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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 .

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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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