'This Kind of Strike Is Really Something New'

Historians in the News
tags: womens history, LA Kauffman, Day Without a Woman

L.A. Kauffman may have the best-timed book release in years.

For the past quarter century, Kauffman has been researching and writing a chronicle of post-1960s protest on the American left. She has found and interviewed the participants of Mayday 1971, a forgotten D.C. blockade that triggered the largest mass arrest in U.S. history; she has identified the origins of affinity groups and consensus-based decision-making; and she has detailed the actions of ACT UP, the anti-AIDS group that she calls “the most innovative, influential, and effective radical organization of the late-20th century.”

The fruits of that labor—a concise and comprehensive book called Direct Action—came out late last month. It is her luck that it was released during the most fervent period of progressive mobilization since 1968. Many of the tactics that Kauffman details, previously on the margins, are now being deployed for the first time at a massive, nationwide scale.

Wednesday is one of those deployments. “The Day Without a Woman,” a “general strike” led by the organizers of the Women’s March on Washington, calls for American women to give up their labor at work and at home for 24 hours. I was curious: How did Kauffman understand the strike? How does it compare to other major, post-1960s actions? And how should interested Americans think about the efficacy of protest?

I spoke with Kauffman about how protest movements become popular and how she has come to think change actually happens in the United States. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Robinson Meyer: My sense is that general striking is not a tactic that has been successfully executed, really, since the 1960s in the United States. Is that right?

L.A. Kauffman: It has not. There occasionally have been calls issued by small organizations that don’t have any traction. But there really has not been something that looks anything like a general strike in decades.

I’m not really a labor historian, so I can’t answer in detail about some of the earlier attempts at broad general strikes. But those were so long ago, and so different in character from what people are talking about now, that it’s really apples and oranges. In particular, earlier general strikes were an attempt to leverage the power of labor unions and oppositional organizations, and they were met by very violent crackdowns.

The whole dynamic is very different now. The model that’s being used is the “Day Without an Immigrant” model. It’s sectoral—the framing is a “general strike,” but in fact it’s coming from a particular sector and looking to demonstrate a level of collective power through mass noncompliance. It’s an approach that people have not used as much.

People have used various tactics of mass noncompliance; they’ve used boycotts; but this kind of strike is really something new. And it’s particularly new in that it’s redefining the general strike for an era in which organized labor is not going to be front and center. It’s redefining the general strike without the sense of it being led by a labor movement. What I find so compelling about it is that it shows a level of innovation, of people stretching the limits of the question: What can we do in this moment? ...

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