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What is a General Strike?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Images By: n/a, Marzky Ragsac Jr.
  • Last Modified Date: 26 September 2016
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A general strike is a work stoppage involving the entire labor force in a given region, rather than being isolated to workers in a specific industry or workplace. General strikes were used as a tool for labor organizing into the 20th century, at which point they became less common. In some regions, people may use this term to refer to strikes involving everyone in a particular union, industry, or workplace, rather than the workforce as a whole, although this usage is technically incorrect.

In a general strike, the workers span communities and industries. Many people involved in a strike may not have personal concerns being addressed by the strike, choosing to participate out of solidarity for the workers who do have a stake in the outcome. Workers are not the only people who participate. Sometimes students are parties to a general strike, refusing to go to school and attending marches and rallies instead. The goal is to completely disrupt a community until the desired outcome has been achieved.

The general strike results in a ripple effect where the entire economy grinds to a halt and people cannot access services like public transit. This tends to lead to more pressure on the people or industry being asked to make reforms for their workers. As members of the general public are inconvenienced or public health threats emerge as a result of cessation of services like garbage collection, negotiators are subjected to close scrutiny.

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General strikes sometimes backfire. In some cases, widespread striking has gone on for extended periods of time and no concessions have been made, with people eventually returning to work even though they did not accomplish their goals. Sometimes public sentiment turns against the strikers, usually because people become frustrated by the inconvenience, and members of the public may start demanding that strikers return to work even if their labor dispute has not been resolved.

Calls for a general strike are quite rare today, for a variety of reasons. Labor unions usually work very hard to avoid situations where they have to call for strikes and may try to strike on their own without calling on other laborers to strike in solidarity. The public disruption associated with such strikes is considered dangerous and undesirable in some regions, and union leaders must weigh calls for strikes with care to decide whether members of the public will support them throughout the labor action.

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