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Strike action, also called labor strike, labour strike, or simply strike, is a work stoppage, caused by the mass refusal of employees to work. A strike usually takes place in response to employee grievances. Strikes became common during the Industrial Revolution, when mass labor became important in factories and mines. In most countries, strike actions were quickly made illegal, as factory owners had far more power than workers. Most Western countries partially legalized striking in the late 19th or early 20th centuries.
Strikes are sometimes used to pressure governments to change policies. Occasionally, strikes destabilize the rule of a particular political party or ruler; in such cases, strikes are often part of a broader social movement taking the form of a campaign of civil resistance. Notable examples are the 1980 Gdańsk Shipyard or 1981 Warning Strike, led by Lech Wałęsa. These strikes were significant in the long campaign of civil resistance for political change in Poland, and were an important mobilizing effort that contributed to the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of communist party rule in eastern Europe.
The use of the English word "strike" 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. Official publications have typically used the more neutral words "work stoppage" or "industrial dispute".
The first historically certain account of strike action was towards the end of the 20th dynasty, under Pharaoh Ramses III in ancient Egypt on 14 November 1152 BC. The artisans of the Royal Necropolis at Deir el-Medina walked off their jobs because they had not been paid. The Egyptian authorities raised the wages.
An early predecessor of the general strike may have been the secessio plebis in ancient Rome. In The Outline Of History, H.G. Wells characterized this event as "the general strike of the plebeians; the plebeians seem to have invented the strike, which now makes its first appearance in history." Their first strike occurred because they "saw with indignation their friends, who had often served the state bravely in the legions, thrown into chains and reduced to slavery at the demand of patrician creditors."
The strike action only became a feature of the political landscape with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. For the first time in history, large numbers of people were members of the industrial working class; they lived in cities and exchanged their labor for payment. By the 1830s, when the Chartist movement was at its peak in Britain, a true and widespread 'workers consciousness' was awakening. In 1842 the demands for fairer wages and conditions across many different industries finally exploded into the first modern general strike. After the second Chartist Petition was presented to Parliament in April 1842 and rejected, the strike began in the coal mines of Staffordshire, England, and soon spread through Britain affecting factories, mills in Lancashire and coal mines from Dundee to South Wales and Cornwall. Instead of being a spontaneous uprising of the mutinous masses, the strike was politically motivated and was driven by an agenda to win concessions. Probably as much as half of the then industrial work force were on strike at its peak – over 500,000 men. The local leadership marshalled a growing working class tradition to politically organize their followers to mount an articulate challenge to the capitalist, political establishment. Friedrich Engels, an observer in London at the time, wrote:
by its numbers, this class has become the most powerful in England, and woe betide the wealthy Englishmen when it becomes conscious of this fact ... The English proletarian is only just becoming aware of his power, and the fruits of this awareness were the disturbances of last summer.
As the 19th century progressed, strikes became a fixture of industrial relations across the industrialized world, as workers organized themselves to collectively bargain for better wages and standards with their employers. Karl Marx has condemned the theory of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon criminalizing strike action in his work The Poverty of Philosophy.
In 1937 there were 4,740 strikes in the United States. This was the greatest strike wave in American labor history. The number of major strikes and lockouts in the U.S. fell by 97% from 381 in 1970 to 187 in 1980 to only 11 in 2010. Companies countered the threat of a strike by threatening to close or move a plant.
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted in 1967 ensure the right to strike in Article 8 and European Social Charter adopted in 1961 also ensure the right to strike in Article 6.
Most strikes are undertaken by labor unions during collective bargaining as a last resort. The object of collective bargaining is for the employer and the union to come to an agreement over wages, benefits, and working conditions. A collective bargaining agreement may include a clause which prohibits the union from striking during the term of the agreement, known as a "no-strike clause." No-strike clauses arose in the United States immediately following World War II. Some in the labor movement consider no-strike clauses to be an unnecessary detriment to unions in the collective bargaining process.
