The 10 Biggest Strikes in US History

Last updated on October 4, 2023

A strike is when workers stop working as a group to get better treatment from their employers. This can happen because they face dangerous work conditions, are paid too little, or have other serious problems at their jobs that affect their safety or well-being.

Strikes often happen after workers have been dealing with these issues for a long time, and sometimes they start because of a specific incident.

Workers might strike because their wages haven’t kept up with the rising cost of living, or because they’re upset with what their bosses or the government are saying.

Strikes have been an important way for American workers and labor unions to negotiate for better conditions for a long time. In the history of the United States, workers from different industries have gone on strike to ask for higher pay, shorter work hours, better contracts and benefits, and safer workplaces.

You might have heard about recent strikes by fast food workers who want higher wages, but these strikes are much smaller than the ones we’re going to talk about. The strikes we’re discussing involved hundreds of thousands of workers and played a big role in shaping the way work is today.

Here, we’ll tell you about ten of the biggest strikes in US history.

Biggest Strikes in US: Highlights
Strikes happen when workers protest against bad working conditions to make things better.✊💼
Strikes have been happening for a long time but are less common today.🕒📉
The strikes we’re talking about had a big impact on how work and labor laws are today.🌟🏢

Strikes, though typically a last resort, hold significant importance as a potent tool for workers to secure their rights, privileges, and protections. Many labor milestones, including the establishment of the 40-hour workweek, workers’ compensation laws, safety regulations, and minimum wages, can be attributed to labor actions.

These achievements often result from collective bargaining, as individual workers often lack substantial bargaining power when dealing with employers or company owners. By uniting as a group, workers gain the ability to negotiate collectively and leverage tactics like strikes.

Coordinated collective bargaining among workers frequently occurs through labor unions, organizations comprising employees within a specific company or industry who collaborate to achieve shared objectives. Although not as prevalent as in the past, unions still wield considerable power and political influence.

Because unionized workers often demand higher wages and additional benefits, employers may resist or oppose unionization efforts. Modern unions tend to favor diplomatic approaches, a notable shift from the often-violent labor strikes witnessed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, which left many casualties in their wake.

As of 2020, approximately 14.3 million workers in the United States, comprising just under 11% of the workforce, were members of labor unions.

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1️⃣ The Great Southwest Railroad Strike (1886)

  • Start Date: March 1886
  • End Date: September 1886
  • Primary Union Involved in Strike: Knights of Labor
  • Number of Workers Involved: 200,000
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The Great Southwest Railroad Strike unfolded from March to September 1886, spanning multiple states, including Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, and Texas, and encompassing around 200,000 striking workers.

During this period, American railroads were rapidly expanding across state boundaries. However, in 1886, the Knights of Labor, representing workers, initiated a strike against their employers, namely the Union Pacific Railroad and the Missouri Pacific Railroad, both owned by the infamous robber baron, Jay Gould.

The strikers voiced their grievances, which included protesting against hazardous working conditions, oppressive working hours, and inadequate wages. The tipping point occurred when a railroad worker named Charles Hall was unjustly dismissed from his job.

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This event triggered violent confrontations between pro-labor groups and company-hired security forces and law enforcement officers, with clashes occurring from Texas to Illinois. Tragically, these clashes resulted in at least nine fatalities and numerous injuries.

Regrettably for the strikers, the members of other railroad unions did not lend their support to the walkout. Ultimately, the railroad companies prevailed by hiring non-union workers, leading to a reduction in the influence and power of the Knights of Labor union.

It’s worth noting that racism and anti-immigrant sentiment played a role in early strikes, with anti-Chinese racism being particularly prominent, although not exclusively, in the context of the anti-monopoly movement and early railroad strikes.

2️⃣ The Pullman Strike (1894)

  • Start Date: May 1894
  • End Date: July 1894
  • Primary Union Involved in Strike: American Railway Union
  • Number of Workers Involved: 250,000

The Pullman Strike unfolded in 1894, spanning from May to July, when approximately 250,000 factory workers employed by the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago went on strike.

These workers had been enduring grueling 12-hour workdays and facing reduced wages, partly due to the economic downturn.

Members of the American Railway Union, which was the largest labor union of its time and among the earliest, rallied alongside the strikers. Under the leadership of union leader Eugene Debs, they jointly refused to work on or operate any trains that included Pullman-owned railcars.

Tragically, the Pullman strike took a violent turn, resulting in the loss of as many as 30 lives at the hands of the National Guard. Rioters had destroyed hundreds of railcars during the course of the strike.

An important outcome of the Pullman strike was the establishment of Labor Day as a national holiday. President Grover Cleveland signed it into law in July 1894, marking the resolution of the strike and honoring the American labor movement.

3️⃣ The Great Anthracite Coal Strike (1902)

  • Start Date: May 1902
  • End Date: October 1902
  • Primary Union Involved in Strike: United Mine Workers of America
  • Number of Workers Involved: 147,000

The Great Anthracite Coal Strike began in May 1902 and persisted until October of the same year. Approximately 147,000 coal miners, members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), participated in this strike in Eastern Pennsylvania.

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The strike raised concerns of a major energy crisis as the region where the strike took place held the nation’s largest supply of anthracite coal. The miners’ key demands included better wages and improved working conditions.

However, the strike continued into the winter of 1903, leading President Theodore Roosevelt to intervene in fear of a heating crisis. Despite his efforts, a resolution was elusive.

Ultimately, it was banker and industrialist J.P. Morgan who stepped in to broker a solution. The miners eventually agreed to a 10% wage increase, although it fell short of their initial demand for a 20% raise.

It’s important to note that unions during this time often excluded Black workers, contributing to division within the labor movement and making organizing effective strikes more challenging.

