Teaching Resistance: General Strikes

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Image via The Stranger 

In honor of the general strike happening in some places today, this week’s A Day Without Immigrants, and the upcoming A Day Without A Woman, we’ve gathered some resources for teaching students a little bit about the history of the labor movement, with an emphasis on general strikes.

The Seattle General Strike Project has a wealth of information. Never heard of the Seattle General Strike? We hadn’t either. Lucky for we uninformed, the site has great background information.

The Seattle General Strike of February 1919 was the first city-wide labor action in America to be proclaimed a “general strike.” It led off a tumultuous era of post-World War I  labor conflict that saw massive strikes shut down the nation’s steel, coal, and meatpacking industries and threaten civil unrest in a dozen cities.
The strike began in  shipyards that had expanded rapidly with war production contracts. 35,000 workers expected a post-war pay hike to make up for two years of strict wage controls imposed by the federal government.
When regulators refused, the Metal Trades Council union alliance declared a strike and closed the yards. After an appeal to Seattle’s powerful Central Labor Council for help, most of the city’s 110 local unions voted to join a sympathy walkout. The Seattle General Strike lasted less than a week but the memory of that event has continued to be of interest and importance for more than 80 years.
There’s a LOT of information on this site, so here are a few things we recommend:
  • Check out Rob Rosenthal’s 1977 interviews with those who remembered the events. (This is also an excellent way to incorporate oral histories into the classroom!) Audio is available for some interviews, as are searchable transcripts.
  • For 11th grade teachers, there’s a full lesson plan on the general strike. Students role play as newspaper op-ed writers and are required to utilize first-hand accounts.
  • Photographs. Lots of them, both historical and present day.

From Documentary Lens, a lesson plan that goes along with the documentary On Strike: The Winnipeg General Strike, 1919.

This lesson is intended to foster, in Grade 11 and 12 students, a knowledge and understanding of the issues raised in the film On Strike and to promote progressive, democratic considerations around values and attitudes regarding Canadian citizenship. Cross-curricular connections include Socia l Studies, Language Arts, Political Science, Economics and History.

The activities will help students develop their inquiry, research, critical thinking, communication, and media literacy skills. Students will brainstorm current events around strike action issues; compare the rights of workers in the past and today; research and prepare a debate based on principles in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Labour Code; and write an editorial on the filmmaker’s point of view.

And finally, via the California Federation of Teachers, materials relating to the 1946 Oakland General Strike. The site provides a video excerpt from the longer film Golden Lands, Working Hands, “We Called it a Work Holiday.” There’s a lesson plan that goes along with it. Notably, it asks students to analyze three newsreel clips and the perspectives behind them.

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:
• learn the causes of the Oakland General Strike and what it achieved
• critically assess news coverage of labor issues for point-of-view bias
• analyze the significance of a general strike as a strategy for collective worker action

Video Summary

Post-war tensions are revealed by a strike of mostly women retail clerks in two down- town Oakland department stores, which expands to become the last city-wide General Strike in US history. When the video repeats a newsreel segment with alternative voiceovers, viewers learn how “news”—like history itself—is constructed from a point of view. And through the exemplary solidarity of streetcar driver Al Brown, we learn how workers can make history, too. [We also gain a unique insight into the longest run- ning farm labor dispute until the 1960ʼs, the DiGiorgio strike of 1947-1950, through the footage of a “lost film” made by Hollywood supporters of the strike.]

 

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