A general strike is a strike action by a critical mass of the labour force in a city, region or country. While a general strike can be for political goals, economic goals, or both, it tends to gain its momentum from the ideological or class sympathies of the participants. It is also characterized by participation of workers in a multitude of workplaces, and tends to involve entire communities. The general strike has waxed and waned in popularity since the mid-19th century, and has characterized many historically important strikes.
The term "general strike" is sometimes also applied to large-scale strikes of all of the workers in a particular industry, such as the Textile workers strike (1934). Those "general" strikes, however massive they might be, involve workers only in a particular workplace. The classic general strike, by contrast, involves also workers (and members of the working-class) who have no direct stake in the outcome of the strike. For example, in the San Francisco General Strike of 1934, both union and non-union workers struck for four days to protest the police and employers' tactics that had killed two picketers and in support of the longshoremen's and seamen's demands.
The distinction is not always that clear. In the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934, as an example, many building trades unions and organizations of unemployed workers in federal work projects struck in sympathy with striking truck drivers and to protest the police violence against picketers. Thousands of others participated in demonstrations to support the strikers. Those sympathy strikes, while sizable, never acquired the scope necessary to amount to a "general strike", however, and the organizers of the Teamsters' strike did not describe it as such.
Syndicalism and the general strike
Some in the labour movement hope to mount a "peaceful revolution" by organizing enough strikers to completely paralyze the state and corporate apparatus. With this goal achieved, the workers would be able to re-organize society along radically different lines. This philosophy, known as syndicalism, enjoyed modest support amongst the radical sections of the labour movement in the late 19th and early 20th century. The United States, Canada, and (to a lesser extent) Australia had this trend culminate in the growth of the Industrial Workers of the World. General strikes were frequent in Spain during the early twentieth century, where revolutionary anarcho-syndicalism was most popular. The biggest general strike in recent European history – and the largest general wildcat strike ever – was May 1968 in France. Georges Sorel published Reflections on Violence in 1908, in which he promotes an understanding of the myth of the general strike:
- To estimate, then, the significance of the idea of the general strike, all the methods of discussion which are current among politicians, sociologists, or people with pretensions to political science, must be abandoned. Every-thing which its opponents endeavour to establish may be conceded to them, without reducing in any way the value of the theory which they think they have refuted. The question whether the general strike is a partial reality, or only a product of popular imagination, is of little importance. All that it is necessary to know is, whether the general strike contains everything that the Socialist doctrine expects of the revolutionary proletariat.
Sorelian ideas helped the emergence of national syndicalism and right-wing groups like the Cercle Proudhon.
Notable general strikes
- 1842 - 1842 General Strike
- 1912 - Brisbane General Strike, Australia
- 1917 - Australian General Strike
- 1917 - Spanish General Strike
- 1919 - Barcelona General Strike, Spain
- 1919 - Winnipeg General Strike, Canada
- 1919 - Seattle General Strike, USA
- 1920 - German Kapp Putsch Strike
- 1922 - Italian General Strike
- 1926 - UK General Strike of 1926
- 1934 - West Coast Longshoremen's Strike, USA
- 1934 - Minneapolis Teamsters Strike, USA
- 1934 - Toledo Auto-Lite Strike, USA
- 1936 - Palestinian general strike
- 1936 - Syrian General Strike
- 1941 - February Strike, Netherlands
- 1942 - Luxembourgian General Strike
- 1956 - Finnish General Strike
- 1968 - French General Strike
- 1973 - Uruguan General Strike
- 1974 - Ulster Workers Council Strike, Northern Ireland.
- 1988 - Spanish General Strike
- 1992 - Nepalese General Strike
- 1995 - French Public Sector Strikes
- 1995 - Days of Action, Canada
- 2002 - Italian General Strike
- 2005 - Bolivian Gas Conflict
- 2007 - Guinea General Strike
- Direct Action
- List of strikes
- Industrial Workers of the World
- Industrial unionism
- Georges Sorel and the "myth of the general strike"
- Chronology of general strikes
- The Mass Strike by Rosa Luxemburg (1906)
- General Strike 1842 From chartists.net, downloaded 5 June 2006
- From Reflections on Violence
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