Business

shirley leung

Will the Trump era make Americans strike again?

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 16: La Sirena Mexican Art and Crafts store stands closed in solidarity with the 'A Day Without Immigrants' boycott/strike, February 16, 2017 in New York City. Across the country hundreds of restaurants and eateries are closing for the day to protest President Trump's immigration agenda and to highlight the contributions of immigrants to U.S. business and life. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It’s not the American way for workers across industries to stage a one-day walkout to make a statement. General strikes are routine in Europe and Latin America. Not here.

Could that change in the Trump era?

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A small number of businesses in Boston and across the country, many of them restaurants, closed on Thursday in solidarity with foreign-born workers who stayed away to highlight their their role in our economy and community.

“A Day Without Immigrants” was a hastily organized protest that followed a series of demonstrations against President Trump’s policies. But none of these demonstrations constituted a general strike, a massive one-day action designed to bring attention to a cause or issue. The last general strike took place in 1946 in Oakland, Calif., in support of department store workers. (It didn’t end well.)

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Thursday’s protest was not without precedent: In 2006, well over 1 million people across the country participated in a one-day walkout of businesses and schools to shape immigration reform in Congress.

The momentum for the latest effort, however, seems to be building.

This week organizers announced a date for “A Day Without a Woman,” an attempt to launch a general strike scheduled for March 8. That will be followed by another “Day Without Immigrants” strike on May 1, organized by an immigrant rights group, Cosecha, and its allies. That event is expected to be more widespread than Thursday’s action and will kick off a season of other planned work stoppages.

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“This is unprecedented,” said Thomas Kochan, a work and employment professor at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “General strikes or broad strikes are not possible in the United States. We don’t have a cohesive working class or a broad-based labor movement that can mobilize across the country.”

But if anyone can pull this off, Kochan thinks it’s the organizers of “A Day Without a Woman” — a view based on their ability to galvanize several million people for the “Women’s March” held in cities across the country and overseas on Jan. 21.

Organizers have yet to release details about the March strike, but I hope it looks like what the women of Iceland did last fall to shine a spotlight on the gender wage gap.

Female workers in Iceland make at least 14 percent less than men, so women decided to work 14 percent less. On Oct. 24, women left their workplaces at 2:38 p.m. and poured into the streets chanting for their fair share, according to media and social media accounts.

It made for a powerful image and even more powerful statement. It’s one thing to protest on a Saturday on your own time. It’s quite another to leave in the middle of the workday to send a message to your bosses.

At first, I wondered if all these strikes would break down on class lines. Low-wage workers, largely immigrants, would participate in one; white-collar workers would participate in another. And in the end, you wouldn’t get the numbers to send a message.

Normally that would be the case. But not in these times. You saw people of all classes gather for the Women’s March and the pro-immigration rallies. (I suspect participation in Thursday’s demonstration was spotty only because it was pulled together quickly.)

“It’s a moment we’re in, where all the typical rules don’t entirely apply,” said Janice Fine, a professor of labor studies at Rutgers University.

The irony is that unions have lost much of their power in recent decades, but a new activism centered around issues is breathing life into the concept of workers rising up. Instead of pushing for a better contract, they want political change. Absent of another election, work stoppages become the new way to shape policy.

“Does it move from protest to something that becomes more institutionalized and organized and has a way of shaping political power and advancing interests? That remains to be seen,” said Steve Striffler, director of the Labor Resource Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “I don’t think it’s about to go away. It’s a question about what form it’s going to take.”

Still, we’re barely a month into the Trump administration, and you’ve got to wonder if demonstration fatigue will set in. After the success of the Women’s March, scientists vowed to leave their labs for the streets, too. The date: April 22 (Earth Day).

Kochan, the MIT professor, said there is such a thing as too many demonstrations. “The key is not to overdo it,” he said. “Success or failure depends on the ability not to disrupt but to bring attention to the issue.”

Perhaps Trump’s greatest legacy will be making America strike again.

Leung, a Globe columnist, can be reached at Shirley.leung@globe.com.
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