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Joshua Freeman: Pandemics Can Mean Strike Waves

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, we’ve heard comparison after comparison to the Spanish flu of 1918. But, observes SLU professor Joshua Freeman in Jacobin, we rarely hear about the strikes waves that began at the same time. He writes:

It is rarely noted that the greatest burst of labor militancy in the history of the United States, the 1919 strike wave, overlapped with the worst health crisis in the country’s history, the 1918–19 influenza pandemic. Four million workers struck in 1919, one-fifth of the workforce, a proportion never since equaled.

Strikes that year were startling not only for the sheer number of workers involved but also for the way they fundamentally challenged the status quo.

Freeman describes the general strike in Seattle; the Boston policemen strike; the New York City actors and garment workers strikes; the national steel strike; the miners strike. And he makes the connection between the pandemic and the labor militancy that arose alongside it:

Oddly, connections are almost never drawn between the flu and the labor uprising. Standard accounts of the epidemic almost never mention labor, while standard accounts of labor and the strike wave have, at most, glancing references to the flu, like the use of the epidemic as an excuse to ban meetings by steelworkers.

But, he observes, this misses some clear ties — not just between labor and the flu, but between both and the wartime production effort:

Both the flu and strike wave were manifestations of the breakdown of the existing order. Imperialist rivalries brought a carnage of war unprecedented in scale. The impact of the devastation, economically, politically, and socially, bred unrest and accelerated radical challenges, culminating in the Russian Revolution and the worldwide surge of labor and the Left it inspired. Amid the chaos and disruption, the influenza virus found a happy home.

Freeman goes on to draw important lessons for workers organizing today. Learn the fascinating history and discover its lessons for the present by reading the full article at Jacobin.

Photo via Otis Historical Archives, Public Domain