GoBanking Logo
GoBanking Logo

Workers Are Striking Across America — See Which Protests Brought Lasting Change

Matt Rourke/AP / Shutterstock.com

Plenty of Americans probably saw stories about the recent strikes by workers at Amazon, Instacart and Target. The public protests aimed to bring awareness to the companies’ treatment of its employees during the coronavirus pandemic. Workers are seeking better wages and working conditions to reflect the increased risk posed by COVID-19. And their timing is apt. The value of their labor has never been higher, which gives them leverage to potentially create changes that could last beyond the current crisis.

In doing so, these workers are joining a long history of American labor movements that have used large demonstrations to produce lasting change. At the dawn of the 20th century, many workers in America labored as much as 12 hours a day, six days a week, in conditions that were wildly unsafe. However, after a century of protests, workers today are guaranteed a minimum wage, and many enjoy a 40-hour workweek.

So, which of these protests had a lasting impact? Which strikes or marches helped address injustice in a way that forced society to react? Here’s a closer look at some of the most important protests in American history and what their impact was over time.

Pictured: Workers Omar Glover, left, and Ray Gaeth picket outside a General Motors facility in Langhorne, Pennsylvania.

Last updated: June 1, 2020

Sergey Nemirovsky / Shutterstock.com

1768 New York Journeyman Tailors' Strike

The first recorded strike in U.S. history happened well before the labor movement began. About two dozen journeyman tailors waged a walkout in 1768 to protest a wage reduction, according to Tim McNeese’s book “The Labor Movement: Unionizing America.” The striking tailors defied the master tailors they worked for by advertising their services in local newspapers and setting higher wages for themselves. There had been other earlier labor protests, but the tailors’ turnout more closely resembled modern-day strikes, McNeese wrote.

See: Tesla and 24 More Companies That Faced Public Backlash

Mary Terriberry / Shutterstock.com

1824 Textile Workers' Strike

More than 100 women walked off their jobs on May 26, 1824, when the owners of the cotton mill where they worked in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, decided to cut wages by 25% and increase the workday from 12 hours to 13 hours, according to the New England Historical Society. Workers from other mills joined the strike, and the number of strikers grew to more than 500. The strike continued for about a week, until the mill owners agreed to a compromise.

Not only did this mark the first strike in the textile industry, but it was also the first strike involving women workers. The 1824 textile mill strike also led to labor organizing and more mill strikes throughout New England.

1835 Philadelphia General Strike (General Trades Union Strike)

The General Trades Union didn’t last long, but it represents one of the earlier efforts to combine laborers of various different disciplines together into a single organization that could request widespread changes to the labor market. In 1835, that took the form of a citywide strike for a 10-hour workday, beginning with coal heavers and eventually spreading to include city workers and other public service employees — a coalition that included some 20,000 workers across 40 different trades.

The GTU, though, became a victim of its own success. While it did win a 10-hour workday and a number of other concessions through additional strikes in the following months, workers started to leave the organization after conditions improved.

Pictured: Journeyman House Carpenters’ Association of Philadelphia banner promoting the 10-hour day, 1835.

Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Great Railroad Strike of 1877

More than half of the rail traffic in the U.S. stopped as over 100,000 workers in several states joined the Great Railroad Strike of 1887. The strike started in Martinsburg, West Virginia, when Baltimore and Ohio Railroad workers protested a wage cut. It eventually spread throughout the Northeast and Midwest. Federal troops were called in to end the strikes so the trains would start running again, and unfortunately, the strike failed to bring about direct improvements for railroad workers.

Julia700702 / Shutterstock.com

1881 Atlanta Washerwomen Strike

This strike helped advance the rights of working black women in the South, according to the AFL-CIO. About 20 black laundry washerwomen formed the Washing Society trade group to advocate for higher wages, recruited about 3,000 members and called a strike. Despite arrests and fines, the strikers continued.

The washerwomen even agreed to pay a $25 fee the city council proposed for members of the Washing Society, which inspired other domestic workers to strike. Fearing unrest among the black labor force, the city council rejected the proposed fee, and the washerwomen won their push for higher wages.

