One of the hallmarks of the labor movement, strikes are organized events in which workers stop production and refuse to return to their jobs until their demands are met. The most popular strike demands have historically been higher wages, shorter hours or safer working conditions. Strikes have been occuring in America since the Revolutionary era, but became increasingly prevalent during the Industrial Revolution. Some of the most famous strikes in American history, like the Homestead strike or the Ludlow Massacre, ended in violence as industry owners hired armed guards to break the strikes.
Strikes have played a significant role in the economic, political, and social life of the United States throughout its history. From strikes by shoemakers, printers, bakers, and other artisans in the era of the Revolution through the bitter airline strikes two centuries later, workers repeatedly tried to defend or improve their living and working conditions by collectively refusing to work until specific demands were met.
Since the early 1880s, when reliable statistics were first compiled, American workers have struck with a frequency roughly equal to that of their peers in Europe. Strikes in the United States, however, have tended to last longer than elsewhere, with a mean duration between 1881 and 1974 of twenty days. Accordingly, the total number of workdays lost in strikes proportionate to the size of the work force has been higher in the United States than almost anywhere else in the world.
The United States also has had the bloodiest labor history of any industrial nation. The first strike fatalities were two New York tailors, killed in 1850 by police dispersing a crowd of strikers. Since then, according to one estimate, well over seven hundred people--mostly strikers--have died in strike-related violence, and the total may be much higher. Some died in famous incidents, such as the 1913 Ludlow Massacre, when National Guardsmen attacked a tent colony of striking Colorado miners, or the 1937 Memorial Day Massacre, when ten supporters of a steel strike were killed by Chicago police. Most, however, died in little-noted confrontations with company guards, private detectives, scabs, or police.
Although wage disputes have been the single most common cause of strikes, workers have walked off their jobs for many reasons, including efforts to win union recognition, shorten the workday, gain or defend control over the work process, improve working conditions, and protest the disciplining of unionists. Strikes have been called to exclude nonwhites or women from jobs and, more rarely, to protest racial discrimination. Unlike elsewhere, political strikes over non-work-related issues have been uncommon.
Strikes have played a major role in both the rise and fall of unions (though many have occurred without union involvement). Often strikes have stimulated the formation of new unions or union federations. The first citywide labor federations, formed in the 1820s and 1830s, grew out of strikes by artisans seeking to shorten their workday. Over a century later, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (cio) was indirectly an outgrowth of a wave of strikes by industrial workers. Conversely, failed strikes have destroyed many unions. The American Railway Union, for example, was unable to survive the defeat of its 1894 strike against the Pullman Car Company. More recently, the mass firing of striking air traffic controllers by the Reagan administration led to the demise of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization.
American strikes have tended to come in waves, usually linked to the business cycle. Their frequency usually has risen whenever unemployment has been low. Unions have been strongest during such periods and workers less fearful about losing their jobs. Many of the bitterest strikes, though, occurred at the beginning of economic downturns, when companies slashed wages. Political and legal developments also have influenced the pattern of work stoppages. For instance, the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933 stimulated a wave of strikes, as workers sensed a new sympathy for unionism on the part of the federal government.
The first American strikes, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, were conducted by journeymen artisans, such as shoemakers, printers, and carpenters, often acting through local trade societies. Typically these "turn-outs" or "stand-outs" began when a group of workers decided on a scale of "prices" for their labor, pledging not to work for any employer paying less. Walkouts were almost always peaceful, since strikers simply stayed home until they could find a job paying the agreed-upon wages. Usually if within a few days employers did not meet the proposed prices, the strike collapsed.
Strikes by the early trade societies were effective because the supply of skilled workers within local labor markets was limited. Employers tried to counteract these stoppages through the courts. Starting in 1806 a series of criminal conspiracy cases was brought against workers for combining to raise wages and injure others (by refusing to work with nonunionists). These successful prosecutions inhibited the spread of strikes and trade societies, which were then dealt a devastating blow by the depression of 1819.
