sitdown strike

Strike action

Strike action, often simply called a strike, is a work stoppage caused by the mass refusal by employees to perform work. A strike usually takes place in response to employee grievances. Strikes became important during the industrial revolution, when mass labour became important in factories and mines. In most countries, they were quickly made illegal, as factory owners had far more political power than workers. Most western countries partially legalized striking in the late 19th or early 20th centuries.

Strikes are sometimes used to put pressure on governments to change policies. Occasionally, strikes destabilise the rule of a particular political party. A notable example is the Gdańsk Shipyard strike led by Lech Wałęsa. This strike was significant in the struggle for political change in Poland, and was an important mobilised effort that contributed to the fall of governments in communist East Europe.


The strike tactic has a very long history. Towards the end of the 20th dynasty, under Pharaoh Ramses III in ancient Egypt in the 12th century BC, the workers of the royal necropolis organized the first known strike or workers' uprising in history. The event was reported in detail on a papyrus at the time, which has been preserved, and is currently located in Turin. The use of the word "strike" in this sense first appeared in 1768, when sailors, in support of demonstrations in London, "struck" or removed the topgallant sails of merchant ships at port, thus crippling the ships.

The Mexican Constitution was the first, all over the world, that constitutionally guaranteed the right to strike, in 1917.

A list of strikes of historic significance may be found here.

Categories of strikes

Most strikes are undertaken by labor unions during collective bargaining. The object of collective bargaining is to obtain a contract (an agreement between the union and the company,) and the contract may include a no-strike clause which prevents strikes, or penalizes the union and/or the workers if they walk out while the contract is in force. The strike is typically reserved as a threat of last resort during negotiations between the company and the union, which may occur just before, or immediately after, the contract expires.

Sometimes a union will strike rather than sign an agreement with a no-strike clause. Such an action was documented in Harlan County, USA, a video about a United Mine Workers strike.

In some industrial unions, the no-strike clause is considered controversial.

Generally, strikes are rare: according to the News Media Guild, 98% of union contracts in the United States are settled each year without a strike. Occasionally, workers decide 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 recognized 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 to prevent or dissuade 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 (also known as an Italian strike, in italian Sciopero bianco), 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 overtime. Such strikes may in some cases be a form of "partial strike" or "slowdown"; while Italian law allows that (no one can be sanctioned for following the safety and/or security rules) such form of strike 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.

During the development boom of the 1970s in Australia, the Green ban was developed by certain more socially conscious unions. This is a form of strike action taken by a trade union or other organised labour group for environmentalist or conservationist purposes. This developed from the black ban, strike action taken against a particular job or employer in order to protect the economic interests of the strikers.

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 a strike over economic issues. On the other hand, employers charged with committing unfair labor practices (ULPs) may not replace employees who strike over ULPs, and must fire any strikebreakers they have hired as replacements in order to reinstate the striking workers.

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. In Britain, sympathy strikes were banned by the Thatcher government in 1980.

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.

Employers of labor can also go on strike; either through a lock-out of workers (blocking workers from working normally, resulting in loss of wages) or through an investment strike (refusing to commit funds to maintaining or expanding production).

A student strike has the students (sometimes supported by faculty) not attending schools. Unlike other strikes, the target of the protest (the educational institution or the government) does not suffer a direct economical loss but one of public image.

A Hunger strike is the voluntary refusal to eat. Hunger strikes are often used in prisons as a form of political protest. Like student strikes, a hunger strike aims to worsen the public image of the target.

A sickout, or (especially by uniformed police officers) blue flu, is a type of strike action in which the strikers call in sick. This is used in cases where laws prohibit certain employees from declaring a strike. Police, firefighters, and air traffic controllers are among the groups commonly barred from striking, as are teachers in some U.S. states. Workers have sometimes circumvented these restrictions by falsely claiming inability to work due to illness.

Legal prohibitions on strikes

In Russia

In "Marxist-Leninist" 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. (In June 2008, however, the municipal government in Shenzhen in southern China introduced draft labour regulations, which labour rights advocacy groups say would, if implemented, virtually restore Chinese workers' right to strike.) Most other totalitarian systems of the left and right also ban strikes. At one point Stalin remarked that unions were completely unnecessary, as workers would be striking against themselves.

In France

A "minimum service" during strikes in public transport was a promise of Nicolas Sarkozy during his campaign for the French presidential election. A law "on social dialogue and continuity of public service in regular terrestrial transports of passengers" was adopted on August 12, 2007, and it took effect on 1 January, 2008

In some democratic countries, such as Mexico, strikes are legal but subject to close regulation by the state (see Mexican labor law).

