Labor strikes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

American businesses regard strikes as a hindrance to productivity as well as an interference with management rights. Workers, on the other hand, see strikes as a last resort in trying to level the playing field with management. Strikes have become less common than they were in the past as a negotiating tactic.

Work stoppages have been part of the economic climate of the United States since before the nation won its independence during the late eighteenth century. The growth of organized labor during the late nineteenth century helped bring focus to many strikes. Business owners have generally opposed strikes as interfering with their rights to run a business as they see fit. They often emphasize that strikes hamper the productivity of the American economy and interfere with their property rights. Government at all levels has often sided with management, at times providing support for crushing strikes through the courts and overt intervention including use of the police and troops to attack strikers.Labor;strikesStrikes

Workers often agree that strikes provide an economic hardship, including one to themselves through lost wages or even jobs. Nonetheless, strikes have always been one weapon in the arsenal of organized labor to try to force management to bargain in good faith or to observe work agreements. Commonplace in some industries up to the 1960’s, strikes were used less thereafter as unions turned to other means to try to gain concessions.

There is some disagreement among theorists as to the fundamental nature of strikes. Some argue that strikes express only economic issues and should be treated as simply an economic issue. Others contend that strikes often express political and social issues and have wider implication for society than just economic concerns.

The First Fifty Years

The period of growth for the American economy during the late nineteenth century saw numerous strikes in industries such as coal, steel, or railroads as workers tried to assert demands for higher wages and better working conditions. The growth of Unionsorganized labor helped to channel strikes toward achieving identifiable goals that often included management recognition of a union as a first step toward achieving better working conditions.

Two mass strikes during the 1890’s are illustrative of these developments. The first occurred at the Carnegie Steel Company plant at Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 1892. The Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers had secured a union contract in 1889 and with a short strike and collective bargaining had achieved some improvements in wages and working conditions. Henry Clay Frick, Henry ClayFrick, the chairman of Carnegie Steel, who had long opposed unions, decided to force a confrontation that he hoped would enable him to destroy the union when the union contract came up for renewal in 1892. Frick imposed new work rules, and the union went on strike at the Homestead strike Homestead Works.

Striking Polish coal miners battle with coal and iron police in Shenandoah City, Pennsylvania, in this 1888 newspaper illustration.

(Library of Congress)

Frick tried to send a flotilla of boats carrying replacement workers and Pinkerton detectives up the Monongahela. The strikers drove off the flotilla. Although the workers enjoyed a good deal of local support, Frick appealed to the governor of Pennsylvania, who ordered in the state militia to restore order. With the troops in place, Frick brought in replacement workers and fired most of the strikers. Union membership dropped from twenty-four thousand to eight thousand by 1895. Even though the strike damaged Andrew Carnegie’s reputation as a benevolent factory owner, Carnegie Steel’s profits increased dramatically after the strike. In this case, Carnegie Steel was willing to suffer a short-term loss to achieve long-term gains realized through cutting wages and demanding higher worker productivity after the strike.

The Pullman StrikePullman Strike of 1894 started in the Pullman Palace Car Company outside of Chicago when workers were faced with wage cuts while the rents in their company-owned houses remained the same. The American Railway Union refused to handle Pullman cars and nearly brought the railroads in the eastern United States to a standstill. This action gave the railroad owners an opportunity to crush the union. The railroads put Pullman cars on all trains, and when the American Railway Union refused to handle the trains, the owners turned to the U.S. government, claiming that the union was interfering with the mail. Here, too, the strike brought disastrous results for the workers, as the Pullman and railroad workers were forced to accept management’s terms, which destroyed the respective unions. The intervention of troops on the side of management had tipped the balance, as the strike had been relatively peaceful up to that point, and the strikers enjoyed a good deal of public support in Illinois.

Economic downturns have often led to strikes, as workers tried to preserve gains made in happier times. Such was the case in the years after World War I. Mining industry;strikesCoal miners and textile workers in particular had profited (as did the mine and textile owners) from wartime production. When demand dropped after the war, owners began to lay off workers and increase production demands for the same (or lower) rates of pay. One of the most violent strikes, known as the Matewan massacreMatewan massacre, occurred in the coal fields in Mingo and Logan Counties, West Virginia, in 1920. The mine operators almost seemed to welcome a confrontation. Shooting and dynamiting began to be part of the strikers’ tactics, and the owners turned to the Baldwin-Felts detective agency, which also engaged in violence against the strikers.

Finally, a large group of miners attempted to march from Mingo County to Logan County to emphasize their demands for a living wage and for improvements in the harsh and dangerous working conditions. The local United Mine Workers of AmericaUnited Mine Workers of America leader, Frank Keeney, tried to dissuade the miners from the march for fear of governmental intervention, but to no avail. The miners and local militia engaged in a number of conflicts, including a major encounter that became known as the Battle of Blair Mountain, Battle ofBlair Mountain, in which somewhere between ten to fifty miners died. The West Virginia governor, a former attorney for the coal companies, called on the U.S. government for aid. President Warren G. Harding ordered twenty-one hundred Army regulars to the area, supplemented by machine guns and aircraft. Unwilling to confront the troops of their country, the miners halted their march, although not until a National Guard plane had dropped dynamite bombs on them. Soon thereafter, the strike collapsed, as public opinion had turned against the miners and they had no other source of income save to go back into the mines on the owners’ terms.

