10 biggest labor strikes in U.S. history

Striking United Parcel Service (UPS) workers and local Teamster Unions picket outside a UPS distribution center, August 4, 1997 near downtown Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Bob Riha, Jr./Getty Images) (Getty Images)

There are two labor battles that are currently producing a lot of attention around the country.

One is the dispute between screenwriters in Hollywood (the Writers Guild of America) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, a strike that started on May 2 and is affecting the production of movies and TV shows.

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Another is the strike that started shortly after midnight on Friday between the United Auto Workers and the big three automakers, GM, Ford and Stellantis.

Given that, it got us to thinking. What are the biggest labor disputes or strikes in American history?

Here are the 10 biggest by the number of striking workers, according to Statista.

10. The Great Anthracite Coal Strike

In 1902, the United Mine Workers of America orchestrated a strike in eastern Pennsylvania demanding a 20% increase in pay and 8-hour work days instead of 10-hour workdays. The strike started in May 1902 and involved 147,000 workers. Fearing that a coal shortage would affect the ability of Americans to heat homes during the winter, President Theodore Roosevelt got involved and helped broker a compromise. Most workers got a 10% increase in pay and got their work days shortened from 10 hours to nine hours.

9. UPS Workers Strike

Organized by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, this strike involving 185,000 workers at the United Parcel Service lasted 15 days after starting on Aug. 4, 1997. Losses were reportedly $850 million for UPS. Eventually, a five-year deal was reached where workers got increases in hourly rates.

8. The Great Southwest Railroad Strike

On March 1, 1886, 200,000 railroad workers in Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri and Texas went on strike against Union Pacific and Missouri railroads. The strike started after a member of the Knights of Labor — labor organization representing the workers — was fired for attending a union meeting on company time, which union members said was a violation of an agreement with Union Pacific.

The strike was filled with violence, with striking workers disabling or assaulting moving trains and threatening engineers who refused to honor the strike.

There were even deaths that were caused due to confrontations related to the strike, which turned the public against the workers.

Ultimately, the strike was unsuccessful and was called off on May 4, 1886. The Knights of Labor was eventually disbanded and replaced by the American Federation of Labor.

7. The U.S. Postal Strike

On March 18, 1970, roughly 210,000 postal employees went on strike demanding better working conditions and pay. The strike involved 499 post offices in 13 states after starting in New York City.

President Richard Nixon tried to fight the strike, sending roughly 23,000 military personnel to help sort and deliver mail, but that didn’t work as the tasks couldn’t be done without training.

After the nation’s mail system was crippled, the Nixon administrated eventually negotiated with workers and created the Postal Reorganization Act, where workers gained an 8% wage increase.

The strike ended up lasting one week.

6. The Pullman Strike

A railroad strike that lasted from May 11 through July 20 in 1894, workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company — a maker of railroad cars based out of Chicago— walked out after seeing wages cut in the midst of an economic depression.

The strike involved 250,000 workers.

Eventually, the American Railway Union attempted to back the workers by launching a nationwide boycott against train companies that used Pullman cars.

Ultimately, the strike collapsed after it led to too much violence, deaths and damage.

5. The Steel Strike of 1919

In September of 1919, roughly 350,000 workers at steel factories across Midwestern states went on strike demanding better pay and shorter work days.

The strike ultimately didn’t work, as union members were too divisive, plagued by tension and infighting. Some workers even crossed the picket line, and the strike was called off on Jan. 8, 1920.

4. The Textile Workers Strike

On Sept. 1, 1934, there were 400,000 textile workers that went on strike throughout the country in search of not only better pay and working conditions, but also more labor representation.

Due to limited support from local government and the public, the strike eventually fizzled and lasted just three weeks.

3. United Mine Workers of America Strike

In April 1946 after World War II ended, 400,000 miners from 26 states went on strike for better pay, retirement and medical funds, and working conditions.

Fearing a threat to the postwar economy, Harry Truman got involved and ultimately a deal was reached where workers got better benefits through the creation of the UMWA Health and Welfare Funds.

2. The Great Railroad Strike of 1922

A strike that involved 400,000 railroad workers across the country, the dispute began after a wage reduction. However, conductors, engineers, brakemen and firemen who operated the trains weren’t affected by the strike.

Knowing that, companies hired strikebearers to fill the other skilled positions. Pair that with a lot of racial and other division among the striking workers, and the strike ultimately failed after two months.

1. The Steel Strike of 1959

A 116-day strike that lasted from July 15 to November 7 in 1959, this involved 500,00 steel workers.

The dispute started when management demanded the United Steelworkers of America give up a clause in a contract which limited management’s ability to change the number of workers on a task or to introduce new technology that would result in reduced hours for employees.

Ultimately, the union retained the contract clause and earned minimal pay increases.

About the Author

Keith is a member of Graham Media Group's Digital Content Team, which produces content for all the company's news websites.

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