In the UK

The Industrial Relations Act 1971 was repealed through the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1974, sections of which were repealed by the Employment Act 1982.

In 2003, there was a Firefighter dispute in the United Kingdom. The armed forces had to provide temporary cover, using outdated machinery. The strike action was legal under British labour law, although it was condemned by some.

The Code of Practice on Industrial Action Ballots and Notices, and sections 22 and 25 of the Employment Relations Act 2004, which concern industrial action notices, commenced on 1st October 2005.

Legislation was enacted in the aftermath of the 1919 police strikes, forbidding British police from both taking industrial action, and discussing the possibility with colleagues. The Police Federation which was created at the time to deal with employment grievances, and provide representation to police officers, has increasingly put pressure on the government, and repeatedly threatened strike action .

The current government is considering reintroducing the ban on strikes by prison staff, a law which itself was repealed in the last decade. This is in the face of a proposed strike by 20,000 staff members.

In the USA

The Railway Labor Act bans strikes by United States airline and railroad employees except in narrowly defined circumstances. The National Labor Relations Act generally permits strikes, but provides 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 requiring the International Longshore and Warehouse Union return to work in 2002 after having been locked out by the employer group, the Pacific Maritime Association.

Some jurisdictions prohibit all strikes by public employees (under such laws as the "Taylor Law" in New York). Other jurisdictions limit strikes only by certain categories of workers, particularly those regarded as critical to society: police and firefighters are among the groups commonly barred from striking in these jurisdictions. Some states, such as Michigan, Iowa or Florida, do not allow teachers in public schools to strike. Workers have sometimes circumvented these restrictions by falsely claiming inability to work due to illness — this is sometimes called a "sickout" or "blue flu", the later receiving it's name from the uniforms worn by police officers, who are traditionally prohibited from striking. The term "red flu" has sometimes been used to describe this action when undertaken by firefighters.

It is also illegal for an employee of the United States Federal Government to strike. Prospective federal employees must sign standard form 61, an affidavit not to strike. Postal workers involved in 1978 wildcat strikes in Jersey City and Kearny, NJ, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. were fired under the presidency of Jimmy Carter and President Ronald Reagan terminated air traffic controllers after their refusal to return to work from an illegal strike in 1981.


The term "scab" is a highly derogatory "fighting word" that refers to people who continue to work during strike action by trade unionists. The act of working during a strike is also known as crossing the picket line (and, often, physically requires crossing a picket line) and can result in passive and/or active retaliation against that working person. The classic example from United Kingdom industrial history is that of the miners from Nottinghamshire, who during the 1984-85 miners' strike did not support strike action by fellow mineworkers in other parts of the country. Those who supported the strike claimed that this was because they enjoyed more favourable mining conditions and thus better wages. However, the Nottinghamshire miners argued that they did not participate because the law required a ballot for a national strike and their area vote had seen around 75% vote against a strike. Irwin, Jones, McGovern (2008) believe that the term 'scab' is part of a larger metaphor involving strikes. They argue that the picket line is symbolic of a wound and those who break its borders to return to work are the scabs who bond that wound. Others have argued that the word is not a part of a larger metaphor but, rather, originates from the old-fashioned English insult, "scab." "Blackleg" is an older word and is found in the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century folk song from Northumberland, Blackleg Miner. The term does not necessarily owe its origins to this tune of unknown origin. The song is, however, notable for its lyrics that encourage violent acts against scabs.

People hired to replace striking workers are often derogatorily termed scabs by those in favor of the strike. The terms strike-breaker, blackleg, and scab labour are also used. Trade unionists also use the epithet, "scab," to refer to workers who are willing to accept terms that union workers have rejected and interfere with the strike action.

During "economic" strikes in the U.S., "scabs" may be hired as permanent replacements.

Union scabbing

The concept of union scabbing refers to any circumstance in which union workers, who normally might be expected to honor picket lines established by fellow working folk during a strike, are inclined or compelled to cross those picket lines or, in some manner, otherwise engage in workplace activity which may prove injurious to the strike.

Unionized workers are sometimes required to cross the picket lines established by other unions due to their organizations having signed contracts which include no-strike clauses. The no-strike clause typically requires that members of the union not conduct any strike action for the duration of the contract. Members who honor the picket line in spite of the contract frequently face discipline, for their action may be viewed as a violation of provisions of the contract. Therefore, any union conducting a strike action typically seeks to include a provision of amnesty for all who honored the picket line in the agreement that settles the strike.

