How Strikes Work

Workers who are employed by the government don't always have the right to strike. Simon D. Warren / Getty Images

Labor strikes can cause major disruptions to industry, commerce and the lives of many people who aren't even connected to the strike itself. The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association strike in 1981 resulted in the firing of thousands of air traffic controllers, and the New York City transit strike in late 2005 affected millions of people. The history of strikes and labor unions is a key chapter in the story of the Industrial Revolution.

While the reasons behind strikes can be complex, they all boil down to two key elements: money and power. In this article, we'll find out how labor strikes have affected the balance of power between corporations and workers, what laws regulate strikes and learn about some important strikes in history.


Strikes and Unions

Strikers relax near the line during the 1937 Flint Sit-down Strike.
Strikers relax near the line during the 1937 Flint Sit-down Strike.
Photo courtesy Dick Shelton/ Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

It's difficult to say when the first real labor strike occurred. The word "strike" was first used in the 1700s, and probably comes from to notion of dealing a blow to the employer [ref]. In 1786, a group of printers in Philadelphia requested a raise and the company rejected it. They stopped working in protest and eventually received their raise. Other professionals followed suit in the next few decades. Everyone in a city who practiced the same profession agreed to set prices and wages at the same rate. Members would shun anyone who diverged from the agreement, refusing to work in the same shop and forcing employers to fire them. By the 1800s, formal trade societies and guilds began to emerge.

To have a strike today, you must have a union (though not necessarily an official union) -- an organization of workers that bargain collectively with an employer. Workers form unions because an individual worker is powerless compared to an employer, who can set low wages and long working hours as long as it adheres to labor laws. When workers combine to form a union, they collectively have enough power to negotiate with the employer. The main weapon the union has against the employer is the threat of a strike action.


At its most basic level, a strike occurs when all the workers in the union stop coming to work. With no workers, the business shuts down. The employer stops making money, though it is still spending money on taxes, rent, electricity and maintenance. The longer the strike lasts, the more money the employer loses. Of course, the workers aren't getting paid either, so they're losing money as well. Some unions build up "war chests" -- funds to pay striking workers. But it isn't usually very much, and it's often not enough for a prolonged strike.

Strikes help explain why unions are more powerful than individuals. Imagine if an employer refuses to give a raise to an individual worker. She then decides to stop coming to work in protest. The employer simply fires her for not coming to work. That one worker has no power to influence the employer. However, it can be very costly for an employer to fire every single worker when a union goes on strike (though it has happened).

For a strike to occur, the union's leadership must call for a strike action. They won't call for a strike unless the union members have voted for it. Each union has different rules that dictate what percentage of the union must approve a strike, but 80 percent is typical. If union members strike without official approval from union leadership, it's a wildcat strike.

Of course, a strike doesn't happen every time a union member and the employer have a disagreement. For minor matters, the union can file a grievance (following a set procedure included in the contract between the union and the employer). When it is time to renegotiate a contract, both sides will usually sit down and try to come to an agreement. Unions try to exhaust all other measures before resorting to a strike for two reasons: union members usually lose money and it's the last thing that unions can do to get employers to agree to their terms.

Types of Strikes

Union members sometimes try lesser degrees of workplace disruptions before they resort to an all-out strike:

  • Sick-out (or sick-in) - All, or a significant number of union members call in sick on the same day. They haven't broken any rules, because they just use sick leave that was allotted to them. However, the sudden loss of so many employees all on one day can show the employer just what it would be like if they really went on strike.
  • Slow-down - All the union employees continue coming to work on time, and they continue to perform their jobs, but they do them more slowly. This might mean that they start doing everything "by the book," following every guideline and performing every safety check to the point that their work slows down. The resulting drop in production hurts the employer, but again, the employees aren't actually breaking any rules. This is sometimes called a partial strike.
  • Sit-down strike - Employees show up to their place of employment, but they refuse to work. They also refuse to leave, which makes it very difficult for anyone to defy the union and take the workers' places.

An important element of most successful strikes is the sympathy strike. If one union has more power than a single worker, then several unions banded together are very powerful indeed. In a sympathy strike, other unions in the same industry, or employed by the same company, will strike at the same time, putting even more pressure on the employer to resolve the original strike. For example, the failure of the 1980s air traffic controllers' strike was due in part to the union's failure to set up sympathy strikes. The pilots, baggage handlers and flight attendant unions didn't engage in sympathy strikes [[ref].


A general strike is one in which all or most workers in an entire region or country go on strike together, regardless of union affiliation. These strikes are usually intended to create political pressure on the ruling government, rather than on any one employer. In 2005, France was severely disrupted by a nationwide general strike in protest of planned changes to working hours and workers' benefits [ref].

