general strike

general strike, sympathetic cessation of work by a majority of the workers in all industries of a locality or nation. Such a stoppage is economic if it is for the purpose of redressing some grievance or pressing upon the employer a series of economic demands. It is political if called for the purpose of wresting some concession from the government or if the goal is the overthrow of the existing government. The political strike has been advocated by the syndicalists and to a certain extent by anarchistic movements. Practically unknown in the United States and Canada, except for some local instances (e.g., Seattle, 1919; Winnipeg, 1919; San Francisco, 1934), the general strike has been a powerful weapon in the hands of European labor since the latter part of the 19th cent. General strikes in Belgium in 1893 and 1902 won suffrage concessions; in Italy, a general strike (1904) protested the use of troops as strikebreakers; a general strike (1905) in Russia resulted in the issuance of the October Manifesto, instituting reforms; a general strike (1909) in Sweden, called against the repeated use of the lockout by employers, encouraged the idea that economic reforms could be gained without resorting to violence; a general strike (1920) in Germany successfully warded off a rightist takeover. In 1926 a general strike in Great Britain was called in sympathetic protest against the national lockout of the coal miners, but the strikers were forced to capitulate when it became clear that the government was able to keep essential services running and when only about half of the workers answered the strike call. In France a general strike, which failed, was called (1938) to protest against a government decree lengthening hours and penalizing strikers. Since World War II, general strikes have occurred mostly on a local level. Notable exceptions are the Belgian workers' reaction (1961) against a government austerity program and the French unions' support (1962) of President Charles de Gaulle during a military insurrection in Algeria. In 1968 another general strike occurred in France when university students and workers joined together during May and June and closed the major industries and universities. The strike ended with an agreement to provide increases in wages for the workers and stronger representation in factory management. In the 1970s the general strike became an often-employed tactic of the Italian trade unions.

See W. H. Crook, The General Strike (1931, repr. 1972); J. Symons, The General Strike (1957); P. H. Goodstein, The Theory of the General Strike from the French Revolution to Poland (1984).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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