National Labor Relations Act in 1947 (after the Oakland General Strike), unions cannot call for a strike or boycott against another employer (these are called "secondary strikes"). It would be risky for a union to organize a general strike of any kind because that action would probably be seen as organizing a secondary strike. Indeed, it is probably why the successful general strikes in the U.S. occurred before 1947.

Do I Have a Right To Strike?

It depends on what kind of worker you are and when you're trying to strike. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) is the federal law that sets out the rules for workers of most private employers to organize themselves and use concerted activities to improve their working conditions and wages.

The NLRA protects workers from being fired from their jobs (though they could be permanently replaced if they are striking for economic reasons) as long as they are striking in a way that follows the law. For public employees, the right to strike varies depending on the location and the job type. For independent contractors, the right to strike is sometimes seen as legally ambiguous.

So, Can I Join a General Strike?

This depends on your risk tolerance. Unionized workers who work for most private sector employers (those covered by the National Labor Relations Act) could risk losing their jobs if they strike without getting approval from their union. And a union or anyone acting for them could risk legal liability if it organizes or encourages its workers to join a general strike.

Additionally, non-unionized private sector workers ("at-will" employees) who walk off the job risk consequences, such as being fired.

A national general strike would require extensive coordination, but the relevant laws have made that level of organization a legal landmine. That said, some labor activists say there is no such thing as an illegal strike, just an unsuccessful one.

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