views updated May 14 2018


STRIKES. A strike is an organized collective work stoppage undertaken by employees to pressure their employer or employers into meeting their demands. A strike differs from a lockout, which is a cessation of work that occurs when an employer precludes employees from taking up their work posts. During the twentieth century, most strikes were organized through labor unions. Although the possibility of striking enhances the bargaining power of unions, strikes are a tool of last resort for workers. Strikes are called only when the demands or claims of labor remain unresolved in the collective bargaining process and in grievance procedures.

Workers rarely strike over a single issue. Nonetheless, strikes can be categorized according to the primary goal that striking workers seek to achieve. In an "organizing strike," union workers seek an employer's recognition of the union as the representative of the workers. In an "economic strike," workers seek to obtain higher wages, reduced working hours, or more extensive benefits. "Grievance strikes" erupt when employers have failed to meet contract terms, or when employers and unions do not agree on the interpretation of a contract. Other types of strikes include "general strikes," which are organized across industries and plants; "wildcat strikes," which are not authorized by the strikers' union, or which take place despite a no-strike clause on a particular issue; and "sympathy strikes," in which workers strike in support of other striking workers rather than to advance their own claims.

Historically, many of the earliest (1850–1900) and most violent strikes in the United States were "organizing strikes," waged primarily to obtain union recognition. Without such recognition, these strikes were considered illegal and often were enjoined by courts.

Between 1900 and 1925, the government softened its antilabor stance to a more neutral position. The need for "organizing strikes" was largely obviated between 1925 and 1959 when legislation and court rulings provided mechanisms for unions to be established and to obtain

recognition from employers, bringing bargaining power parity between labor and management. From 1960 to 1980, strikes by government employees gave rise to legislation and executive orders that continue to govern public sector strikes. In the 1980s, several strikes were defeated when employers hired permanent replacement workers. These defeats, along with the mixed success of other strikes, raised questions about the continuing efficacy of strikes, some of which remain unanswered.

Strike Activity and Court Rulings Before 1850

Philadelphia was not only the birthplace of American liberty, but also the cradle of American labor activism. In 1786, Philadelphia's employing printers collectively attempted to reduce the wages of skilled print craftsmen to $5.83 per week. In response, on 31 May 1786, twenty-six Philadelphia craftsmen jointly resolved to "not engage to work for any printing establishment in this city or county under the sum of $6.00 per week," and to "support such of our brethren as shall be thrown out of employment on account of their refusing to work for less than $6.00 per week." Standing by their resolution, these craftsmen waged what was probably the new nation's first labor strike, successfully procuring a $6-per-week minimum wage for skilled printers citywide.

Philadelphia was also the site of an early, influential court case that constricted the permissible scope of collective action by laborers. In Commonwealth v. Pullis (1806), shoemakers associated with Philadelphia's Society of Journeymen Cordwainers were convicted of criminal conspiracy after striking for higher wages. These convictions apparently did not chill further labor strikes in Philadelphia. In 1835, several unions simultaneously staged a walkout in one of the nation's first "general strikes."

Following the Philadelphia court's lead, New York courts in 1809 and 1835 characterized both labor strikes and labor unions as unlawful conspiracies designed to injure employers or their businesses. Most other states followed suit. One notable exception was Massachusetts, whose Supreme Court ruled in Commonwealth v. Hunt (1842) that strikes in and of themselves were not criminal conspiracies.

1850–1900: Violence and Suppression

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most labor strikes were undertaken in violation of contemporary laws. Consequently, strikers often clashed violently with law enforcement officials.

In 1886, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie published a popular essay defending workers' right to organize into unions. In 1892, however, Carnegie's pro-worker image was forever tarnished when he authorized the use of violence against striking and locked-out workers at his steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania. The "Homestead Strike" (which began as a lockout) left many dead and wounded, and set back the labor movement considerably.

The Homestead Strike arose following a downturn in steel price (from $35 to $22 per ton). Carnegie's Homestead plant manager Henry C. Frick, with Carnegie's blessing, locked out 1,100 steelworkers in an effort to cut wages and rid the plant of union labor. After implementing the lockout, Frick announced he would no longer negotiate with the workers' union, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. In response, although only 750 of the 3,800 workers at Homestead belonged to the union, 3,000 of them met and voted overwhelmingly to strike.

To penetrate the threatening picket lines that had formed around the closed-up plant, Frick retained a large, armed cadre of Pinkerton Detective agents. When the Pinkerton agents approached the plant, however, an armed confrontation ensued. After a twelve-hour clash that left three Pinkertons and nine workers dead, the Pinkertons surrendered. Many of the Pinkertons were then beaten by the victorious workers, and twenty were severely injured. The state militia was called in, and replacement workers took up the striking men's positions. Four months after the Homestead Strike was declared, it was broken. Strike leaders and about 160 other strikers were arrested and charged with treason. Although juries refused to convict any of the strikers, all were fired and blacklisted. Many of the remaining strikers did return to work, but the effect of these events was to evict unions from Homestead and to limit unions among steelworkers throughout the Pittsburgh area.

One year later, another failed strike dealt another setback to organized labor. Employees of the Pullman Company, which made railroad sleeping cars, were required to live in company-owned housing in the company town of Pullman, Illinois, near Chicago. In 1893, Pullman laid off workers and reduced wages, without reducing housing rents for remaining workers. In response, the Pullman workers struck, demanding lower rents and higher wages. Urged by the American Railway Union (ARU) and its president, Eugene V. Debs, railway workers nationwide boycotted trains carrying Pullman cars, including trains carrying U.S. mail. Declaring the strike a federal crime, President Grover Cleveland sent 12,000 troops to Pullman to break the strike.

On 3 August 1894, the Pullman Strike was broken. Debs was imprisoned, the ARU was disbanded, and Pullman employees signed a pledge never to unionize again. In 1895, the U.S. Supreme Court in re Debs, 158 U.S. 564, affirmed Debs's conviction for conspiring to obstruct interstate commerce. The Court's opinion also sustained the power of lower courts to order striking workers to return to work.

1900–1925: Government Neutrality

In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt became the first U.S. president to intervene personally to resolve a labor dispute. In May, 150,000 anthracite coal miners in Pennsylvania struck, seeking higher wages, shorter workdays, improved coal weighing processes, and recognition of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) as the representative of the workers. At that time anthracite coal was one of the nation's most important industrial and home heating energy sources. Thus, a winter fuel shortage threatened if the strike could not be resolved.

On 3 October, President Roosevelt personally urged miners and mine operators to settle their dispute. John Mitchell, president of UMWA, agreed to meet with mine operators, but the operators refused to meet with the union. After threatening to send in military forces to operate the mines, President Roosevelt instead established the Anthracite Coal Strike Commission to arbitrate a settlement. These events marked the first time the U.S. government worked to settle, rather than break, a strike.

On 23 October, the striking miners returned to work. In November, the new government commission commenced public hearings in Scranton and Philadelphia. In March 1903, the commission awarded the miners a ten-percent wage increase, a nine-hour workday, and a neutral board for resolving operator-worker disputes. Although the UMWA was never recognized by the mine operators, miners continued to organize through the UMWA.

A decade later, Congress codified Theodore Roosevelt's policy of neutrality in the 1914 Clayton Antitrust Act. That act declared that labor was not an article of commerce or a commodity, and that combinations of workers were not conspiracies in restraint of trade. These provisions were designed to ensure that the federal government would remain neutral when faced with private sector labor-management disputes.

Government neutrality toward private sector labormanagement disputes did not extend to public sector disputes. One such dispute arose in 1919, when Boston Police Commissioner Edwin U. Curtis refused to negotiate with the Boston Social Club, a police fraternal organization, over the hours, wages, and working conditions of

Boston police officers. In August 1919, the Social Club applied to the American Federation of Labor to become a full-fledged union. Social Club members soon learned, however, that Commissioner Curtis had amended the Department's rules to prohibit police officers from forming virtually any outside organization. Curtis had also recruited a volunteer police force in anticipation of a strike.

