Estefania Navarro has never gone on strike before. She’s got a lot on the line. She’s a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative; her family traveled to the U.S. from Mexico in 2005, and her mother is still undocumented. Striking is “risky, uncomfortable,” she said.
But she’s planning to join with immigrants on May 1 this year and refuse to go to her job as an academic adviser at a community college. “As an immigrant, once you come to the realization that we can’t vote, so therefore we couldn’t have changed the outcome of Trump’s election or any other local election,” she explained, “but we can buy… and knowing that so many industries in the U.S. rely on our labor — that’s power.”
Her plan is to quietly put a sign on her office door saying she’ll be striking. She doesn’t know yet how her colleagues will react when she doesn’t show up at work. But she thinks it could have an impact. “I think my absence that day — I hope it causes a conversation,” she said.
“These are our two biggest powers: the consumerist power and the labor power,” she said. “Once you take those out of the equation, once we stop cooperating in systems that oppress us, then not only do we prove to the rest of the country that we are worthy of permanent protection, but we also reclaim our dignity and respect.”
Since the election, there has been a large and mostly sustained wave of protest against Donald Trump and his agenda. The women’s march the day after inauguration was the likely the biggest demonstration in U.S. history. Other Demonstrations and protests have targeted specific policies, like the Muslim ban.
But one tactic has started to surface that is an unusual protest tactic in the U.S.: calls for general strikes.
Some of them—the March 8 women’s strike and the May 1 immigrants’ strike—are ambitious and threaten to mobilize huge numbers of people. Others are loosely coordinated and relatively small in scope. But the strikes mark a resurgence of a bold, risky tactic that the country hasn’t resorted to in more than a decade.
A risky way to fight back
Staging a general strike is not something undertaken lightly. Unlike asking people to march in the streets, there are a number of legal and societal hurdles in the way of successfully pulling off a strike.
Today’s legal landscape offers few protections. Anyone who decides to stay home from work on March 8 or May 1 may not find a job to go back to. If a group of employees at a particular workplace went on strike to protest a particular workplace issue, they might be protected. But individuals who strike to protest politics are totally exposed. “You have employment at will in the United States, so an employer can do what it wants,” said Thomas Kochan, professor of work and employment research at MIT.
Unions themselves can also no longer stage “sympathy strikes” where one group of workers walks out to support another striking group. So unions will have a tricky time getting members to stage general strikes.
And then there are cultural barriers to clear. “There’s a Horatio Alger myth in America that’s incredibly powerful,” said Erik Loomis, an assistant professor of history at the University of Rhode Island. But the idea that each person has to lift herself up by her bootstraps makes it difficult to foster a sense of solidarity. Meanwhile, the U.S. is far less friendly to labor than other developed peers. “That harsh opposition makes it really hard,” he said.
Strikes, broadly speaking, have fallen out of favor: There were fewer work stoppages over the last decade than used to happen in a single year before the 1980s. There were just 15 major workplace strikes last year, compared to hundreds a year in prior decades.
The reasons are manifold: Less than 11 percent of American workers were in a union last year, compared to about 20 percent in 1983. It’s also difficult to generate a sense of solidarity among Americans across our scattered workplaces. We have “a very decentralized employment relations system,” Kochan said. “To get a collective city or national or otherwise broad-based movement to go on strike is very difficult.”
The history of general strikes in the U.S. is spotty and violent, and typically not focused on broad political statements—they were historically about pay. They “came from grassroots local union movements…as workers themselves were making demands,” Loomis said. Neither the 1919 metal trade workers’ strike in Seattle nor the 1946 Oakland strike (involving workers from a number of industries) “had radical aims at all, both were really about pay.”
Despite the difficulties, a number of groups are organizing ideological strikes this spring in direct response to the Trump administration and its policies.
A day without women
On March 8, women across the country are pledging to stage a mass strike that could draw huge numbers. A group of radical feminist scholars and advocates called for a strike from paid and unpaid labor, and they have since been joined by women’s organizations and even the people who organized the highly successful women’s march on January 21.
“Trump is a violent misogynist,” explained Tithi Bhattacharya, an associate professor at Purdue College of Liberal Arts and one of the women to issue the call for a strike. “Everything he has said and done absolutely justifies women being on the march against this regime.”
But the organizers want the American strike to reach beyond this particular administration — and to last longer than it, too. “We are opposed to Trump, but we are also opposed to the conditions that created Trump,” Bhattacharya said.
“The attack on women’s rights, social rights, labor conditions, and reproductive rights actually began way before Trump,” added Cinzia Arruzza, assistant professor at The New School and another organizer of the strike.
They are calling not just for women to strike in opposition to Trump, but “to target the ongoing neoliberal attack on social provision and labor rights,” as they wrote in The Guardian to announce the strike. “[T]he attack on women (and all working people) long predates his administration. Women’s conditions of life, especially those of women of color and of working, unemployed and migrant women, have steadily deteriorated over the last 30 years, thanks to financialization and corporate globalization.”
Women don’t just have to refuse to go to work to partake. The day will also include “abstaining from domestic, care and sex work, boycotting, [and] calling out misogynistic politicians and companies,” as they wrote.
“We call this a strike from gender roles and from social reproduction activities,” Arruzza said. Women who might not be able to walk off the job can still abstain from household work at home, for example, and ask their male partners to take over for them.
