Later this month, on October 15th, a team based in the midwestern United States is holding a general workers’ strike “of the total labor force” with a list of demands for the federal government, including but not limited to increased minimum wage, universal healthcare benefits, and a shortened work week. However, the strike has not yet garnered significant media coverage, despite the importance of the issue. Following the Covid-19 pandemic’s drastic impact on our laborers, it is even more imperative that we listen to worker’s needs and understand the history behind this movement.
Workers’ strikes have a long and complicated history in the United States. The first recorded strike on United States soil occurred in 1619, when Polish workers and artisans in Jamestown, Virginia took a stand. For those who aren’t history buffs, Jamestown was also the first permanent settlement in North America. In other words, striking has a history as old as the country itself. Strikes were prominent during the American Industrial Revolution, when labor standards were largely nonexistent. Workers like the Lowell Mill Women protested 13 hour days exposed to “confinement, noise, and lint-filled air,” eventually resulting in the passage of worker protection laws such as the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938.
Of course, this was not the end of unfair labor practices in the United States, nor was it the end of strikes. Today, strikes are used to call out employers for lack of healthcare, unfair wages, or unsafe working conditions. Most recently, a group of Nabisco workers across five states striked for improved overtime policies, spending weeks on the picket line. Similarly, in 2019, groups of employees at more than 240 Stop & Shops spent 11 days fighting for a new contract that better protected their healthcare and retirement benefits, provided raise opportunities, and protected Sunday time-and-a-half pay.
These strikes, and the others that often receive mass media coverage, are targeted directly at employers. Stop & Shop and Nabisco workers had a list of contractual demands for their upper management. The General Strike, however, is different; its aim is not a specific employer, but instead the federal government. General Strike organizers are arguing that the United States government is not doing enough to protect the working class as a whole. That’s what makes the General Strike so important: if successful, it would benefit an entire class of people instead of one group of workers.
The group has a list of complaints, including but not limited to lack of paid maternity leave, carbon emissions by large corporations, and the stagnant minimum wage. The fact that these complaints need to be made in one of the wealthiest, most developed countries in the world is disheartening. How can women feel that they have an equal foothold in the workplace if they are not guaranteed the ability to take time off while pregnant or nursing? What incentive is there to stay at a job if you’re making the same amount of money you were 12 years ago? These issues have gone unaddressed for far too long.
Fortunately, organizers also formulated a list of specific demands to ameliorate these issues. They are as follows:
- 25% corporate tax rate (no loopholes)
- Free Healthcare for all
- 12 weeks paid paternity and maternity leave
- $20 minimum wage
- 4 day work week
- Stricter environmental regulations on corporations (bans on single use and micro plastics, limited emissions)
These demands are unique because they would have a sustainable positive impact on the lives of all workers. I believe that these demands would also eventually benefit employers, as companies are at their best when every individual is healthy, happy, and well-rested. It has always confused me why an employer would not want their employees to have the best healthcare or the best maternity and paternity leave. It seems like it should be common knowledge that people produce their best, most efficient work when they are not sick or exhausted. Further, I would argue that an increased minimum wage would have a net positive impact on the nation as a whole. Businesses and individuals have just made it out of a suffocating pandemic, during which the economy was anything but active. With the increased spending power that comes with an increased minimum wage, Americans would be able to pull themselves out of the Covid-19 financial hole and start to re-stimulate the economy.
I also admire the General Strike’s commitment to address environmental issues through a labor lens. I believe that corporations do not bear enough of the blame regarding climate change. The General Strike targeting the federal government instead of individual employers gives it the opportunity to call out larger industry issues, such as climate change. It’s difficult to blame one individual corporation for when you take into account the 100 corporations that contribute 71% of carbon emissions, it’s easier to ask the government to act.
Of course, each type of movement comes with its own unique weaknesses. I do see a bit of a flaw in the General Strike’s largesse; in targeting the entire labor system, they may fail to make a noticeable impact. In other words, a few people missing from each of the major corporations is not going to do much. If, however, the movement is able to catch on to a greater degree, it could have a sustainable impact. The United States cannot function if its businesses are not functioning, thus the government would be forced to pay attention.
I would urge my fellow students to remember the October 15th date. Even if you aren’t a member of the working class, you can play a part in the success of this movement. Set a reminder in your calendar to abstain from purchasing from any major corporations on that day. Although we aren’t all part of the labor force right now, we soon will be, and will continue to face the same problems as today’s laborers unless there is serious government action. Remember: your participation today will protect your rights in the future.