A Change in Effectiveness

Although labor leaders won some early confrontations by striking, they often lost. That situation began to change during the 1930’s, as the U.S. government and some state governments adopted stances that were more neutral during strikes. Without being able to call on the power of government to help break strikes, some businesses found it advantageous to agree to negotiations when a strike occurred. During the 1930’s, the United Auto Workers confronted the automotive industry with a series of strikes that led to union recognition and some concessions. Some violent strikes still occurred, as happened at Honea Path, South Carolina, in 1934, when seven strikers in the General Textile strikeGeneral Textile strike were shot as they fled from the local textile plant as strikebreakers inside the mill opened fire on them.

Immediately after World War II, many unions became assertive, striking to gain from wartime prosperity or to defend gains already made. A long-running strike in the eastern coal fields led President Harry S. Truman, who was usually friendly to organized labor, to threaten to federalize the mines temporarily to restart production. The political climate toward labor was changing, fostered in part by some of the postwar strikes, and in 1947, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947[Taft Hartley Act of 1947]Taft-Hartley Act over President Truman’s veto. This legislation placed limits on organized labor, most notably one allowing state governments to declare their states “right-to-work” states, which made union organizing more difficult. Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicate that from 1947 through 1974 the number of work stoppages involving one thousand workers or more remained high, averaging 314 per year. The number during the early 1950’s had been even higher, averaging 396 strikes a year. Organized labor and big business gradually developed a more accommodating approach that was intended to prevent work stoppages and that saw over 30 percent of the private workforce as union members during the mid-1950’s.

A New Labor Climate

When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, business saw that it had a president who would be supportive of a more aggressive approach to unions and the use of strikes. In addition, the American workforce was changing, with a growing number of workers in service jobs or technical jobs, both of which were harder to organize.

Many Americans have been ambivalent about union power, especially strikes, but most have been opposed to strikes by unions representing public employees. The Air traffic controllers’ strikeair traffic controllers union, Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), called a strike in 1981, and President Reagan enjoyed wide public support when he fired the striking controllers and hired replacements. Since the Depression, there had not been such a widespread firing of striking workers, yet the PATCO members did not even have the full support of the labor movement.

The shifting climate for labor and lack of public support for strikers can be seen in the strikes at the Caterpillar, Staley, and Firestone/Bridgestone plants in the industrial heartland of Decatur, Illinois, during the 1990’s. Decatur had long been a bastion of unionism, but the strikers found little public support when the management of each company took advantage of strikes to break the unions and enforce harsher working conditions with lower wages. In each case, the company claimed the necessity of competing in a global marketplace as the reason for imposing the cuts that led to the strikes.

In one sense, strikes, which have been used by workers to try to secure better conditions, have often been used by businesses as an excuse for weakening unions. Not all mass strikes have been failures, though. The strikes by automobile workers during the 1930’s gained them better pay and working conditions. Some small strikes have also been quite effective for the workers. Nonetheless, while business has stated its opposition to strikes, some business leaders have been able to take advantage of governmental and public support to attack and weaken unions during strikes.

Strikes will continue to be used by workers as a means of enhancing their bargaining power, but many unions are turning to other tactics, such as political activism, public relations campaigns, and nonviolent protests, as means of affecting the work environment. In some cases, unions have organized successful boycotts of a business’s products, as the farmworkers’ union in California did during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Strikes will continue to occur when workers think they have no other choice. By the early twenty-first century, many businesses returned to the hard-line antiunion approach of the past, while others tried to avoid labor trouble by offering such attractive wages and benefits that workers would be disinclined to join unions or strike.

Further Reading
  • Brecher, Jeremy. Strike! Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 1997. Good historical analysis of strikes. Written from a prolabor viewpoint.
  • Brown, Cliff. Racial Conflicts and Violence in the Labor Market: Roots in the 1919 Steel Strike. New York: Garland, 1998. An exploration of the 1919 steel strike that focuses on the divisiveness it fostered between white and black workers. Includes tables and figures, bibliography, and index.
  • Chaison, Gary, and Barbara Bigelow. Unions and Legitimacy. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001. Broad economic analysis of labor unions and strikes.
  • Franklin, Stephen. Three Strikes. New York: Guilford Press, 2001. Examination of three strikes in Decatur, Illinois, during the 1990’s that illustrated the growing weakness of the strike tactic.
  • Lens, Sidney. The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sitdowns. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973. Essential account of strikes in American society in the period from the 1870’s through the 1930’s that includes an excellent account of the organizing drive in the steel industry in 1919, the packinghouse strike that preceded it, and the role of William Z. Foster in both. Places events in the context of the ongoing battles that marked the rise of the American labor movement.
  • Lichtenstein, Nelson. The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit. New York: Basic Books, 1995. Insightful biography of Walther Reuther including information on strikes in the automobile industry.
  • ______. State of the Union. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002. Comprehensive reinterpretation of the effectiveness of unions and strikes.

Air traffic controllers’ strike

Baseball strike of 1972

Coal strike of 1902

Haymarket Riot

Homestead strike

U.S. Department of Labor

Labor history

Private security industry

Pullman Strike

Railroad strike of 1877

Sit-down strike of 1936-1937

Supreme Court and labor law

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