Picketing & Scabs

The picket line at the August 1938 King Farm strike in Morrisville, Pennsylvania.
The picket line at the August 1938 King Farm strike in Morrisville, Pennsylvania.
John Vachon /Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Many people associate strikes with picket lines. Workers bearing placards with slogans supporting their position file around the gate of their workplace, often chanting or even singing songs. The purpose of picketing is to draw public attention (and sympathy) to their cause, inform the public of the goals and the reasons behind the strike and discourage anyone from violating the strike order and going to work. Anyone who does this literally has to cross the picket lines, and they usually are called scabs.

Scabs can be union members who decide to work instead of striking, or they can be non-union workers specially hired by the employer to fill the positions of the striking workers. The term goes back to the 18th century, and probably refers to diseases common in that era that left victims with infectious scabs. Workers crossing picket lines would be "scabb'd" by the other union members (shunned and forced out of their jobs).


A picket sign outside a Ducktown, Tennessee copper mine during on October 1939 strike.
A picket sign outside a Ducktown, Tennessee copper mine during on October 1939 strike.
Photo courtesy Marion Post Walcott Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

In 1806, the Cordwainers Union of Philadelphia went on strike, and several union members became scabs. This was recounted in the ensuing trial by cordwainer Job Harrison:

In a few weeks [after arriving from England], some of the journeymen, who knew me, called upon me and requested me to join the body [union]...they notified me that it was my duty to come to the body. I told them I knew nothing about the body, I did not know there was such a thing. They told me if I did not come to the body, I was liable to be scabb'd; I did not know at that time what it was to be scabb'd; but some of the men explained it, and I told them that I was willing to be as good a member of their body as any other man. Their meaning was, that if I did not join the body, no man would set upon the seat where I worked; that they would neither board or work where I was unless I joined. By a seat I mean they would not work in the same shop, nor board or lodge in the same house, nor would they work at all for the same employer.

-excerpt from the testimony of Job Harrison, lead witness for the prosecution in (Commonwealth v. Pullis), 1806. [ref]

Sometimes union members will picket without striking. This is known as informational picketing. Prior to the air traffic controllers' strike in 1981, the controllers picketed outside airports during their off hours, holding signs and handing out pamphlets that explained their position [ref].

Sports Strikes

Sports strikes are famous due to the large sums of money that are negotiated. In some sports, entire seasons were canceled because both sides could not reach an agreement in time.

In 1987, the National Football League Players' Association called a strike over free agency (a player's right to sign a contract with whatever team he wants). The players walked off the job two games into the season, and three games were played by players recruited from colleges and other football leagues. Scab football was extremely unpopular, and a few NFL regulars crossed the picket lines to resume play. Players continued to return to work until the strike ended without any resolution. Eventually a new contract was signed that was more to the owners' liking [ref].


In 1994, the Major League Baseball Players Association refused to accept the owners' demands for a salary cap. The season ground to a halt on August 12, 1994 and the World Series was cancelled. It was the eighth baseball strike in history, and the first time that a North American professional sports organization postseason was lost because of labor disputes. Play resumed again in spring 1995 under the terms of the expired contract, after a judge issued an injunction against the team owners [ref].

Although there have been three work stoppages in National Hockey League history, only one of them was a strike. In 1992, hockey players went on strike for 10 days before reaching an agreement with owners. The 1994 and 2004 work stoppages were lockouts -- the employers' counterpart to a strike. The owners prevented the players from returning to work when they could not come to an agreement. The 2004 lockout lasted an entire season, making the NHL the first North American sports organization to lose an entire season to a labor dispute. It was also the first time since 1919 that the Stanley Cup went unawarded [ref].


An engraving on the cover of Harper's Bazaar shows Pinkerton men leaving Homestead after surrendering to the strikers.
An engraving on the cover of Harper's Bazaar shows Pinkerton men leaving Homestead after surrendering to the strikers.

Employers don't always accept a workers' strike calmly. They can try to fight back against the union, sometimes through lawsuits and legislation, sometimes with violent thugs. Some employers used companies that offered strikebreaking services, such as the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Former cooper Allan Pinkerton started the infamous agency in the mid-1800s [ref]. Although it usually engaged in standard crime-stopping detective work, they discovered there were profits to be made as strikebreakers. Many other companies were soon offering similar services, but strikebreakers were usually called Pinkertons.

A strikebreaking crew was essentially an armed mob of mercenaries. They reported to the picket lines to escort scab workers into the business, or to intimidate the strikers. The crew also acted as guards to prevent strikers from damaging company property. In the 1800s and early 1900s, conflicts between striking workers and Pinkertons often grew bloody. In 1892, a standoff at Homestead, PA escalated into "the Battle of Homestead," a fight involving massive fires, a cannon and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. In the end, three Pinkertons and ten strikers died [ref]. Incidents like this one, combined with strikebreakers' penchant for mistreating the populace, lead to a sharp decline in public acceptance of these tactics.


Government officials conducted investigations into strikebreaking activities, and many towns and states passed laws restricting their actions. By the 20th century, employers looking to defeat unions were using espionage and media campaigns to discredit their union opponents. The era of the violent Pinkerton strikebreaker gradually faded, although bloody battles continued to occur.

