Looking Back to Look Forward to 2028

A history of general strikes provides valuable lessons as we prepare to meet UAW President Shawn Fain's call for a general strike in 2028.

“We have to pay for our sins of the past. Back in 1980 when Reagan at the time fired PATCO workers, everybody in this country should have stood up and walked the hell out. We missed the opportunity then, but we’re not going to miss it in 2028. That’s the plan. We want a general strike. We want everybody walking out just like they do in other countries.” United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain has thrown down the gauntlet. 

Fain’s challenge raises the stakes for working-class organizations in the United States. And we can point to the UAW’s own Stand Up strikes and Starbucks Workers United opening contract negotiations as positive signs. Yet there’s little doubt that our unions, social movements, and socialist organizations are not yet prepared to put Fain’s words into action. And four years will go by in the blink of an eye. The good news is that the fighting element in the U.S. labor movement has found its voice and socialists are in the thick of it. This article will examine 1/ the general conditions that have given rise to general strikes in the past, 2/ their demands and goals, and 3/ some of the associated gains and setbacks as we look forward to 2028.

Mass strikes in U.S. history: Civil War to 1900

Right up until the 1980s, mass strikes were common in the United States. In Black Reconstruction, W.E.B. DuBois argued that enslaved Black workers launched the first general strike in U.S. history during the Civil War. And even as racist violence buried Radical Reconstruction, workers across the country launched a wave of mass strikes: 1877 (railway workers), 1886 (Knights of Labor), and 1894 (railway workers again). The last came to be known as the Debs strike, as he was jailed for defying anti-strike court injunctions as the president of the union. These strikes frightened the ruling class, prompting a wave of executions, the creation of the National Guard and Pinkerton armies, and a war on trade unions. 

The conditions characterizing this first period of industrial struggle included transitory working-class organization, widespread state and employer violence, and an array of criminal syndicalism laws and court injunctions that all but outlawed legal trade unions. In the absence of any meaningful state welfare system, wild booms and busts in the rapidly developing capitalist economy drew millions of immigrant workers into industry only to cast them back out into abject poverty. Class consciousness surged as socialist and anarchist organizers built up local unions and cooperatives. 

The leading labor organization of the day, the 700,000-strong Knights of Labor, called for strikes and demonstrations on May Day 1886 involving more than 350,000 workers across the country. They aimed to win the Eight Hour Day and galvanize workplace organization. In the short term, the ruling class struck back savagely, executing four labor organizers in Chicago, the Haymarket Martyrs, and launching a particularly intense Red Scare in that same city. The Knights crumbled. Yet over the next thirty years, the Eight Hour Day slowly took root in working-class consciousness as well as in law and practice.

1900 to World War I

Conditions during the first two decades of the twentieth continued to be characterized by sharp booms and busts and overt state and employer violence. However, the growth of the Socialist Party to 100,000 members, the foothold carved out by the American Federation of Labor, the audacity of the Industrial Workers of the World, and founding of the NAACP in 1909 and the Great Migration of Black workers from the South to the North, all provided significantly stronger organizing structures and resources compared to the previous period. At the same time, staggering rates of food-borne illness, child labor, disease, and alcoholism prompted middle-class reform organizations to support the first instances of state regulation. 

Three broad trends emerged within the union movement during these years. First, the AFL, formed in 1886, reacted to the maelstrom after Haymarket by advocating a narrowly focused “pure and simple” trade unionism. Longtime president Samuel Gompers championed conservative and discriminatory views on immigration and race and carried out a long struggle against socialist influence with the federation. Despite Gompers’ politics, the AFL defended its presence among sections of skilled workers—thereby demonstrating the potential for stable union organization—while growing slowly among important sectors of “unskilled” sections of the working class. However, in the face of coordinated union-busting campaigns, the AFL avoided strikes whenever possible, instead seeking to build partnerships with politicians. 

Second, the IWW, launched in 1905, rejected craft unionism and raised the goal of organizing One Big Union in order to overturn capitalism. Elizabeth Gurley-Flynn and Big Bill Haywood turned the AFL’s policies on their heads. Whereas most of the AFL leadership saw strikes as dangerous and disruptive and contracts as sacrosanct, the IWW believed strikes—specifically general or mass strikes— were the means by which the working class could prepare for revolution; contracts were often, unfortunately, an afterthought. And unlike the AFL’s leadership, the IWW adopted openly antiracist policies. 

The IWW put their mass strike strategy to the test during the 1912 Bread and Roses textile strike of 30,000 workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, organizing people from dozens of nationalities. Mass picket lines and daily general assemblies kept the mills shut tight, but the IWW knew it would be difficult to win in Lawrence alone. So under threat of National Guardsmen with fixed bayonets, the IWW and the Socialist Party organized a huge solidarity campaign across the country, including sending strikers’ children to live in safe houses for the duration of the strike, garnering enormous sympathy and constant media attention. The union’s radical policies forced the companies to concede some of the strikers’ short-term goals, including a wage increase and improvements to working conditions. The IWW showed how to win. However, the IWW’s relative indifference to signing and enforcing long-term contracts—influenced by its sense of impending revolution—allowed the bosses to pick away at these gains after the strike.

