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25 Biggest Worker Strikes in U.S. History

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BNSF Train, Burlington Northern Santa Fe
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Striking Examples

A strike among freight railroad workers has been averted after marathon talks resulted in a tentative deal. The union representing some 50,000 engineers and conductors had threatened to go on strike Sept. 16, bringing U.S. logistics to a halt. But a verbal agreement between the union and management was reached at 2:30 a.m. Thursday, concluding about 20 hours of talks, according to CNN. The union drove negotiations near the deadline seeking higher wages, annual bonuses, and changes to work rules and schedules for its members.


The country’s labor history stretches back to 1768 when New York tailors protested a cut in wages; the first union formed in 1794 among shoemakers in Philadelphia. As times changed, work stoppages in larger industries grew, sometimes pitting strikers against law enforcement and even the military. The efforts weren’t always successful, but they frequently made gains that translated to other industries and influenced laws. Here are some of the biggest strikes in America over the past 140 years, ranked by the estimated number of striking workers.


Related: Big-Name Companies Where Workers Are Fighting to Unionize

Yellow Cat tractor bulldozer with rear-view security camera
AdrianHancu/istockphoto

1994-1995 Caterpillar Strike

Workers Involved: 14,000

Union members working without a contract since 1991 walked out in June 1994 for what turned into 17 months in a dispute over overtime pay, job security, and their ability to organize on company grounds. They ended up returning to work under a less appealing contract after the company hired new “scab” workers to keep operations going.


Related: Awe-Inspiring U.S. Military Vehicles

Passaic Textile Strike
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1926-1927 Passaic Textile Strike

Workers Involved: 15,000

Wool and silk workers in and around Passaic, New Jersey, staged a strike following a 10% wage cut. The protests were punctuated with violence against the strikers from police who used clubs, tear gas, and high-pressure cold water to disrupt gatherings. One by one, mills came to terms with the strikers — then broke those agreements when the strike ended, firing and rehiring them at lower wages as membership in the United Textile Workers dwindled.


Related: Travel Agencies and Other Businesses That Are Disappearing

Coal and tools
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1993 Bituminous Coal Strike

Workers Involved: 16,800

Coal miners in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia disrupted the operations of some of the nation’s biggest coal producers during a monthlong strike after the expiration of an agreement between the United Mine Workers of America and the Bituminous Operators Association. An extension was negotiated and things appeared to go back to normal, but when further talks stalled, the union began a series of “strategic, selective” strikes to turn up the heat. The disputes weren’t settled until later in the year.

Paterson Silk Strike
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1913 Paterson Silk Strike

Workers Involved: 23,000

Workers shut down 300 silk mills and dye houses for nearly five months in Paterson, New Jersey, in an effort to control a change in the rate of production that would have cut jobs. Though the strikers were able to overcome differences of nationality, craft, and gender, and “nonviolently overcame a police offensive against them,” they were unable to extend the strike to other locations, according to pbs.org, which featured the event in an episode of “American Experience.”

Boeing Manufacturing Facility and Logo
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1995 Boeing Strike

Workers Involved: 33,000

Members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers won a boost in hourly wages as well as an immediate bonus after a 69-day strike at Boeing plants in Kansas and Oregon — the second-longest work stoppage at that time involving the world’s largest airline manufacturer.

1934 West Coast Waterfront Strike
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1934 West Coast Waterfront Strike

Workers Involved: 35,000

Unhappy with wages and hiring practices, workers in major ports along the West Coast staged a strike that lasted for 83 days and saw its share of violence — especially in San Francisco, where efforts to break the strike by force resulted in dozens of casualties. In a show of solidarity, Teamsters and other unions staged their own brief work stoppages. Eventually, the strikers reached their goals through arbitration.


blurred supermarket aisle
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2004 Southern California Supermarket Strike

Workers Involved: 67,300

Supermarket companies were able to get workers to pay more for their health-care benefits after a strike against one company turned into a lockout by two others.

Fleet of blue 18 wheeler semi trucks
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1994 Trucking Strike

Workers Involved: 71,000

International Brotherhood of Teamsters leaders and representatives from 22 trucking companies reached an agreement that ended a three-week strike in April — the longest strike in the union’s history. Both sides won concessions, the New York Times reported, but the union was especially happy to block a move to employ more low-paying part-time workers as well as improvements to pension and health plans.

2000 American Association of Advertising Agencies Strike
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2000 American Association of Advertising Agencies Strike

Workers Involved: 135,000

When the American Association of Advertising Agencies tried to change how members of the Screen Actors’ Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists were paid for their work on network television — switching to a one-time payment from the established residuals system — actors conducted a six-month strike that blocked the change.

General Motors World Headquarters
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1996 UAW Strike

Workers Involved: 136,000

A strike originating with a group of 3,000 brake workers shut down General Motors for 18 days in the spring of 1996 to “insist that G.M. live up to past promises to continue producing most of its brakes in Dayton,” according to The New York Times. “We didn’t want to shake up the nation,” Warren M. Cooper told the paper, “We just wanted to shake up the people in [the factory].”

1902 Great Anthracite Coal Strike
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1902 Great Anthracite Coal Strike

Workers Involved: 147,000

United Mine Workers of America members in eastern Pennsylvania left their jobs in May, seeking better pay and working conditions. As the strike dragged on, banker and industrialist J.P. Morgan eventually helped broker a deal that gave the miners a 10% raise — about half of what they wanted.

