The Biggest Work Strikes in U.S. History
As we're seeing with the current Writers Guild of America strike and recent teachers' strikes in California, workers across various industries have always taken a stand against unfair labor practices, demanding better working conditions, higher wages and improved rights.
These movements have played a significant role in shaping labor relations and bringing about social change in the United States. From the struggles of coal miners to the demands of railroad workers, strikes have left an indelible mark on the trajectory of workers' rights, even if they weren't successful at the time.
These are the 10 biggest work strikes in U.S. history, listed from oldest to most recent.
10. Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886
Dates: March 1 – May 4, 1886
Number of striking workers: 200,000
At the root of every strike are workers' rights and company profits. In the Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886, workers bemoaned the little pay they received for long hours and unsafe conditions.
When a railroad worker named Charles Hall was fired for attending a Knights of Labor union meeting, it was a clear violation of the agreement that workers could not be fired “without due notice and investigation.” His firing sparked a multistate strike against two rail systems owned by Jay Gould, a railroad magnate and Gilded Age robber baron who controlled 12 percent of all tracks in the country. The Knights of Labor called the strike, which affected workers in Texas, Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas and Missouri.
By the 10 day of the strike, violence erupted, and 10 people were killed, with some areas declaring martial law. A few days later, workers started burning railroad bridges. By the end of March, affected state governors demanded that roads and railroads resume business. Gould and the Knights of Labor began discussions at the beginning of April, but the violence continued, and they could never reach an agreement.
Furthermore, other railroad unions were not in support of the Knights of Labor's walkout. Gould's railroad companies hired non-union workers, weakening the Knights of Labor's power significantly. By May, Congress advised the Knights of Labor to end the strike.
On Aug. 1, 1886, the Knights of Labor dissolved, and the strike was considered a failure for the workers.
9. Pullman Strike of 1894
Dates: May 11 – July 20, 1894
Number of striking workers: 250,000
The Pullman Company was a prominent railroad car manufacturing business based in Pullman, Illinois. Its workers also suffered harsh working conditions with little pay. George Pullman laid off workers by the hundreds and cut wages by 30 percent for those who remained. On top of everything else, Pullman would not lower rent for workers living in his town or lower prices in his store.
Workers were in an untenable situation, and the American Railway Union (ARU), led by Eugene V. Debs, launched a boycott of Pullman cars, refusing to handle any trains that included them. The strike caught on, gaining support from workers around the country. It paralyzed railroad traffic and disrupted the nation's transportation system.
Like the Great Southwest Railroad Strike a few years earlier, this strike turned violent, and President Grover Cleveland soon stepped in to stop it. At least 30 people were killed by the National Guard during a riot in which hundreds of railcars were destroyed.
On June 28, 1894, as the strike raged, Cleveland signed an act making Labor Day a national holiday. The legislation was a response to the strike and aimed to acknowledge the importance of the labor movement in society. It essentially marked the end of the strike.
According to Richard Schneirov, a professor of history at Indiana State University, "It was a way of being supportive of labor. Labor unions were a constituency of the Democratic Party at the time, and it didn't look good for Cleveland, who was a Democrat, to be putting down this strike."
8. Great Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902
Dates: May 1902 – October 1902
Number of striking workers: 147,000
Eastern Pennsylvania coal miners who were members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) went on strike seeking higher wages and better work conditions. The strike paralyzed the region and created a nationwide coal shortage.
President Theodore Roosevelt recognized the implications of the strike on the economy and the welfare of the coal miners. In October, he intervened and called for a meeting between the coal operators and the union.
With his help, both sides reached a settlement in just a few weeks. The agreement provided for wage increases, reduced working hours, improved safety measures and the establishment of a grievance system.
7. Steel Strike of 1919
Dates: Sept. 22, 1919 – Jan. 8, 1920
Number of striking workers: 350,000
The Steel Strike of 1919 was one of many attempts to unionize the steel industry by the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Steel companies were anti-union and used unscrupulous tactics — violence, intimidation and blacklisting — to prevent workers from joining. Workers for the United States Steel Corporation under the AFL walked off the job due to long hours, low wages, company harassment and poor working conditions.
Due to the strike, nearly half of the steel industry was shut down, and for a little while, the strike was considered a success. But the steel companies were not short of underhanded tactics and used them to the best of their ability. This included hiring scabs, using the court system to enjoin the strike and using violence against striking workers.
By the time the strike ended, the AFL was defeated. It would take another 15 years before unions were a part of the steel industry.
6. Railroad Shop Workers Strike of 1922
Dates: July 1 – Sept. 1, 1922
Number of striking workers: 400,000
The Railroad Shop Workers Strike of 1922 (aka the Great Railroad Shop Strike) involved mostly those employed in railway shops and maintenance facilities. It began when the U.S. Railroad Labor Board imposed a wage reduction on workers.
