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.
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 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
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
Striking Polish coal miners battle with coal and iron police in Shenandoah City, Pennsylvania, in this 1888 newspaper illustration.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
U.S. Department of Labor
Private security industry
Railroad strike of 1877
Sit-down strike of 1936-1937
Supreme Court and labor law