No strike clauses may also prevent unionized workers from engaging in solidarity actions for other workers even when no picket line is crossed. For example, striking workers in manufacturing or mining produce a product which must be transported. In a situation where the factory or mine owners have replaced the strikers, unionized transport workers may feel inclined to refuse to haul any product that is produced by strikebreakers, yet their own contract obligates them to do so.

Historically the practice of union scabbing has been a contentious issue in the union movement, and a point of contention between adherents of different union philosophies. For example, supporters of industrial unions, which have sought to organize entire workplaces without regard to individual skills, have criticized craft unions for organizing workplaces into separate unions according to skill, a circumstance that makes union scabbing more common. Union scabbing is not, however, unique to craft unions.

Methods used by employers to deal with strikes

Most strikes called by unions are somewhat predictable; they typically occur after the contract has expired. However, not all strikes are called by union organizations — some strikes have been called in an effort to pressure employers to recognize unions. Other strikes may be spontaneous actions by working people. Spontaneous strikes are sometimes called "wildcat strikes"; most commonly, they are responses to serious (often life-threatening) safety hazards in the workplace rather than wage or hour disputes, etc.

Whatever the cause of the strike, employers are generally motivated to take measures to prevent them, mitigate the impact, or to undermine strikes when they do occur.

Strike preparation

Companies which produce products for sale will frequently increase inventories prior to a strike. Salaried employees may be called upon to take the place of strikers, which may entail advance training. If the company has multiple locations, personnel may be redeployed to meet the needs of reduced staff.

Strike breaking

Some companies negotiate with the union during a strike; other companies may see a strike as an opportunity to eliminate the union. This is sometimes accomplished by the importation of replacement workers, or strikebreakers. Historically, strike breaking has often coincided with union busting.

It was also called 'Black legging' in the early 20th century, during the Russian socialist movement.

Union busting

One method of inhibiting a strike is elimination of the union that may launch it, which is sometimes accomplished through union busting. Union busting campaigns may be orchestrated by labor relations consultants, and may utilize the services of labor spies, or asset protection services. Similar services may be engaged during attempts to defeat organizing drives. A modern example of a union buster is The Burke Group.


Another counter to a strike is a lockout, the form of work stoppage in which an employer refuses to allow employees to work. Two of the three employers involved in the Caravan park 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
  • Brüder brothers, Director: Werner Hochbaum, Germany 1929–On the general strike in the port of Hamburg, Germany in 1896/97
  • The Stars Look Down, Director: Carol Reed, England 1939 – Film about a strike over safety standards at a coal mine in North-East England - based on the Cronin novel
  • 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
  • I'm All Right Jack, Director: John Boulting, UK 1959–Satirical film about the postwar corruption of British industrialists and unions
  • La Reprise du travail aux usines Wonder, Director: Jacques Willemont France 1968–A short film on the resumption of work after May '68
  • Ådalen 31, Director Bo Widerberg, Sweden 1969.
  • 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
  • Bread and Roses, Director: Ken Loach(UK), USA 2000 – A film about janitors fighting for the right to unionize in contemporary Los Angeles
  • Newsies, Director: Kenny Ortega, USA 1992–A musical loosely based on the New York Newsboys Strike of 1899.
  • Billy Elliot, Director: Stephen Daldry, (UK) 2000 – story about a young boy in a Northern English town who wants to become a ballet dancer; set on the backdrop of the 1984 Miners' Strike in the United Kingdom.
  • Babylon 5: In one episode the civilian workers on the station who work the docks for incoming ships go on strike. As they are government employees their strike is considered illegal, and a government negotiator is sent. The way the negotiator deals with the strike helps demonstrate the negative turn politics are taking on Earth.
  • Hoffa, Director: Danny DeVito, United States of America 1992; a story about the rise and fall of Teamster leader James "Jimmy" Hoffa (Jack Nicholson) as told by his loyal associate Bobby Ciaro (Danny DeVito).
  • Battlestar Galactica the episode "Dirty Hands" focussed on strikes in the face of an emerging class system within the fleet.

Other meanings

  • Sometimes "go on strike" is used as slang for machinery or equipment not working due to malfunction, e.g. "My computer's scanner's gone on strike".



  • Norwood, Stephen H. Strikebreaking and Intimidation. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. ISBN 0807827053
  • Silver, Beverly J. Forces of Labor: Workers' Movements and Globalization Since 1870. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. ISBN 0521520770
  • Smith, Stephanie. Household Words: Bloomers, Sucker, Bombshell, Scab, Nigger, Cyber. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. ISBN 0816645531

See also

External links

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