This rule change precipitated a police strike, with three-quarters of the regular force walking out. Disorder ensued. The Massachusetts State Guard was deployed, and several fatalities resulted from subsequent violence. In response, Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge famously proclaimed that "there is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime." Facing public disapproval and rigid opposition from Governor Coolidge and Commissioner Curtis, the Boston police strike was broken. None of the striking policemen were rehired.

1925–1946: Congressional Attempts to Equalize Labor-Management Bargaining Power

During the second quarter of the twentieth century, for the first time in American history, the U.S. Congress championed organized labor. Rather than reflexively supporting management (as in the nineteenth century), or remaining neutral (as in the early twentieth century), Congress sought to use the power and prestige of the federal government to elevate the bargaining power of organized labor to parity with that of management. To do so, it enacted laws that regulated management activities such as lockouts and injunctions, while also regulating labor activities such as strikes and picketing.

The Railway Labor Act of 1926 (RLA) was the first federal statute to require employers to recognize and bargain with labor unions. Specifically, the RLA required railroad companies engaged in interstate commerce to bargain collectively with employee-designated representatives. Subsequently, the RLA was expanded to cover other transportation industries, including airlines and bus lines. In 1932, the Norris-LaGuardia Act provided additional protections for organized labor activity by limiting the power of federal courts to issue injunctions prohibiting certain strikes, pickets, or boycotts.

During Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency, Congress greatly expanded the scope of legal protection afforded labor organization and strike activity. The most important New Deal labor statute, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (Wagner Act), guaranteed to most nonagricultural private sector employees not covered by the 1926 RLA the rights to organize, to bargain collectively, and to strike. The Wagner Act prohibited both employers and unions from engaging in certain specified unfair labor practices, and obliged both sides to engage in good faith collective bargaining. In addition, the Wagner Act established the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a permanent, independent federal agency charged with enforcing the Wagner Act and mediating labor-management disputes. The NLRB was also charged with resolving disputes between competing labor organizations over the right to represent particular groups of employees. The following year, Congress further protected labor activity by enacting the Byrnes (or Strikebreakers) Act of 1936, which protected workers engaged in picketing, labor organizing, or collective bargaining against threats or actual uses of force or violence.

1946–1959: Congress Seeks to Check Labor's Power

In 1939, two years before the United States entered World War II, every major American labor organization except for the UMWA took—and honored—a pledge not to strike for the duration of the war. This pledge expired with the end of the war in 1945. A tidal wave of strikes followed, making 1946 the most strike-torn year America had faced. In that year, strikes were called by the United Auto Workers and by unions representing steel, rubber, meatpacking, oil refining, and electrical appliance workers. In addition, the cities of Pittsburgh, Oakland, and Rochester (New York) faced general strikes.

The disruptions caused by these strikes led Congress to enact, over President Truman's veto, the Labor-Management Relations (Taft-Hartley) Act of 1947. Taft-Hartley placed new and substantial limits and qualifications on organized labor's legal right to strike or engage in other coercive activity. Under the act, unions were required to provide a 60-day no-strike notice period before canceling a collective bargaining agreement. During this period, the government could order further delay, or even an outright aversion, of the proposed strike, by declaring a "national emergency." Taft-Hartley flatly prohibited government employees from striking, and nullified certain parts of the 1932 Norris-LaGuardia Act by allowing courts to enjoin certain specified unfair labor practices. Finally, Taft-Hartley prohibited "jurisdictional strikes"—that is, disputes between unions to determine which union should represent particular workers.

A decade later, Congress reacted to allegations of linkages between organized labor and organized crime by enacting the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (Landrum-Griffin Act), which sought to "clean up" and democratize labor unions. The Landrum-Griffin Act required unions to allow their members to vote on decisions to call or terminate strikes, to raise dues, and to select officers. In cases where more than one union sought to represent a particular group of workers, Landrum-Griffin mandated that the union receiving the most votes would serve as the exclusive employee representative.

The labor laws developed during the 1920s and 1930s, as modified in the 1940s and 1950s, created mechanisms to establish unions and obtain recognition from private employers. By establishing such mechanisms, these laws played a key role in reducing the incidence of economic disruption and violence previously associated with labormanagement clashes.

1960–1980: Public Sector Unionism

Before 1960, government employees shared few of the benefits of labor organization enjoyed by their private sector counterparts. Many public sector positions were considered to provide essential services that could not be disrupted without endangering the public. Based on this reasoning, the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act prohibited public sector strikes and imposed harsh penalties on striking federal employees: immediate dismissal and a three-year bar to reemployment. In 1947, eight states, including New York, enacted similar legislative strike prohibitions for their state and local public employees.

In 1962, however, President John F. Kennedy issued an Executive Order that encouraged union representation and collective bargaining on behalf of federal employees, and authorized the use of limited advisory arbitration of employee grievances. Consequently, federal employees joined unions in large numbers during the 1960s. State and local government employees, including many schoolteachers, followed suit.

Although federal employees and most state and local employees are prohibited by law from striking, such laws have not always prevented public sector strikes from occurring. Nor have these laws always been enforced. In January 1966, New York City's transit workers struck for two weeks, shutting down the world's largest subway system and creating monumental traffic jams across the city's five boroughs. Rather than invoking the state law that prohibited public sector strikes, however, the New York State legislature passed special legislation exempting transit workers from the statutory penalties. In 1967, New York created a new process for resolving stalemates in the public sector collective bargaining process aimed at heading off public sector strikes before they occurred.

Perhaps influenced by New York's approach, the federal government adopted measures to improve its own collective bargaining process to prevent its employees from striking. In 1969, President Nixon ordered that disputes concerning the terms and conditions of federal employment that remained unresolved in the collective bargaining process would be referred to a neutral arbitrator, whose decision would bind all parties. The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 substantially codified the approach taken in President Nixon's 1969 executive order, creating a new independent Federal Labor Relation Authority (FLRA) to serve as arbitrator.

The 1978 act was intended to avoid creating the conditions that might lead federal employees to strike, by providing fair and orderly procedures for resolving impasses in the collective bargaining process. Nonetheless, in 1981, just three years after the 1978 act, almost 13,000 federally employed professional air traffic controllers (PATCOs) struck, seeking higher pay and reduced working hours. Within 48 hours, President Reagan fired every one of the 11,350 PATCOs who did not heed his order to return to work, and declared a lifetime ban against their rehiring. The government's success in recruiting and retaining replacement PATCOs without substantially disrupting the nation's commercial air traffic inspired some private sector employers to make similar use of replacement workers when confronted with strikes. Consequently, strikes and the threat of strike by unions lost substantial ability to impact negotiations with both private and public sector employers.

1980s–Early 2000s: Whither Strikes?

Soon after President Reagan defeated the PATCO strike, the Supreme Court dealt organized labor an additional blow when it ruled in 1983 that a replacement worker hired during a strike had a right to retain the striking worker's job after the strike was settled. Two years later, the Court in Pattern Makers' League of North America, AFL-CIO v. National Labor Relations Board, 473 U.S. 95, ruled that union members could resign from their unions at any time, without notice. This ruling left a striking union without recourse if a member resigned and crossed a picket line to return to work.

Despite these setbacks to organized labor, however, several major strikes occurred in the 1990s. In 1990, following eight years of annual pay cuts, 6,300 Greyhound bus drivers began a bitter three-year strike marred by shootings, beatings, and threats of violence from both sides. The Greyhound strike ended in 1993, when the drivers accepted Greyhound's offer of a 20-percent wage increase over six years, plus $22 million in back pay.