Library of Congress / iStock.com

1892 Homestead Strike

The AFL-CIO claims that the Homestead Strike left scars “that have never fully healed after five generations.” The strike, by members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers and other non-union workers at the Carnegie Steel Company, began in 1892, after the plant’s manager, Henry Clay Frick, increased production demands. It turned violent six days later after Frick hired 300 agents from the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to break up the strike. The National Guard was then sent in, the strike lost momentum and the union collapsed.

This strike is an example of when walking off the job failed to win workers better pay and shorter work shifts. In fact, the workers’ wages at Carnegie Steel decreased and the length of their workdays increased, according to the AFL-CIO. Union membership shrank dramatically after this failed strike.

Check Out: 10 Reasons You’re Underpaid — And What You Can Do About It

public domain / Wikimedia Commons

1894 Pullman Strike

Like the Great Railroad Strike of 1887, this railroad strike also had a big impact on U.S. history. Railroad traffic west of Chicago basically shut down in June and July 1894 as 250,000 workers refused to handle Pullman railroad cars because the Pullman Palace Car Company slashed its workers’ wages by 25%. The strike ended when the U.S. attorney general got an injunction against leaders of the American Railway Union – the first time an injunction was used to break a strike – and President Grover Cleveland sent in federal troops.

However, as the strike was going on, Congress passed legislation that created Labor Day as a national holiday and Cleveland signed it into law.

Everett Historical / Shutterstock.com

1902 Coal Strike

This strike marked the first time the U.S. government played the role of peacemaker in a labor dispute, according to the Labor Department. Previously, it had sided with employers.

Miners in the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania went on strike on May 12, 1902, to demand higher pay and shorter hours. President Theodore Roosevelt called a meeting on Oct. 3, 1902, between representatives of the United Mine Workers and mine management, but they didn’t reach a deal. The strike wouldn’t end until Oct. 23, 1902, after banker J.P. Morgan helped negotiate a deal between the miners and mine operators.

Library of Congress / iStock.com

1912 Bread and Roses Strike

On Jan. 11, 1912, workers at a textile mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts, walked off the job to protest a reduction in pay. Not only did they stop working, they sabotaged equipment at the mill to ensure that work couldn’t continue. The strikers quickly grew in number from a few hundred to several thousand, and leaders of the national Industrial Workers of the World union arrived to help organize the strikers.

The strike – which lasted 10 weeks — became known as the Bread and Roses Strike because workers held signs that said, “We Want Bread, But Roses Too!” It got national media coverage and sparked Congressional hearings that led to an investigation of conditions in factories nationwide. The strikers’ demands were met, and their wages were raised – as were the wages of textile workers throughout New England.

Great Railroad Strike of 1922

On July 1, 1922, some 400,000 railway workers walked off the job after the Pennsylvania Railroad tried to institute a 12% wage cut. However, this is one strike that didn’t have a happy ending for the workers. Pennsylvania Railroad president Stephen Rea would hire his own 16,000-strong army to confront strikers. Along with the help of the National Guard — sent in by famously corrupt President Warren Harding — the strike was broken. However, the strike and how it ended likely played some role in ultimately passing the 1926 Railroad Labor Act.

Pictured: Railroad shopmen walking off the job during the July 1922 Railway Strike.

National Archive at College Park / Wikimedia Commons

1934 West Coast Waterfront Strike

This massive strike threatened to shut down ports up and down America’s Pacific Coast. It started when 12,000 longshoremen on the West Coast walked off the job, but it rapidly expanded as sympathy strikers in various trades joined them — including teamsters who refused to transport goods that had tried to avoid the strike. The port of Seattle saw just one ship leave the harbor in the whole 83 days. The incredible show of labor solidarity would inspire a massive boost for the membership of the International Longshoreman’s Association and unionism in general on the West Coast.

Pictured: Confrontation between a policeman wielding a night stick and a striker during the San Francisco General Strike, 1934.

Library of Congress; The Crowley / iStock.com

1937 Auto Workers' Strike

On Jan. 1, 1937, the United Auto Workers organized a sit-down strike at a General Motors production facility in Flint, Michigan, and occupied the plant for 44 days. Nearly 200,000 employees stopped working, and production at the facility dropped from 53,000 cars a week to 1,500, according to AutoBlog. The strike ended after GM agreed to increase workers’ wages and improve working conditions. The workers’ victory prompted strikes at other auto manufacturing facilities, and UAW membership soared from 30,000 to 500,000 within a year.