An economic upturn in the 1820s revived strike activity. Male artisans, and less commonly laborers, conducted most of the walkouts, but, unlike the earlier period, female craft workers and factory operatives of both sexes also struck. Most strikes were about wages or working hours. Out of them arose local federations of craft unions, and ultimately the Working Men's parties that for a while shifted the focus of the labor movement from strike action to electoral politics.
The failure of the Working Men's parties and a drop in the standard of living led to a larger wave of strikes during the 1830s. In Philadelphia sixteen trade societies simultaneously struck, demanding the ten-hour day. In New York strikes brought on another round of conspiracy prosecutions. An economic downturn in 1837, however, led to a near-total collapse of the union movement, and it did not reemerge until the 1850s, when there was a brief but intense renewal of strike activity. In 1853 and 1854 alone there were some four hundred strikes. In 1860 came the largest to date, a six-week walkout of over ten thousand shoe workers on the North Shore of Massachusetts.
After the Civil War the labor movement grew rapidly, as did the volume of strikes. But with improvements in transportation and the growing size of cities, unions found it difficult to prevent employers from recruiting scabs, leading to both strike defeats and violence. To avoid strikes many unions abandoned the system of unilaterally establishing wage scales and working hours, embracing instead "arbitration," the negotiation with employers of wages, work rules, and grievances. Written contracts became more common, and many unions transferred the power to call strikes from the rank and file to elected officers. The Knights of Labor, the most important nineteenth-century labor organization, generally disapproved of strikes, and some unions rejected them altogether.
In spite of the union retreat from the strike weapon, the 1870s saw a series of strikes of unprecedented size, violence, and national impact. Amid a severe depression that began in 1873, workers waged long, bitter strikes to resist wage cuts in the New England textile industry, the anthracite coal mines, and on the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1877 the first nationwide strike paralyzed railroads throughout the East and Midwest, idled some 100,000 workers, led to over a hundred deaths, and terrified the propertied classes. The strike began in West Virginia as a spontaneous protest by Baltimore and Ohio trainmen against a series of pay cuts. As it spread to Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and St. Louis, it became a vast demonstration against the railroads and their allies; the railroad men were joined by farmers, coal miners, craft workers, and the unemployed in efforts to stop rail traffic. When local militiamen refused to attack strikers, state and federal troops from other regions were brought in, leading to massive clashes. The strike was defeated, but it had been, in the eyes of many, the American equivalent of the Paris Commune.
In the mid-1880s, as the economy underwent a modest recovery, the number of strikes soared, tripling from under five hundred a year in the early 1880s to some fifteen hundred in 1886. Well over half a million workers struck that year, and the volume of strikes remained high for the next decade. During this period over half of all strikers were in the coal, construction, or garment industries. Wages, working hours, union recognition, and work rules were the most important issues, and many strikes--over a third in the 1880s--were not initiated by unions. In the early 1890s sympathy strikes accounted for about 10 percent of all walkouts.
Employers unreconciled to unionism increasingly sought and received government assistance in defeating strikes. Between 1875 and 1910 state troops were called out nearly five hundred times to deal with labor unrest. In 1892, for example, after armed strikers at Andrew Carnegie's Homestead, Pennsylvania, steel mill repulsed an attack by Pinkerton guards, eight thousand state troops were sent to the town, leading to the defeat of the strike. When state authorities were unable or unwilling to provide troops, the U.S. Army was used, as occurred during the 1894 Pullman strike and a series of metal mining strikes in the Rocky Mountain region. State and federal court injunctions were also used frequently and effectively against strikers.
Although workers won roughly half of all strikes in the 1880s and 1890s, many leaders of craft unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (afl) questioned their efficacy. In the early twentieth century, to avoid or settle strikes, many unions turned to private mediation groups or, after 1914, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. Nonetheless, after a brief respite the volume of strikes rose sharply in the years just before World War I. Notable during this period was the increased number of female, unskilled, and immigrant strikers, evident in the Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile strike, several exceptionally bloody transit strikes, and a series of large garment strikes. In these and other contests, unions introduced new tactics, including mass picket lines, multilingual strike committees, and sophisticated public relations.
