William Z. Foster

Published by the Trade Union Educational League


Chapter I. Strikes

STRIKES, even when small and weak, constitute breaks of the workers with capitalism. They are living refutations of the time-worn conservative trade union slogan that the interests of capital and labor are identical. They are expressions of the irreconcilable quarrel between the workers and the employers over the division of the workers’ products. They are skirmishes in the great class war, foreshadowings of the final struggle which will abolish capitalism.

During strikes, workers are in an especially militant and rebellious mood. They are then highly receptive of revolutionary ideas. It is then above all that they can and must be taught the full implications of their struggle. To rouse the class consciousness of the workers and to educate them to understand the class struggle and the historic mission of the working class is always a first consideration in strike strategy.

Strikes are of many kinds and characters. Losovsky lists 13 types, as follows : Spontaneous, organized, offensive, defensive, solidarity, intermittent, local, district, industrial, general, international, economic, political. Others might be mentioned. The character of the strikes in a given country or period is determined by the state of its capitalist system.

Three broad types of strikes are to be noted in the course of development of a capitalist system. The first is the series of desperate upheavals, animated by confused objectives, typical of countries in which capitalism is just beginning to grow, such as the Chartist movement in England, the early French strikes, the strikes in modern colonial countries; etc.

The second type is the organized craft or industrial strike, typical of the period of strong capitalist growth and development (pre-war Europe and present day United States), when the workers strike for modest demands in the vain hope of permanently improving their conditions within the framework of the capitalist system.

The third type is the revolutionary mass strike, typical of a declining capitalist system, such as the post-war strikes in Germany and the British general strike, when the workers, more or less clearly, seek to destroy the capitalist system and to set up a proletarian order of society. The first period produces semi-revolutionary unions, the second period reformist unions, and the third period revolutionary unions.


Marx says, “Every economic struggle is a political struggle.” This is profoundly true, for even the smallest strikes have their political causes and consequences. But the degree of the political character of strikes varies. Whereas strikes in the period of a declining capitalism are highly political (such as the German general strike during the Kapp Putsch), those in the present day United States, though fast taking on a political complexion, still are predominately economic.

The employers are more and more giving a political character to strikes, especially those in key industries and during crises by using all branches of their state power against the workers. Thus an imperative phase of our strike strategy must be to develop a political consciousness and activity among the workers in their struggles.

A prime objective of ours is to clarify the aims of the present scattered, blind strikes of the workers, to raise them above purely economic ends, and to unite them all into a broad political attack against the entire capitalist system. Consequently, we must fight for a break with the old capitalist parties and utilize every strike to further the movement for the creation of a mass political party of the workers, the labor party.

This course brings us into violent conflict with the conservative trade union bureaucracy, who refuse to recognize the growing political character of strikes, and to arm the workers with the necessary consciousness and political organizations for the struggle. The policy of the right wing union leaders to keep our strikes on a purely economic basis disarms the workers and is fatal to success in the struggle.

The experience in the British General strike, where the leaders stubbornly refused to recognize the political character of the strike even when the capitalists were using the whole governmental power against the workers, sufficiently signalizes this danger and the necessity for arousing the workers to conscious political action and organization.


The bitter experience of the British workers in their recent general strike raises sharply again the question of the part to be played in working class strike strategy by the general strike. The reactionaries, who flagrantly betrayed the British strike, are shouting in all keys that the general strike is useless, that it cannot be employed effectively in the struggle against capitalism.

But such reasoning is fallacious. These reformists, who are opposed on principle to directly attacking capitalism, have always rejected such a drastic weapon as the general strike and are only too eager to seize the slightest pretext to discredit it. In reality, the general strike is one of the most powerful of the workers’ weapons. But it must be used judiciously and courageously.

The first necessity for its correct use is an understanding of its full revolutionary implications. When the workers of a given country in a deep crisis, as in Great Britain, declare a general strike in all the key and basic industries it constitutes a direct challenge to the ruling class and its state. Inevitably the latter will use against it all its armed forces: the army, the police, the fascist organizations, etc.

Those at the head of the general strike must realize beforehand that the capitalists will employ these violent methods to break the strike, and they must be prepared to counter such methods by mobilizing the full political power of the workers for the struggle. Especially they must seek to win over or neutralize the army.