A third trend of socialists and unionists intermingled the IWW and AFL, often moving between one and the other and, in practice, many SP members supported both the IWW and more radical AFL locals or leaders. For instance, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) was affiliated to the AFL, but it organized on an industrial structure (not based on craft divisions within the trade), was led by socialists, and organized some of the most militant strikes in U.S. history, including mass strikes before and after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. In a nutshell, this trend of organizers sought to infuse the existing structure of the AFL with aspects of IWW radicalism, employing radical tactics to win contracts and strengthen the union’s staying power.

William Z. Foster epitomized this group of organizers, amalgamating dozens of AFL locals divided by craft and skill to unite for a national steel strike in 1919. The goal was to leverage the base of the existing craft unions to create a movement for all steel workers, thereby raising wages, improving conditions, and unionizing the bulk of the industry. This unity tactic inspired workers across the country and the unions launched a general strike in the steel industry rallying more than 350,000 workers. The bosses, again—this time in the wake of the Russian Revolution—initiated a Red Scare, jailed hundreds of workers, and even declared martial law in Gary, Indiana. Overwhelmed, the strikers were defeated and unionization in the steel industry all but collapsed for the better part of two decades. 

Surprisingly, for several years, Gompers’s AFL policy appeared to bear more fruit in the run up to World War I compared to the alternative left-wing strategies. When President Wilson offered the AFL the chance to join the National War Labor Board, consisting of representatives from business, labor, and the state, Gompers jumped at the chance, pledging the unions to increase war production and promising to prohibit strikes. Granted access to organize the ballooning war industries, the AFL tripled its membership, surpassing 4 million in 1919. Some workers used their raw power at the point of production to challenge the conservative AFL leadership, most famously during the 1919 Seattle General Strike. But to paraphrase Job from the Old Testament, “what partnership with government and industry giveth, it also taketh away.” Victorious in Europe, the American ruling class tore into the unions.

The Great Depression

Ten years later when the Great Depression broke out in 1929, conditions appeared to have lurched back to the nineteenth century; the truth was more complicated. Important quantitative shifts had prepared the ground for a qualitative breakthrough. First, radicals led thousands of workplace organizing drives during the early Thirties. 1934 marked a turning point with general or mass strikes in Minneapolis, San Francisco, Toledo, and East Coast textile mills, drawing in more than 1.5 million workers. Many of them joined the Communist and Socialist Parties, creating the largest left parties in U.S. history. Second, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Toledo all won contracts and significant wage gains, touching off a war within the AFL and the emergence of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Some union leaders understood that if they didn’t lead the rebellion, they might be left behind. Others genuinely supported it and threw their (relatively) well-resourced unions behind it. Third, although Roosevelt’s New Deal had only a small impact on macroeconomic activity, his administration created the foundation for the modern interventionist federal state, both in terms of economic investment—which really only took root as war production cranked up—and increasingly significant regulatory power. If Wilson’s National War Labor Board was a test balloon, Roosevelt’s National Labor Relations Act signaled the federal government’s willingness to corral labor and business when it served its own interests. 

It’s impossible to reduce what came next to the “right conditions.” Strategic, tactical, and political debates raged throughout these years, but it’s clear that mass strikes were central to winning. The United Auto Workers Sit Down strikes forced GM to the bargaining table and the dam broke. Between 1937 and 1938, around 2.5 million workers hit the picket lines—often occupying their workplaces—in more than 7,000 separate strikes. Unionization soared from just over 2.5 million workers in 1932 to over 8 million by 1939, or nearly 25%. The goal of organizing basic industry was finally achieved. 

1940 to the 2000s

Unionization spiked again during and after World War II, holding just under 35% until 1960. However, conditions, once again, had changed radically. A combination of Cold War politics and business unionism led the CIO to purge Communists and radicals—including whole unions—from its ranks, severing the organic link between the working class and the left. The united AFL-CIO discouraged rank-and-file action, but its leaders were sometimes willing to strike to deliver better wages for their members. For instance, the United Steelworkers launched a months-long strike in 1959 by more than 500,000 workers. Arguably the largest strike to shut down a single industry in U.S. history. President Eisenhower eventually invoked Taft-Hartley, ordering strikers back to work, but he did not call out the troops or jail strike leaders nor did the companies organize private militias to break picket lines. Instead, the battle ended in mediated settlement and a significant, if smaller than hoped for, raise. Rather than rank-and-file action and radical leadership, labor relations came to settle into a grove. Strikes became rehearsed, top-down affairs. Perhaps Gompers had been proven right afterall. The post-war global boom and enhanced state intervention tended to diminish slumps and the Great Society programs created under pressure from the Civil Rights Movement, provided a (pathetically underfunded) safety net. The era of Big Labor and Big Business seemed to promise a rising tide that would lift all boats. This picture was never uncontested, but there was a reality to the idea that an apolitical labor movement based on enormous, bureaucratically-run unions could bargain “in good faith” with deep-pocketed corporations. 