The Shop Crafts Union demanded wage restoration and improvements in working conditions. When its members went on strike, maintenance and repair work was brought to a standstill. Others — including machinists, boilermakers, blacksmiths and electrical workers — soon joined the strike in support.
The federal government, concerned about the impact of the strike on the transportation system and the economy (and the violence that took place between law enforcement and strikers), intervened by deploying troops and obtaining court injunctions against the workers. This effectively ended the strike. A federal judge also banned further strike-related activities, as per U.S. Attorney General Harry Daugherty. The strikers returned to work with a 5-cent pay cut.
5. Textile Workers Strike of 1934
Dates: Sept. 1 – Sept. 23, 1934
Number of striking workers: 400,000
Money was already tight during the Great Depression, and textile workers were seeking better working conditions, higher wages and the right to unionize. In September 1934, the National Textile Workers Union (NTWU), a union affiliated with the United Textile Workers of America (UTWA), called for a nationwide strike in the textile industry with a focus on the South, where most textile production took place.
Once the strike was called, workers walked off their jobs, picketed mills and engaged in acts of civil disobedience. They faced harsh opposition from mill owners and law enforcement, who used violence and intimidation to break the strike, but those entities were unable to do so. Instead, the striking workers gained support from other unions and sympathizers across the country.
That support soon waned, and since there was a surplus of textiles available, the strike didn't last either. The workers' demands were not met, and many were blacklisted from the textile industry.
4. Great Coal Strike of 1946
Dates: April 1946 – May 1946
Number of striking workers: 400,000
Also known as the Bituminous Coal Strike of 1946, one of the largest strikes in history began when UMWA miners walked off their jobs to demand improved wages, better working conditions and the recognition of their union.
The strike resulted in a severe coal shortage, affecting various industries and disrupting life across the country. President Harry S. Truman intervened, but his efforts were rebuffed by the striking workers. He angrily fined them $3.5 million, forcing them to accept a deal.
While the strike had ended, the miners did get something out of it. Their demands were met in the Promise of 1946, a deal enshrined in the Krug-Lewis Agreement that created health and welfare funds for the workers.
3. Steel Strike of 1959
Dates: July 15 – Nov. 7, 1959
Number of striking workers: 500,000
By the time of the Steel Strike of 1959, the steel industry did have a union, the United Steelworkers of America. Steelmakers wanted to get rid of a contract clause limiting a company's ability to change how many workers could be placed on a task or introduce new machinery or rules that would reduce employee work hours or people. Thus, the strike between the companies and steel workers began.
The strike (which was one of the longest, lasting 116 days) caused material shortages in the auto industry, which threatened the job security of its workers. While the union was successful in keeping the contract clause, its victory was short-lived. By the 1980s, foreign steel imports started to increase, and the U.S. steel industry never recovered.
2. U.S. Postal Strike of 1970
Dates: March 18–25, 1970
Number of striking workers: 200,000+
The U.S. Postal Strike of 1970 (aka the Great Postal Strike) marked the first time in the country's history that federal employees could engage in collective bargaining.
At the time, postal workers faced low wages, poor working conditions and a lack of rights and benefits. The American Postal Workers Union (APWU), which represented a significant portion of the workforce, led the strike, which began in New York City and quickly spread to others. The strike disrupted mail delivery and brought postal services around the county to a halt.
Under President Richard Nixon, the federal government sought court injunctions to force the workers back to work. However, the public supported the striking workers, as did the media — the strike received extensive coverage, raising awareness of the workers' grievances.
Nixon sent the National Guard to deliver the mail, which was a disaster. Union activist Paul Prescod said of the idea: "It turns out moving the mail is actually hard; there are skills associated with it, so they did terribly at moving the mail. There are reports of some postal workers who were in the National Guard actually deliberately sabotaging the process to help out [the striking] postal workers."
It took only eight days for agreement to be reached between the APWU and the government. The workers received higher wages, better benefits, the right to collectively bargain and improved working conditions. Also, through this strike, the United States Postal Service (USPS) became an independent agency.
1. UPS Workers Strike of 1997
Dates: Aug. 4 – Aug. 19, 1997
Number of striking workers: 185,000
In 1997, UPS increasingly relied on part-time workers who received lower wages, fewer benefits and had limited opportunities for full-time positions. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) sought job security, higher wages, increased full-time positions and better benefits for all workers.
During the 16-day strike, UPS's operations were severely disrupted, resulting in a significant backlog of packages. Negotiations between UPS and the Teamsters continued during the strike, and when it was settled, various provisions were included, such as increased wages, improved benefits, more full-time positions and a reduction in the use of part-time employees.