Spurred by the success of the Women’s March on Washington, women across the country could dust off their pink hats again to take part in a general strike.
Announced Monday on Twitter as “General Strike: A Day Without a Woman,” the event would serve as a follow up to post-Inauguration Day marches where millions of women gathered in cities and towns around the nation to protest policies promoted by President Trump. For many demonstrators, the crowds flooding streets in cities and towns across the country revived a spirit of resistance and unity, but left a hunger for more.
To keep the momentum alive, and translate the movement's engagement into political action, organizers are now putting new spins on older protest tactics, adopting the general strike, a tactic used in 20th century labor protests in the US and in more recent decades in Europe. While no one has successfully staged such a large-scale, multi-issue strike in the United States, some observers say the uncertainties of the new administration's early days could create a breeding ground for success.
"We're in uncharted territory. There's never been anything like the Women's March in scale and breadth of participation," Jeremy Brecher, a historian and author of the book “Strike!,” tells The Christian Science Monitor. "I believe we're seeing the greatest mobilization of civil resistance that we've ever seen in American history, broadly including all the different things that are going on. Historically, worldwide, general strikes have been extremely effective means of protest over the course of modern history."
Without one specific goal, the strike could serve to unify Trump opponents, while communicating participants' concerns to each other and politicians. That, some analysts say, may be what's needed to propel issues from back-burner debates to national priorities, as Occupy Wall Street served to elevate issues of economic inequality to the docket.
A single day of striking on such a broad collection of issues would hardly reverse the course of the Trump administration. But for those who wondered if, and how, the marches could facilitate long-term action, a strike could become part of the answer.
"The question is, what is the conveyor belt from the huge protests that we’ve seen – both about the Muslim ban and [women’s issues] – to get that message to local and state politicians as well as to Congress and the Trump administration?" Dana Frank, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who studies labor history, tells the Monitor. "I think this is one of the ways that people are trying to show the breadth of the outrage at the base. We're at an unprecedented moment in US history."
Labor unions have used general strikes throughout history to call for better working conditions or wages, including in the US: In 1946 in Oakland, for example, workers fought for the right to unionize, and in 1919 in Seattle, shipyard workers called for higher wages and brought the city to a halt. More recently, the Occupy Wall Street movement attempted to organize a general strike, but famously failed to translate its energy into specific ideas.
Recent European movements have used the strike when legislators try to make cuts to pensions, national wage policies, and health or social insurances. While labor unions have often organized the protests, they’ve gained support from sympathizers and other activists.
A women's strike, however, seems to have taken a multifaceted approach from the start, drawing a wide base by focusing on several key points of opposition to the Trump agenda: women's rights, support for health care programs like Obamacare, action against climate change, and repealing executive orders on immigration, among others.
While the strike has yet to pick a date, some have hinted that it could take place as early as February 17. But experts caution that such initiatives take careful planning that requires more involvement than a protest. If a rushed strike fails to deliver on participants' expectations, for example, it can discourage future efforts. And while many professional women may find opportunities to take a day off to strike, some working-class women or service workers might risk retribution, termination, or significant income loss by skipping a day of work.
“Asking people to take action that is risky, especially groups that are more vulnerable, without explaining what the objects are beyond a general discontent can be tricky,” Jamila Raqib, the executive director of The Albert Einstein Institution, which studies the strategic use of nonviolent action in conflict, tells the Monitor. “And if people don’t really understand what the objectives are, what’s required for effectiveness, it may not be effective. There needs to be some level of confidence that there is going to be widespread effort.”
Effective strikes around the world have sometimes lasted for days or weeks, she notes. While a vast group of women withdrawing from the workforce for a single day will likely send a message, the cohort may lack the ability to maintain the resistance for a prolonged period.
Still, a strike would likely highlight the scale of women's influence and importance, to both politicians and employers. At a time when hundreds of thousands have already stood up against a new administration, a strike once again highlight the power of protest.
"[General strikes] point to the fact that society and government and corporations are dependent on the cooperation of the people that work for them," Dr. Brecher says. "They have played an important role in bringing down authoritarian regimes in the world. In a broad sense, they are a powerful means of exercising popular people power."