In summer 1996, the United Auto Workers struck General Motors Corporation over the issues of excessive overtime and outsourcing of jobs. After being forced to briefly shut down most of its manufacturing plants nationwide, General Motors ended the strike by meeting the lion's share of the union's demands.

Although strikes most often are waged by unions representing middle-income workers, some of the nation's highest-paid employees—professional athletes—struck during the 1980s and 1990s. In both 1982 and 1987, the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) struck, seeking free agency and a higher salary scale for professional football players. Both times, the players quickly returned to work without achieving their strike objectives. In 1993, however, without waging another strike, NFLPA secured both free agency and substantially higher salaries for its members through a collective bargaining agreement negotiated with the National Football League.

In professional ice hockey, team owners locked out players for half the 1994–1995 season in a dispute over salary cap and free agency rules. The National Basketball Association also lost a third of its 1998–1999 season when the league locked out its players in a bid to renegotiate league salary cap rules. Both lockouts were ultimately resolved by compromise negotiations.

In 1994, professional baseball players struck for the entire season when team owners sought to impose a league-wide salary cap. Because of the strike, the World Series was canceled in 1994 for the first time since 1904. Although the players returned to work the following season, the salary cap issue remained unresolved.

Despite the scope and the success of some strikes during the 1990s, strikes are waning as a tool of organized labor. In 2001, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the number of idle days, and the percent of working time lost because of strikes and lockouts, had both reached historic lows.


Dunlop, John T., and Neil W. Chamberlain, eds. Frontiers of Collective Bargaining. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.

Freeman, Joshua B. In Transit: The Transport Workers Union in New York City, 1933–1966. 2d ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.

Ross, Arthur M., and Paul T. Hartman. Changing Patterns of Industrial Conflict. New York: Wiley, 1960.

Steinfeld, Robert J. "The Philadelphia Cordwainers' Case of 1806: The Struggle over Alternative Legal Constructions of a Free Market in Labor." In Labor Law in America: Historical and Critical Essays. Edited by Christopher L. Tomlins and Andrew J. King. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Home page at

Zieger, Robert H. American Workers, American Unions. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1994.


See alsoTaft-Hartley Act ; andvol. 9:The Pullman Strike and Boycott .


views updated May 21 2018


labor protest in the early nineteenth century
industrial transformation, mass politics, and the strike

The strike, the collective withholding of labor in pursuit of specific economic or political goals, became the most pervasive form of labor protest in nineteenth-century Europe. It derived its centrality from capitalist transformations in the nature of work and labor relations and the emergence of new political and legal frameworks for workplace bargaining and negotiation. The strike evolved after the early nineteenth century in complex relations with other forms of worker protest and organizations, especially trade unions and workers' political parties. From the 1860s to 1914, Europe witnessed unprecedented rates of industrial militancy in which the strike proved to be the principal means of interest articulation for wage earners in urban manufacturing and rural production: it became the most effective means of securing higher wages, defending workplace autonomies and skills, redressing perceived indignities suffered at the hands of factory foremen or company owners, and securing basic civil and political rights.

labor protest in the early nineteenth century

If understood strictly in terms of temporary work stoppages designed to force concessions from employers, strikes were not new to the nineteenth century. Rather, what was new was that strikes became distinct from other forms of popular protest during this period and evolved into a new form of industrial action and the most common means of worker self-assertion by the end of the century. As historians have shown, popular protest took many forms before the nineteenth century: food riots, tax revolts, resistance against conscription, battles over the rights to the forest and its resources, religious rebellions and pogroms, and charivaris, customs involving the collective "shaming" of someone deemed in violation of local moral or sexual codes. These protests tended to be local, temporary, hastily organized or spontaneous actions, often involving physical violence, and they drew upon the participation of men and women (and often children) and socially heterogeneous groups from the lower ranks of society. The most closely related form of labor action in the early nineteenth century was machine-breaking. From 1811 to 1816, textile workers in the hosiery and lace industries of the East Midlands, the woolen industry of the West Riding in Yorkshire, and the cotton industry of southern Lancashire and northern Cheshire began to destroy shearing machines, gig-mills, and power looms in order to protest declining wages and unemployment. Similar actions also took place in France: in Vienne in 1819, in Saint Étienne in 1830, and in Paris, Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Saint Étienne in 1831; and in the German states: in Solingen in 1826, in Krefeld in 1828, in Saxony in the 1830s, and during the massive Silesian weavers' rebellion in 1844. Machine-breaking also entered the English countryside during the "Captain Swing" rebellion of 1830, when agricultural workers in the South East, Hampshire and the West Country, the Midlands, and East Anglia protested declining wages by threatening landowners and local public officials and destroying threshing machines. Indeed, many early nineteenth-century strikes, particularly among textile workers, took on several aspects of these forms of protest: in France, for example, they usually involved sudden work stoppages, followed by the formation of a crowd outside the workshop or factory, marches from factory to factory in order to recruit other workers from the same industry, street demonstrations, often to the accompaniment of drums and flags, and sometimes window breaking at offending workshops. Generally these protests, which served as public demonstrations of outrage and discontent, ended either with arrests by local authorities or the return of workers to the factory. By contrast, other workers, especially artisans, engaged in activity that bore the marks of the later nineteenth-century strike: the preplanned and calculated withdrawal of labor, often involving workers' organizations, in order to pressure employers for specific economic gains: higher wages, improved working conditions, shorter working hours, changes in hiring practices, and regulations over the trades. The turn to this form of protest was already visible in Britain in the 1820s, in France in the 1830s and 1840s, and in the German states in the late 1840s.

Historians once commonly explained this process as a transition from "preindustrial" to "modern" forms of labor protest. According to this perspective, the adoption of the calculated strike, supported by trade unions, was part of a "learning process" by which workers embraced more "rational" forms of interest articulation commensurate with "modern" changes in the manufacturing process and industrial bargaining. This kind of "modernization" approach has been challenged in a number of ways. Social historians have demonstrated the ways in which popular protest before and during the first half of the nineteenth century, including machine breaking, involved complex interactions between crowds and authorities and negotiations over basic questions of fairness and morality and thus constituted entirely "rational" responses to dearth, high prices, unemployment, and declining livelihoods. In addition, they have pointed not only to the persistence of these forms of protests, especially subsistence and food riots, well into the twentieth century; they have also demonstrated the conjunctural specificities, rather than historical continuities, of mass direct actions. Finally, labor historians have emphasized the ways in which the organized strike emerged alongside and often in conjunction with other forms of spontaneous direct action taken by workers. Understanding the growing centrality of the "modern" strike as a form of labor protest, therefore, requires thinking about its historically contingent economic and political conditions of emergence and possibility in the nineteenth century and what made it the preferred form of industrial action.

