By Jeremy Brecher,
LNS Research and Policy Director

This commentary maintains that the power of the powerful depends on the cooperation and acquiescence of other people. If enough of those others refuse to go along, they can undermine the “pillars of support” of those at the top. That’s why climate strikes could be powerful. For the entire Future of Climate Strikes series see here.

It was around 1500 BC. Egyptian workers at Deir el-Medina hadn’t been paid for three weeks by their notoriously corrupt supervisors. They stopped working and walked out. It may be history’s first recorded strike.

About 3,500 years later, in 2019, students began leaving their classes and publicly demonstrating once a week for protection of the climate. Eventually they were joined by millions of other people. They called their actions a student strike for climate.

A strike is narrowly defined as a work stoppage caused by a collective refusal of employees to work. But the term has been generalized to cover many other forms of collective protest and resistance. There are student strikes, rent strikes, hunger strikes, sympathy strikes, general strikes, mass strikes, political strikes, and others. What they all have in common is that a group attempts to influence their conditions and those of society by collectively withdrawing from and disrupting the normal activities of life. The climate strikes fit this broader definition.

Circa 1934, during labor strikes in Minneapolis, Minnesota, police battle with striking truck drivers. From the National Archives and Records Administration, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library (NLFDR), 4079 Albany Post Road, Hyde Park, NY, 12538-1999.

Such strikes use what I call “the power of the powerless.” Social movements and popular upheavals ranging from abolitionism to the American civil rights movement, from the Women’s Liberation Movement to Polish Solidarity, from the Latin American democratization movements to the gay rights movement have changed societies despite powerful opponents.  How can they have such effects when they are made up of people who appear — and feel — so powerless within existing institutions and when they are opposed by such massive concentrations of power?

There’s a big hint in Bertolt Brecht’s From A German War Primer:

General, your tank is a strong vehicle.

It breaks down a forest and crushes a hundred people.

But it has one fault: it needs a driver.

The power of the general, however great it may appear, depends on that driver.  More generally, those who dominate can do so only because others support or acquiesce in their domination.  It is the activity of people – going to work, paying taxes, buying products, obeying government officials, staying off private property – that continually re-creates the power of the powerful.

This dependence is captured in the labor movement anthem Solidarity Forever:

They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn

But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.

That dependence of the powerful on the apparently powerless can be parlayed into power through the formation of a social movement or collective actor, most often in the case of labor struggles a union:

We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn

That the union makes us strong.

On June 1, 1992, hundreds of drywall workers walked off construction sites, demanding a union and higher wages. Five weeks into the walkout, 149 of them were arrested after sheriff’s deputies said the men stormed a construction site in Mission Viejo, one of the largest mass arrests in Orange County. Nearly 90 of those arrested were in danger of being deported as undocumented immigrants. Acting in solidarity, the men refused a plea bargain and asked for trials. Photo Credit: Slobodan Dimitrov

After closely following the massive strikes, general strikes, street battles, peasant revolts, and military mutinies of the Russian Revolution of 1905 that forced the Czar to grant a constitution, Mohandas (not yet dubbed “Mahatma”) Gandhi concluded, “Even the most powerful cannot rule without the cooperation of the ruled.”[1]  Shortly thereafter he launched his first civil disobedience campaign, proclaiming “We too can resort to the Russian remedy against tyranny.”

The power of strikes results from dependence. If students refuse to attend classes, schools cease to function. If tenants refuse to pay their rent in a rent strike, landlords lose their source of income. Power based on dependence is particularly clear in strikes by workers. Employers depend on workers to work in order to produce whatever they hope to sell; if workers don’t work employers face a direct economic loss. Since other companies and society as a whole also depend on what workers produce, they too are affected when workers refuse to work. Climate strikes would be far more powerful if workers participated by striking at work.

In this series of commentaries we will look at the history of strikes in the wider sense to see what might be learned from them for today’s climate strikes. We will pay particular attention to how they might come to incorporate the specific power of worker strikes in the workplace.


[1] Mohandas K. Gandhi, Indian Opinion, November 11, 1905.