Five Labor Strikes That Made U.S. History

Verizon Strike

With the recent Verizon strike settlement ending after seven tense weeks, it’s clear that although labor unions are less prominent in this economy, the larger unions still have some clout. Almost 40,000 workers are returning to their posts after negotiations between The Communication Workers of America Union and Verizon. They ended up scoring a generous contract that includes a 11% raise over the next four years, better health care benefits, having the company create 1.400 more union jobs and cutting back their use of subcontractors.

This proves that labor organizations in the United States can still make employers sit up, take notice, and do at least part of their bidding when workers organize. Labor strikes are nothing new, and no doubt the Communication Workers of America took a lesson in collective bargaining from past historic company strikes, which helped shape labor today.  Here are five such notable strikes in U.S. history.

1. The Southwest Railroad Strike

For nearly seven months in 1886, train gears grinded to a halt when over 200,000 Railroad Workers simply stated putting down their tools and walking out, according to The Library of Congress online. The Knights of Labor faced off with railroad tycoon Jay Gould. Talks with Gould failed and the strikers became violent in many areas. Governors of Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas demanded that the trains keep running in their states, however, the inner strife within the Knights of Labor caused the union to crumble and thus the Knights gained nothing but trouble for their protests for better wages and working conditions. Since then, great emphasis has been put on union “solidarity,” as a union divided cannot win.

2. The Great New York City Garbage Strike

This monumental garbage strike of 1968 was almost avoided as United Sanitation Workers Union Leader John DeLury threatened then Mayor John Lindsay with a strike. Mayor Lindsay capitulated to demands of a $400 wage hike, overtime for Sundays, and a better pension package. It was too little too late for the workers, who went out on a wildcat strike anyway. As the strike was illegal under the Taylor Law, DeLury was sent off to jail.

Truly formidable piles of stinking garbage graced the Big Apple’s streets until the Rockefeller threatened to have the National Guard brought in to clean up the mess. Governor Rockefeller used this opportunity to pull rank on Mayor Lindsay, who thought the $400 per year he offered was extravagant. Nelson Rockefeller took over the city’s sanitation and negotiated with the workers for $425 with attrition, which finally appeased the strikers, according to Untapped

3. The Great Anthracite Coal Strike

Coal workers going on strike is part of history all around the world, yet one Coal Strike in 1902 gave then President Theodore Roosevelt some serious concern. As documented in The Department of Labor Website, The United Mine Workers of America strike went on from May of that year until October, when fear fuel shortages in eastern Pennsylvania spiked enough concern that the president himself tried to handle negotiations.

This didn’t work, so Industrialist J.P. Morgan stepped in, as he was afraid that the problem would affect his businesses. J.P. Morgan, a sophisticated financier, knew how to talk money and negotiate a deal. Although The United Mine Workers of America had originally asked for a 20% wage hike, they settled for a mere 10%. This strike raised public awareness concerning relationships between employees and employers and the role of government and industry to keep the country running.

4. The US Postal Workers Strike

In 1970, President Richard Nixon had a great deal on his plate. There was a brutal war still raging in Vietnam, the country was in a recession, and the Postal Workers Went out on Strike. Nixon had outlawed all strikes in accordance with his “Wage and Price” freezes, but the workers weren’t going to play by his rules. In the days before internet, postal mail was the lifeblood of industry and personal communication. According to Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum Blog, what set off the strike was a 41% raise to members of Congress, while postal employees got a mere 4%.

The blog goes on to say that many postal employees were so poorly paid that they were eligible for welfare. At midnight on March 18th of that year, the National Association of Letter Carriers voted to go out on their wildcat strike. By the time President Nixon went on TV to decry the New York strike, picket lines were already going up all across the US. This led to a fast resolution and the strike only lasted a week. The Postal Workers received a hefty increase in pay, and it brought national attention to the importance of mail carriers, considering the huge increase in postal mail after World War II

5. Textile Workers Strike

This 1926 strike is famous due to its far reaching impact on workers from several textile mills and the devastating affect on the solidarity and morale of textile workers. Originating in Passaic, New Jersey, and spreading throughout the east, these workers went on strike due to seriously low wages, long hours without paid overtime, and hazardous working conditions. By 1925 companies were citing “overproduction” and decided to cut these paltry worker’s wages further.

Despite all of these injustices, it was hard for The United Textile Workers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor, to organize these workers, as many were immigrants whom did not speak English and many who did feared losing the little income they had. Fifty percent of these workers were women and their income was necessary for family support. In their 1926 complaints, all they wanted was the pay cut reversed, time and a half for overtime, and sanitary and safer working conditions. After the 22 day strike, some companies did finally bargain, and then failed to keep their agreements.

Many simply fired their workers, and agreed to hire them back “without discrimination”. Many of whom were rehired were brought back to the same unbearable working conditions at a lower wage. According to The Global Nonviolent Action Database, membership after the strike went from 1,200 to just 100 members. It is clear that this failed strike had huge effect on union enthusiasm, and the membership in The United Textile Workers lost members and dissolved soon after.

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