Strikers battle police with clubs and pipes during the 1934 Minneapolis General Drivers and Helpers Union strike.
Strikers battle police with clubs and pipes during the 1934 Minneapolis General Drivers and Helpers Union strike.

Employer Action

TWU Local 100 strikers in New York, December 2005
TWU Local 100 strikers in New York, December 2005
Photo courtesy Richard Rabinowitz used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License

Employers have also gone to court to have strikes declared illegal. In fact, the court's decision in the 1806 Phildelphia cordwainer's trial declared all strikes to be criminal conspiracies [ref]. Unions continued to thrive, and strikes were often successful, but the possibility of criminal prosecution weakened them. It wasn't until the Wagner Act of 1935 that Americans were given the official right to form unions and go on strike.

Strikes can still be declared illegal, however. The 2005 New York City transit union strike forced the City of New York to levy $1 million per day fines against the union, claiming the strike was illegal. President Ronald Reagan defeated the air traffic controllers strike in 1981 by declaring the strike illegal and ordering the FAA to fire any controller who didn't return to work within 48 hours. The government prevented the union from paying striking workers by freezing its assets and also put five union leaders in jail for short sentences. Eventually, all the controllers were fired and replaced, though at a cost estimated at more than double what the union was asking for in the first place [ref].


Today, some employers fight union demands by asking for concessions from workers. They claim that the company will have to declare bankruptcy, forcing all the workers out of their jobs, unless the union agrees to wage cuts and a reduction in benefits. If a company is not doing well, increased wages and benefits that unions secure for workers can help drag the company down. However, many union officials view this as an underhanded tactic meant to circumvent negotiations. Wayne Bieger, president of UAW Local 846 in Buffalo, New York, argues that negotiations should take place at the bargaining table, not in a bankruptcy court: "We [the union] negotiate an agreement in good faith. The company should have the foresight to understand how the agreement will affect them, just like the union has to have foresight," he said. "To try and get concessions and negotiate through bankruptcy court rather than at the negotiating table is wrong."

Next, we'll take a look at the laws that regulate strikes in the United States.

U.S. Labor Law

A policeman stands in the middle of a massive traffic jam during a 1974 bus drivers' strike in Washington, D.C.
A policeman stands in the middle of a massive traffic jam during a 1974 bus drivers' strike in Washington, D.C.

The Wagner Act, also known as the National Labor Relations Act, still regulates most strikes and unions in the U.S. This act protects the rights of workers to discuss unions, form unions and take actions on union business. However, it doesn't necessarily protect them from the consequences of those actions. For example, a 1938 Supreme Court case ruled that employers can't fire workers for joining a union or going on strike. However, other workers can permanently replace them. Employers have to prove that they bargained in good faith and reached a deadlock with the union before they can do this, however.

The Taft-Hartley amendments of 1947 made some significant changes to the National Labor Relations Act. These laws established the National Labor Review Board (NLRB), a government body that hears grievances between unions and employers and makes decisions in an impartial manner. The Taft-Hartley amendments weakened unions to some extent, forbidding secondary boycotts (a strike against another business that works with the business targeted by the original strike) and closed shops (where union membership is an absolute requirement of employment). However, federal law still allows for union shops, in which a worker must join a union within 30 days of his hire date. Most states have passed "right to work" laws that forbid the union shop.


Not all workers have the same right to strike. Some unions voluntarily give up the right to strike in their contracts because they know that their services are too crucial for the public to tolerate a strike. Police officers and firefighters generally give up their right to strike. Instead, they agree to use arbitration, in which a neutral third party hears both arguments and makes a binding decision. Workers who are employed by the government don't always have the right to strike -- it depends on the particular union and field. For example, public school teachers can usually strike, but transit workers usually can't.

For lots more information on strikes, check out the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Excerpts from the Trial of the Journeymen Cordwainers of Philadelphia (Commonwealth v. Pullis), 1806. academicinfo/coursepages/s2001/337/cordwainerstrial.html +scabb%27d&hl=en&gl=us&ct=clnk&cd=1&client=firefox-a
  • Forbes, Gordon. "'82 strike changed salary dealings forever." USA Today, June 8, 2001. 08-forbes.htm
  • Lens, Sidney. "Strikemakers & Strikebreakers." Lodestar Books, 1985. 052567165x.
  • NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., 301 U.S. 1 (1937). U.S. Supreme Court Multimedia.
  • Smith, Robert Michael. "From Blackjacks to Briefcases." Ohio University Press, 2003. 0821414658.
  • Stevens, Robert. "General strike in France as workers continue protests against Raffarin government." World Socialist Web Site, March 11, 2005.
  • Swartz, Omar. "Defending Labor in Commonwealth v. Pullis: Contemporary Implications For Rethinking Community."Murdoch University Electronic Journal of Law, Volume 11, Number 1 (March 2004).
  • Zinn, Howard et al. "Three Strikes." Beacon Press, 2001. 0807050121.