Work stoppages in North America date from colonial times, but the first documented strike for higher wages seems to have been by printers in Philadelphia (1786), who demanded a minimum wage of $6 per week. Philadelphia's Journeymen Cordwainers became the first union to be convicted of engaging in a criminal conspiracy when they went on strike in 1806. Until the 1930s, when New Deal legislation gave unions the right to organize and strike, U.S. courts frequently ruled that strikes were illegal and issued injunctions to force employees back to work.
The first nationwide strike occurred in 1877, when railroad workers struck in the middle of an economic depression. With the advent in the 1880s of such labor organizations as the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor, strikes became more frequent. Some of the more important industry-wide strikes in the United States have been those waged by the railroad employees in 1877 and 1894, by the United Mine Workers in 1902 and 1946–47, by the steel workers in 1919, 1937, 1952, and 1959, and by the auto workers in 1937 and 1946. Important local strikes have included those of the Western Federation of Miners in the early 20th cent. and of the Teamsters Union in Minneapolis in 1934.
The 1960s and 70s witnessed an increasing number of strikes by public employees, notably teachers, municipal workers, police officers, and firefighters, but generally the tendency in the United States after World War II has been toward fewer strikes. The number of strikes dropped from a record high of 470 involving 1,000 workers or more in 1952, when 2.7 million workers went on strike, to a record low of 29 in 1997, when 339,000 workers struck. (In 1988 only 118,000 workers went out on strike, but there were 40 strikes involving 1,000 workers or more.) In the 1980s employers increasingly adopted the tactic of replacing striking union workers with nonunion workers; in 1981, for example, President Reagan ordered the replacement of 8,590 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization when they went on strike.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.