Two things upset this tenuous labor peace. First, from the left, the Civil Rights and Black Power rebellions along with the antiwar movement jumped from the streets to the workplaces. Black autoworkers in formations such as the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement led Wildcat strikes in Detroit and beyond and postal workers—with a high concentration of veterans and Black workers—walked out in 1970 in an illegal wildcat strike. Socialists and radicals of all stripes did their best to strengthen this movement, yet McCarthyism had done huge damage and the left’s forces were small compared to the period before World War II. 

Second, from the right, the ruling class regrouped under the banner of neoliberalism and decided that labor peace was not compatible with profits. Taking advantage of sharp recessions in the 1970s, the employers’ union busting offensive drove unionization down from just under 30% at the end of the Sixties to below 20% by Reagan’s second term and just 10% today. Hand in hand with the war on labor, Democratic and Republican Administrations rolled back Civil Rights and the welfare state. Bill Clinton famously promised to “end welfare as we know it,” and did just that upon election, throwing millions into poverty. 

Back to the Future? 

If neoliberal bosses thought they’d won the final conflict, they were sadly mistaken, just as their brethren had been at the end of the nineteenth century and during the 1920s.. During the depths of the neoliberal offensive, important working-class rebellions kept the spark alive and trained radicals how to organize and pass along their experience to the next generation. Justice for Janitors challenged the hotel and landlords during the 1990s; the California Nurses Association raised RNs up and helped spread their union across the country; Teamsters held the line against UPS in 1997, just to name a few. And, although not exactly workplace strikes, the 2006 Day Without An Immigrant, Occupy, and Black Lives Matter have all found their ways into workplaces and union halls, narrowing the gap between social movements and labor. While the 2017-2018 Red State Rebellion teachers strikes—including their Chicago, Oakland, and Los Angeles precursors—introduced a new generation to social and political elements characteristic of citywide and statewide strikes.

So what conditions are we operating in today in the run up to 2028? Economically, workers’s livelihoods are being shredded by inflation and impossible prices in housing, healthcare, and education. The bulk of the working class is unlikely to face nineteenth century or Great Depression conditions, but we are still closer to the Great Recession than to the American Dream. The left, social movements, and unions have picked ourselves up off the floor, but we are still historically weak. This is not a moral judgment. It is simply an assessment. For instance, although DSA has 80,000 members, the same number the SP had in the teens or the Communist Party had during the Great Depression, my back of the envelope math says that we are about 10% as strong as those parties in terms of union experience, community implantation, and political impact. On the other hand, it seems to me that the liberals are rapidly losing the better part of a couple generations to climate catastrophe, student debt, racist police, and genocide in Gaza. If only an infinitesimal fraction of those people are organized socialists today, they are still bringing their own personal antiracist, anti imperialist, and anticapitalist consciousness into work each day. That’s a tough group of people for any manager to intimidate. 

In terms of the state, this is a very tricky question. Biden’s NLRB has removed some barriers to successful union drives. Likewise, Democratic governors have in general refrained from their Republican counterparts’ right-to-work mantra, even if they insist on maintaining strictures on workers rights, such as in my home state of Maine where Gov. Janet Mills has vetoed public workers’ right to strike and farm workers’ right to the state minimum wage. Nationally, the climb down from Build Back Better to the Inflation Reduction Act—nevermind a blank check for Netanyahu—only goes to show that the Democratic Party is neither trustworthy nor very farsighted. 

One potential good-case scenario might be that we are able to maintain labor’s momentum in the run up to 2028 and use Fain’s call for a general strike as a mobilizing and organizing lever, while we fight back against a string of broken promises from a second Biden Administration. In that case, many questions arise: How do we think about our goals for 2028? Organizing targeted industries? Uniting social movements and unions to fight for specific reforms? How do we combine political demands like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal and a ceasefire in Gaza with union drives? What role can a general strike—and the organizing lead up—play in winning the demands we set out? What is our own organizing power and how does that stack up against our opponents? 

On the other hand, Biden and the Democratic Party’s own failings have kept the door open to a second Trump victory. In that case, all bets are off. The left is in better shape today than it was in 2016 in broad terms and there’s a better chance to link social opposition to Trump in the streets to workplace organizing. But if there’s one thing we should have learned from Trump’s first term, it’s that he—and the very significant social base he represents—can do real damage and deepen demoralization on our side.  

In either case, old debates will resurface among labor organizers about the role of mass and general strikes. After all, their great power to inspire and wrest concessions from employers and the state also risks the kind of vengeance meted out to the Haymarket Martyrs. Raising the stakes remains our class’ only plausible path to changing the balance of power. When we do, whether it’s before or after 2028, we should be as prepared for the inevitable backlash as we are eager to join picket lines and consolidate our own victories.

Image: Shipyard workers going on strike as a part of the 1919 Seattle general strike. Photo by Asahel Curtis