In this regard, it is important to note two critical changes of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: the transition to capitalist markets in goods and labor and new divisions of labor and schemes of subcontracting; and the general reconfiguration of the political and legal frameworks by which labor relations were governed. The latter involved the dismantling of the manufacturing guilds and manorial systems, the banning of artisans' organizations, and the legal recodification of labor relations as strictly economic matters between individual wage earners and employers. This explains both the economic and political aims, necessitated by state involvement in instituting economic changes, of strikes in the early nineteenth century. On the one hand, strikes in Britain and France from the 1810s to the 1840s were aimed at securing workplace gains. On the other, many strikes evolved into wider political mobilizations seeking state intervention into the economy to curb unbridled competition and the degradation of the trades as well as political change in the direction of popular sovereignty. This applies as much to the strikes of French workers from the 1830s to 1848, which advanced the cause of republican socialism, as it does to the first nationwide strike of the nineteenth century: the 1842 general strike in Britain. The latter, which was centered in Lancashire but extended to the industrial regions of Scotland and Wales, involved five hundred thousand workers calling for "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work" and for the fulfillment of the demands for democratic reform and the requirement of "liberty" contained in the People's Charter.

industrial transformation, mass politics, and the strike

Past explanations for the subsequent rise of the strike as the foremost industrial action in late nineteenth-century Europe, which rested on theories of working-class misery or deprivation, social dislocation associated with rural inhabitants being thrust into an urban context, and the more or less straightforward responses of workers to cyclical changes in the economy, have largely been abandoned. Most historians now explain the preeminence of the strike in terms of a combination of factors, including transformations in the industrial economy, the evolving social-structural conditions of residence and community, and the rise of workers' organizations and mass politics toward the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed, the second half of the nineteenth century was marked by the dramatic expansion of strike activity that can be analyzed in two distinct phases: a first phase from the 1860s to the 1880s and a second phase from 1890 to 1914. The transition from the first to the second phases was marked by the increasing organization and standardization of the strike as a form of industrial and political action. But this transformation is best understood not in terms of inevitable learning processes or entailed and "more rational" responses to economic changes but in terms of contingent social struggles over the conditions of work and the political relations which sustained them in the late nineteenth century.

After the collapse of the revolutions and mobilizations of 1848 and the general period of conservative repression in the 1850s, labor militancy rose exponentially toward the end of the 1860s. In addition to the sudden expansion of capitalist economies, this period brought new laws permitting the formation of workers' organizations and, in some cases, guaranteeing the right to strike: this happened, for example, in France in 1864, in Germany in 1869, in Spain in 1868, and in the Netherlands in 1872. The result was a dramatic increase in the number of strikes in a favorable economic conjuncture from the late 1860s to the early 1870s. In Britain, the number of strikes jumped from 30 in 1870 to 343 in 1872; in France, they increased from 72 in 1869 to 151 in 1872; and in Germany, they rose from 98 in 1869 to 223 in 1873. Indeed, the period from 1868 to 1873 witnessed the first transnational strike wave involving thousands of workers across industrializing Europe. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of this early phase of labor militancy was the complex relationship between strike activity and workers' organizations, namely the skilled craft unions forming during this period. Many of the strikes, especially in the 1870s, involved unorganized workers. In France, for example, of the 1,695 documented strikes from 1870 to 1890, some 51 percent were not planned in advance, 41 percent were launched by nonunionized workers and usually led by elected strike committees; and fully 82 percent of the sudden strikes were led by women workers, who were systematically excluded from formal organizations. In Britain, most of the strikes in the 1870s were also led by unorganized workers; here the strike became an effective recruiting mechanism for the unions: membership in the Trades Union Congress grew from about 250,000 to 1.2 million from 1870 to 1874 as a result of the strikes.

This relationship between trade unions and strikes, in which strikes encouraged union membership, was also visible during the second phase of strike activity from the late 1880s to 1914, when industrial transformation and mass union and working-class political mobilization altered the conditions and scope of strike activity. This era was marked by the unprecedented increase in the scale of labor militancy and the frequency of strikes. Britain was buffeted by two massive waves of industrial militancy, from 1889 to 1890, when the great London dock strike of 1889 was accompanied by some 2,400 strikes, and from 1911 to 1913, when British workers launched a staggering 3,165 strikes, resulting in a total of sixty million workdays lost. In Germany, the massive miners' strikes in the Ruhr in 1889–1890 began a steady increase in the number of strikes, from less than two hundred per year to over twenty-five hundred per year from 1900 to 1914. France experienced sudden increases in 1890 and 1899–1900, after which strikes peaked in 1906; overall, the frequency of French strikes increased by four times between 1885–1890 and 1910–1914. In Italy, the northern industrial regions registered a rapid increase in strike activity between 1901 and 1905; and the northern countryside witnessed an exponential increase in the number of strikes among agricultural workers during the same period. Aside from new laws permitting association and strikes in countries such as France and Italy after 1880, this increase in industrial actions was related to several factors. First, the economic changes of the Second Industrial Revolution, which brought new workplace hierarchies, divisions of labor, and increasing mechanization to large industrial plants, challenged the position of skilled workers and introduced increasing numbers of "semiskilled" and "unskilled" workers, including many women, to the disciplinary regimes of the factory or workshop. In this context, the insecurities of industrial employment and the grievances associated with workplace discipline combined with favorable economic conjunctures and the high demand for labor to encourage militancy. Second, the new mass or industrial unions, with national congresses, in northern and central Europe and the federations of syndicates and chambers of labor in France, Italy, and Spain provided vital resources for workers in their efforts to organize and sustain strikes. Third, social segregation in European cities and towns during this period led to the formation of working-class subcultures—whether in industrial Lancashire or the Wedding district of Berlin—which enabled workers to maintain strike solidarity. Finally, workers' political organizations and parties were integral to this strike activity: the mass social democratic parties of north-central Europe and the anarchosyndicalist organizations in southern Europe often lent their support or direction to workers' strikes.

Nevertheless, that support could also put the brakes on strike activity during this period, when the organization and codification of industrial relations prompted trade unions to impose control over strikers, and industrial bargaining involving employers' organizations and state officials led to the increasing standardization of labor conflict. Thus, as employers formed their own associations in order to combat the trade unions, governments attempted to implement measures and institutions for labor conciliation after 1890. New codes and institutions for industrial arbitration were introduced haltingly in Germany in 1891 and more vigorously in France in 1892, in Italy in 1893, and in Britain in 1896; combined with negotiations between unions and employers, they contributed to an increasing number of collective bargaining agreements in countries such as Britain. But in this context, many trade unions also increasingly turned to gradualist strategies of workplace negotiation, carefully guarded their "war chests," and imposed discipline on an often restless rank and file. This was particularly the case with the German labor movement, which became increasingly bureaucratized in the decade before 1914. But state intervention could also facilitate

trade-union militancy and strike activity. In the case of France, for example, episodic state-directed efforts at conflict resolution increasingly encouraged workers to launch massive immediate strikes, rather than long-prepared and drawn-out strikes, because government officials feared large and disruptive disputes and were thus more likely to put pressure on employers to seek compromises with workers.

Indeed, perhaps the most distinctive feature of the strike in the late nineteenth century was its political dimensions. On the shop floor, workers often struck a factory not just for higher wages or safer working conditions but over issues related to control over the work process and the authority of foremen. In some cases, these actions, for example those of the knife grinders of Solingen or the public gas stokers in Paris, could shape the work process and employer decisions about the introduction of new technologies. In a more formal political sense, the general strike became a weapon to secure not only workplace improvements but political change as well. The general or political strike became a much-debated strategy in the organized labor movements of Europe. The syndicalists in France, Italy, and Spain viewed the strike as the principal means of worker self-assertion and political activity, and the social democratic parties of northern and central Europe began debating the merits of the general strike, particularly in response to the outbreak of a war in Europe, in the context of the Second International. If the latter avoided an official endorsement of the general strike, individual parties put it to use for the purpose of securing basic democratic aims within their own countries. In this regard, workers launched general strikes in Belgium, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Italy, and Austria at various times from the 1880s to 1913 in attempts to secure universal suffrage or democratic reforms. Indeed, the strike waves throughout Europe during and in the immediate aftermath of World War I not only helped to bring down the monarchies of Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Germany; they also provided support for the new suffrage laws and state welfare commitments in nearly all European countries after 1918.

See alsoAnarchosyndicalism; Captain Swing; Industrial Revolution, First; Industrial Revolution, Second; Labor Movements; Machine Breaking; Socialism; Syndicalism.


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Hanagan, Michael P. The Logic of Solidarity: Artisans and Industrial Workers in Three French Towns, 1871–1914. Urbana, Ill., 1980.

Mommsen, Wolfgang J., and Hans-Gerhard Husung, eds. The Development of Trade Unionism in Great Britain and Germany, 1880–1914. London, 1985.