Pictured: Strikers guarding a window entrance to Fisher body plant No. 3 in Flint, Michigan.

Related: These Hourly Workers Benefit the Most From Overtime

Everett / Shutterstock.com

United Auto Workers Strike of 1945

This massive work stoppage involved the United Auto Workers organizing some 320,000 hourly workers across 96 different General Motors plants. The strike would last for 113 days, making it the longest strike by the UAW or against GM at that time. The demand was for a 30% jump in wages paired with freezing the price of GM automobiles. And while the strikers ultimately didn’t get all they asked for, the movement would prove instrumental in launching local leader Walter Reuther to the presidency of the UAW in 1946, helping make the union one of the best known in the country.

Pictured: Cars sit on a deserted assembly line during the strike.

1946 United Mine Workers' Strike

The effects of the United Mine Workers’ strike could be felt across the nation. When wage negotiations between the United Mine Workers and bituminous coal mine operators broke down, more than 300,000 miners walked off the job on April 1, 1946. So little coal was being produced that there were electricity shortages in several states.

The government seized the mines on May 22, 1946, but the strike didn’t end until a week later when the U.S. government struck a deal — known as the Krug-Lewis Agreement — with the United Mine Workers of America. The agreement established health and retirement funds for mine workers.

Pictured: Soft coal mine workers going to work in the Willow Grove Mine of the Hanna Coal Company.

1959 Steelworkers' Strike

About 500,000 United Steelworkers of America members went on strike in 1959 when contract negotiations between the union and steel mills failed. The 116-day strike caused steel shortages in the auto industry, and automakers threatened to lay off thousands of workers, according to Politico. As a result of the strike, the union’s contract demands were met. But the strike ended up permanently damaging the domestic steel industry as manufacturers turned to imported steel.

Pictured: A cleanup man at the main entrance of the Bethlehem Steel Co. plant removes debris in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Everett / Shutterstock.com

1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

Few organized protests have cast as long and as beloved a legacy as that of the March on Washington. One of the critical moments in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, it is best remembered for the speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — now known as the “I Have a Dream” speech. With some 200,000 marchers descending on Washington to express their desire for justice, the march was an important event in the fight to end segregation.

Pictured: Marchers carrying signs in the streets of Washington, D.C.

APWUcommunications / Wikimedia Commons

1970 Postal Strike

On March 18, 1970, New York postal workers went on strike to protest a Congressional committee vote to limit postal workers’ wage increase to 5.4% while Congress members were getting 41% pay hike, according to the U.S. Postal Service Office of the Inspector General. Within days, about 152,000 postal workers were striking in 671 locations. As a result of the disruption in mail delivery, about 9,000 draft notices weren’t delivered and tax refunds and census forms were delayed.

Negotiations to end the strike resulted in a pay raise for postal workers and led to the Postal Reorganization Act, which turned the postal service into a government-owned corporation.

1981 Air Traffic Controllers' Strike

On Aug. 3, 1981, about 13,000 air traffic controllers went on strike when negotiations between the Professional Air Traffic Controllers and the Federal Aviation Administration over higher wages and a shorter workweek failed. About 7,000 flights were canceled as a result of the strike. But the real fallout from the strike came when President Ronald Reagan fired most of the striking workers – citing a U.S. law that banned strikes by government unions.

Reagan’s move was considered one of the biggest blows to the bargaining power of labor unions. As other employers followed suit and became more willing to fire striking workers, the annual number of major strikes in the U.S. plummeted.

Pictured: Striking air traffic controllers walk the picket line at the New York air route traffic control center in Ronkonkoma, N.Y.

John Bazemore/AP / Shutterstock.com

United Parcel Service Strike of 1997

In 1997, the Teamsters Union opted to draw the line on part-time drivers hired by the massive shipping company UPS. Part-time drivers were getting paid just $8 an hour — roughly a third of what full-time drivers were making — and they constituted some 83% of new hires by the company from 1993 to 1997. Meanwhile, new voting rules within the union allowed Ron Carey — who had been running one of the UPS locals in New York — to win the top spot. Carey would lead a strike that lasted for 15 days, and ultimately UPS caved on every one of their demands.