Generally, strikes are rare: according to the News Media Guild, 98% of union contracts in the United States are settled each of the 67 years 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 ionized. 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. A similar tactic is the work-in, where employees occupy the workplace but still continue work, often without pay, which attempts to show they are still useful, or that worker self-management can be successful. For instance, this occurred with factory occupations in the Biennio Rosso strikes - the "two red years" of Italy from 1919-1920.
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".
During the development boom of the 1970s in Australia, the Green ban was developed by certain unions described by some as more socially conscious. This is a form of strike action taken by a trade union or other organized labor 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 who commit unfair labor practices (ULPs) may not replace employees who strike over them, 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 orgition or by individual union members choosing not to cross a picket line.
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.
A student strike has the students (sometimes supported by faculty) not attending schools. In some cases, the strike is intended to draw media attention to the institution so that the grievances that are causing the students to "strike" can be aired before the public; this usually damages the institution's (or government's) public image. In other cases, especially in government-supported institutions, the student strike can cause a budgetary imbalance and have actual economic repercussions for the institution.
A hunger strike is a deliberate 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, air traffic controllers, and teachers in some U.S. states are among the groups commonly barred from striking usually by state and federal laws meant to ensure the safety or security of the general public.
Activists may form "flying squad" groups for strikes or other actions to disrupt the workplace or another aspect of capitalism: supporting other strikers or unemployed workers, participating in protests against globalization, or opposing abusive landlords.
On 30 January 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that there is a constitutional right to strike. In this 5–2 majority decision, Justice Rosalie Abella ruled that "[a]long with their right to associate, speak through a bargaining representative of their choice, and bargain collectively with their employer through that representative, the right of employees to strike is vital to protecting the meaningful process of collective bargaining..." [paragraph 24]. This decision adopted the dissent by Chief Justice Brian Dickson in a 1987 Supreme Court ruling on a reference case brought by the province of Alberta. The exact scope of this right to strike remains unclear and will no doubt be subject to further litigation. Prior to this Supreme Court decision, the federal and/or provincial governments had the ability to introduce "back to work legislation", a special law that blocks the strike action (or a lockout) from happening or continuing on further. Canadian governments could also have imposed binding arbitration or a new contract on the disputing parties. Back to work legislation was first used in 1950 during a railway strike, and as of 2012 had been used 33 times by the federal government for those parts of the economy that are regulated federally (grain handling, rail and air travel, and the postal service), and in more cases provincially. In addition, certain parts of the economy can be proclaimed "essential services" in which case all strikes are illegal.
Examples include when the government of Canada passed back to work legislation during the 2011 Canada Post lockout and the 2012 CP Rail strike, thus effectively ending the strikes. In 2016, the government's use of back to work legislation during the 2011 Canada Post lockout was ruled unconstitutional, with the judge specifically referencing the Supreme Court of Canada's 2015 decision Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v Saskatchewan.
In some Marxist–Leninist states, such as the former USSR or the People's Republic of China, striking was 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 1976, China signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which guaranteed the right to unions and striking, but Chinese officials declared that they had no interest in allowing these liberties. (In June 2008, however, the municipal government in Shenzhen in southern China introduced draft labor regulations, which labor rights advocacy groups say would, if implemented, virtually restore Chinese workers' right to strike.) Trade unions in the Soviet Union served in part as a means to educate workers about the country's economic system. Vladimir Lenin referred to trade unions as "Schools of Communism." They were essentially state propaganda and control organs to regulate the workforce, also providing them with social activities.
In France, the right to strike is recognized and guaranteed by the Constitution.
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 12 August 2007, and it took effect on 1 January 2008.
This law, among other measures, forces certain categories of public transport workers (such as train and bus drivers) to declare to their employer 48 hours in advance if they intend to go on strike. Should they go on strike without having declared their intention to do so beforehand, they leave themselves open to sanctions.