Perrot, Michelle. Workers on Strike: France, 1871–1890. Translated by Chris Turner with the assistance of Erica Carter and Claire Laudet. New Haven, Conn., 1987. Translation of Jeunesse de la grève: France 1871–1890.

Shorter, Edward, and Charles Tilly. Strikes in France, 1830–1968. New York, 1974.

Tilly, Charles, Louise Tilly, and Richard Tilly. The Rebellious Century, 1830–1930. Cambridge, Mass., 1975.

Dennis Sweeney


views updated May 11 2018



Strikes are temporary withdrawals of labor by more than one person. Those striking intend to return to work with better pay and/or improved conditions of work or to have made an emphatic political point. Sometimes employers refuse to permit the return of strikers and in these cases the strike terminates the employment.

In industrial disputes strikes can be a last resort by employees, whether unionized or not. They can also be a bargaining move in collective bargaining, intended to secure a better offer (whether of additional benefits or of less severe reductions). Strikes are but one symptom of dissatisfaction in work-places, others ranging from sabotage to exit. Strikes occur most often when there is an upturn in the economy and workers are in a relatively strong position in the labor market or when economic conditions are deteriorating and workforces are trying to hold on to existing pay and other conditions of employment.


Except in revolutionary situations, political strikes have usually been short and clearly focused on a major issue. During the First World War demand for key war materials and widespread shortages of food, fuel, and consumer goods led to industrial unrest in some countries and revolution in others. In Russia, in the Vyborg district of Petrograd before the February 1917 revolution metalworkers repeatedly went on strike, and most of the strikes were political. These workers played a crucial role in the overthrow of the tsarist regime. Thereafter, until the Bolshevik Revolution, the numbers of people on strike increased but most demands were economic. However, by September and October 1917 a sizable minority of strikes were intended to express dissatisfaction with private ownership of industry. However, as Diane Koenker and William G. Rosenberg have commented, at that time all strikes in Russia were essentially political: "Regardless of goals … the act of striking was itself part of the process of developing political consciousness in 1917" (p. 17). In Germany strikes became increasingly political as the war went on. Dick Geary has written of Berlin that "as early as 1916 food riots could turn into strikes and vice versa" (1993, p. 32). In Leipzig and elsewhere in April 1917 strikers demanded peace, a more democratic electoral system, the ending of censorship and martial law, and the release of political prisoners as well as more pay.

After the end of the First World War political strikes were part of the challenges of labor in a period of economic boom and political uncertainty. In Germany in 1919 a series of armed insurrections and strikes sought to secure a more revolutionary social order. These occurred in Berlin, Bremen, Brunswick, and Cuxhaven in January, in Mannheim in February, in Berlin again in March, and in Munich in April. A general strike in Berlin in 1920 broke the Kapp putsch, a counterrevolutionary attempt to seize power. In Italy "direct action" in September 1920 took the form of occupation strikes in engineering factories in Milan and Turin. These were in response to employers' lockouts. Many of the participants felt that they were preparing the way for major political change.

In the "Red Years" of 1917–1921 the division between political and industrial strikes was often blurred. The sheer volume of disputes and the accompanying revolutionary rhetoric made many strikes appear political, aimed at redistributing wealth and power, and brought a feeling of insecurity to many of the propertied classes.

Organized labor had less chance of success when economies were not in upturns. While German labor had defeated the Right in 1920, in the early 1930s deflation and mass unemployment undercut its ability to take strike action to prevent the Nazis securing power. In Britain the trade union movement was on the defensive during and after the 1921–1922 recession. The Trades Union Congress, the central organization for the unions, called a general strike in May 1926. This was intended to be a solidarity strike in support of coal miners, who were faced with substantial pay reductions and increases in work hours, and to secure a subsidy for the industry from the government. This was not achieved. The strike was called off after nine days, though the coal strike ran on until late in the year. Whereas the average number of days lost in industrial disputes in the United Kingdom in the previous three years had been 9 million, in 1926 the total exceeded 162 million, with the coal dispute accounting for more than 90 percent.

During the boom years of 1915–1920, in many European countries the most strike-prone sectors were those crucial to the war: notably engineering, from armaments to shipbuilding, steel production, and coal mining. In Britain substantial engineering disputes took place in 1915–1917. In 1915, when there was a major coal strike in South Wales, coal accounted for 56 percent of all working days lost in disputes. Bad industrial relations were one reason for state control of the industry, but even after it was controlled, coal disputes accounted for just over 20 percent of all working days lost in 1917 and 1918. In Italy more than 90 percent of working days lost through disputes were in the regions of Lombardy, Piedmont, Liguria, and Compania. During the war Italian strikes were short and sharp. Metalworkers were often militant, and they became prominent in strike statistics in 1918–1920 and 1921–1922. In France trade unionism was weak, but in the face of inflation and war weariness substantial strikes by Renault and other factory workers occurred in Paris as well as in Toulouse and elsewhere in 1917 and 1918. In June 1919 a very militant engineering strike in Paris failed, and after 1920 metalworkers were not prominent again in French disputes until 1936. French industrial militancy suffered a great setback in 1920 with the failure of a major rail strike, which was widened into an unsuccessful general strike.

In most countries the great majority of strikes were not directly politically motivated but related to wages and conditions of work. Some sectors of economies stood out as having notably bad industrial relations. With recovery from the 1931–1933 international recession came an increasing number of strikes in many democratic European countries. In France considerable support for May Day rallies in 1936 was followed by some 1.85 million French workers on strike in June alone. The strikes of 1936 were notable for predominantly being in poorly unionized sectors and led to rapid trade union growth, including among women. The strikers were usually enthusiastic supporters of the Popular Front (a leftist coalition against fascism). Hence the case has been made for seeing these strikes as political. In Spain a wave of strikes in April–June 1936 followed the Popular Front victory. These were aimed at reversing a recent decline in living standards.


For much of the Second World War strikes were a safe possibility only in Britain because much of the rest of Europe was under German occupation. In Britain they were formally illegal (as they had been in the First World War under the Munitions of War Act of 1915) under Order 1305. The loss of days through industrial disputes increased during the war, with wage issues being attributed as the cause for 60 percent of those going on strike during 1940–1944. Strikes were overwhelmingly in coal mining (where 56 percent of days were lost), with engineering (19 percent) and shipbuilding (9 percent) as the next most strike-prone sectors.

After the Second World War strikes were often seen as an obstacle to economic reconstruction and then to competitiveness. In Britain strike levels remained low under the postwar Labour government (1945–1951) and its efforts to boost economic recovery from the war. A one-day engineering strike in 1953 was the first national strike since a 1933 strike in cotton textiles. Thereafter strike waves characterized the periods 1957–1962, 1968–1974, and 1977–1979, much of the unrest being brought about by stagnating or even declining real wages. In the 1957–1962 wave an average of 4,442,000 working days per year were lost; in 1968–1974 the average reached 11,703,000 per year and 16,340,000 in 1977–1979. In the early 1960s wildcat strikes caused considerable political anxiety, leading to the establishment of a Royal Commission (1965–1968) to investigate British industrial relations, while subsequent unrest contributed to the destabilization of two Labour governments (in 1969–1970 and 1979) and a Conservative government (in 1974).

In Britain during this period there was much talk of wildcat strikes, and then strikes generally, being "the English disease" (or British disease) and providing an explanation for the relatively poor performance of Britain's economy compared to those of its major industrial rivals. However, when British strike statistics are compared with those for other industrialized countries the British level of strikes drops as other countries' levels drop and rises as others' levels rise. (Some clear deterioration took place in Britain in 1968–1974, but this was insufficient to change Britain's rank order at a time when there were strikes across Europe.) Hence it appears that changes in international economic circumstances affected strike levels in free-market economies, with particular governments and policies having an impact but not as great as is sometimes thought.

