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10 labor strikes bigger than Verizon’s 36,000-worker walkout

Earlier this week, 36,000 Verizon workers — most of whom work in the company's ailing landline phone sector — went on strike.

A jaunt through the US Bureau of Labor Statistics' work stoppage archive tells us this strike is the largest in the United States since 45,000 workers (also Verizon employees) walked off the job in 2011. But going back even further, to the heyday of union membership, history yields hundreds of even bigger worker uprisings: Between 1890 and today, there were over 500 strikes with 50,000 or more participants.

We decided to take a look at 10 of the largest strikes in US history, spread over the course of a century (presented in chronological order): What precipitated them? How long did they last? And how were they ultimately resolved?


Zachary Crockett / Vox

When: June to July 1894

Number of strikers: 250,000

Why it happened:
In the 1880s, an industrialist named George Pullman established a "company town" on the outskirts of Chicago and began constructing railroad cars. Here, 6,000 of his employees lived where they worked. Pullman controlled housing, utility bills, markets, and every other facet of his workers' lives.

When the panic of 1893 struck, demand for Pullman's railroad cars sank.

To keep his company afloat, Pullman slashed his workers' wages by 30 percent. He didn't, however, lower their rent or the cost of goods. Consequently, Pullman's entire workforce — who existed at his whim — entered a period of abject poverty.

When the workers voiced their concerns to Pullman, he refused to listen.

So instead, they turned to the American Railway Union and its leader, famed socialist Eugene V. Debs. On June 26, 1894, Debs called for a strike and a boycott of Pullman cars; by month's end, more than 250,000 workers had joined the cause.

Result:
In the course of their boycott, the Pullman strikers sometimes resorted to violence and destruction of property — and their efforts were met with equally militant resistance: 30 people were killed, and $80 million ($2.2 billion in 2016 dollars) in damage was inflicted.

The US government issued a formal warning against the union to end its boycott. After a continued stand, President Cleveland ordered in the military and crushed the strike.

Debs was sentenced to prison, and his American Railway Union collapsed.

Success or failure for strikers? Failure


Zachary Crockett / Vox

When: September 1919 to January 1920

Number of strikers: 350,000

Why it happened:
After World War I, a Red Scare swept America. And union-led strikes and labor uprisings were interpreted as communistic.

In 1919, steelworkers who were members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers (AA) were denied the right to assemble by their employers and faced constant harassment in the workplace.

By midyear, feelings of disenfranchisement (and frustration over low wages) prompted action: On September 22, 1919, some 350,000 steel workers around the country called a strike.

Result:
Though the strike shut down half the steel industry and most major US-operated mills, steel companies refused to negotiate. Instead, they used the Red Scare to turn public opinion against the unions and played into "nativist fears" by citing the large contingency of immigrant steelworkers. At the slightest sign of protest, strikers were beaten and jailed by local authorities.

By year's end, many workers had abandoned the strike and returned to work. Fights between these workers and those who held their ground escalated, causing internal tensions in the union.

On January 8, 1920, the strike finally died out, and the union sank into obscurity.

For the next 15 years, the steel industry was strike-free — and all the while, technology increasingly replaced skilled labor jobs.

Success or failure for strikers? Failure


Zachary Crockett / Vox

When: July to October 1922

Number of strikers: 400,000

Why it happened:
In the early 1900s, the railroad system was America's primary means of transportation. During World War I, this system was controlled by the government, and workers enjoyed relatively harmonious relations with their overseers.

But the Transportation Act of 1920 shifted power to a nine-member panel called the Railroad Labor Board. And in 1922 the board decided to deeply cut the wages of millions of railroad workers by 7 cents (about 12 percent of the average salary).

At the time, these workers were represented by 16 various railroad unions. On July 1, 1922, seven of them mounted a strike, and 400,000 workers across the country joined.

Result:
In response to the strike, the Railway Labor Board directed railroads to hire non-union workers as replacements and to strip the revolting union workers of their seniority. As picketers and employers clashed, mayhem ensued. Intense violence erupted on both sides, and at least 10 people were killed.

