Steel Strike of 1919


strike, concentrated work stoppage by a group of employees, the chief weapon of organized labor. A suspension of work on the employer's part is called a lockout. Strikes usually result from conflicts of interest between the employer, who seeks to reduce costs, and employees, who seek higher wages (or in times of depression try to stop wage decreases), shorter hours, better working conditions, union recognition, and/or improved fringe benefits. Employers may attempt to continue operation without the striking employees, and in such cases violence may occur. Violence, long a feature of U.S. labor history, often resulted from the use of armed guards (hired by the employer) or of police or state militia against pickets (see picketing) or for the protection of strikebreakers. During the middle and late 1930s workers in the mass-production industries (especially in the automobile industry) perfected the technique of the sit-down, later declared illegal, which was designed to prevent strikebreaking; the workers remained on the premises while refusing to work. Another cause of strikes has been the jurisdictional dispute to determine which union should be the bargaining agent for the employees. After the separation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations from the American Federation of Labor in 1935 (see American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations), such strikes were numerous until they were forbidden by the Taft-Hartley Labor Act in 1947.

Strikes in the United States

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.

Strikes in Other Countries

Strikes have been frequent in all industrialized countries where labor has the right to freedom of action. In Great Britain, where the Industrial Revolution occurred first, strikes of various sorts took place during the 19th cent.; these include the antimachine riots of the Luddites, the successful work stoppage in 1889 by the London dockworkers, and the bitter and unsuccessful strikes by coal miners in 1898 and 1926, the latter leading to a general strike. The general strike, more successful in countries where labor unions are more closely linked to political parties than in the United States, has nevertheless also been attempted in cities there. Work stoppages have also occurred under authoritarian regimes (which often legally forbid strikes) as protests against both economic and political disabilities. Strikes against foreign owners of mines and oil fields have occurred at various times in Mexico, Bolivia, Chile, Venezuela, and Iran. The strike has also been used as a political weapon in the movements for independence in Asia and Africa.


See T. R. Brooks, Toil and Trouble (1971); H. H. Hart, The Strike (1971); J. Brecher, Strike! (1972); F. Peterson, Strikes in the United States, 1880–1936 (1937, repr. 1972); P. K. Edwards, Strikes in the United States, 1881–1974 (1981); Labor Conflict in the United States: An Encyclopedia (1990).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Steel Strike of 1919: Selected full-text books and articles

The Steel Strike of 1919 By Colston E. Warne D. C. Heath, 1963
FREE! Report on the Steel Strike of 1919 By Interchurch World Movement of North America Harcourt, Brace & Howe, 1920
FREE! The Great Steel Strike and Its Lessons By William Z. Foster B. W. Huebsch, 1920
Analysis of the Interchurch World Movement Report on the Steel Strike By Marshall Olds; Jeremiah W. Jenks; Murray T. Quigg G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1923
Steel City: Urban and Ethnic Patterns in Gary, Indiana, 1906-1950 By Raymond A. Mohl; Neil Betten Holmes & Meier, 1986
Librarian's tip: Chap. Two "The Great Steel Strike of 1919 in Gary"
American Labor Struggles By Samuel Yellen Harcourt, Brace, 1969
Librarian's tip: Chap. VIII "Steel, 1919"
Out of the Crucible: Black Steelworkers in Western Pennsylvania, 1875-1980 By Dennis C. Dickerson State University of New York Press, 1986
Librarian's tip: Chap. 4 "The Steel Strike of 1919 and Its Aftermath"
Strikebreaking & Intimidation: Mercenaries and Masculinity in Twentieth-Century America By Stephen H. Norwood University of North Carolina Press, 2002
Librarian's tip: "Black Strikebreakers and the Defeat of the 1919 Steel Strike" begins on p. 108
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