In Britain the rise in the days lost through strikes in 1968–1974 was partly due to the politicization of industrial relations, with trade unions holding strikes against the 1971 Industrial Relations Act. In the early 1980s the British level of days lost through strikes remained relatively high because of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's confrontations with steelworkers in 1980 and coal miners in 1984–1985. Yet, while the strike statistics dipped in the late 1980s after the government felt it had "tamed the trade unions," so did those for other countries. The 1984–1985 miners' dispute was one of the greatest in British history, with a total of 27,135,000 working days lost in 1984.

While strikes were not a peculiarly British phenomenon, with Australia, Canada, and the United States having higher levels for 1946–1976, Britain had a higher number of days lost through strike action than some of its European competitors. Apart from the early 1980s, Italy and Finland consistently had worse records, as did Ireland until the 1980s and France in the late 1940s and early 1960s. By contrast West Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden had low numbers of days lost through industrial disputes.

In France there were widespread strikes after the Communist Party (CPF) left the postwar government in May 1947. The Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) was dominated by the CPF after the liberation and was notably militant. In June 1947 alone, 6,416,000 working days were lost due to strikes over economic issues. In late 1947 a general strike involved up to 3 million workers, with 7,546,000 and 6,967,000 days lost in November and December. In 1948 troops were used during a major coal strike that lasted from 4 October to 29 November, with a lost output of 5.5 million tons of coal. A further wave of strikes came in 1950, aimed at substantial wage increases in the Paris metallurgical industry and others. Communist calls for political strikes in 1952 resulted in some riots but no substantial mass strike. In the 1950s the numbers of days lost through strikes fell markedly from 1947 to 1950, when the annual average was 13,393,000, but rose to a little above the British level in the early 1960s. The most dramatic strikes came in the summer of 1968, alongside mass demonstrations, and shook Charles de Gaulle's government. It seems likely that six to seven million people went on strike in France in May–June 1968.

In Italy in 1947 a communist-backed wave of strikes included a general strike in Rome in December. A national strike followed the attempted assassination of the Communist Party leader Palmiro Togliatti on 14 July 1948, with many factories in the north occupied. Although called off on 16 July, it led to a split in the Confederazione Generale del Lavoro (CGIL). The numerous strikes of the 1950s, such as a major rail strike in January 1953, generally sought higher wages. In September and December 1953 employers were forced to the bargaining table by two national general strikes, followed by strikes in individual industries in early 1954. National collective bargaining in this period helped avoid major national strikes, but dissatisfaction with wages led to a wave of major strikes in 1959 in metallurgical and other industries, followed by a general strike in June–July 1960.

Italy, France, and Britain were all part of Western European strike waves in 1960–1964 (which omitted Belgium) and 1968–1972 (which omitted Austria). The strikes of the early 1960s were associated with labor's demands in a period of full employment, perhaps in response to inflation, while the later strikes may have been responding to anti-inflation measures by governments. Among the most militant workers were the Italians in 1969, as radical factory councils mushroomed. West Germany experienced widespread unofficial strikes in 1969, in contrast to the country's hitherto stable postwar industrial relations (though official strikes had taken place, as in 1963 and 1966–1967).

In 1973 the oil crisis marked the end of a quarter-century's international economic boom and was followed by rising unemployment. Labor was increasingly on the defensive, with more and more strikes aimed at defending existing wages and conditions. In the 1990s and early 2000s strike levels in Britain and elsewhere were low.

In Eastern Europe strikes were often part of a broader movement seeking to limit or end communist rule. In East Germany a workers' uprising in 1953 began with a strike by a group of building workers, with a general strike on 11 June. It was put down by armed force. In Hungary in October 1956 a general strike was called in support of creating a more liberal regime and declaring Hungarian neutrality in the Cold War. In Czechoslovakia elected workers' councils were one element of the Prague Spring of 1968, with demonstrators leaving work to protest when Warsaw Pact troops invaded in August. In Poland, the trade union organization Solidarity was set up by Lech Wałęsa, an electrician in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, after a strike in August 1980. Supported by the Catholic Church, Solidarity was recognized and soon had some three million supporters. Following strikes in 1988 in the Baltic cities and Silesian coalfields, Solidarity was allowed to campaign as a political party in 1989. It won all but one of the seats it could contest, and in December, Wałęsa was elected president of Poland.

See alsoGeneral Strike (Britain); Labor Movements; May 1968; Solidarity; Unemployment.


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Charlesworth, Andrew, et al. An Atlas of Industrial Protest in Britain, 1750–1990. London, 1996.

Church, Roy, and Quentin Outram. Strikes and Solidarity: Coalfield Conflict in Britain 1889–1966. Cambridge, U.K., 1998.

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Labour: Central and Western Europe 1917–1920, edited by Chris Wrigley, 24–50. London, 1993.

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Shorter, Edward, and Charles Tilly. Strikes in France 1830 to 1968. Cambridge, Mass., 1974.

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——. A History of British Industrial Relations. Vol. 3: 1939–1979. Cheltenham, U.K., 1996.

Chris Wrigley


views updated May 11 2018


Between 1930 and 1941, 172 million days of labor were lost over the course of 27,000 work stoppages. Strikes, however, interrupted more than just the flow of business. Their failure to resolve the economic crisis early in the Great Depression led to growing desperation on the part of workers, union leadership, and government officials. The New Deal sought to contain popular protest but its effect was to encourage further labor militancy. Organized labor initially discouraged strikes but slowly realized the opportunities they offered. Rank-and-file workers, who started the majority of stoppages by either walking out or sitting down, also understood their costs and benefits. During the summer of 1937 alone approximately ninety workers lost their lives to employer violence and state repression, while countless more were wounded, evicted from their homes, or jailed because of their involvement in strikes. Still, organized labor could not have achieved its unprecedented victories in the 1930s without workers' willingness to employ their ultimate weapon.

The Great Depression began with a surprisingly passive labor movement. In the first three years of the 1930s, workers engaged in fewer strikes than at almost any moment in the twentieth century. Those that did occur mostly dealt with immediate bread-and-butter issues relating to wages and hours rather than with efforts to establish new independent unions. Indeed many were wildcat strikes—unplanned, spontaneous eruptions in which workers walked off the job without consulting their unions in reaction to conflicts with their supervisors. With little administrative and financial support from mainstream organized labor, these strikes were destined to be ineffective, short-lived, and have little impact.

Many of the major strikes that erupted in the early years of the Great Depression occurred in rural regions rather than in the urban centers of manufacturing that later proved more receptive to labor protest. Due to overproduction and falling prices, the agricultural and textiles industries had fallen on hard times well before much of the country. In Gastonia, North Carolina, for example, textile mills had begun laying off employees, lowering wages, and increasing workloads in the mid-1920s. In response, mill hands staged a walkout followed by a massive strike in April 1929. Although they called for modest reforms and quickly won the support of local residents, who joined in the pickets, the poor workers were no match for the desperate textile mills. Evictions from company-owned homes and a campaign to discredit the Communist Party organizers succeeded in derailing the strike after less than two weeks.

The prominence of the Communist Party in labor protest partly reflected the inaction of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the nation's largest body of organized labor, which sought to resolve the economic crisis through closer cooperation with employers. Some labor leaders preferred confrontation but could not win the support of the AFL's Executive council. Rising unemployment also constrained workers, who felt fortunate to have a job and knew that they could easily be replaced by strikebreakers. Left without options, workers were forced to rely on company unions, which were controlled by employers and resolutely opposed to strikes.