After a series of failed negotiation efforts, US Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty — a virulent anti-unionist — issued an injunction banning all railroad workers from striking or protesting. Though this injunction was met with overwhelming disapproval, it eventually killed off the strike.

Success or failure for strikers? Failure


Zachary Crockett / Vox

When: September 1934

Number of strikers: 400,000

Why it happened:
In the throes of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the National Industrial Recovery Act(NIRA). Among other things, the act sought to regulate work hours and raise wages for many American workers.

But in 1933, when NIRA mandated a 40-hour workweek for textile employees, mill owners simply increased production quotas. Workers were expected to produce the same amount of goods in 40 hours as they were in their previous 60-hour weeks. As a result, working conditions were abysmal.

Around the same time, the United Textile Workers union (UTW) was exploding in membership: Between 1933 and 1934, it grew from 15,000 to 250,000 members.

In the autumn of 1934, the union drafted a set of demands (30-hour workweek, increased minimum wage, union recognition) and decided to strike if they were not met.

The mills refused to meet with UTW, and over the first few days of September, some 400,000 textile workers called a strike.

Result:
As much as 60 percent of the American textile industry entirely shut down. A week into the strike, the National Guard dispersed to localities throughout the southern US, and intense bouts of violence broke out between the soldiers and protestors.

Several states took military action.

South Carolina's governor ordered that any union protestor be shot, no questions asked. In Georgia, picketers were corralled into an old World War I POW camp and held until peace was restored. At least six men were killed.

After President Roosevelt instituted a Textile Labor Relations Boardwhere workers could formally lodge their complaints, the UTW called off the strike and declared victory — even though the mills had met none of their demands.

Wages remained low for decades.

Success or failure for strikers? Failure


Zachary Crockett / Vox

When: November 1945 to March 1946

Number of strikers: 225,000

Why it happened:
During World War II, many of America's biggest unions took a "no-strike pledge" so as not to interfere with the fragile domestic front. This resulted in a backlog of labor disputes, and when the war ended in 1946 the strikes came pouring in.

Just days after Japanese forces surrendered, effectively ending World War II, the United Auto Workers (UAW) — one of the nation's largest unions at the time — demanded that General Motors increase unionized autoworkers' wages by 30 percent. GM offered 10 percent instead, citing that it was financially unable to pay up.

Follow-up negotiations failed. So on November 21, 1945, 225,000 autoworkers joined UAW in a strike.

Result:
The auto strike came at a time author Jeremy Brecher calls "the most concentrated period of labor-management strife in the country's history." UAW found support in an amalgam of other unions — electrical workers, meatpackers, miners — all of whom subsequently organized their own strikes.

The autoworkers rallied for 113 days — and their persistence finally paid off.

On March 13, 1946, GM announced that it would give all employees a 17.5 percent raise, as well as paid vacations and overtime pay. Though this was less than what the UAW initially sought, workers considered it a triumph.

Success or failure for strikers? Success


Zachary Crockett / Vox

When: January to March 1946

Number of strikers: 174,000

Why it happened:
During the war, power goliath General Electric posted record-setting profits, yet its workers' wages remained static. United Electric (a major electricity workers' union) demanded a wage increase of 25 cents per hour. When GE countered with a half-cent hourly raise, workers decided to strike.

Result:
On January 15, 1946, no less than 174,000 employees at GE (and fellow power company Westinghouse) stood up and left their posts.

Almost immediately, GE sought court injunctions to stop the strike — but the workers were overwhelmingly supported by the press, their communities, and fellow unions.

Nine weeks later, GE was forced to make a generous compromise: an 18.5-cent hourly raise for all workers. Over the following two years, the union was able to use its leverage to increase wages by another 20 percent.

Success or failure for strikers? Success


Zachary Crockett / Vox

When: April to December 1946

Number of strikers: 400,000

Why it happened:
In the wake of successful strikes by the United Electrical Workers and United Auto Workers unions, the United Mine Workers (UMW) wanted a piece of the labor revolution pie.

Led by unionizer John L. Lewis, the UMW organized a strike on April 1, 1946 — and 400,000 bituminous coal (a.k.a. "black coal") miners heeded the call. Their demands were for improved wages, benefits, and safety regulations.

