US unions have begun discussing the idea of a general strike if Donald Trump refuses to accept an election results showing a Joe Biden victory.
Such a move would be unprecedented in the modern era. There has not been a general strike in the United States since 1946 – and that was restricted to Oakland, California.
The local labor federation in Rochester, New York, was the first union group to officially support the idea. Union federations in Seattle and in western Massachusetts have followed suit, approving resolutions saying a general strike should be considered if Trump seeks to subvert the election outcome.
Dan Maloney, president of the Rochester-Genesee Valley Area Labor Federation, said his 100,000-member group adopted the resolution to get people discussing the idea – from local unions to the AFL-CIO, the nation’s main labor federation which represents more than 12.5 million people.
On 8 October, the Rochester federation voted to support preparing for and holding “a general strike of all working people, if necessary, to ensure a constitutionally mandated peaceful transition of power as a result of the 2020 presidential elections.”. The union leaders voted to stand “firmly in opposition to any effort to subvert, distort, misrepresent or disregard the final outcome” of the election.
The Rochester move spurred discussion and debate of a possible general strike in union after union, even though some labor leaders see it as a drastic, hard-to-pull-off action. “The idea has gotten a lot more legs than I ever thought it would,” Maloney told the Guardian. “Our democracy is in jeopardy of a wannabe dictator. It’s time to be counted and do whatever it takes to remove him from office if he attempts to retain power against the will of the American people.”
Maloney acknowledged that a general strike would be an extraordinary measure. “In drastic times, you need drastic measures,” he said.
The Rochester federation’s resolution states: “The extreme risk currently posed to the historic institutions of democracy in our nation may require more widespread and vigorous resistance than at any time in recent history.”
Maloney said that in a 22 October call with labor leaders, Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO’s president, stressed that until 3 November, unions should overwhelmingly focus on maximizing voter turnout for Biden. After that, Trumka said, unions can focus on what to do if Trump resists a peaceful transition.
The AFL-CIO’s executive council, approved a resolution on October 19 saying: “Democracies are not, in the last analysis, protected by judges or lawyers, reporters or publishers. The survival of democracy depends on the determination of working people to defend it. And America’s labor movement is indeed determined to defend our democratic republic.”
Michael Podhorzer, a senior Trumka adviser, said: “We believe democracy is stronger than Trump. We are not looking for a fight. We want the election results to be respected. We’re getting ready if they’re not respected because of what he said. We believe this is a country where what voters say matters.”
Podhorzer, who used to be the AFL-CIO’s political director, said: “The thing that is really striking is that Joe Biden and the labor movement are doing everything they can to win the election, and Donald Trump is doing everything he can to defeat the election.”
Podhorzer added that at the moment, “a general strike is a slogan, not a strategy”.
But for many it is an inspiring slogan. Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, helped put the idea of a general strike idea into the national conversation after the federal government shut down in December 2018 because of a standoff between Trump and Congress over funding for his border wall. In a speech on 20 January 2019, Nelson called for a general strike to end the shutdown, and many people credit her call for helping get Trump to end the 35-day shutdown and relent about wall funding.
Nelson said a general strike could definitely be useful if Trump refuses to respect the election results. “What we’ve seen is people going about our business during the day and conducting mass protests at night, and that’s not going to be enough to make this president move,” Nelson said. “He will use those protests to further divide the country. We will have to do the one thing that takes all power and control from the government or anyone with corporate interests in keeping this person in office, and that is withholding our labor.”
Donald Trump remaining in office puts all of us in jeopardy
Nelson said a strike to make sure Trump honors the election results will “improve our jobs” including “our job security and safety at work”. “Donald Trump remaining in office puts all of us in jeopardy,” she said. “This directly relates to our basic safety and financial security.” Nelson has repeatedly criticized Trump for doing too little to help unemployed workers and the ailing airline industry. Such a general strike, she said, would be “firmly grounded” in what’s best for workers.
Nicole Grant, who heads MLK Labor, the Seattle-area federation of 150 local unions with nearly 200,000 members, said her group approved its resolution to spur internal discussion and planning in response to the “chaos and anxiety” she said Trump has spurred. Her federation’s resolution said we “will take whatever nonviolent actions are necessary up to and including a general strike to protect our democracy, the constitution, the law and our nation’s democratic traditions.”
“This is a break-in-case-of-emergency kind of demand,” Grand explained. She said labor leaders hope they do not have to reach such a point, “but at the same time, when we consider the potential of a coup, that’s not something we’re going to stand for”.
Erik Loomis, a labor historian at the University of Rhode Island and author of A History of America in Ten Strikes, said: “So much of the conversation on the left about general strikes in this country is kind of a romanticized, people are going to rise up.” But Loomis added: “If there is ever any general strike in this country, it’s probably going to come out of the established labor movement. The only group capable of running the thing is the established labor movement.” If there is a general strike, union leaders say, they hope college students, Blacks Lives Matter activists, women’s and environmental groups and many others will join in.
Nelson acknowledged that pulling off a successful general strike might not be easy. There needs to be “a spark that lights the fire”, she said, as well as “people to lead the fight”. “Do I think the labor movement is prepared to conduct a general strike? No,” Nelson said. “Can we do it, though? Can we organize quickly? Can we define the urgency of the moment? Absolutely.”