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When Is It Time for a General Strike? | The Nation

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The Notion

Unfiltered takes on politics, ideas and culture from Nation editors and contributors.

When Is It Time for a General Strike?

Sometimes things fall apart and sometime they flow together.

As the Wisconsin State Senate rammed through their union-busting bill Wednesday night, people in the capitol chanted “General strike!” And I heard an echo. Not of 1934, the last time there was a general strike in the United States, but earlier.

It was 1909, in the crowded Great Hall at New York’s Cooper Union; a big union boss was talking about talks and a 16-year-old girl shouted out from the back: “WALK OUT.”

More than 30,000 shirtwaist factory workers walked off their jobs after that. This week’s International Women’s Day celebrates the anniversary of that strike, by mostly young, immigrant women like 16-year-old Clara Lemlich. Seven hundred women were arrested, many more beaten and spat on for being “on strike against God.”

They struck for eleven weeks. It was the first successful uprising of women workers in this country—but their success didn’t go far enough.

Had, it, the 1911 Triangle Factory fire that killed 146 of these workers two years later might never have happened. A documentary about the fire is available now from PBS’s website, another one’s coming from HBO. At the March 25 centennial commemoration, the names of all the dead will be read.

But fewer Americans remember the demands these women and girls made… not just for wage increases, but for the ability to have a say in the conditions of their workplace—the workplace that killed them. Those are the rights that will be taken from American workers if the Republicans’ power grab is allowed to stand.

Imagine, a century ago, if the rest of New York had stood with the women of the factories. Imagine if instead of 20,000, it had been 2 million workers marching. Or if it were to be today.

The F Word is a regular commentary by Laura Flanders, the host of GRITtv and editor of At The Tea Party, out now from OR Books. GRITtv broadcasts weekdays on DISH Network and DIRECTv, on cable, and online at GRITtv.org and TheNation.com. Follow GRITtv or GRITlaura on Twitter and be our friend on

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