U.S. History's Biggest Strikes
The ability to strike has long been a negotiation tool for many American workers and labor unions. Throughout the country's history, American workers in a variety of fields have held strikes demanding higher pay, more manageable work hours, better contracts and benefits, and improved working conditions. Most recently, fast food workers from various establishments across the country have been making the headlines, as they strike demanding higher than minimum wage pay. As of July 2021, their walk-out numbers haven't come close to those that make up the top 10 biggest strikes in U.S. history. These strikers, whose numbers reached the hundreds of thousands, each had varying degrees of success. Here's a look at their efforts.
The Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886
The Great Southwest Railroad Strike, which spanned across Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, and Texas, took place from March to Sept. 1886. It included some 200,000 strikers. At the time, American railroads had been fast expanding across state lines, but by 1886, the Knights of Labor workers called a strike against their employers, the Union Pacific Railroad and the Missouri Pacific Railroad, both owned by Jay Gould, a robber baron.
The strikers protested what they claimed to be unsafe conditions, oppressive hours, and paltry pay. Unfortunately for the strikers, the members of other railroad unions did not support the walkout. The railroad companies eventually prevailed by hiring non-union workers, resulting in the disbanding of the Knights of Labor.
The Pullman Strike of 1894
The Pullman Strike took place in 1894, during the months of May to July, when some 250,000-factory workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago walked off the job. The workers had been enduring 12-hour workdays and reduced wages, due in part to the depressed economy. Members of the American Railway Union (the largest labor union of its time and one of the first), joined forces with the strikers and refused to work on or run any trains that included Pullman-owned cars.
The Great Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902
The Great Anthracite Coal Strike started when 147,000 coal miners who were part of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) went on strike in Eastern Pennsylvania from May to Oct. 1902. Many feared the strike would result in a major energy crisis, as the area of Pennsylvania where they works were striking held the nation's largest supply of anthracite coal. The miners were seeking better wages and improved conditions.
Finally, in the winter of 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt intervened, fearing a heating crisis if the miners did not go back to work. His negotiating efforts proved unsuccessful. It wasn’t until banker and industrialist J.P. Morgan, worried about how the strike would negatively affect his own businesses, stepped in and a resolution was found. The miners eventually agreed to a 10% raise, down from their initial 20% wage increase demand.
The Steel Strike of 1919
The Steel Strike of 1919 included some 350,000 steel workers in Pittsburgh who worked for The United States Steel Corporation and were represented by the American Federation of Labor (the first federation of labor unions in the U.S.). After enduring years of long hours, low wages, corporate harassment, and poor working conditions, the strikers shut down almost half of the country's steel industry. The strike lasted from Sept. 1919 to Jan. 1920.
The U.S. Steel Corporation (X) fought back by using scare tactics to turn public sentiment away from the strikers, linking them to communism and immigration problems. The strike finally proved unsuccessful, and for the next 15 years, there were no union organizations in the steel industry.
The Railroad Shop Workers Strike of 1922
The Railroad Shop Workers Strike of 1922 took place from July to Oct. 1922, and included some 400,000 strikers. The walkout was touched off when the Railroad Labor Board cut wages for railroad shop workers by 7 cents. Rather than negotiate, the railroad companies replaced three-quarters of the strikers with non-union workers. U.S. Attorney General Harry Daugherty also convinced a federal judge to ban strike-related activities, leading the strikers to return to work, after they settled for a 5 cent pay cut.
The Textile Workers Strike of 1934
The Textile Workers Strike of 1934 included some 400,000 strikers. It took place in Sept. 1934 and stretched across the Eastern Seaboard. Textile workers were protesting long hours and low wages, as well as a lack of representation in the National Recovery Administration, a New Deal agency put forth by President Roosevelt. The strike persisted for over 20 days but ultimately failed, due to little popular support and a surplus of textiles available in the South. None of the workers demands were met, and many of them were ultimately blacklisted due to their involvement in the strike.
United Mine Workers of America of 1946
The United Mine Workers of America went on strike in 1946, during the months of April to December, rallying some 400,000 miners to walk off the job. The walkout became known as the Bituminous Coal Strike and affected over 26 states. The strikers demanded safer working conditions, health benefits, and better pay. President Truman attempted to reach a settlement with the union, but his efforts were rebuffed. In response he fined the workers $3.5 million and forced them to accept a deal, which put an end to the strike. Eventually, the strikers' demands were met in a compromise with the President.
The Steel Strike of 1959
The Steel Strike of 1959 ran from July to November and included a half of a million workers. With profits skyrocketing, members of the United Steelworkers of America went on strike to demand higher wages. Simultaneously, the steel company managers were seeking to get rid of a clause in the workers' contract that protected jobs and hours. The nationwide strike finally ended with a triumph for the union members, who received an increase in wages and the disputed contract clause went untouched.
The U.S. Postal Strike of 1970
The U.S. Postal Strike, which took place in March 1970, included 210,000 strikers. It was brought on by what the workers perceived as low wages, poor working conditions, and meager benefits. The strike began in New York City and spread nationwide. During the years that Nixon was president, collective bargaining by the U.S. postal workers was banned. Ignoring the ban, the workers refused to end the strike, leaving mail delivery at a standstill.
In retaliation, the Nixon administration sent in the National Guard to deliver the mail. The move was ineffective and two weeks later negotiations began again, resulting with the strikers demands being met. The workers also reinstated their right to bargain and negotiate.
UPS Workers Strike of 1997
The UPS Workers Strike kicked off in Aug. 1997, lead by the Teamsters. It rallied some 185,000 delivery-workers across the nation and was the largest strike of the decade. Workers wanted part-time jobs turned into full-time work, higher wages, and the safeguarding of their multiemployer pension plan. With public support high, the strikers' demands were granted.