The power of employers gradually weakened as the federal government increasingly became involved in labor disputes. Under growing pressure from trade unionists, Congress passed the Norris-La Guardia Act in 1932. The law limited the use of federal injunctions to forestall strikes and prevented federal courts from enforcing yellow-dog contracts in which workers agreed to not join unions as a condition of employment. Section 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 (NIRA) gave workers the right to "organize unions of their own choosing" and bargain collectively with their employers. The new legislation had an immediate impact. Twice as many strikes broke out in 1933 as the year before, involving three and a half times the number of workers.

The strike wave culminated in 1934, with one and a half million workers going on strike—more than eight times the number that had gone out in 1930. For the first time in thirty years, the principal issue in most strikes was long-term union recognition rather than immediate concerns involving wages or hours. The most severe unrest began on the docks of San Francisco. After years of abuse, longshoremen abandoned the company union to form a local of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) in the summer of 1933. When the ILA failed to address the concerns of its members, longshoremen issued their own demands and went on strike in May 1934. The shipping companies responded violently, hiring vigilantes to beat strikers. The day after Independence Day, police opened fire on a crowd of unarmed strikers, killing two and wounding dozens more. Workers across the city responded by rallying together with a short-lived general strike. By the end of July, rank-and-file dockworkers had won their main demand, a union-controlled hiring hall, without any major outside support.

Employees at Electric Auto-Lite, a supplier of automobile parts in Toledo, Ohio, also exercised their NIRA-protected rights by organizing a federal union under an AFL charter in 1933. When the company refused to negotiate, workers walked out in early 1934. Thousands of unemployed workers affiliated with A. J. Muste's American Workers Party joined the strike in solidarity, turning it into a wider popular protest. As in San Francisco, police provoked riots in which two strikers were killed. A general strike was averted, however, when the federal government successfully pressured the company to recognize the union. Community was also essential in the Teamster's strike in Minneapolis that same month. Trucking employers there had rejected their drivers efforts to organize an independent union. After a strike was declared, building trades workers and taxi drivers walked out in sympathy. In short order, the city was polarized between workers and employers. After much tension a street fight broke out between police and twenty thousand workers that resulted in the death of two strikers. Fruitless negotiations led to another mass strike in July in which several more strikers were killed. Finally, President Franklin Roosevelt interceded directly and helped push through an arbitration in which employers agreed to bargain collectively with the Teamsters.

Although many strikes were successful, the failure of the nationwide textile strike—at that time the largest labor protest in American history—deeply worried many in the labor movement. Spontaneous walkouts had spread throughout the southern states and engulfed much of the East Coast in the summer and fall of 1934 when an industrial code was issued that neglected to increase wages or improve working conditions. In all, more than 400,000 strikers had crippled the industry. However, with victory in sight the United Textile Workers (UTW) called off the strike on what proved to be empty promises by the Roosevelt administration. Labor statesman John L. Lewis blamed the failure of the textile strike on the AFL's lack of support and demanded that the body encourage new forms of industrial unionism that would respond to workers' solidarity and militancy. Other labor leaders recognized that by 1935 many workers had dropped out of unions because the AFL could not maintain their enthusiasm. The UTW's membership, for instance, had dropped from several hundred thousand to only eighty thousand in a matter of months.

The Roosevelt administration, on the other hand, feared that popular unrest would continue to escalate unless the federal government established a stable balance between industry and labor. After the NRA was declared unconstitutional, it embraced Senator Robert Wagner's National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (NLRA) to strengthen labor's bargaining power. By establishing the National Labor Relations Board to oversee votes for union representation, the administration hoped that the law would remove the impetus for the recent burst of strikes.

Over the next few years, strikes would more than double in number, reaching a peak of 4,720 in 1937. The establishment of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) by Lewis and his associates in 1935 gave industrial workers the financial and administrative support they needed to carry out effective unionization drives. The Supreme Court's decision on April 12, 1939, upholding the NLRA prompted a flood of efforts to take advantage of the newfound federal protection. But the CIO and the NLRA only gave structure and sustenance to what was primarily a movement of ordinary workers enforcing their right to bargain collectively with employers.

One of the sources for the revitalization of the grassroots effort was the strike by United Rubber Workers (URW) in 1936. Rubber workers in Akron, Ohio, had broken from the company union the previous year and obtained an AFL charter establishing the URW. Among the union's earliest supporters were Lewis and the CIO, who demanded that the city's firms negotiate. At the end of January and through February spontaneous protests broke out at Firestone and Goodyear plants. Emulating a tactic conceived by rubber workers in 1934, tire builders sat down at their workplaces, refusing to move unless the firms negotiated with the union. Confounded URW officials, who did not authorize these unconventional actions, had no choice but to follow the course of action laid out by their aggressive members. The Akron community soon sided with the nonviolent rubber workers, donating to the strike relief fund and threatening a general strike if the municipal government interfered with the strike. On March 22, Goodyear signed an agreement that recognized the union, reinstated workers, and granted significant concessions.

The CIO rapidly built on its initial success. The United Automobile Workers (UAW), originally established by the AFL, broke away in 1936 and affiliated itself solely with the CIO. When the UAW president was unable to pressure the major car manufacturers to bargain collectively, militant workers closed down a General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan, on December 30, 1936. As it spread to other factories, the Great Sit-down Strike brought the entire company's production to halt. Unsure of how to contend with the occupying force, the company cut off the heat, attempted an invasion by police that was repulsed, and unsuccessfully lobbied for the National Guard to intervene. Finally, on February 11, 1937, under pressure from Roosevelt, General Motors recognized the union and agreed to negotiations.

The CIO's victory over the powerful company had an immediate effect. Over the next year, 400,000 workers in mass-production industries participated in similar sit-down strikes. The threat of such crippling strikes convinced companies that had never tolerated unions to negotiate settlements. On March 2, 1937, the CIO's Steel Workers' Organizing Committee (SWOC) and U.S. Steel, the nation's largest corporation with an unbroken history of resistance to organized labor, signed a contract that recognized the union and gave its members a 10 percent wage increase. Within two months, SWOC membership had tripled to 300,000 and it embarked on a campaign to unionize the remaining steel firms known as "Little Steel." By the end of 1937, the CIO represented over two million workers; even the turgid AFL experienced a significant growth in membership.

Yet, at its peak, the CIO began to suffer a backlash. It was unable to properly fund the Little Steel Strike, though 75,000 workers had walked out. The steel firms also fought more aggressively than had been expected. Rather than sign a gentleman's agreement as U.S. Steel had done, they organized citizens committees, won the assistance of municipal governments, and hired vigilantes to attack picket lines. On May 30, 1937, Chicago police fired on unarmed strikers, killing ten, injuring more than a hundred, and ushering in a summer of deadly violence that sapped labor's commitment to protest. An economic recession, beginning that same month and lasting for over a year, increased the ranks of unemployed by another two million. The number of workers participating in work stoppage fell by more than 60 percent in 1938.

The momentum would not shift again until the nation's economy recovered as it began its rearmament for war. By 1941, new records were set as workers surpassed the strike wave of 1937. But even then, the major unions soon issued no-strike pledges to demonstrate their patriotism and avoid the anti-labor crackdown that had followed World War I. Walkouts would remain numerous but the institutional base that had supported strikers would dramatically weaken. Again, strikes turned on immediate concerns of wage, hours, and working conditions. The AFL and the CIO would not regain effective control of rank-and-file militancy until after the war.



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Eduardo F. Canedo


views updated May 18 2018


STRIKES. Collective work stoppages, or "strikes" (a modern term), have been part of the industrial landscape since the Middle Ages, although their frequency increased during the early modern centuries. Such stoppages occurred for many reasons stemming from conflicted relations between employers (master artisans) and employees (increasingly the trained workers who came to be called journeymen). Workers' strikes centered on such issues as hiring practices, wage rates, piece rates, the duration of the workday, and the freedom to come and go as workers pleased, but resistance always began in one way or another with journeymen's demands to work according to the rhythms of life that structured their existence and framed its meaning. This understanding entailed an assumption about freedom of movement in and out of shops and worker discretion about the pace of work.