Pictured: Striking United Parcel Service driver David Miller reacts as a passing truck driver blows his vehicle’s horn before a rally in front of the UPS distribution center in Tucker, Georgia.

1998 Auto Workers' Strike

On June 5, 1998, 3,400 workers at a General Motors metal-stamping factory in Flint, Michigan, walked off the job because GM had broken a commitment to upgrade the facility. Then 5,800 workers at a GM parts plant joined them to protest outsourcing to non-union plants.

The 54-day strike by members of United Auto Workers union stopped production at GM plants across the U.S., which led to the layoffs of about 193,000 non-union workers and cost the auto manufacturer $2 billion in profits, according to AutoBlog. In an agreement that ended the strike, GM agreed to invest in its American factories, and workers agreed to increase output. But it failed to prevent the decline of the auto industry in Flint, where the auto manufacturing workforce is now a fraction of what it was before the strike.

Pictured: United Auto Workers members from UAW local 599 in Flint, Michigan, show their support for fellow UAW members of locals 659 and 651 at the 32nd UAW Constitutional Convention. The members were on strike against two General Motors parts plants in Flint.

Learn More: 30 Most Powerful Unions in America

Peter Brooker / Shutterstock.com

2007-08 Writers Guild of America Strike

On Nov. 5, 2007, Writers Guild of America members walked off the job after an agreement could not be reached over how writers were paid for use of their material on the Internet and DVDs. The old guild contracts were built around a media landscape that no longer existed, with the writers getting precious little in the way of royalties for their content if it was viewed online. The lengthy strike was especially visible as it meant a number of popular television shows were forced to either cancel portions of their season or put on stripped-down versions of popular live shows. The strike ended in early 2008 in a compromise that improved payouts for writers — though not to the exact level they were aiming for.

Pictured: Demonstrators at the Writers Guild Of America strike on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles.

2018 West Virginia Teachers' Strike

West Virginia’s 20,000 teachers launched a statewide walkout on Feb. 22, 2018, to rally for a pay raise and to improve their health coverage, according to CNN. The strike lasted nine days until the state legislature passed a 5% pay raise for all state workers.

The West Virginia walkout sparked teachers’ strikes across America. Although the outcomes have been mixed, some are suggesting that the teachers’ strikes could mark the comeback of organized labor – and bring about improvements to the U.S. education system.

Pictured: Thousands of teachers rally at the state Capitol in Charleston, West Virginia.

LM Otero/AP / Shutterstock.com

2019 United Auto Workers' Strike

The power of the UAW has waned greatly since its victory in 1945 as more and more jobs have flowed south to areas with lax labor laws. However, the union showed it still had some muscle to flex in 2019 when nearly 50,000 workers walked off their jobs for a 40-day strike that ultimately secured a new contract with GM. The deal paid raises, new bonuses and even a member signing bonus.

Pictured: Gary Allison, left, waves while standing with other union members picketing outside the General Motors Plant in Arlington, Texas.

guvendemir / Getty Images

2019 National Strike in Puerto Rico

As far as mass movements go, it’s hard to express just how dramatic a showing the people of Puerto Rico made last year while calling for the ousting of Governor Ricardo Rosselló. The 1 million or so people who converged on the capital of San Juan represented roughly a third of the island’s population. Puerto Rico’s unions called a national strike, and Rosselló — who was under fire for both the corruption of his administration and the offensive attitudes displayed in leaked documents — was ultimately forced out.

Ted S Warren/AP / Shutterstock.com

2020 May Day Strike

The coronavirus pandemic has drawn new attention to the plight of low-wage workers. Often overlooked, hourly workers at grocery stores and other essential businesses have found themselves working on the frontline and putting themselves at risk for wages that just don’t add up to enough. In response, workers from Amazon, Instacart and Target all staged protests over working conditions and compensation on May 1. And while the actions didn’t end up shuttering warehouses, the long-term effects created by bad PR could ultimately shame some of these employers into making concessions.

Pictured: Protester drives a car with writing that calls for a general strike by workers from Walmart, Target, Amazon, and Instacart during a car-based protest, at the Amazon Spheres in downtown Seattle.

More From GOBankingRates

Joel Anderson contributed to the reporting for this article.