Some workplaces may shut down altogether in support of the strike. For example, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the reproductive rights organization, will shutter its doors. “We think it’s very powerful for the country to have to grapple with the idea that it could function, forget about the day, for about an hour without women,” said Ilyse Hogue, NARAL’s president.
March 8 has its own particular significance. International Women’s Day began as a commemoration of a strike and militant demonstration staged in New York by garment workers in 1908, who called for suffrage and the right to form unions. It turned into an annual event for women to demand suffrage, better labor conditions, and equality, with many across the globe striking to mark it. This year, women in 30 other countries will be participating.
But that history has been somewhat lost in the U.S., even though it originated here. “I think it’s time that we brought back and recrafted that history in our own time,” Bhattacharya said.
The women strikers also take inspiration from women who have staged strikes in other countries in recent years. Women in Iceland and France walked out of work early last year to protest the gender wage gap. Argentinian women went on strike for an hour in October to protest a recent rape and murder. And thousands of women went on strike in Poland, after which their government walked back a proposed near-total ban on abortion.
“We are very much inspired by the organizing that is going on internationally right now,” Bhattacharya said. “It’s very important at a time when Trump is crafting his own anti-immigration and Islamophobic rhetoric that we stand in international solidarity with people around the world.”
They also hope the one-day strike will continue to ripple outward, so they can “create the largest possible social coalition around women’s rights that can also work after March 8 together,” Arruzza said.
Immigrants flex their economic power
Other groups are planning their own mass demonstrations, such as the upcoming Día Sin Inmigrantes on May 1st, otherwise known as May Day, that Navarro will be part of. It’s being organized by the Cosecha movement, which advocates for protection and respect for undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
The strike has actually been in progress since before the election as a way to work up to a weeklong strike at the end of this year. “Our strike is not targeted to Trump,” explained Carlos Rodriguez, a volunteer organizer with Cosecha. “Our strike is more than anything targeted to the American public.” The point is to draw attention to the consumer and labor power of immigrants and what happens when those two things are withdrawn. “We’re hoping that by engaging in boycotts and strikes, we have the American public understand that immigrants are needed in this country,” he said.
And the hope is to be able to mobilize immigrants in this kind of protest for future action as well. “For us, the strategy of strikes and boycotts is a strategy that we can push regardless of who’s in the White House, whether we have Trump, Obama, whoever,” he said.
But he also recognizes that it comes at a time when many Americans are more interested than ever in engaging in protest. “What I see in immigrant communities is folks are saying, ‘Ya basta,’ enough is enough,” he said. “We’re tired and ready to do what’s necessary to be seen.” Those who have already been working in the immigrant rights community are seeing a huge call to go on strike from immigrants themselves in response to Trump’s increased deportations and Muslim ban.
“It is very clear that we don’t have a friend in D.C.,” he said. “I think that strikes are coming as an alternative to the traditional pressure on politicians to get what you want.”
That fire driving people to go on strike has already burst into action. Immigrants in cities across Wisconsin staged a Day without Latinxs, Immigrants, and Refugees on February 13 to protest a Milwaukee sheriff’s pledge to crack down on undocumented immigrants. Three days later, immigrant restaurant workers went on strike to stage their own Day Without Immigrants across the country.
“The masses are moving towards a strike,” Rogdriguez said. And it’s only good news for his own efforts. “We’re not competing for strikers. What we’re saying is one day is not enough. We need to flex those striking muscles…get people comfortable with striking.”
His is not the only group mobilizing people to strike on May Day. David Huerta, president of the union SEIU United Service Workers West in California, will be rallying his members to strike that day as well.
“The moment is now,” Huerta said. “The reality is this administration and this agenda has unified a lot of people, has motivated a lot of people not just to have an opinion but also be active in exercising that opinion.” His group has been in conversation with immigrant organizations, women’s rights groups, and other labor organizations across his state to get organized.
May 1, he says, is perfect for this action. Its roots stretch back to an 1886 union action to advocate for an eight-hour workday that ended in violence, which then became annually commemorated. “It’s already on our calendars as a day of activism,” he said. “How do we then take it up a notice in anticipation of trying to shut this down and send a loud message to the current administration.”
This will not be the first May 1 day without immigrants to be staged in the U.S. On May 1, 2006, immigrants refused to go to school and work, and more than a million people took to the streets to protest legislation under consideration in Congress that would have criminalized undocumented immigrants and upped border control. The action disrupted food harvests and deliveries and shut down plants.
“We want to recreate what happened in 2006, but we want to have a plan for it and be able to sustain it for a longer time,” Rodriguez said. “We’re not going to win with a one-day strike.”
Finding unity in opposition
All of the groups planning strikes are clear that they support each other and aren’t trying to compete. Huerta, for example, supported a February 17 general strike action, which was organized primarily online, as well as the March 8 women’s strike. “We hope everybody will be supportive on May 1,” he said. “The more we can support one another’s movements and actions, the more united we can demonstrate our power.” It remains to be seen how many people can be mobilized to strike, and whether they can stay organized in the long term.
Still, the growing chorus of people organizing online eager to strike is itself notable. “The fact that we are observing these protests says that we are in a very, very different state of affairs in our country than any of us have experienced in our lifetime,” Kochan said. “It’s as close to a national crisis and uprising as we have seen since the 1960s with the civil rights revolts and conflicts.”
It’s yet to be seen what it will all mean. “You can never really tell what the spark is going to be that creates massive change,” Loomis said.