Result: 
Two weeks in, the strike had already made a significant dent in the United States' postwar recovery effort.

President Harry S. Truman fearfully seized the mines and mandated that all workers return to their posts. But the workers pulled out again in November, citing a lack of improved mine conditions.

The federal government fined the UMW $700,000 ($8.5 million in 2016 dollars). And on December 7, 1946, the union was forced to end the strike. But ultimately, the government forced the coal companies to accept most of the union's terms in order to get their properties back.

Success or failure for strikers? Success


Zachary Crockett / Vox

When: July to November 1959

Number of strikers: 500,000

Why it happened:
In the 1950s, steel companies were experiencing a postwar boom, marked by record profits. The United Steel Workers Union (USW), which represented hundreds of thousands of steelworkers across America, argued that these profits entitled employees to increased wages and benefits.

The workers' contract was due to expire, and the steel industry countered that it would only agree to this increase if the union let go of clause 2(b), which limited management's ability to cut employees' hours at will.

The union adamantly declined, and the contract expired.

On July 15, 1959, after a series of failed back-and-forth offers, 500,000 workers went on strike.

Result:
The strike dragged on for months. Most of the country's major steel mills closed up shop, leading the Department of Defense to issue a national defense warning.

In November, President Dwight D. Eisenhower stepped in and used the Taft-Hartley Act to order the employees back to work. No compromise was met.

The following month, Vice President Richard Nixon — who was vying for the presidency and seeking the support of unions — met privately with the steel companies and negotiated a new contract for the workers.

Ultimately, they received a 7-cent hourly pay increase, vastly improved pension and health benefits, and an automatic cost-of-living wage adjustment.

Success or failure for strikers? Success


Zachary Crockett / Vox

When: March 1970

Number of strikers: 210,000

Why it happened:
In early March 1970, Congress announced that it would raise the pay of certain government employees. While it elected to bump its own members' salaries by 41 percent, postal workers were only a offered 4 percent increase.

Mail workers — who made an average of $6,176 ($37,900 in 2016 dollars) and worked in rain, sleet, or snow — saw this as a slap in the face.

Though these workers were represented by several different postal unions, they instead decided to organize a wildcat strike (a strike without the union's authorization).

They sought three things in particular: collective bargaining power (the right to organize and negotiate directly with their employers), improved benefits, and a more substantial pay raise.

Result: 
On March 18, 1970, more than 10,000 postal workers went on strike in New York City. Within a few days, the strike was joined by 210,000 people across the country.

Millions of letters sat undelivered, the stock market took a plunge, and President Nixon appeared on television to declare a national state of emergency. Nixon even threatened to dispense 24,000 military personnel to deliver mail. None of this encouraged the workers to relent.

By the end of the month, a final agreement was made: All postal workers received an initial 6 percent wage increase, followed by another 8 percent increase two months later.

Even better, the strike led to the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, which not only created the United States Postal Service but gave workers collective bargaining rights.

Success or failure for strikers? Success


Zachary Crockett / Vox

When: August 1997

Number of strikers: 185,000

Why it happened:
In 1997, the contract between UPS and its union workers was due to expire. These workers were concerned by their job security, and rightly so: For years, UPS had been transitioning from a full-time staff to a large force of lesser-paid, part-time workers.

Despite posting record profits in 1996 ($1 billion), the company claimed it was unable to offer more full-time jobs.

With the help of the Teamsters Union, UPS workers organized a list of demands: more full-time jobs, a wage increase, and no more subcontracting.

Result:
On August 4, 1997, 185,000 UPS workers launched a nationwide strike.

For two weeks, UPS and the Teamsters Union went back and forth on contract negotiations. With each passing day, UPS lost roughly $40 million in business. Under mounting financial pressure (and heat from widespread bad press), the company finally folded, offering pay raises of up to $4 per hour, improved benefits, and the creation of 10,000 new full-time job titles. Though this last point was later revoked in 1998, the contract was universally seen as a win for labor.

Success or failure for strikers? Success

Note: an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the U.S. government dispersed 24,000 Army troops to deliver mail during the Postal strike of 1970. While this threat was made by President Nixon, it was never fully carried out.

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