Scholars have said the first recorded strike occurred as early as 1159 B.C. In Egypt under the rule of Pharaoh Ramesses II, tomb workers and artisans at Deir el Medina protested late wages and corrupt leadership.
If you’re a worker anywhere, you know there’s still a need for better, fairer workplaces. Centuries since the first strike, labor movements of the past have secured some of the workplace practices that you’re likely very familiar with today — the eight-hour workday, for example, was first mandated in the U.S. in the state of Illinois in 1867. The idea is older than that, though: Scotsman Robert Owen first called for a balanced day consisting of eight hours of work, recreation, and rest in 1817. The 40-hour work week was recognized nationally in the U.S. in 1940. Even the past 150 years alone have drastically changed the workplace in the United States.
Here are a few of the largest moments in U.S. labor history you should know about.
Largest U.S. Strikes
1992 UPS Workers’ Strike
Teamsters went on strike for 15 days, halting UPS operations across the nation. All demands made by the union were met — the creation of more full-time jobs, wage increases, and an improved pension plan.
1970 U.S. Postal Strike
The National Association of Letter Carriers, despite a ban on collective bargaining by President Nixon, called for better wages, working conditions, and benefits. The strike ended with an eight percent wage and the right to bargain.
1959 Steel Strike
The United Steelworkers of America called for higher wages as profits in the industry rose. The strike ended four months later with a wage increase for union members.
1946 Bituminous Coal Strike
The United Mine Workers of America protested working conditions, poor health benefits, and low pay. Miners in 26 states went on strike. The Promise of 1946 created health welfare funds
1934 Textile Workers’ Strike
The United Textile Workers protested a wage cut of 25 percent and weekly hour reduction by the National Recovery Administration Textile Industry Committee chair, who also spoke for the industry trade organization. In Gastonia, North Carolina, 65,000 workers began the strike. The strike ended with federal pressure to return to work and no agreements reached.
1922 The Railroad Shop Workers’ Strike
Workers protested a $.07, or 12 percent, pay cut. The companies hired non-union workers instead of negotiating, and strikers ultimately went back to work agreeing to a $.05 pay cut after a federal judge banned strike-related activities.
1919 Steel Strike
The American Federation of Labor protested long hours, low wages, and poor working conditions at the United States Steel Corporation, shutting down much of the nation’s steel industry. The corporation appealed to the public fear amid the first Red Scare to shut down support for the strike. No unions organized in the steel industry for 15 years.
1902 Great Anthracite Coal Strike
In Eastern Pennsylvania, coal miners of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) went on strike. Strikers agreed to a 10 percent raise.
1894 The Pullman Strike
Employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago protested long hours and low wages led by the American Railway Union and Eugene Debbs. Workers in other Chicago industries protested in sympathy. The situation turned violent, and the strike ended when President Grover Cleveland declared Labor Day a national holiday.
1886 The Great Southwest Railroad Strike
The Knights of Labor led a strike against the Union Pacific Railroad and the Missouri Pacific Railroad. The end of the strike left the union weakened without the full support of other railroad union.
Strikes happen pretty regularly. Every so often, you’ll hear about a teachers’ union going on strike or maybe plant workers protesting here or there. But unless you just watched The Irishman or you live in New York state, odds are organized labor probably isn’t on the front of your mind. Until 2023.
For about half of this year, Hollywood’s writers and actors went on strike, demanding — and to a large degree getting — more structured work hours, better pay for writers, and protections against artificial intelligence. In Detroit, the million-member United Auto Workers’ (UAW) led a successful strike against Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis. As of this writing, some 100,000 employees of Microsoft are deliberating an effort to unionize. There are others, as you probably know from the headlines you read.
Because these strikes have been more public than usual, their victories have been more public than usual — and their support. President Joe Biden’s National Labor Relations Board has been unusually friendly to workers’ attempts to organize, and Biden himself has made appearances at several high-profile strikes. Perhaps more notably, Gallup reports that 67 percent of Americans approve of unions, which while down from 2022’s 71 percent, represents a big jump from the “years-long average” of 62 percent. And according to experts, this momentum is significant not only for the traditional unions like UAW and SAG-AFTRA, but for simultaneous efforts that are both independent and decidedly young.
But the rise in public support for strikes seems to highlight the absence of the conversation in many churches. For instance, I live in Atlanta, one of the centers of one of the highest-profile strikes in memory, and I don’t recall a mention of it from the pulpit or church leaders, even with dozens or even hundreds of church members professionally affected by it. Pastors seem to be unclear if or how to address an issue that can at times be fraught.