4️⃣ The Steel Strike (1919)

  • Start Date: September 1919
  • End Date: January 1920
  • Primary Union Involved in Strike: American Federation of Labor
  • Number of Workers Involved: 350,000

The Steel Strike of 1919 involved around 350,000 steelworkers in Pittsburgh who were employed by The United States Steel Corporation and represented by the American Federation of Labor (AFL), one of the earliest labor unions.

The strike was a response to years of grueling work hours, low wages, corporate harassment, and poor working conditions. It lasted from September 1919 to January 1920.

In response, U.S. Steel used scare tactics to turn public sentiment against the strikers, associating them with communism and immigration issues. Unfortunately, the strike ultimately failed, and for the next 15 years, there were no union organizations in the steel industry.

It’s worth noting that the First Red Scare during this period, connected to the rise of communism in Europe and immigration, contributed to suspicions of workers, especially those of Jewish descent, fueling anti-Semitism.

5️⃣ The Railroad Shop Workers Strike (1922)

  • Start Date: July 1922
  • End Date: October 1922
  • Primary Union Involved in Strike: Railroad Labor Board
  • Number of Workers Involved: 400,000

The Railroad Shop Workers Strike of 1922 unfolded from July to October 1922 and involved approximately 400,000 strikers. This strike was sparked when the Railroad Labor Board reduced wages for railroad shop workers by 7 cents. Instead of negotiating, the railroad companies replaced three-quarters of the striking workers with non-union labor.

Tragically, during the strike, at least 10 workers lost their lives in various incidents involving the National Guard and private security.

U.S. Attorney General Harry Daugherty also secured a federal ban on strike-related activities, leading the strikers to return to work after accepting a 5 cent pay cut.

6️⃣ The Textile Workers Strike (1934)

  • Start Date: September 1, 1934
  • End Date: September 23, 1934
  • Primary Union Involved in Strike: United Textile Workers
  • Number of Workers Involved: 400,000

The Textile Workers Strike of 1934 featured approximately 400,000 strikers and occurred in September 1934, spanning the Eastern Seaboard. Textile workers were protesting against long working hours, low wages, and a lack of representation in the National Recovery Administration, a New Deal agency.

The strike persisted for over 20 days but ultimately failed due to limited popular support and an excess of available textiles in the South. None of the workers’ demands were met, and many were subsequently blacklisted due to their involvement in the strike.

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7️⃣ United Mine Workers of America (1946)

  • Start Date: April 1946
  • End Date: May 1946
  • Primary Union Involved in Strike: United Mine Workers of America
  • Number of Workers Involved: 400,000

In 1946, from April to December, the United Mine Workers of America organized a strike involving approximately 400,000 miners across 26 states. Known as the Bituminous Coal Strike, workers demanded safer working conditions, health benefits, and better pay.

President Truman attempted to mediate, but his efforts were rebuffed by the union. Consequently, Truman imposed a fine of $3.5 million on the workers and forced them to accept a deal, effectively ending the strike.

Eventually, a compromise known as The Promise of 1946 was reached, creating health and welfare funds for miners in the Krug-Lewis Agreement.

8️⃣ The Steel Strike (1959)

  • Start Date: July 1959
  • End Date: November 1959
  • Primary Union Involved in Strike: United Steel Workers of America
  • Number of Workers Involved: 500,000

The Steel Strike of 1959 unfolded from July to November, involving half a million workers who were members of the United Steelworkers of America. Workers demanded higher wages while steel company managers sought to remove a contract clause protecting jobs and hours.

Ultimately, the nationwide strike concluded with a victory for the union members, securing wage increases and preserving the contested contract clause.

9️⃣ The U.S. Postal Strike (1970)

  • Start Date: March 1970
  • End Date: April 1970
  • Primary Union Involved in Strike: National Association of Letter Carriers
  • Number of Workers Involved: 200,000+

The U.S. Postal Strike, occurring in March 1970, involved 210,000 strikers. Workers initiated the strike due to perceived low wages, unfavorable working conditions, and meager benefits. It began in New York City and rapidly spread nationwide.

Despite the ban on collective bargaining for U.S. postal workers during President Nixon’s tenure, the workers defied the ban and prolonged the strike, causing a halt in mail delivery.

In response, the Nixon administration deployed the National Guard to deliver mail, but this strategy proved ineffective. After two weeks, negotiations resumed, and the strikers’ demands, including an 8% raise and the reinstatement of bargaining rights, were met.

🔟 UPS Workers Strike (1997)

  • Start Date: August 4, 1997
  • End Date: August 19, 1997
  • Primary Union Involved in Strike: Teamsters
  • Number of Workers Involved: 185,000

The UPS Workers Strike kicked off in August 1997, led by the Teamsters. It involved approximately 185,000 delivery workers across the nation and constituted the largest strike of the decade.

Workers aimed to convert part-time positions into full-time employment, secure higher wages, and safeguard their multiemployer pension plan. Thanks to strong public support, the strikers achieved their demands.

  1. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics – Union Members Summary
  2. Encyclopedia of Arkansas – Great Southwestern Strike
  3. History Channel – How a Deadly Railroad Strike Led to the Labor Day Holiday
  4. U.S. Department of Labor – The Coal Strike of 1902: Turning Point in U.S. Policy
  5. History Channel – Why the Great Steel Strike of 1919 Was One of Labor’s Biggest Failures
  6. Workers World – The great railroad strike of 1922
  7. North Carolina History Project – Textile strike of 1934
  8. The Truman Library – Chronology Harry S. Truman’s Life and Presidency
  9. UMWA – The Promise of 1946
  10. Politico – United Steelworkers of America begins strike, July 15, 1959
  11. AFLCIO – The Great Postal Strike
  12. Labor Notes – The 1997 UPS Strike: Beating Big Business

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