The Ten Greatest Labor Strikes in American History

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1) Great Southwest Railroad Strike

*200,000 strikers
*March-September 1886
*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

*250,000 strikers
*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

*147,000 strikers
*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

*350,000 strikers
*Sept 22, 1919 to January 8, 1920
*Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

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
* Nationwide

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.