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Working Class Activism

Workers  have consistently engaged in efforts to achieve fair and just resolutions to the many issues that confront them, sometimes by joining together in unions, at others by striking against employers or engaging in public protest.  In this section we highlight some of the major ways that they have tried to achieve better working conditions, higher wages, and greater autonomy in the workplace. 


Group of striking women-shirtwaist workers in New York City, circa 1909.
View: Uprising of 20,000 (1909)

On November 23, 1909, more than 20,000 Yiddish-speaking immigrants, mostly young women in their teens and early twenties, launched an eleven-week general strike in New York’s shirtwaist industry. Dubbed the Uprising of the 20,000, it was the largest strike by women to date in American history.

Three miners with federal soldier prepare to surrender weapons.
View: Matewan and the Battle of Blair Mountain–WVA coal miners, 1920

What Made the Battle of Blair Mountain the Largest Labor Uprising in American History. Its legacy lives on today in the struggles faced by modern miners seeking workers’ rights

Air traffic controllers picket near a fence at DFW Airport's FAA tower during the PATCO strike. Aug. 5, 1981. (Fort Worth Star-Telegram Collection)
View: The 1981 PATCO Strike

In August 1981, over 12,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) walked off the job after contract negotiations with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) broke down.

President Reagan with William French Smith making a statement to the press regarding the air traffic controllers strike (PATCO) from the Rose Garden on August 3, 1981.
View: PATCO: The Strike That Changed American Labor

The Takeaway traces it all back to August 1981, when nearly 13,000 air traffic controllers went on strike creating a standoff with Ronald Reagan that ended when he fired the majority of them and de-certified their union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization.

Surveillance photos taken from the Exchange Building show the National Guard gathered at the center of Concord Street at the height of the 1948 meatpackers strike.
View: 1948 Meatpackers Strike

Many were home from war and wanted more than ever to live a long full life. Others had worked long days and nights during the war to feed the troops overseas as well as Americans on the home front. Some had migrated to the cities from farms and small towns looking for work.

Service Pnp Fsa 8c28000 8c28600 8c28670v, Labor History Resource Project
View: The Flint, Michigan, Sit-Down Strike (1936-37)

Once called “the strike heard round the world,” the first major labor dispute in the U.S. auto industry ended after General Motors signed a contract with the United Auto Workers Union on February 11, 1937.

Service Pnp Fsa 8c28000 8c28600 8c28673v, Labor History Resource Project
View: Remembering the Flint Sit-Down Strike, 1936-1937

The site has been designed around the general idea of providing diversified, nonlinear access to digital audio content. Users can choose from a number of different modes of presentation, including audio essays, a timeline, strike map, and a user-friendly, yet very accurate search engine.

Sheldon Dick, photographer. Sitdown strikers in the Fisher body plant factory number three. Flint, Michigan. 1937. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
View: Dec. 30, 1936: First Sit-Down Strike Begins in Flint

The Flint sit-down strike, which started on Dec. 30, 1936, represented a shift in union organizing strategies from craft unionism (organizing white male skilled workers) to industrial unionism (organizing all the workers in an industry). The sit-down strike changed the balance of power between employers and workers.

Cover Postal2, Labor History Resource Project
View: The Day the Mail Stopped

The wildcat Postal strike that began on March 18, 1970 signaled the end of collective begging and the beginning of collective bargaining that raised hundreds of thousands of postal workers, craft and management, from poverty level wages to middle class wage earners.

Vid Postal, Labor History Resource Project
View: The Strike That Couldn’t Happen, The Great Postal Strike of March 1970

APWU remembers the Great Postal Strike of March 1970. For more background on the successful wildcat strike that earned postal workers the right to bargain collectively for better pay and benefits.

Vid Postal Apwu, Labor History Resource Project
View: March 18, 1970: Postal Workers Strike

The first mass work stoppage in the 195-year history of the Postal Service began on March 18, 1970, with a walkout of letter carriers in Brooklyn and Manhattan who were demanding better wages.

Cover Postal, Labor History Resource Project
View: In March of 1970, Postal Workers Suddenly Walked Off the Job. Even President Nixon Was Surprised.

“Wildcat” strikes, like the one that teachers used effectively in West Virginia in February/March of this year, are when union members walk off the job despite the wishes of their leadership. By definition, they are something uncontrollable and spontaneous.


Logo for IWW History Project by the University of Washington
View: The IWW History Project: Industrial Workers of the World, 1905-1935

This project explores the history of the IWW in its first three decades, presenting information that has never before been available. We have compiled databases of more than 1,800 strikes, campaigns, arrests, and other incidents involving IWW members and present this information both yearbook format…

Frances Benjamin Johnston, photographer. Wooden Box Industry: women in work room of box factory. ca 1910. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.
View: Founding of the National Labor Union and the 1st National Call for a 8-Hour Work Day

The National Labor Union was founded on August 20, 1866, in Baltimore, Maryland. It was the first attempt to create a national labor group in the United States and one of their first actions was the first national call for Congress to mandate an 8-hour work day.

Uow Mapping, Labor History Resource Project
View: Knights of Labor History and Geography 1869-1899

The Knights of Labor was the largest and most extensive association of workers in 19th century America. Organized in 1869, the movement grew slowly in the 1870s, then surged in the 1880s, reaching a peak membership approaching one million in 1886-1887 with Local Assemblies spread across the country in more than 5,600 cities and towns.

Uow Mapping, Labor History Resource Project
View: CIO Unions History and Geography

The CIO transformed American labor and American politics. Defying the American Federation of Labor’s commitment to craft unionism, the Committee for Industrial Organization was established in 1935 by leaders of the United Mine Workers and other AFL unions who embraced industrial union organizing strategies.