Woe be to the general strike if it is headed by reformist leaders who refuse to recognize its political character, or by syndicalist visionaries who believe it can be won simply by the strikers folding their arms. In either case the capitalists will tear the strike to pieces and administer a crushing defeat to the workers. The general strike is no toy. It is a revolutionary weapon of the first order.

Working class strategists, including those of the most courageous type, must learn to use the general strike judiciously. The danger when conservatives head a general strike movement is that they will first choke back its development and then betray it when it occurs in spite of them. A danger in the use of the general strike weapon by left wing leaders is that they in their eagerness to fight capitalism, will call the workers out when the latter do not understand the issues at stake or are not prepared to fight, to the end for them.

Many examples could be cited of the latter tendency. In France, for example, during the heyday of French Syndicalism (1910-14) several general strikes were called in support of trade demands of individual unions. At first the workers struck fairly well, more as a matter of discipline than anything else, but after a few experiences of this kind they became “strike-tired” and refused to respond to the periodic general strike calls, with disastrous results to the unions. The I. W. W. has made similar mistakes in this country, by calling out the workers in support of demands which they did not understand or feel keenly interested in.

Another left wing mistake is to call indeterminate general strikes when strikes for a specified term would be the proper policy. Typical examples of this error were the Seattle general strike and the national strike to free Tom Mooney. In both these cases highly successful protest or demonstration general strikes for a certain period of time could have been carried through. But the mistake was made of calling the strikes for an indefinite period, with the result that they collapsed, the workers not being interested enough to put up such sustained struggles.


A major consideration of strike strategy is the broadening out of strikes and trade unions from the traditional craft basis to that of industry. Even as the ideological conceptions of the workers must be raised from the purely economic and opportunistic to the political and revolutionary, so must their organizations and struggles be expanded.

Craft unionism and craft strikes can no longer cope with American capitalism. The workers’ fighting front must be broadened out to cover an industry or whole group of industries. Such a situation as that in the railroad shop mechanics’ strike of 1922 when nine of the sixteen railroad craft unions stayed at work _and helped to break the strike of the seven which struck, is a crime against the working class.

In the competitive state of industry the workers can and do use the craft strike effectively, at least so far as the skilled trades are concerned. But with the concentration of capital, the centralization of industry, and the elimination of skill, craft strikes become obsolete, even to protect the interests of the skilled workers. The question of organization by industry, which is emphasized by the growing demand of the unskilled unorganized for labor unions, becomes a burning necessity for skilled as well as unskilled. In American industry the craft strike is almost obsolete. It has been rendered doubly out of date -by the tremendous enriching and strengthening of the employers through the development of American imperialism.

In the clothing trades, which are still competitive, and in localized trades such as building and printing; where the fact that all or most of the work has to be done on the spot gives the unions a special advantage, the craft strike still lingers and has some effect. But even in these industries it is fast becoming useless. In the big, highly organized industries it is almost a thing of the past.

The modern, effective type of strike is the national industrial strike. Even the conservative trade union leaders are forced to recognize this at least partially and they adopt some sort of an industrial organizational front by patching up various types of federation. Recent examples of national industrial strikes are those of the steel workers in 1919, the coal miners in 1920 and 1922, and the packing house workers in 1921. Many of the railroad strikes and wage movements show the same tendency.

Such wide struggles supersede the narrow, localized strikes which were formerly the type in these industries. The tendency is to counter the growing power of the employers in all the industries by involving greater numbers of workers of the most varied trades’ and callings in single actions against the employers.

The left wing organized in and around the T. U. E. L., must intensify this broadening out tendency, which is now being checked by the reactionary trade union leaders with their program of class collaboration and no fight against the employers. An important point in our strike strategy must be the elimination of the craft strike and the development of the national industrial strike.

This requires a corresponding broadening out of the workers’ unions from a craft to an industrial basis and the mobilization of the unorganized millions into the trade unions. The realization of the’ two left wing slogans, “Amalgamation” and “Organize the Unorganized” is a vital pre-requisite for a successful strike strategy under present day conditions in the United States.