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.
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Did You Know?
The longest strike in American history lasted from 1991 to 2005, after workers at a California factory walked off the the job.
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.
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