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Strike action
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 grievances that employees feel management are ignoring. Strikes first 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. Occassionally, 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 BCE, 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 [1]. In the modern era, sailors in 1768, in support of demonstrations in London, "struck" or removed the top-gallant sails of merchant ships at port, thus crippling the ships.

Categories of strikes

Most strikes are undertaken by labor unions during collective bargaining with an employer. Generally, such actions 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 so as 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 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", which 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.

A Japanese strike on the contrary has the workers maximizing their output. They are nominally working as usual, but the surplus can break the planning, especially in just-in-time systems.

During the development boom of the 1970s in Australia, the Green ban was developed by certain socially more 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, also known as the Blue flu, is a quasi-legal way for police, firefighters, and air traffic controllers to strike: they call in sick en masse.

Legal prohibitions on strikes

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 for 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 against a slowdown by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in 2002.

Some jurisdictions prohibit all strikes by public employees. 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 Iowa, 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 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. President Ronald Reagan terminated air traffic controllers after their refusal to return to work from an illegal strike in 1981.

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.

Most other totalitarian systems of the left and right also ban strikes. In some democratic countries, such as Mexico, strikes are legal but subject to close regulation, if not violent suppression, by the state.

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 not illegal, although it was condemned by many.


The term "scab" is a highly derogatory and "fighting word" most frequently used to refer to people who continue to work when trade unionists go on strike action. This often results in their being shunned or assaulted. The classic example from United Kingdom industrial history is that of the miners from Nottinghamshire, who during the UK miners' strike (1984-1985) failed to 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.

People hired to replace striking workers are often derogatively termed scabs by those in favour 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. Some say that the word comes from the idea that the "scabs" are covering a wound. However, "scab" was an old-fashioned English insult. An older word is "blackleg" and this is found in the old folk song, Blackleg Miner, which has been sung by many groups.

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

Other uses of the word "scab"

There have been known cases of people using the word "scab" to mean merely "unauthorized", to describe themselves:

  • Around 1980, when CB radio was widespread but illegal in Britain, a CB radio users' club in the Hastings area called itself "South Coast Area Breakers": that name's initials come out as "SCAB". Hastings is not an industrial area.

  • The students at Manchester University normally publish a periodical called "GRIP". One year while its usual editors were busy with exams, other people published editions with various names including once "SCAB".

Strikes versus lockouts

The counterpart 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

  • 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.

  • Harlan County, USA, Director: Barbara Kopple, USA 1976 – A documentary film about a very long and bitter strike of coal miners in Kentucky

  • American Dream, Director: Barbara Kopple, USA 1990 – A documentary film about the unsuccessful 1985-1986 meatpacker's strike against Hormel Foods in Austin, Minnesota.

  • 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 1899 strike by the New York newsboys.

  • 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.

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