Criminal Justice Degrees Guide

The 10 Biggest Labor Showdowns in U.S. History

By Nancy Farrell

When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker proposed a bill that would require public employees of the state to contribute more of their pay to pension and health insurance funds, he probably had no idea of the fight he was starting. But the protesting teachers and state workers at the Wisconsin State Capitol are only the latest in a long history of American workers who’ve banded together to fight for collective bargaining rights and pay scales based on their own rules. Our nation’s history is full of such stories. Hopefully both sides in the Wisconsin battle can look to the past and learn what not to do. (Photo credit: AP.)

  1. The Homestead Strike: The turn of the 20th century saw plenty of labor disputes as the country continued to figure out how to navigate in an industrialized age. The 1892 Homestead Strike is a perfect example. Carnegie Steel’s plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania, was one of the most advanced around, and a portion of the iron and steel workers there were members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, or AA. After a series of strikes and negotiations, the AA went head-to-head with executive Henry Clay Frick in spring 1892 and asked for a wage increase; he countered with a drastic cut. When no agreement was reached, Frick locked AA members out of the plant on June 29, 1892, prompting a strike. Strikers battled with armed Pinkteron agents hired by Frick as the strike went on, and the state militia eventually came in. (Never a good sign.) When a wingnut anarchist unaffiliated with AA tried to assassinate Frick, public support for AA waned, and the strike eventually ended in November. The result was a huge moral defeat for AA and flagging membership.
  2. The Ludlow Massacre: Every now and then, labor showdowns go beyond the typical heated rhetoric and actually rack up casualties. Such was the case with what would come to be known as the Ludlow Massacre, which took place in Ludlow, Colorado, in spring 1914. The Colorado Coal Strike stretched for more than a year through 1913 and ’14, organized by the United Mine Workes of America as a way to barter for wages and rights for workers serving the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, the Victor-American Fuel Company, and the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company. About 1,200 workers called a strike in fall 1913, and soon after they began clashing with hired agents called in as strike-breakers. By April 1914, the National Guard had been called in, and tensions led to a firefight that claimed 19 lives, including two women and four children who suffocated to death in a tent set on fire. The incident set off a guerilla war between the sides that took even more lives, and the battle and strike lasted until December 1914, when the UMWA ran low on cash and ended the strike.
  3. The Postal Service Strike of 1970: Although it only lasted for two weeks, this strike by mail carriers was a landmark in the development of collective bargaining rights for the group. Until that point, collective bargaining had been forbidden, and many workers were upset at not having a broader recourse for low pay and poor benefits. The strike began in New York City in mid-March 1970 and would eventually spread to include more than 200,000 employees. The effect was immediate: suddenly, the mail stopped getting delivered, and the country almost shut down. President Nixon made a TV appearance to try and end the strike, but to no avail. He eventually had members of the Armed Forces step in to deliver the mail. The strike turned out to be a victory for the postal workers: they negotiated to get collective bargaining and made headway that would eventually lead to the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, which eliminated the cabinet-level Post Office Department and created the independent United States Postal Service.
  4. The WGA Strike of 2007: Artist strikes in Hollywood are hardly unusual, but the Writers Guild of America strike that ran from November 2007 to February 2008 dealt with a new twist: digital media. At issue were the residuals that writers earned from sales of their works in new formats, specifically streaming and downloaded video, which was something that didn’t even exist in any real way when their original payment agreements had been struck. The WGA entered its regular negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (they do so every three years) but couldn’t see eye to eye on digital royalties. As a result, writers went on strike, which meant any films in production couldn’t do rewrites, and all TV series in production were cut short for that season. Legions of actors and actresses picketed with writers and appeared in promo videos for the cause, putting public sympathies largely with the creatives. The two sides eventually reached an agreement, and TV series jumped back into production to try and make up for lost time.
  5. The Air Traffic Controllers’ Strike of 1981: In August of 1981, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization went on strike to demand higher wages and a 32-hour workweek. The group had been around since 1968 and had backed Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential race. Ironically, Reagan became their biggest foe less than a year after he took office. When they struck, they violated a law barring government unions from striking, so Reagan ordered them to return to work or risk their jobs permanently. However, of the 13,000 controllers on strike, only 10 percent went back to work. Reagan called their bluff and fired the rest, banning them from federal service (an order that woudn’t be overturned until Clinton took office) and going about the business of restaffing the work force. PATCO was decertified shortly thereafter.
  6. The Pullman Strike: The Pullman Strike kicked off in May 1894 with what’s called a wildcat strike, or a strike undertaken by workers without the say-so of union officials. About 3,000 employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company, located in Pullman, Illinois, struck to protest wage cuts, and the result was a virtual shut-down of Chicago traffic. The workers were part of the American Railway Union, headed by Eugene V. Debs, one of the most powerful union leaders in history. A nationwide Pullman boycott kicked in and eventually spread to a quarter of a million workers across half the country. President Grover Cleveland eventually broke up the strike with the aid of the Army and U.S. Marshals, though not without a fight: all told, 13 strikers died and dozens more were wounded. Debs went to jail for ignoring an injunction to end the strike.
  7. The NHL Lockout of 1994: Disputes between atheletes and owners are common enough (the NFL is currently kicking up dirt for the same reasons), but this one was severe enough to shorten an entire season of pro hockey. A fight over salary caps and revenue sharing led to a lockout that began on October 1, 1994, and didn’t end until January 11, 1995. The subsequent season was only 48 games long, though during the lockout the players’ association staged a "4-on-4 Challenge" tournament in Canada.
  8. The Chicago Teamsters’ Strike of 1905: This Teamsters’ Strike was special in that it was a sympathy strike begun in summer 1905 to show support for a local union of clothing workers, who struck for better pay and to protest the use of non-union subcontractors. Soon enough, the Teamsters and just about every other union in Chicago had joined in via sympathy strikes, essentially damaging not only Montgomery Ward (the department store that was the original target) but just about every major retailer in the area. The strike was marred by riots and fights, and by the time the strike came to a close in late July, more than 20 people were dead with hundreds more injured. The strike ended amid allegations of graft and corruption that damaged public support for the companies and the unions alike.
  9. The Florida Teachers’ Strike of 1968: One of the first statewide teacher strikes in U.S. history, if not the very first, this 1968 Florida dispute was waged by teachers and members of the Florida Education Association who wanted to receive higher pay and benefits in accordance with rising attendance in schools. Despite a growing student body from the baby boom, the schools remained underfunded and outdated, leading to low teacher morale. Even after the governor signed a package to raise taxes and inject some funds into the schools, many teachers complained that he didn’t go far enough, and they struck in February. Schools closes throughout the state, with some school districts feeling the effects for a week while others saw the strike last for months. At its peak, the strike claimed more than 25,000 educators. The lack of uniformity meant an eventual anticlimactic end as teachers eventually returned to work.
  10. The Diamond Walnut Strike: Some strikes last for months, or even a year or two, but the Diamond Walnut workers’ strike lasted 14 years, from 1991-2005. In the mid-1980s, when California’s Diamond Walnut was facing hard times, they asked workers to take pay cuts that went up to 40 percent, and though it was a brutal choice, many of them complied. Yet by the time the company’s fortunes turned around in the 1990s, union workers hadn’t had their pay returned to earlier levels. Contract negotiations broke down, and workers went on strike in the fall of 1991. Yet the company, prepared for the strike, hired replacement workers and ignored strikers’ requests. It took 14 years for the company to acquiesce to union demands, during which time many strikers suffered financially and emotionally. The whole affair is a reminder of how brutally labor and management can treat each other when no one wants to help the other out.