Why Won’t the US’s Largest Labor Federation Talk About a General Strike?

The barriers to organizing a general strike in the United States in response to the myriad miseries American workers are facing are massive. But we can’t move toward such a strike without at least putting the possibility on the table and discussing it — something the AFL-CIO has shown no interest in doing.

AFL-CIO Headquarters, Washington, DC. (Matt Popovich / Flickr)

Every so often over the past few years, the hashtag #GeneralStrike goes viral, with everyone from obscure Twitter users to celebrities like Cher and Britney Spears calling for a nationwide work stoppage to demand systemic change. It’s much easier to get a hashtag to take off than to actually pull off a general strike, of course. But since the pandemic began, calls for a general strike have become louder and more frequent, with even the New York Times getting on board.

US union density is at its lowest point in a century, and workers’ power is incredibly low. Still, the number of US workers going on strike is at a thirty-year high. Workers like teachers have pulled off successful work stoppages in the last few years, and the pandemic has shown that strikes or strike threats can be essential tools for defending workers’ health and safety. Such successes have no doubt helped grow the popularity of the idea that the most powerful and effective way workers can fight back against the domination of capital and the willful indifference of neoliberal institutions is by collectively withholding our labor.

It seems like everyone is talking about a general strike these days. Everyone, that is, except the one organization best positioned to not just raise the issue of a general strike, but to go beyond mere talk to actually organize one: the AFL-CIO.

Representing 12.5 million workers from fifty-five affiliated unions linked together not only through the national federation, but also through a robust network of statewide federations and local labor councils all over the country, the AFL-CIO is the single largest workers’ organization in the United States. If any entity has the requisite infrastructure and relationships in place to realize a national, cross-industry strike, it is the AFL-CIO.

While often talked about in the United States as though it were a utopian fantasy, the general strike is a weapon used fairly frequently by workers in other parts of the world. Countries as varied as Brazil, France, South Africa, India, and South Korea, among others, have seen general strikes in recent years, with hundreds of thousands — sometimes millions — of workers walking off the job to protest their respective government’s social and economic policies. These strikes typically last a day or two, but sometimes stretch on for weeks or even months.

Almost always, these enormous, politically inspired, multi-industry work stoppages occur because they are prompted by national unions and labor federations. High-ranking labor officials in many other countries — countries that often differ from one another in terms of laws, politics, and cultures — use the machinery of the organizations they lead to agitate and organize working people into participating in general strikes.

In the United States, despite numerous injustices plaguing the working class, national labor leaders are not at all inclined to use the resources at their disposal to encourage general strikes (with one important exception I’ll get to momentarily). Because of restrictive labor laws, no-strike clauses in union contracts, complex inter-union politics, and a culture that often avoids bold action at all costs, they tend to consider the idea of a general strike to be too risky, too radical, perhaps even ridiculous.

Lacking militant leadership from those who ostensibly speak on behalf of the country’s working class and who are in a position to actually help make a general strike happen, it’s no wonder that it falls to regular folks on social media to sporadically issue the call for a #GeneralStrike.

Whenever these calls crop up, it’s not uncommon to see some labor movement veterans respond with thinly veiled exasperation and condescension. They explain that strikes require actual organizing — not mere hashtags — and how organizing requires time, strategy, and skill. Obviously, they’re absolutely right. Any kind of job action takes organizing, and it’s vital to remind people of the necessity of a long-term commitment to organizing, especially in a society notorious for seeking shortcuts and instant gratification.

But perhaps instead of simply rolling their eyes at the well-meaning people who dare to advocate a general strike without having ever organized, dedicated unionists could make it more of a habit to chide national labor officials who should know all about organizing yet never so much as utter the words “general strike” except when they’re talking about history or foreign unions.

Labor specialists and laypeople alike have become so accustomed to AFL-CIO leaders erring on the side of extreme caution that they often overlook how the federation is uniquely positioned to coordinate a nationwide work stoppage — particularly by using the existing infrastructure and relationships within and between national and local unions, statewide federations, and local labor councils to do the kind of organizing that would be necessary to execute a general strike. As a result, the question of holding high-level labor officials accountable for failing to lead the way rarely comes up in the many lively discussions on how to rejuvenate the labor movement and build working-class power, including discussions on how to organize a general strike. Those with the most influence and power in the labor movement get a pass, while the inability to grow the movement and take militant collective action on a mass scale is attributed either to rank-and-file workers not organizing vigorously and skillfully enough, or the serious structural barriers that worker organizing in the United States faces — something that must be central to any discussion of labor’s predicament, but far from the whole story.

Of course, the notable exception to the lack of interest in general strikes among national labor leaders that I alluded to earlier is Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants and a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Council. In early 2019, Nelson famously urged fellow union leaders to begin making preparations for a general strike to put an end to Trump’s devastating federal shutdown. Hours later, the shutdown ended. Not coincidentally, immediately after this episode, Nelson became one of the most popular and well-known labor leaders in the country, as well as a much-rumored contender for the AFL-CIO presidency.

Similar to the Bernie Sanders phenomenon, Nelson’s rise to national prominence demonstrates how at least a significant part of the US working class is clamoring for bold, militant, progressive champions willing to use whatever leverage they have to spur mass collective action to bring about real change. Unlike so many other high-level labor officials who ignore the repeated and justified popular calls for a nationwide work stoppage, she has used her position to uplift and try to realize those calls.

Pulling off a general strike in a traditionally anti-union country like the United States is no easy task, to say the least, but with more labor leaders in the mold of Sara Nelson — particularly at the helm of a national workers’ organization that already has the capacity to organize mass strike action across industries and communities, but lacks the will — it would be more doable.