Directly or indirectly, work practices reflected a certain relationship between labor and time. Workers often understood the relationship one way and masters another. The craft economy of the early modern centuries was increasingly dynamic, diversified, and specialized, and demand for craft products grew, at certain times and in certain places, dramatically. Masters responded to the pressure on production schedules by trying to extend the workday and by keeping workers on the job more continuously than had been customary. Moreover, more and more masters combined a new morality of industriousness with this imperative about time and production, and disparaged uncooperative workers as not only insubordinate but lazy.


Workers defending a customary labor regimen often resisted the more disciplined scheme of their employers. Until the eighteenth century, examples of resistance in the form of work stoppages were most evident in the manufacturing sectors such as printing and, above all, textiles, where substantial demand was regularly exerted upon production practices and schedules. In the sixteenth century in the printing industry, to maintain or increase profits in an expanding and increasingly competitive market, master printers tried to reduce wages and increase working hours. An especially well documented strike in the printing industry occurred in Lyon in 1539, when the work stoppage was orchestrated by a "company" of journeymen pressmen, typesetters, correctors, and proofreaders called the Griffarins. In response to masters' attempts to eliminate the customary arrangement of monetary wage plus meals at the master's table, the Griffarins coordinated an industrywide strike throughout the city that lasted almost four months. The Griffarins physically assaulted any journeymen or apprentices who tried to work, and so solidarity within the ranks of the strikers was maintained. In the end the journeymen forced their employers to reinstate the customary food and wage arrangement for another thirty years.

In the textile industry, especially in the Low Countries, between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries the most effective weapon for workers was the uitgang. In this practice, laborers collectively left town if employers did not meet worker demands. This happened in Leiden in 1478, when all the fullers left after their thirty-four demands went unsatisfied. This was certainly not the first uitgang, for they referred to similar walkouts "staged by our forefathers." Nor was it to be the last, for the weavers of Amsterdam staged an uitgang in 1523, and the shearers of Leiden in 1643. In the seventeenth century, however, the uitgang gave way to the strike, and a wave of the latter in the mid-seventeenth century shows that the coordination of the workers' activities spanned cities. From 1636 to 1639, for example, strikes led by shearers were staged in Haarlem, Hoorn, Gouda, and Rotterdam, and strikers held clandestine meetings to coordinate their actions and blacklist strikebreakers. Leiden, the clothmaking center of Europe and home in 1670 to 45,000 textile workers out of a total population of 70,000, was also the scene of frequent strikes during the turbulent seventeenth century, occurring in 1619, 1637, 1644, 1648, 1700, and 1701.


Until the eighteenth century work stoppages largely occurred in industries that most felt the pressure of demand. During the eighteenth century, with the stimulus of the "consumer revolution," however, this pressure spread to many more trades than ever before and the number of strikes increased proportionally. At times the number of striking workers was enormous; twenty thousand silk workers shut down production in Lyon in 1779. In France alone between the 1720s and 1780s, work stoppages and boycotts occurred in more than sixty towns. In Paris more than fifty incidents of strikes took place, involving, for example, the stocking-cap makers in 1724, the blacksmiths in 1731, the locksmiths in 1746, the cutlers in 1748, the hatters in 1764, the bookbinders in 1776, and the masons and stonecutters in 1785.

Workers in most trades called strikes all over Great Britain as well373 between 1717 and 1800, with 120 in London alone. Wool workers in various cities and regions struck sixty-four times, ship's carpenters thirty-seven, and tailors twenty-two. Weavers, too, were ready to protest, largely against wage reductions. In the late 1720s striking wool-weavers from Wiltshire, calling themselves "regulators," descended upon some employers' houses in the town of Frome in Somerset and presented a list of wage demands. If an employer rejected the demands, "the windows paid for it," as a local commentator put it.

Early modern laborers, mostly journeymen who were organized into brotherhoods and thus could coordinate their actions more effectively than the unorganized simple wage earners, struck over many issuesmanipulation of the relationship between the length of the workday and the daily wage, depressed or stagnant wages in the face of rising prices, denser working days, or, increasingly in the eighteenth century, over payment in kind or "truck," whereby masters overvalued the goods and so effectively depressed wages. Whatever the cause, long before the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century and the "labor movement" emerging at that time, workers in Europe had discovered the power of collective action and work stoppage to redress common grievances.

See also Guilds ; Industrial Revolution ; Industry ; Laborers ; Textile Industry ; Wages .


Davis, Natalie Z. "A Trade Union in Sixteenth-Century France." Economic History Review 19 (1966): 4870.

Dekker, Rudolph. "Labour Conflicts and Working Class Culture in Early Modern Holland." International Review of Social History 35 (1990): 377420.

Farr, James R. Artisans in Europe, 13001914. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2000.

Rule, John. The Experience of Labour in Eighteenth-Century English Industry. New York, 1981.

Truant, Cynthia M. The Rites of Labor: Brotherhoods of Compagnonnage in Old and New Regime France. Ithaca, N.Y., 1994.

James R. Farr


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A strike is an organized stoppage of work. With the rise of factories during the Industrial Revolution , businesses acquired great power over the lives and working conditions of large numbers of workers in many industries. Workers sought ways to persuade businesses to improve working conditions and increase wages. Organizing into unions was one method. Strikes were another.

To hold a strike, workers often form picket lines outside their place of employment. Being outside brings public attention to the issue. Particularly in the early days of strikes, picket lines often led to violence between workers and employers. Violence also happened when nonstrikers, called scabs, crossed picket lines to work despite the strike.

The San Francisco, California , longshoreman's strike of 1934 is an example of the violence that often erupted during strikes. It began in May, when members of the local chapter of the International Longshoreman's Association decided to strike to protest working conditions for maritime workers. By July, more than sixty other unions in the city had decided to strike to support the longshoremen. On July 5, a battle erupted between police and workers, in which two workers were killed and scores of others were injured. The strike finally ended on July 27, and the longshoremen received wage increases and a limit of thirty hours of work each week.

Great Depression

Workers faced particularly harsh conditions during the Great Depression (1929–41). High unemployment caused spending to drop nationwide. The drop in spending hurt businesses, which in turn laid off workers and lowered the wages of the workers who remained.

To improve their working conditions during the Great Depression, workers developed a new tool in 1936. It was called a sit-down strike. Instead of picketing outside, they held a strike by taking physical control over a part of a factory. Stopping work at one important location in a factory system could disrupt production along the entire line. It also prevented businesses from defeating strikes with scab workers. From 1936 to 1939, American workers used sit-down strikes almost six hundred times.

Government involvement

Businesses and workers often have called upon governments to end strikes. In an effort to prevent strikes, local governments have passed laws banning picketing. State governments have sent police and National Guard forces to break up strikes, and they have enforced criminal conspiracy laws to convict people who organize and operate strikes. Sitdown strikes, according to such governments, unlawfully interfere with the property rights of the business.

United Auto Workers Confronts General Motors

One of the most significant sit-down strikes happened in Flint, Michigan , in January and February 1937. Strikers from the United Auto Workers (UAW) union took control of the Fisher Body Plant No. 1, where General Motors kept the dies for making its cars. The strike hurt production so much that General Motors finally agreed to recognize the UAW as the organizing body for its workers. Chrysler Corporation recognized the UAW the following month.

The federal government took a number of steps to handle sit-down strikes in the 1930s. Federal legislation eventually made such strikes illegal as a form of trespass on private property. Congress passed laws, such as the Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947 (also known as the Taft-Hartley Act ), to regulate how unions may operate and how they are allowed to strike. Opinions vary widely over whether federal legislation helps workers organize for better conditions or helps businesses oppress workers by limiting the workers' rights to organize in their own favor.