What’s going on?
“What we’re seeing right now with labor is historic,” said Sarah Milov, who is a professor at the University of Virginia, where she teaches about political and social movements, in a November phone call. “What makes this historic is the generational dimension to it: You’re seeing a huge upsurge among younger people in their approval for strikes. They don’t even necessarily know what organized labor is. When they think of organized labor, they’re not necessarily thinking about the AFL-CIO, the big organized labor groups of mid-century. They might be thinking about activities they see at their local Starbucks, at Amazon, at Trader Joe’s, which are independent movements.”
Milov points to two major causes to what we see right now. First is desperation. “People organize when they get desperate and think that the only way to improve conditions is with each other,” she said, pointing to factors like rise of the gig economy and workers having a more tangible sense of what exploitation means as they participate in Amazon or Uber or their work for whatever else makes somebody else richer as they have to hustle. The second is the pandemic and the phenomenon of “essential workers,” in which many workers saw themselves as in harm’s way for the good of others’ bottom lines.
Of course, there are environmental factors like the current inflationary economy, which Milov called “wind at the back of this movement.”
What do Christians have to do with it?
A professor of history at Princeton Theological Seminary, who has written extensively on Christians and labor, Heath Carter, says “there’s been ebb and flow in Christian attitudes and action around workers’ rights and around labor questions.”
In Carter’s telling, the story generally goes like this: In the heyday of industrial America in the late 19th century, Protestant and Catholic Christians alike “ranged from hostility to suspicion to holding organized labor at arms’ length.” Then by the early 20th century, many working-class Christians began to question why biblical themes such as Jesus as a blue collar worker and his statement that “a laborer is worthy of his hire” often seemed neglected in their churches.
“To some significant extent, they changed the church’s mind about certain forms of labor organizations,” said Carter, who is the author of Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago. “So you get, across denominations and across the Protestant-Catholic divide, a broad acceptance of trade unions. The idea of a living wage comes to have an important resonance in Christian circles.”
Carter points out that Roman Catholic social teaching, starting with Rerum Novarum in 1891, and the Protestant Social Creed of the Churches in 1908 highlight a “long line of Christian social teaching about labor.”
Labor left and right
The discussion around labor has always involved political economy, but part of what happened with the labor conversation in the United States on the other side of World War 2 is partisan politics.
In the pushback to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and especially in the Cold War era, labor unions often get branded as communist or communistic by a lot of both corporate and Christian folks who hold to older laissez-faire ideas — in Carter’s words, “become big boosters for a vein of Christian libertarianism.”
And it’s that left-right distinction that complicates Christian conversations around labor, even if that has little or nothing to do with labor itself.
It’s undeniable that the evangelical stripe of Christianity has been more affiliated, on a large scale, with the post-Reagan GOP and that labor, in the post-New Deal era, has been more aligned with the Democratic party. Even if, as Milov notes, “right or wrong — and many within the labor movement would say it’s not exactly right — organized labor is seen as adjunct to the Democratic Party.” There’s some uncomplicated partisanship happening.
Though Carter remains convinced that this doesn’t have to be the case. Just look at the Catholic community.
“It’s fascinating to look at Catholic social teaching over the last century,” says Carter. “It doesn’t matter how the Pope of the day is regarded, as a conservative or a liberal, they’ve just agreed around labor questions. It’s one of the things on which Benedict and Francis are in lockstep.”
For Milov, this is a “moment” for labor, but also a move toward something different.
“Before I would expect the incorporation of the Starbucks workers or the Trader Joe’s workers into larger, more established unions, I would expect the proliferation of more independent unions,” said Milov. “To me, that is a measure of the next generation’s interest, enthusiasm, and maybe something more poetic and ineffable: to look at your coworkers and to say, ‘Our dignity is not being affirmed under current conditions.’”
Labor’s in a moment of flux, but so is what Carter calls institutional Christianity. And this to him presents “opportunities for pastors and for ordinary Christians” to eschew polarization and tap into a vein of Christian teaching that could unite believers.
“I do think that there’s an argument that young people today, many of whom look a little askance at both megachurches and big denominational structures, are looking for people who are talking deeply about the ways that faith intersects with their world. A lot of my students, both at Valpo and now at Princeton Seminary, are hungry for hearing how their faith relates to the world around them.”