The unions did and still oppose this law and argue these 48 hours are used not only to pressure the workers but also to keep files on the more militant workers, who will more easily be undermined in their careers by the employers. Most importantly, they argue this law prevents the more hesitant workers from making the decision to join the strike the day before, once they've been convinced to do so by their colleagues and more particularly the union militants, who maximize their efforts in building the strike (by handing out leaflets, organizing meetings, discussing the demands with their colleagues) in the last few days preceding the strike. This law makes it also more difficult for the strike to spread rapidly to other workers, as they are required to wait at least 48 hours before joining the strike.
This law also makes it easier for the employers to organize the production as it may use its human resources more effectively, knowing beforehand who is going to be at work and not, thus undermining, albeit not that much, the effects of the strike.
However, this law has not had much effect as strikes in public transports still occur in France and at times, the workers refuse to comply by the rules of this law. The public transport industry - public or privately owned - remains very militant in France and keen on taking strike action when their interests are threatened by the employers or the government.
The public transport workers in France, in particular the "Cheminots" (employees of the national French railway company) are often seen as the most radical "vanguard" of the French working class. This law has not, in the eyes of many, changed this fact.
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 1 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.
Prison officers have gained and lost the right to strike over the years; most recently despite it being illegal, they walked out on 15 November 2016.
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 laws such as the "Taylor Law" in New York. Other jurisdictions impose strike bans only on certain categories of workers, particularly those regarded as critical to society: police, teachers and firefighters are among the groups commonly barred from striking in these jurisdictions. Some states, such as New Jersey, 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 latter receiving its 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.
Often, specific regulations on strike actions exist for employees in prisons. The Code of Federal Regulations declares "encouraging others to refuse to work, or to participate in a work stoppage" by prisoners to be a "High Severity Level Prohibited Act" and authorizes solitary confinement for periods of up to a year for each violation. The California Code of Regulations states that "[p]articipation in a strike or work stoppage", "[r]efusal to perform work or participate in a program as ordered or assigned", and "[r]ecurring failure to meet work or program expectations within the inmate's abilities when lesser disciplinary methods failed to correct the misconduct" by prisoners is "serious misconduct" under §3315(a)(3)(L), leading to gang affiliation under CCR §3000.
Postal workers involved in 1978 wildcat strikes in Jersey City, Kearny, New Jersey, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. were fired under the presidency of Jimmy Carter, and President Ronald Reagan fired air traffic controllers and the PATCO union after the air traffic controllers' strike of 1981.
A strikebreaker (sometimes derogatorily called a scab, blackleg, or knobstick) is a person who works despite an ongoing strike. Strikebreakers are usually individuals who are not employed by the company prior to the trade union dispute, but rather hired after or during the strike to keep the organization running. "Strikebreakers" may also refer to workers (union members or not) who cross picket lines to work.
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, was an old-fashioned English insult whose meaning narrowed over time.
"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 strikebreakers.
The concept of union strikebreaking or union scabbing refers to any circumstance in which union workers themselves cross picket lines to work.
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; such actions are called sympathy or secondary strikes. 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 strikebreaking 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 strikebreaking more common. Union strikebreaking is not, however, unique to craft unions.
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"; they were the key fighting point in May 1968 in France; 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.
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.
Companies may also take out strike insurance prior to an anticipated strike, to help offset the losses which the strike would cause.
One of the weapons traditionally wielded by already-established unions is strike action. Some companies may decline entirely to negotiate with the union, and respond to the strike by hiring replacement workers. This may create a crisis situation for strikers — do they stick to their original plan and rely upon their solidarity, or is there a chance that the strike may be lost? How long will the strike last? Will strikers' jobs still be there if the strike fails? Are other strikers defecting from the strike? Companies that hire strikebreakers typically play upon these fears when they attempt to convince union members to abandon the strike and cross the union's picket line.
Unions faced with a strikebreaking situation may try to inhibit the use of strikebreakers by a variety of methods — establishing picket lines where the strikebreakers enter the workplace; discouraging strike breakers from taking, or from keeping, strikebreaking jobs; raising the cost of hiring strikebreakers for the company; or employing public relations tactics. Companies may respond by increasing security forces and seeking court injunctions.
