Everything You Need to Know About General Strikes | Teen Vogue
Though the concept has its roots in ancient Rome’s secessio plebis, one of the first modern general strikes took place during the Industrial Revolution in Northern England in 1842, a time of great civil and social unrest, as modern capitalism began to take hold and hierarchical class lines began to be drawn between employers and employees. General strikes played pivotal roles in the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Spanish Civil War. And in the U.S., general strikes became almost common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, with examples taking hold in Philadelphia (1835), St. Louis (1877), Chicago (1886), New Orleans (1892), and Seattle (1919), and during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. These large-scale actions were instrumental in securing crucial workers’ rights that many of us take for granted today, from basic safety regulations to the eight-hour workday and the end of child labor. But those wins did not come easily.
“Historically speaking, the general strike is incredibly successful since it completely shuts down the functions of the economy,” author and union organizer Shane Burley tells Teen Vogue. “This is really the foundation of the power workers have under capitalism, to withhold their labor and undermine capital. Because a general strike affects the economy so broadly, it gives workers a huge bargaining chip to make massive societal demands — not just in one workplace, but of capital across all sectors.”
As noted by Black liberation and socialist author W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the country’s most successful general strikes happened during the Civil War, when roughly half a million enslaved Africans escaped Southern plantations and found the Union Army, and mass numbers of poor white Confederates deserted their posts — two independent collective actions that, together, helped kneecap the Confederacy.