1998 General Motors Strike
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1998 General Motors Strike

Workers Involved: 152,200

United Auto Workers members staged a 54-day strike in the summer that cost General Motors more than $2 billion in profits. Strikes at plants in Flint, Michigan, idled production at 30 assembly plants and 100 parts plants. In the end, GM agreed to keep several factories open and invest $180 million in one of them, while employees agreed to changes in work rules.

1946 Electrical Workers Strike
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1946 Electrical Workers Strike

Workers Involved: 174,000

After months of negotiations, workers represented by the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America went on strike at several large electrical manufacturing companies including General Electric, Westinghouse, and the General Motors electrical division. Their struggle to get higher wages took 42 days to reach an agreement.

UPS Delivery, Traverse City, Michigan
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1997 UPS Workers Strike

Workers Involved: 180,000 to 185,000

Workers across the country represented by the Teamsters union walked off their jobs in the biggest work stoppage of the 1990s. They were looking for a change in how some jobs were organized, higher wages, and more security for their pension plan. “With public support high, the strikers’ demands were met” and a five-year agreement signed, according to Investopedia.

1886 Great Southwest Railroad Strike
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1886 Great Southwest Railroad Strike

Workers Involved: 200,000

Railroad workers from Texas to Illinois walked off their jobs in March to protest unsafe working conditions, long hours, and lackluster pay. The strike against the Union Pacific and the Missouri Pacific railroads was punctuated by violence between pro-labor crowds and railroad security forces. It ended six months later after the railroads brought in scabs.


1927-1928 Bituminous Coal Strike
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1927-1928 Bituminous Coal Strike

Workers Involved: 200,000

A third of the country’s bituminous coal miners went on strike April 1 after the expiration of an agreement between the United Mine Workers and mine operators. With prices of coal low, operators wanted to cut wages. As the strike went on, it was marked with violence in company towns; in one, a county judge granted an injunction to coal operators that forbade striking miners from gathering at a church and singing hymns, even as strikebreakers went to and from the mine.


1970 U.S. Postal Strike
1970 U.S. Postal Strike by APWUcommunications (CC BY-SA)

1970 U.S. Postal Strike

Workers Involved: 210,000

Tens of thousands of letter carriers in 30 cities walked off the job in March to protest poor wages and long hours. It was the first action against the federal government during a time collective bargaining was banned. President Richard Nixon declared a national emergency and called in the National Guard, but eventually, the workers got the largest pay raise in postal history, according to the National Postal Museum.

1945-1946 United Auto Workers Strike
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1945-1946 United Auto Workers Strike

Workers Involved: 225,000

United Auto Workers union requested a 30% wage hike from General Motors after agreeing to put aside negotiations during World War II. When negotiations stalled, workers staged a nationwide strike that lasted 113 days. “The settlement — including improvements in wages, health benefits, and pensions — was considered a landmark,” according to The New York Times.

1894 Pullman Strike
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1894 Pullman Strike

Workers Involved: 250,000 to 260,000

Thirty people died in Chicago when federal soldiers were ordered to enforce an anti-strike injunction against workers for the Pullman luxury rail-car service. Due to the depressed national economy, the company had cut workers’ wages by nearly 25% — without lowering costs to live in the town the company owned. President Grover Cleveland’s controversial handling of the strike led eventually to the establishment of Labor Day as a workers’ holiday in July, at the end of the strike.

1919 Steel Strike
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1919 Steel Strike

Workers Involved: 350,000

Workers centered in Pittsburgh’s United States Steel plants shut down almost half of the country’s steel production during five months to protest long hours, low wages, and poor working conditions. The company used “scare tactics to turn public sentiment away from the strikers, linking them to communism and immigration problems,” according to Investopedia. The strategy worked, and removed union representation from the industry for the next 15 years.

1970 General Motors Strike
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1970 General Motors Strike

Workers Involved: 300,000

At the height of the United Auto Workers’ influence, more than 300,000 union members staged a work stoppage at General Motors in a strike that lasted 67 days and “shook the nation’s economy,” according to The New York Times. Workers were able to negotiate better wages and the right to retire after 30 years on the job.

1946 United Mine Workers of America
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1946 United Mine Workers of America

Workers Involved: 400,000

Nearly a half-million miners left work in the spring and stayed out until December in an effort to win a health plan for workers and retirees. “President Truman attempted to reach a settlement with the union but his efforts were rebuffed,” Investopedia says. “In response, he fined the workers $3.5 million and forced them to accept a deal, which put an end to the strike.” Further negotiations secured better pay and safety improvements for workers.


1922 Railroad Shop Workers Strike
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1922 Railroad Shop Workers Strike

Workers Involved: 400,000

A cut in workers’ wages sparked a protest that led to the deaths of 10 people around the country at the hands of the National Guard and private security forces. Railroad companies replaced 75% of the workers with nonunion scabs, and those who weren’t replaced returned to work — with a smaller pay cut — after a federal judge banned strike-related activities.


1934 Textile Workers Strike
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1934 Textile Workers Strike

Workers Involved: 400,000

Textile workers across the Eastern Seaboard went on strike for about 20 days to protest long hours and low wages. But their effort failed “due to little popular support and a surplus of textiles in the South,” according to Investopedia. Many of the workers involved in the strike also lost their jobs.

1959 Steel Strike
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1959 Steel Strike

Workers Involved: 500,000

In what remains the largest event of its kind, a half-million steelworkers represented by the United Steelworkers of America successfully struck across the country between July and November for higher wages.