Strike action

From Academic Kids

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Open battle between striking teamsters armed with pipes and the police in the streets of Minneapolis, 1934.

Strike action (or simply strike) describes collective action undertaken by groups of workers in the form of a refusal to perform work. Strikes first became important during the industrial revolution, when mass labor became important in factories and mines. In most countries they were quickly made illegal as factory owners had far more political power than the workers. Most western countries legalized striking partially in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.


Categories of strikes

Most strikes involve actions by labor unions during collective bargaining with an employer. However, it is also common for workers to strike without the sanction of a labor union, either because the union refuses to endorse such a tactic, or because the workers concerned are not unionized. Such strikes are often described as unofficial. Strikes without formal union authorization are also known as wildcat strikes.

In many countries, wildcat strikes do not enjoy the same legal protections as standard union strikes, and may result in penalties for the union members who participate or their union. The same often applies in the case of strikes conducted without an official ballot of the union membership, as is required in some countries, such as the United Kingdom).

A strike may consist of workers refusing to attend work or picketing outside the workplace so as to prevent or dissuade other people from working in their place or conducting business with their employer. Less frequently workers may occupy the workplace, but refuse either to do their jobs or to leave. This is known as a sit-down strike.

Another unconventional tactic is work-to-rule, in which workers perform their tasks exactly as they are required to but no better. For example, workers might follow all safety regulations in such a way that it impedes their productivity or they might refuse to work any overtime. Such strikes may in some cases be a form of "partial strike" or "slowdown", which is "unprotected" in some circumstances under United States labor law, meaning that while the tactic itself is not unlawful, the employer may fire the employees who engage in it.

United States labor law also draws a distinction, in the case of private sector employers covered by the National Labor Relations Act, between "economic" and "unfair labor practice" strikes. An employer may not fire, but may permanently replace, workers who engage in an economic strike. Employers may not, on the other hand, replace employees who engage in an unfair labor practice strike and must fire any strikebreakers they have hired as replacements in order to reinstate the unfair labor practice strikers.

Strikes may be specific to a particular workplace, employer, or unit within a workplace, or they may encompass an entire industry, or every worker within a city or country. Strikes that involve all workers, or a number of large and important groups of workers, in a particular community or region are known as general strikes. Under some circumstances, strikes may take place in order to put pressure on the State or other authorities or may be a response to unsafe conditions in the workplace.

A sympathy strike is, in a way, a small scale version of a general strike in which one group of workers refuses to cross a picket line established by another as a means of supporting the striking workers. Sympathy strikes, once the norm in the construction industry in the United States, have been made much more difficult to conduct due to decisions of the National Labor Relations Board permitting employers to establish separate or "reserved" gates for particular trades, making it an unlawful secondary boycott for a union to establish a picket line at any gate other than the one reserved for the employer it is picketing. Sympathy strikes may be undertaken by a union as an organization or by individual union members choosing not to cross a picketline.

A jurisdictional strike in United States labor law refers to a concerted refusal to work undertaken by a union to assert its members’ right to particular job assignments and to protest the assignment of disputed work to members of another union or to unorganized workers.

Legal prohibitions on strikes

The Railway Labor Act bars strikes by United States airline and railroad employees except in narrowly defined circumstances. The National Labor Relations Act generally permits strikes, but provides for a mechanism to enjoin strikes in industries in which a strike would create a national emergency. The federal government most recently invoked these statutory provisions to obtain an injunction against a slowdown by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in 2002.

Some jurisdictions prohibit all strikes by public employees. Other jurisdictions limit strikes only by certain categories of workers, particularly those regarded as critical to society: police, firefighters, and air traffic controllers are among the groups commonly barred from striking in these jurisdictions. Workers have sometimes circumvented these restrictions by falsely claiming inability to work due to illness — this is sometimes called a "sickout". The term "blue flu" has sometimes been used to describe this action when taken by police officers.

In Communist regimes such as the former USSR or the People's Republic of China, striking is illegal and viewed as counter-revolutionary. Since the government in such systems claims to represent the working class it has been argued that unions and strikes were not necessary.

Most other totalitarian systems of the left and right also ban strikes. In some nominally democratic countries, such as Mexico, strikes are legal but subject to close regulation by the state.


People hired to replace striking workers are known to union supporters as strike-breakers, blacklegs, or scabs, or scab labor. Unionists use the epithet "scab" to refer to workers who are willing to accept terms that union workers have rejected. The word comes from the idea that the workers are covering a wound.

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Strike breakers, Chicago Tribune strike, 1986, Chicago, Illinois

Strikes versus lockouts

The counterpart to a strike is a lockout, in which an employer refuses to allow employees to work. Lockouts may be "offensive", in which an employer locks workers out until they accept its bargaining demands, or "defensive", in which an employer locks out its employees either in response to a strike against another employer in the same multiemployer bargaining unit or a slowdown or other tactic by the union.

Two of the three employers involved in the California grocery workers strike of 2003-2004 locked out their employees in response to a strike against the third member of the employer bargaining group. Lockouts are, with certain exceptions, lawful under United States labor law.


  • Statschka [Strike], Director: Sergei Eisenstein, Soviet Union 1924
  • Brder [brothers], Director: Werner Hochbaum, Germany 1929 – On the general strike in the port of Hamburg, Germany in 1896/97
  • Salt of the Earth, Director: Herbert J. Biberman, USA 1953 – Fictionalized account of an actual zinc-miners' strike in Silver City, New Mexico, in which women took over the picket line to circumvent an injunction barring "striking miners" from company property
  • La Reprise du travail aux usines Wonder, Director: Jacques Willemont France 1968 – A short film on the resumption of work after Mai 68
  • Harlan County, U.S.A., Director: Barbara Kopple, USA 1976 – A film about a very long and bitter strike of coal miners in Kentucky
  • Matewan, Director: John Sayles, USA 1987 – A fictionalized history of one episode in the labour wars between West Virginia coal miners and mineowners during the 1920s
  • American Dream, U.S.A., Director: Barbara Kopple, USA 1991 – A film about the strike at the Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota

Further Reading

  • Louis Adamic, Dynamite: The Story of Class Violence in America [1931]

Classic account of the violent class struggles in America that have been left out of the usual histories and textbooks.

  • Jeremy Brecher, Strike! [1972]

Similar to Adamics book, but includes more recent history.

  • Harvey OConnor, Revolution in Seattle [1964]

Good account of the 1919 Seattle General Strike, including the struggles by the IWW and others that led up to it.

  • Sidney Fine, Sit-Down: The General Motors Strike of 1936-1937 [1969]

Detailed account of the important and innovative strike in Flint, Michigan, in which 1200 auto workers occupied their factory for six weeks.

See also

de:Streik es:Huelga eo:Striko fi:Lakko fr:Grve it:Sciopero nl:Staking no:Streik ja:ストライキ pl:Strajk pt:Greve sv:Strejk


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