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The Centuries-Long History of Striking in the U.S.

For hundreds of years, protests nationwide have fought passionately for workers’ rights. 

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  • Attempt to start a freight train, under a guard of United States marshals, during the Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

From the shadows of our wildest fears and fantasies, artificial intelligence has stepped into our gadgets and onto our screens, promising to change everything about the way we live, work, and entertain ourselves. The creative sector of the economy has already felt the impact, and storytellers across the U.S. have risen up to challenge the threat to their careers and privacy. In May, screenwriters in Los Angeles walked out of their stations to achieve better pay and new protections in a rapidly changing industry. Following them in solidarity, actors have since joined screenwriters in their strike, culminating in the first dual Hollywood shutdown in 63 years.

Hoping to build on the achievements of fundamental Hollywood strikes, such as winning health plans and television residuals for actors and writers in 1960, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) have joined forces to make history in a new technological era—and protect their rights. While the cancellation of favorite shows and upcoming movies might be a worry for many entertainment-hungry Americans, the many strikes throughout U.S. history have had as varied contexts as the strikers themselves. 

The violent history of labor in the U.S. shows that strikes are not only matters of wealth, but of life and death. Strikes have shaped the current state of labor today in the U.S., and the future of work cannot be understood without first looking back to a past rife with power struggles, sickening greed, and a determination to succeed against all odds that defines the idealized American national character.

Notable strikes and their impacts

While socio-political changes have seemed to lessen the American propensity to strike in the past few decades, striking and unionizing was one of the greatest tools of the American public throughout the majority of U.S. history. Some of the most impactful strikes in U.S. history can teach us much about the power of the strike in the past and its potential for the current and future moment. 

Strikes became essential in the 19th century, on the heels of the Industrial Revolution, when the responsibility of labor and production shifted from individual farmers and craftsmen to factories manned with hundreds of women, men, and even children. Working conditions were nothing like today, and it was by walking out, refusing to work, or marching together in protest that laborers in centuries past were able to slowly improve conditions and compensation over time. Workers’ unions also played key roles in these strikes, and were essential in banding people together, organizing negotiations, and facilitating the strikes. 

Arguably the first most significant strikes in America’s past were the Great Railroad Strikes of 1877 and 1886. The 1877 railroad strike was notable mainly for being the first major rail strike in United States history, and the first strike to spread across state lines. Given the central importance of the rail industry after its post-Civil War expansion, the shutting down of rail lines across the northeast was a serious matter. While the first Great Railroad Strike was crushed by the military, it was followed by the 200,000-strong Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886, led by the Knights of Labor against the Union Pacific and Missouri Pacific railroads of businessman Jay Gould. 

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  • Blockade of Engines at Martinsburg, West Virginia during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Both railroad strikes ultimately failed, but they served as “principal turning points in the surge of class conflict that defined the late nineteenth century,” setting a legacy of interstate support for workers that would bolster the labor movement. Furthermore, the impact of the 1886 railroad strike joined the deadly Haymarket Riot and the 1894 Pullman strike in stressing the need to avoid future violence by heeding the demands of workers, and in June of 1894, President Cleveland declared the importance of workers’ rights by making Labor Day a national holiday. 

Railroad workers were not the only ones striking. In 1902, the United Mine Workers of America went on strike in what would become known as the Anthracite Coal Strike. The refusal to work the Pennsylvania coal mines threatened a coal shortage, a potential civil war, and President Theodore Roosevelt’s ability to win the upcoming election. The strike ended successfully with a 10% wage increase and a reduction of work hours, and made history as the first instance of non-violent federal intervention, helping to legitimize labor organizations from a government perspective. 

Early strikes in the late 19th century, although organized by thousands of workers, mainly involved men. But in 1912, chanting “we want bread, and roses too” as they marched through the snowy streets of Lawrence, Massachusetts, women textile workers went on strike to protest dangerous working conditions and inadequate pay. The subsequently-named Bread and Roses Strike made widely visible the common plight of mainly immigrant working women and children, and not only led to widespread raises for textile workers, but changed the history of labor, cementing a solidarity between the working class and making strides in the recognition of women’s rights.

Unavoidably linked to class struggles, strikes have also made lasting impacts for people of color in the United States. For example, from 1965-1970, the nonviolent Delano Grape Strike led by Mexican-American César Chávez culminated in the 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, giving bargaining power to farm workers nationwide and thereby improving the working conditions of Latinx, African Americans, and other farm workers of color across the nation. 

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  • African American sanitation workers march for their rights in Memphis, Tennessee, 1968.

    Photo Credit: Richard Copley / Facing History

In 1968, when Memphis sanitation workers went on strike after the avoidable deaths of two Black employees, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while lending them his support. The widowed Coretta Scott King led a silent march of 42,000 that ended in the history-making recognition of the Black workers’ union. And in 1982, during the Ladies’ Garment Workers Strike in Chinatown, 20,000 Asian-American women won better working conditions for garment workers in New York. 

Each labor strike in American history has built upon the failures, successes, and legacies of strikes past. From early strikes that worked to legitimize labor unions and shape the role of the government in changing the face of labor, to later strikes that improved working conditions not just for white men but for immigrants, people of color, women, and children, the labor movement is a rich, complex history of ordinary citizens coming together to fight for their rights. 

Persevering even under threat of violence and death, strikers have demonstrated that when they work together, people can truly do anything.