During World War I the afl pledged to avoid strikes, but their volume nonetheless continued to rise as workers took advantage of a labor shortage to seek higher wages, union recognition, and control over the work process. The strike wave peaked in 1919, when workers sought to consolidate and extend their wartime gains and employers sought to reverse them. That year 4 million workers, one-fifth of the work force, went on strike, a higher proportion of workers than in any other year in the nation's history. In Boston policemen struck; in New York, garment workers and actors; in New England, textile workers and telephone operators; and in Seattle a general strike paralyzed the city for five days. Late in the year 400,000 coal miners walked off their jobs in defiance of a federal court injunction, winning a large wage increase. In the steel industry a strike by over 300,000 workers was defeated, dooming organizing efforts in the oligarchic basic industries for another fifteen years. Although the volume of strikes remained high through 1922, labor's postwar offensive was checked by government repression, a red scare that equated labor militancy with foreign radicalism, and a short but sharp economic downturn in 1921. By 1923 the number of strikers had declined dramatically, as had the number of unionists. Strike volume remained low for the rest of the decade and fell further during the early years of the Great Depression.
The revival and vast expansion of the union movement in the 1930s was closely linked to a new burst of strikes. The beginning of the New Deal, coming after four years of depression, sparked rising worker militancy. In 1934 striking Toledo auto workers, Minneapolis truckers, and West Coast longshoremen won important concessions after surviving police and vigilante attacks, although massive violence crushed a walkout of East Coast textile workers. These strikes helped stimulate in 1935 the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (nlra) and the formation of the Committee for Industrial Organization (which became the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1938). The key test for the cio came in 1937, a six-week strike against General Motors. During the conflict thousands of strikers remained inside the company's plants. The success of the strike gave an enormous impetus to industrial unionism and spawned a wave of more sit-down strikes. Half a million workers took part in sit-downs before they were declared illegal by the Supreme Court in 1939. The overall volume of strikes remained very high until the United States entered World War II, as unions penetrated such previously unorganized industries as auto, steel, rubber, electrical equipment manufacturing, meat packing, and over-the-road trucking.
During World War II virtually all unions pledged not to strike, but despite this and government sanctions against striking, walkouts were frequent. Typically, they were small, short, and not union-initiated. Exceptional was a series of very large, union-led coal strikes. When the war ended, unions and employers jockeyed to maximize their power in postwar collective bargaining. As a result, in 1946 more workers went on strike and more workdays were lost than in any other year. Some strikes were very long, but in sharp contrast to the prewar years, most were peaceful. The nlra was in part responsible: employers were now legally obligated to bargain with unions that could demonstrate majority worker support, and strikers were given legal protection. As labor relations became routinized during the 1950s, the volume of strikes dropped sharply, with unions almost always involved in those that did occur.
A large number of public employee strikes --previously very unusual--contributed to an increase in strike activity during the 1960s. Most public-sector strikes involved local government employees, such as teachers or transit workers, but the largest public employee walkout in the nation's history was a 1970 wildcat strike of 180,000 postal workers.
Strike volume decreased during the 1970s and remained low during the 1980s. A severe recession, a conservative political climate, and declining union membership all contributed to this development. For the first time since World War II, it became not unusual for struck companies to attempt to resume operations using scab workers. The defeat of hard-fought strikes in the intercity bus, copper-mining, meat-packing, and airline industries convinced some observers that strikes were a thing of the past. Given their historically cyclical pattern and the lack of well-developed alternatives, however, it seemed unlikely that strikes would lose their central role in American labor relations in the future.
P. K. Edwards, Strikes in the United States, 1881-1974 (1981); Richard B. Morris, ed., The U.S. Department of Labor Bicentennial History of the American Worker (1976).
JOSHUA B. FREEMAN
The Reader's Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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