The 10 Biggest Strikes In U.S. History

U.S. History's Biggest Strikes

A strike is an organized stoppage of work conducted by laborers in order to impose bargaining power against employers. Strikes may be carried out in response to dangerous working conditions, unfair treatment, low wages, or any other workplace grievance that negatively impacts workers' safety or wellbeing. Strikes are usually a culmination of existing grievances that compound over time, often with an inciting, proximate incident. They can be set off by a long lack of wage increases that don't keep up with inflation, and workers may be galvanized to strike by political rhetoric or pushback from corporate management.

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.

These most recent walk-outs, however, have not come close to those strikes that make up the top 10 biggest in U.S. history. These strikers, whose numbers reached the hundreds of thousands, had varying degrees of success but were pivotal in shaping the state of the workplace today. Below, we list ten of the largest and most important strikes, in chronological order.

Key Takeaways

  • Worker strikes occur in response to unfair or unsafe labor conditions, in order to address grievances and improve those conditions.
  • While strikes are less common today than in the past, past worker actions have shaped today's workplace and labor laws.
  • Here, we document ten of the biggest and most influential labor strikes in U.S. history.
The 10 Biggest Strikes In U.S. History

Investopedia / Sabrina Jiang

Key Concepts in Labor History

While strikes are often a last resort, they are an important and often effective tool for workers to use in order to gain certain rights, privileges, or protections. The 40-hour workweek, workers' compensation laws, safety regulations, and minimum wages are all the result of labor actions. This often comes through via collective bargaining, since any one individual worker usually has little bargaining power in relation to their boss or company owners. As a group, workers are better able to negotiate and make threats, such as a strike.

Collective bargaining among workers is often coordinated through a labor union, an organization of workers in a particular company or industry, that work together to achieve their collective goals. While not as prevalent today as in the past, unions still have a great deal of power as well as political influence. Because union workers can often demand higher wages and other benefits, employers can be reluctant or even hostile to the prospect of unionization. Today's unions also tend to be more diplomatic. The labor strikes of the 19th and early 20th century could be violent affairs, leaving many dead and wounded as part of the labor struggle.

In 2020, an estimated 14.3 million workers (or just under 11% of the workforce) in the U.S. were members of labor unions.

The Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886

The Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886
  • Start Date: March 1886
  • End Date: September 1886
  • Primary Union Involved in Strike: Knights of Labor
  • Number of Workers Involved: 200,000

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 unsafe conditions, oppressive hours, and paltry pay. When railroad worker Charles Hall was fired unfairly, it was the final straw. During the strike, violent clashes broke out between pro-labor crowds and company-hired security forces & police across the country from Texas to Illinois, leaving at least nine dead and dozens injured. 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 weakening of power of the union Knights of Labor.

Racism and anti-immigrant sentiment played a role in early strikes; especially, although not exclusively, anti-Chinese racism was entwined with the antimonopoly movement and early railroad strikes.

The Pullman Strike of 1894

The Pullman Strike of 1894
  • Start Date: May 1894
  • End Date: July 1894
  • Primary Union Involved in Strike: American Railway Union
  • Number of Workers Involved: 250,000

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, under union leader Eugene Debbs, with the strikers and refused to work on or run any trains that included Pullman-owned cars.

As many as 30 people were killed by the National Guard as the Pullman strike turned bloody after rioters destroyed hundreds of railcars. Labor Day as a national holiday was a direct result of the Pullman strike, signed into law by President Grover Cleveland in July 1894, and marking the end of the strike.

The Great Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902

The Great Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902
  • Start Date: May 1902
  • End Date: October 1902
  • Primary Union Involved in Strike: United Mine Workers of America
  • Number of Workers Involved: 147,000

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.

Because unions were limited to White men, and tied up heavily with the concept of White manhood, the ideas of “scabs” and “strikebreakers” who crossed the picket lines to work were also often highly racialized. Black workers were excluded from unions, and therefore for most of American history, were not allowed to participate in these strikes. Scholars have argued that this racial divide was an important factor in dividing and weakening labor movements, as White workers’ exclusion of Black workers from unions made organizing effective strikes much more difficult than if unions had been integrated.

The Steel Strike of 1919

The Steel Strike of 1919
  • Start Date: September 1919
  • End Date: January 1920
  • Primary Union Involved in Strike: American Federation of Labor
  • Number of Workers Involved: 350,000

The Steel Strike of 1919 included some 350,000 steelworkers 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.

Just as anti-Chinese racism tied to Chinese immigration was connected to railroad strikes, the First Red Scare amid the rise of communism in Europe was heavily linked to immigration from that area, and workers were especially suspicious of Jews, fueling anti-Semitism.

The Railroad Shop Workers Strike of 1922

The Railroad Shop Workers Strike of 1922
  • Start Date: July 1922
  • End Date: October 1922
  • Primary Union Involved in Strike: Railroad Labor Board
  • Number of Workers Involved: 400,000

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. During the strike, at least 10 workers were killed by the National Guard and private security at various incidents around the country. 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
  • Start Date: September 1, 1934
  • End Date: September 23, 1934
  • Primary Union Involved in Strike: United Textile Workers
  • Number of Workers Involved: 400,000

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 blocklisted due to their involvement in the strike.

United Mine Workers of America of 1946

United Mine Workers of America of 1946
  • Start Date: April 1946
  • End Date: May 1946
  • Primary Union Involved in Strike: United Mine Workers of America
  • Number of Workers Involved: 400,000

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 in a deal known as The Promise of 1946, and enshrined in the Krug-Lewis Agreement, creating health and welfare funds for miners.

The Steel Strike of 1959

The Steel Strike of 1959
  • Start Date: July 1959
  • End Date: November 1959
  • Primary Union Involved in Strike: United Steel Workers of America
  • Number of Workers Involved: 500,000

The Steel Strike of 1959 ran from July to November and included a half 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 of 1970
  • Start Date: March 1970
  • End Date: April 1970
  • Primary Union Involved in Strike: National Association of Letter Carriers
  • Number of Workers Involved: 200,000+

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 in the strikers demands being met, including an 8% raise. The workers also reinstated their right to bargain and negotiate.

UPS Workers Strike of 1997

UPS Workers Strike of 1997
  • Start Date: August 4, 1997
  • End Date: August 19, 1997
  • Primary Union Involved in Strike: Teamsters
  • Number of Workers Involved: 185,000

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.

Article Sources
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