After the Jan. 21 Women’s March, several activists, including the march’s organizers and Francine Post, suggested that the next step for the resist-Trump movement should be a general strike. One grass-roots movement has named Feb. 17 as a pending date, although other dates such as May 1 have also been floated. Unlike workplace strikes, general strikes involve entire communities, include union and nonunion members, and can, if they succeed, cause serious disruption. General strikes have a violent history in the United States and have at times been met with severe repression from police, the National Guard and/or federal troops. However, national general strikes are rare in the United States and have not occurred here in more than half a century. What, then, might happen if a general strike is called?
Our research examines the causes and consequences of general strikes in Western Europe since 1980. While Western Europe is not entirely comparable with the U.S., it has experienced general strikes with some regularity; such occurrences may provide some useful insights into the logic and outcomes of these mass protests against government. For us, a general strike is a national work stoppage called by at least one union confederation against governments in their roles as legislators. General strikes in Europe are typically called to halt contentious efforts by governments to introduce fiscal austerity, cut state pensions, lower health and social insurance (for unemployment and disability), change labor laws covering bargaining rights and dismissal and weaken national wage policies. While unions initiate these strike calls, nonunion members also participate in them.
Even though unions are losing power and members in Western Europe, their use of general strikes over the past three decades has notably increased. During the 1980s, Western European countries (the original 15 members of the European Union plus Norway), witnessed only 21 general strikes, whereas between 2010 and 2016, they witnessed 63 (see Figure 1). Like the January Women’s March, general strikes in Western Europe have mobilized hundreds of thousands, and in some cases millions, of people. The anti-austerity, multinational general strike on Nov. 14, 2012, organized millions of strikers and protesters across eight European countries, while mass protests and demonstrations were organized in other parts of Europe on the same day of the strike.
Moreover, because general strikes are concentrated in urban areas, they receive widespread media coverage, increasing not only their visibility but also the visibility of the policies they oppose. Strikes are like a barking dog, informing the public that the government is introducing legislation that may hurt them economically.
General strikes in the EU15 plus Norway (1980-2016)
Not only are general strikes becoming more common in Western Europe — they also are becoming more successful in changing governments’ minds. During the 1980s, 31 percent of general strikes in Western Europe caused governments to change or drop the proposals that had provoked the strike. During the 2000s, 42 percent of them achieved this result. In line with other research on the success of civil resistance, general strikes are most successful at changing policy when they are inclusive and target issues that affect large segments of the population. Strikes that target labor law reforms (which largely affect union members and workers on secure employment contracts) have only a 12.3 percent probability of resulting in concessions from government. In contrast, strikes targeting state pensions and social insurance reform (which affect the entire population), have 75.1 percent and 87.3 percent probabilities of resulting in concessions, respectively.
One reason governments are willing to concede to general strike demands in the midst of union decline is because general strikes can have serious electoral consequences. General strikes deliver significant electoral costs to governments (our research suggests that, on average, strikes are associated with a 2.2 percent loss of the popular vote for incumbent governments). However, timing matters a great deal for general strikes’ electoral potency.
The closer general strikes are to an election, the larger their effects on voting. General strikes that happen a quarter of the way into an incumbent’s term, on average, cause the governing party’s popular vote share to decline by 1.5 percentage points at the next election. General strikes that happen three-quarters into an incumbent’s term produce electoral penalties that are three times as high (4.6 percentage points). To put these electoral penalties into perspective, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton lost the crucial states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin (states with union density rates above the U.S. average) by a margin of 1.2 percent, 0.3 percent and 1 percent, respectively.
Even though organized labor is stronger in Western Europe than it is in the United States, and the democratic institutions (including electoral laws) are different, too, we can draw some plausible predictions as to how a general strike might work in the U.S.
First, general strikes work best when they target issues that affect the well-being of significant segments of the population. Second, governments in countries where general strikes are rarer, tend to be more responsive to them when they happen. In Western European countries where there had been less than five general strikes between 1980 and 2009 (fewer than two strikes per decade), governments offered reform concessions to unions 89 percent of the time. In contrast, governments in countries where more than five strikes happened over these three decades, provided reform concessions only 33 percent of the time, suggesting that “protest fatigue” can undermine strikes’ effectiveness.
Third, general strikes have larger consequences for governments (and hence the biggest political “payoff” for unions) the closer they are to an election. Fourth, by targeting universal policies, general strikes provide the opportunity to unions to be inclusive and expand their political appeal among nonunion members. With House Republicans pondering the introduction of a National Right-to-Work law, unions’ already weakened political power will be under further threat during the next four years. If general strikes are incorporated into the wider progressive movement, it is possible that unions will suddenly appear more relevant again to government and the general public.
Alison Johnston is an assistant professor of political science at Oregon State University. Her work focuses on union politics, European integration and the domestic causes of international financial and debt crises.
Kerstin Hamann is the Pegasus Professor and chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Central Florida. Her research interests focus on Western European politics, especially the role of labor unions in politics, and Spanish politics.
John Kelly is a professor of employment relations in the Department of Management at Birkbeck College, University of London. He specializes in comparative employment relations and trade union politics.