Four European countries — Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal — held coordinated general strikes today, to signal opposition to cutbacks in basic services, now into their fourth year. A general strike feels like a very European tactic at this point in history, and it is. An attempt at a national strike in the US last May 1 fizzled terribly, and broad actions of this type are few and far between even in heavily industrialized parts of South and East Asia, Africa or Latin America.
But it wasn’t always so. A surprising bit of history recorded by California’s teacher’s union, the California Federation of Teachers, tells the mostly forgotten story of a wave of general strikes that struck the American west coast in the years after World War II.
Rising levels of unemployment due to layoffs from the war industries and veterans flooding into the labor market created a reserve army of labor that allowed businesses to tighten control over their workplaces and labor costs. Employers denied workers wage increases necessary to keep up with galloping inflation and to offset decreased hours of work. In the year following spring 1945 average real earnings fell by 12% in San Francisco. By the end of 1946, most Bay Area workers found themselves with less purchasing power than they had had in early 1944….
In response, the biggest wave of strikes in United States history washed across the country in 1945 and 1946. Workers struck many mass production industries and shut down several cities with general strikes. In the East, these occurred in Hartford and Stamford, Connecticut; Camden, New Jersey; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and Rochester, New York. Citywide general strikes are rare in the United States: never before (or since) had so many occurred in one year.
The mostly-forgotten story sounds a lot like modern Europe. Following a sudden, unexpected crash of the labor market, unions in southern Europe, as in the postwar US, felt a need to prove they still have muscle. It appears they do. Here in Barcelona, the port’s truck entrance is shut down, the public television and radio stations have gone to tape, and the streets are full of explosions from firecrackers. In Madrid, more than sixty have been arrested and more than thirty injured, half of those law enforcement.