Today the hashtag #GeneralStrike was trending on Twitter across the United States. General strikes of any sort have been few and far between in U.S. history. Unlike France, Spain and most recently India, it is not a regular part of U.S. labor tactics. But the situation facing labor right now is so urgent and the stakes are so high that the idea of preparing for a general strike to fight back should be on the top of labor’s agenda. A successful general strike would be a magnet to draw in millions of workers, including the vast majority who are not union members.
The Republican Party fired another missile today in what is rapidly shaping up to be an all-sided attack on the working class and people’s basic democratic rights.
A national “right to work” bill will be introduced tomorrow in the House of Representatives to fundamentally rewrite national labor law. Despite the misleading “right to work” name, the bill has nothing to do with giving workers’ the right to a job. What it would do is make it illegal for unions to automatically collect dues or fees from employees in workplaces under their contracts.
The bill is to be proposed by Rep. Joe Wilson, the hyper-ventilating racist of South Carolina whose previous 15 minutes of fame came from screaming at Obama during a Congressional address, and Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who specializes on a daily basis in spewing the most vile anti-immigrant filth. It should be lost on no one that the same lawmakers who promote mass deportations in the name of defending American workers are now leading this crusade against the rights of all workers — Black, Latino, Arab, Asian, Native and white.
Right-to-work laws already exist in 27 states where conservative lawmakers dominate. An Economic Policy Institute study found wages to be 3.2% lower in these states, when controlling for all other factors. Workers in such states are also less likely to have employer-sponsored health insurance and pension programs.
This is the reason that a national right-to-work law is the holy grail of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It would over time transfer tens of billions of dollars from the already-struggling working class to the already-rich corporations and banks. By weakening unions it would transfer power over workplaces to the bosses as well, as workers would lose the organizations that serve as their collective bargaining agent and defender of their terms and conditions of work. It would undoubtedly initiate a full-scale employer offensive, backed by the federal government, against unions and their nearly 15 million members nationwide.
Right-to-Work limits the rights of all workers, unionized or not
Under Right-to-Work, workers currently unionized could stop paying union dues while still receiving all the benefits of the collective contract. Major corporations would of course use their business associations to initiate mass anti-union campaigns to encourage this idea. Over time, unless the membership has a very high degree of pro-union consciousness, the unions would be deprived of necessary funds to keep operating, and employers would use any opening to try and decertify and smash the unions altogether. In Michigan, 48,000 union jobs were lost in 2014 alone, after the state passed their right-to-work law in 2012.
In workplaces that are not unionized, new organizing campaigns already are a steep uphill battle because of labor laws that greatly advantage employers. If the bill becomes law, it means that workers who go through all the onerous phases of collecting union cards, overcoming their bosses’ anti-union campaigns and winning a election will still not be able to create a workplace where all employees, including new hires, pay dues.
The bill would put every union in a scramble to retain its existence and fewer unions will be able to devote the resources and time to help new groups of workers unionize. It will especially damage the prospects of organizing in low-wage sectors where dues are lower and worker turnover is higher.
What can stop this?
The Democrats technically have the numbers in the Senate to block such a bill through a filibuster, but it would be a grave mistake for class-conscious workers and progressive people to rely on this voting bloc as a safeguard. A considerable section of Democrats in the Senate have opposed progressive labor reform in recent years, siding with Republicans and proving themselves equally loyal servants of the Fortune 500 lobbyists and Wall Street paymasters.
In just the 11 days since the inauguration of Trump to the presidency, leading Democratic Senators have joined hands on several occasions with their Republican colleagues to confirm right-wing nominees. While claiming to represent “resistance” on the anti-Muslim immigration and refugee order now, they quickly confirmed General Kelly to lead the Department of Homeland Security without even the condition that he oppose such a measure.
Don’t think they wouldn’t cut the same deal with fundamental labor rights. In the end, all issues and struggles are just bargaining chips to the Democratic leaders — they’ll engage in some, while giving up others as part of their political calculations of the moment.
The only thing that the working class can rely on is its own collective power. The last week has shown that mass action is a far greater weapon than anything coming from the Democratic Party, and mobilization has already resulted in a partial victory against Trump. That’s an example that organized labor, and the vast sections of unorganized working class, can look to. Even with reduced union strength, the working class acting in coordination could shut down not just the airports, but everything!
General strikes require high levels of organization and coordination, and won’t be realized by social media virality alone. The hashtag #GeneralStrike was being circulated in connection with Feb. 17 and whether or not that date sees real strike activity, the fact that the concept has spread widely shows there’s considerable interest among workers to exercise their collective power. If the GOP is going to launch an all-out war on workers’ rights, it’s certainly the time for the country’s labor unions, and all workers, to be preparing an all-out response.