Examining conditions in the late 1990s, John Logan observed that union busting agencies helped to "transform economic strikes into a virtually suicidal tactic for U.S. unions." Logan further observed, "as strike rates in the United States have plummeted to historic low levels, the demand for strike management firms has also declined."
In the U.S., as established in the National Labor Relations Act there is a legally protected right for private sector employees to strike to gain better wages, benefits, or working conditions and they cannot be fired. Striking for economic reasons (like protesting workplace conditions or supporting a union's bargaining demands) allows an employer to hire permanent replacements. The replacement worker can continue in the job and then the striking worker must wait for a vacancy. But if the strike is due to unfair labor practices, the strikers replaced can demand immediate reinstatement when the strike ends. If a collective bargaining agreement is in effect, and it contains a "no-strike clause", a strike during the life of the contract could result in the firing of all striking employees which could result in dissolution of that union. Although this is legal it could be viewed as union busting.
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, strikebreakers or "scabs". 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.
One method of inhibiting or ending a strike is firing union members who are striking which can result in elimination of the union. Although this has happened it is rare due to laws regarding firing and "right to strike" having a wide range of differences in the US depending on whether union members are public or private sector. Laws also vary country to country. In the UK, "It is important to understand that there is no right to strike in UK law." Employees who strike risk dismissal, unless it is an official strike (one called or endorsed by their union) in which case they are protected from unlawful dismissal, and cannot be fired for at least 12 weeks. UK laws regarding work stoppages and strikes are defined within the Employment Relations Act 1999 and the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.
One of the most significant cases of mass-dismissals in the UK in 2005 involved the sacking of over 600 Gate Gourmet employees at Heathrow Airport, to which the media responded with outrage. Under the direction of Gate Gourmet's HR Director Andy Cook, according to BBC: "Gate Gourmet sacked more than 600 staff last week in a working practices row, prompting a walkout by British Airways ground staff that paralysed flights and stranded thousands of travellers in the UK." Andy Cook, Gate Gourmet's director of human resources at that time, said: "The company had not been looking to cut the size of the protests, only stop the minority engaged in harassment." Cook is now CEO of the UK labor relations advisory firm Marshall-James Global Solutions Ltd.
In 1962 US President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order #10988 which permitted federal employees to form trade unions but prohibited strikes (codified in 1966 at 5 U.S.C. 7311 - Loyalty and Striking). In 1981, after public sector union PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) went on strike illegally, President Ronald Reagan fired all of the controllers. His action resulted in the dissolution of the union. PATCO reformed to become the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
In the U.S., as established in the National Labor Relations Act there is a legally protected right for private sector employees to strike to gain better wages, benefits, or working conditions and they cannot be fired. Striking for economic reasons (i.e., protesting workplace conditions or supporting a union's bargaining demands) allows an employer to hire permanent replacements. The replacement worker can continue in the job and then the striking worker must wait for a vacancy. But if the strike is due to unfair labor practices (ULP), the strikers replaced can demand immediate reinstatement when the strike ends. If a collective bargaining agreement is in effect, and it contains a "no-strike clause", a strike during the life of the contract could result in the firing of all striking employees which could result in dissolution of that union.
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.
Historically, some employers have attempted to break union strikes by force. One of the most famous examples of this occurred during the Homestead Strike of 1892. Industrialist Henry Clay Frick sent private security agents from the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to break the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers strike at a Homestead, Pennsylvania steel mill. Two strikers were killed, twelve wounded, along with two Pinkertons killed and eleven wounded. In the aftermath, Frick was shot in the neck and then stabbed by Alexander Berkman, surviving the attack, while Berkman was sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Gang means any … formal or informal organization, association or group of three or more persons which has a common name or identifying sign or symbol whose members and/or associates, individually or collectively, engage or have engaged, on behalf of that organization, association or group, in two or more acts which include, … acts of misconduct classified as serious pursuant to section 3315.