WORK-LIFE BALANCE / SEP. 05, 2015
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9 Greatest Labor Strikes in History

It’s not uncommon for tension to appear between labour workers and those in upper managerial positions. It’s just not possible for everyone to agree with the decisions made, and that’s how tension arises. When those tensions reach boiling point and the workers feel like they can’t take it anymore and their morale has fallen desperately low, a strike normally occurs. Also sometimes called a labor stoppage, these mostly peaceful protests have proven to be a great negotiating tool throughout history. Though not always, labour strikes are a calm and collected way to protest when you don’t agree with something, or when workers feel that they deserve more. Sometimes strikes happen on a small scale but they can amass into the hundreds of thousands. Here’s a list of nine of the biggest labor strikes the world has seen.

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1. General Motors Strike

From September 24 to 26 in 2007 around 73,000 autoworkers from the United Auto Workers Union went on strike. The workers took a stand against General Motors as they rallied for better benefits and job stability, as well as raising their concerns about compensation and company investment. When two assembly plants and a transmission facility in Canada were shut down due to the strike, a deal was struck between the workers and the company.

2. The Great Southwest Railroad Strike

Back in 1886 around 200,000 strikers took a stand. In the 1800s, the American railroad was quickly expanding and it seems the employees were being put under too much pressure. From March to September, Knights of Labor workers from Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri and Texas refused to do their job. They protested that their work conditions were unsafe and that they were working long hours for little pay. However the strike wasn’t a real success due to the lack of commitment from the other railroad unions and the fact that non-nunion workers were able to be hired to complete the job. The failed strike ended with the disbanding of the Knights of Labor.

3. The Pullman Strike

In 1894 from May to July around 250,000 factory workers from the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago left their work and went on strike. The employees were dealing with twelve hour-long days and the risk of wage cuts due to the declining economy. These striking factory workers were soon joined by those from the American Railway Union (ARU) who began refusing to work on, or run any trains. The strike managed to stop all trains running from the west of Chicago. President Grover Cleveland was obviously unhappy about this and so he sent federal troops to Chicago on July 6, 1894 to try and sort it out. Violent outbreaks occurred across cities and the strike was eventually called off, while the ARU dissolved.

4. UK Postal Strike

If you were in the UK from the summer of 2009 to the spring of 2010, you were probably hoping that you wouldn’t need to send or receive anything urgent by mail. Tens of millions of posted items didn’t get delivered during this time as postal workers went on strike. The strike occurred after Royal Mail failed to disclose to its workers how modernisation plans would affect their job security. For example there were plans to introduce a letter-route sequencing machine which would see many workers put out of a job. The strike eventually resulted in a deal which gave the workers higher pay rates and an agreement that 75 percent of workers would keep their full-time jobs when changes were made.

5. The Great Anthracite Coal Strike

In 1902, 147,000 coal miners, working for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), went on strike in Eastern Pennsylvania. From May to October the workers threatened to create an energy crisis if they weren’t given better wages and better working conditions. In the winter of 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt eventually intervened as he had grown concerned that a heating crisis would develop if the worker’s didn’t go back to work soon. However, his attempt was unsuccessful. It was not until industrialist and financier J.P. Morgan tried to intervene that they managed to strike a deal. Worried that the strike would threaten the livelihood of his businesses, he managed to get the workers to agree on a 10 percent increase of their wages. This was despite the fact the workers had originally asked for a 20 percent raise.

6. The Railroad Shop Workers Strike

The year of 1992 was the year of the Railroad Shop Workers Strike. From July to October, 400,000 workers went on strike after it was revealed that the Railroad Labor Board was going to cut their wages by seven cents. This seems like nothing now but at that time it was a big deal. Instead of immediately trying to strike a deal with the workers, the railroad companies opted for employing non-union workers to fill the void. However, the strike continued, until it took another blow when U.S. Attorney General, Harry Daugherty, was able to persuade a federal judge to ban all strike-related activities. Realizing that the ban meant an end to their strike, the workers went back to work and accepted a five-cent cut to their wages. Not a brilliant outcome but it was better than nothing.

7. The South African Miner Strike 2007

December 4th, 2007 was the day when tens of thousands of people working in the South African mining industry didn’t go to work and went on strike. With 90 percent of workers in the region participating in the protest, around 60 companies found themselves affected. Lasting just one day, the workers protested against unsafe working conditions. It appears that it was the increased number of deaths between 2006 and 2007 that ignited the flame. The strikers came together for the day to advocate for better pay, better training for safety inspectors and more prosecution against those who acted negligently in the mining facilities.

8. The Steel Strike

Around 350,000 steel workers in Pittsburgh decided to go on strike from September 1919 to January 1920. They were employees of United States Steel Corporation and they were represented by the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The workers protested against their long hours, low pay, bad working conditions and corporate harassment. Managing to shut down half of the steel industry, company owners fought back against the strikers by using scare tactics. They turned the public against the protestors by saying they were linked to communism and immigration problems. The companies won and the strike failed and as a result union organizations were non-existent for the next fifteen years.

9. The Textile Workers Strike

In September 1934, 400,000 textile workers decided to go on strike, the strikes affected the entire Eastern seaboard. For twenty days they protested against their low wages and long hours. Unfortunately the strike was not a success due to the lack of outside support and to the fact that textiles were able to be brought in from the South. The workers never received the improvements they were after and in fact many were blacklisted.

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Sometimes strikes get their point across and give the average Joe a win. Sometimes they do not go so well and workers are required to return to work with the same conditions. However what these strikes show is just how powerful the human voice can be. Sometimes people might only feel little but when heaps of little people decide to band together they can successfully take on the big guy. Think of it as the classic David and Goliath story.

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