The labor stoppage, commonly known as the strike, is a natural result of tension between labor and management. Management has always wanted work for as little compensation as possible. Labor has always wanted compensation for what it considers a fair day’s work. The gulf between the two has often caused violence and even assassination. Labor strife has led to some of the most sensational trials in America history, perhaps the best known is the trial of three Western Federation of Miners leaders who were accused of killing the former governor of Idaho in 1905.
Labor strife has always been greatest at the point when industries have reached their peaks, enjoying great financial strength and employing large numbers of workers.
The earliest large strikes were against textiles companies which handled the finishing of cotton and other raw goods from the South. Most of these firms were based in the labor-heavy Northeast and Midwest. The textile companies knew that their profits would be challenged by higher wages.
From there, the labor movement migrated to the mining of metal and companies that finished mined ore into steel. Until Andrew Carnegie, steel had not been a huge industry. The product was not needed in bulk until it was well-enough made to be used in the expanding shipping industry, and for cars and other manufactured goods that were used by consumers and industry.
The rise of the car, in some part because of the availability of steel, caused the next great rise of labor as workers fought for better working conditions in the huge factories of the Midwest. As transportation moved from ground to air, among the largest employers in the country became airlines whose major costs were people, planes, and fuel–with people being the most variable cost among them.
The history of the American strike was one that helped eventually create the nation’s great middle class, spreading wages from the country’s most successful corporations among millions of people.
These are the greatest strikes that changed the face of business and helped create the American middle class.
1) Great Southwest Railroad Strike
*Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, and Texas
By the end of the 1800’s, the American railroad was expanding quickly. In 1886, the Knights of Labor struck against the Union Pacific and Missouri Pacific railroads, owned by robber baron Jay Gould. Hundreds of thousands of workers across five states refused to work, citing unsafe conditions and unfair hours and pay. The strike suffered from a lack of commitment from other railroad unions, the successful hiring of non-union workers by Gould, violence and scare tactics. Eventually, the strike failed, and the Knights of Labor disbanded soon afterwards.
2) The Pullman Strike
*May 11 to Mid-July, 1894
*Centered in Chicago, Illinois
Facing 12-hour work days and cut wages resulting from the depressed economy, factory workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company walked out in protest. The workers were soon joined by members of the American Railway Union (ARU) who refused to work on or run any trains, which included Pullman-owned cars. Soon enough, 250,000 industry workers joined in the strike, effectively shutting down train traffic to the west of Chicago. The strike ended when President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops to Chicago on July 6, 1894. However, widespread sympathy for the workers’ cause promoted pro-union sentiment across many areas of the country.
3) Great Anthracite Coal Strike
*May- October, 1902
*Place: Eastern Pennsylvania
At the turn of the last century, the United Mine Workers of America began a strike which threatened to create an energy crisis. Seeking better wages and conditions, The UMWA struck in eastern Pennsylvania, an area that contained the majority of the nation’s supply of Anthracite coal . As the winter of 1903 approached President Theodore Roosevelt became concerned that a heating crisis could develop and attempted to intervene – unsuccessfully. Industrialist and financier J.P. Morgan believed the strike could threaten his businesses and made a deal with the union. The UMWA’s initial demands were for a 20% wage increase. They wound up with a 10% raise.
4) Steel Strike of 1919
*Sept 22, 1919 to January 8, 1920
Following World War I, workers represented by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) organized a strike against the United States Steel Corporation as a result of poor working conditions, long hours, low wages, and corporate harassment regarding union involvement. The number of strikers quickly grew to 350,000, shutting down nearly half of the steel industry. Company owners, however, invoked public concerns over Communism and immigration as a way of turning public sentiment against the unions, resulting in the strike’s failure and ensuring an absence of union organization in the steel industry for the next fifteen years.
5) Railroad Shop Workers Strike of 1922
* 400,000 Strikers
* July-October, 1922
In 1922, the railroad labor board announced that wages for railroad shop workers would be cut by seven cents – a considerable sum at the time. In early July of that year, 400,000 rail shop laborers from a conglomeration of unions went on strike. The great American railroads responded, immediately employing non-union workers to replace three-quarters of the empty positions. After the strike had lasted for some time, U.S. Attorney General Harry Daugherty persuaded a federal judge to ban all strike-related activities. The unions knew the ban put an end to their efforts and settled in October for a 5 cent pay cut and went back to work.
*September 1, 1934 to September 23, 1934
*Entire Eastern Seaboard
*Across 26 States
On April Fools day of 1946, the United Mine Workers of America called on 400,000 bituminous coal miners to strike for safer conditions, health benefits, and pay. The strike came at a time when the national economy was recovering from the second World War, and president Truman saw the UMWA’s actions as counterproductive to national industrial recovery. Truman approached the union with a settlement. When the workers refused the proposal, they were fined $3.5 million, forcing their agreement and the end of the strike. Although forced, most of the UMWA’s demands were met in Truman’s compromise.
*July 15, 1959 to November 6, 1959
9) 1970 U.S. Postal Strike
*Two weeks in March, 1970
*Began in New York City, Spread Nationwide
During the Nixon Administration, U.S. postal workers were not allowed to engage in collective bargaining. Increased dissatisfaction with wages, working conditions, benefits, and management led the postal workers in New York City to strike. Encouraged by New York’s example, postal workers nationwide followed suit. With mail and parcel delivery at a standstill, Nixon ordered the National Guard to replace the striking workers – a measure which proved ineffective. The strike was so effective that within two weeks negotiations took place. The unions’ demands for wages and conditions were largely met, and they were granted the right to negotiate.
*August 4, 1997 to August 19, 1997
Sponsored: Want to Retire Early? Here’s a Great First Step
Want retirement to come a few years earlier than you’d planned? Or are you ready to retire now, but want an extra set of eyes on your finances?
Now you can speak with up to 3 financial experts in your area for FREE. By simply clicking here you can begin to match with financial professionals who can help you build your plan to retire early. And the best part? The first conversation with them is free.
Click here to match with up to 3 financial pros who would be excited to help you make financial decisions.
Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us?
Contact the 24/7 Wall St. editorial team.