History of workers' strikes in America
Before the U.S. was even a nation, labor strikes drove significant social and economic change. From the founding of the first major U.S. labor union, the Knights of Labor, to the development of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), labor unions have helped employees stand up to the companies they work for in order to secure higher wages, safer working conditions, and bigger benefits. Although the frequency of strikes and positive outcomes have fluctuated over the years, walkouts are still vehicles through which American workers can try to pressure management into offering better pay rates and improvements in working environments.
Some periods of U.S. history saw higher incidents of labor stoppages than others, such as the years directly following World War I and World War II. Strikes in the U.S. became more prevalent during these periods than in other times, with wages and union recognition typically at the heart of the labor conflicts that arose in industries like mining and automobiles.
The Milwaukee Bucks' decision to stay off the basketball court on Aug. 26 showed a new kind of strike—a kind that goes beyond withholding labor to win concessions from an employer. This strike, the Bucks said in a statement from their locker room, was to demand action from Wisconsin lawmakers in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black father shot in front of his children in Kenosha, Wisconsin. "Despite the overwhelming plea for change," the Bucks' statement read, "there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball."
Strikes aren't a thing of the past. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 20 major labor strikes occurred in 2018 and 25 occurred in 2019. Most of these strikes involved workers in the education, health care, and social service sectors. 2020 has seen a handful of major labor strikes, in addition to strike threats from teachers unions, as in Chicago and New York City, in response to school reopening plans during the pandemic.
Funding for American public schools and compensation for teachers have been long-standing issues, as is apparent from the string of teachers' strikes throughout the decades. 2018 and 2019 saw a surge of teacher walkouts, starting with the West Virginia teachers' strike in 2018, in which 20,000 public school professionals demanded better pay and more affordable health care. Teachers in Arizona, Colorado, California, and other states followed suit, all fighting for higher wages. In 2019, L.A. teachers went on strike for a week and Chicago teachers went on strike for 11 days.
Read on to learn about some of the largest and most important labor strikes in American history, from the 1619 Jamestown Polish craftsmen strike to 21st-century strikes in the automotive, communications, and education fields. Data is compiled from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, publications like The Wall Street Journal and Fortune, as well as the AFL-CIO.
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1619 Jamestown Polish craftsmen strike
In the first recorded strike in pre-revolutionary American history, Polish glassmakers and producers of pitch, tar, and turpentine for ship-building refused to continue working for the British Virginia Company until granted the right to vote in the seminal election for the Virginia House of Burgesses. Colonists had hired the Polish workers to come to Jamestown in order to manufacture items essential for the colony's economy—however, only those of English origin had the right to vote in elections at the time. The strike forced the company's hand, and the workers were granted full voting rights.
1661 indentured servants' plot
Isaac Friend and William Clutton led this indentured servants' strike in York County, Va., because of sub-par food rationing; some were given only corn to eat and water to drink. The uprising was largely unsuccessful. Subsequent laws were passed restricting servants' rights, permitting the brutal treatment of slaves, and advising masters to keep their servants under close watch. The revolt was followed by other sizeable uprisings, such as the 1663 rebellion against the governor of Gloucester County.
1774 ironworks' strike
Carpenters of the New Jersey Hibernia Iron Works were some of the first American building trades workers. Building trades unions played major roles in New Jersey trade federations that formed in the mid-1800s, like the New Jersey State Federation of Labor that expanded into the state's American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. The New Jersey Building and Construction Trades Council and its associated union helmed the struggle for the eight-hour workday, higher wages, safer working environments, and stable pension plans.
1786 printers' strike
In the first recorded strike for higher pay in U.S. history, Philadelphia printers organized this work stoppage to demand an increase from 35 shillings a week to $6 a week. The strike met with success and led to similar wage-related disputes in Philadelphia, such as the 1806 strike of the Cordwainers, the first union to be charged with a criminal scheme.
1791 carpenters' strike
This carpenters' strike, also in Philadelphia, pushed for the 10-hour workday and was the first official building trades' strike in the U.S. The action succeeded and marks the first time a local union engaged in collective bargaining. As unions started to gain traction across the U.S., however, employers started pushing back. That led to more trade-centric upheavals, such as the 1824 textile strike.
1834 Lowell Mill women's strike
In the face of 13-hour work days and wage cuts, the women who ran Lowell Mill in Massachusetts protested for the reinstatement of their original pay and rallied women from other mills to join them in the fight. Their employers shut down the strike and sent the women back to work. Although these mill workers' efforts sparked future political uprisings in the form of the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association, which sought to establish 10-hour workdays, their fight for social justice was slow to bring substantial change. Case in point: New Hampshire passed the 10-hour workday law in 1847, but employers were not required to enforce it.
1873 coal miners' strike
A 20% wage cut was at the heart of this coal miners' strike in the northeastern valleys of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Miners demanded a small pay increase per ton of coal, but their efforts ultimately failed. With thousands of miners on strike, mine owners hired African-American and Italian replacement workers, which sparked a violent backlash from the strikers. The employers' use of immigrant substitute workers meant that the miners were unable to successfully organize.
1877 Great Railroad Strike
When the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad cut workers' pay twice in the previous year, their employees halted the running of trains until their most recent pay cut was reversed. After the West Virginia government attempted to restore order by sending in militia troops, the strike spread to Baltimore, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Chicago. In some cities, strikers became violent and destroyed railroad property. The strike ended primarily because of government and militia intervention, and the B&O Railroad hiring strikebreakers.
1881 Atlanta's washerwomen strike
Jim Crow laws were in full force in America in the late 1800s, but this didn't prevent a group of African-American washerwomen in Atlanta known as the Washing Society from banding together to insist on higher wages and workplace autonomy. In the face of disapproval from the press and arrests of protest leaders, this group of laundry maids addressed the mayor of Atlanta, demanding full control over the city's washing business in exchange for a $25 annual licensing fee. The city ultimately agreed to this condition, and the Washing Society paved the way for improvements in labor conditions in other Atlanta industries.
1886 Great Southwest Railroad Strike
In this strike involving over 200,000 workers, railroad employees in five states rose up against the Union Pacific and Missouri Pacific Railroads, owned by Jay Gould. They revolted on the grounds that a worker was fired “without due notice and investigation,” as per the agreement between the then Knights of Labor and the Union Pacific. Gould hired strikebreakers to keep the railroads running, and, ultimately, the Knights of Labor disintegrated. But shortly thereafter Samuel Gompers and Peter McGuire founded the American Federation of Labor.