A strike is a worker’s last resort to get what they want — be that higher wages, an end to unfair practices in the workplace, or any other grievance which has gone unanswered for too long. Strikes are always a risk, as they cause huge financial and logistical disruption to strikers, companies, and consumers — but are considered vital as a method of improving working conditions for current and future generations. Here are 30 of the most impactful strikes from world history — although sadly, the impacts were not always positive ones for the workers.
1. General strike — U.K., 1926
The Trades Union Congress — known as TUC — called this strike after coal mine owners tried to force their miners to work longer hours for less money. Workers from other industries downed tools in solidarity with the miners, and with 1.7 million people refusing to work for nine days straight, the United Kingdom ground to a halt.
Unfortunately, the TUC blinked when the media, church, and politicians portrayed the strike as a “sin,” and they called it off. Most miners trudged back to their terrible working conditions, while others found themselves unemployed for many years to come.
2. Miners’ strike — U.K., 1984
This 1984 strike saw 165,000 British miners down tools to protest the closing of 20 mines by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government. They held out for a long, torturous year, including when the strike turned violent in June ’84 at a South Yorkshire coking plant.
As the strike dragged on and miners found it harder to provide for their families, though, some started going back to work in secret. This tragically led to the death of a Welsh taxi driver, when angry strikers dropped a concrete block on his cab as he drove a “scabbing” miner to work. In the end, the strike was called off.
3. Air traffic controllers’ strike — U.S., 1981
When 13,000 air traffic controllers refused to continue working until they were paid an extra $10,000 for a reduced work week, they were offered a mere portion of that figure. President Ronald Reagan then declared that anyone who didn’t get back on the job within 48 hours would be fired. 11,000 continued to hold out — and were summarily dismissed.
By this point, non-union air traffic controllers had gotten 80 percent of flights back in the air, and anyone who was part of the strike was banned from working for the Federal Aviation Administration again. Ouch.
4. Real del Monte miners’ strike — Mexico, 1766
This strike by the silver miners of Real del Monte, Mexico, was the first labor strike in North American history. Before it, workers had downed tools in protest at bad conditions or terrible pay, but this was the first time they actually wanted to renegotiate their contracts entirely.
The enemy was Spanish colonist Pedro Romero de Terreros, whose negotiation tactics mainly involved violence and intimidation. He was lucky not to be killed when a riot broke out! In the end, Viceroy Francisco de Gamboa negotiated a good deal for the workers — while Terreros went into hiding.
5. Dublin lock-out — Ireland, 1913
In the early 1910s, three-quarters of Dublin’s work force was unskilled, living in dilapidated tenement buildings, and paid barely half the wage workers in London were earning for the same job. It’s within this context that union man James Larkin formed the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. It quickly gained 10,000 members, who took part in a rash of “sympathetic strikes” in 1913 to weaken the position of nationalist business owner William Martin Murphy.
The strikes led to riots and two people died, before the union reluctantly admitted defeat in January 1914. Despite losing the battle, though, the strikes would come to be seen as a major breakthrough for working class labor in Ireland.
6. Newsboys’ strike — U.S., 1899
The Spanish-American war sold a ton of newspapers in New York City. This is why newsboys didn’t mind paying 60 cents for 10 copies, as opposed to 50 cents before the war — they’d still make money because people were desperate to read about the conflict.
When hostilities ended, though, and newspaper magnates William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer refused to drop the price back to pre-war levels, the newsies took the financial hit. They wound up striking for two weeks, which slashed circulation in half, and eventually struck a deal to be reimbursed the cost of unsold papers!
7. The Great Southwest railroad strike — U.S., 1886
In 1885 a Southwest railroad strike allowed the Knights of Labor union — including members of all colors and creeds — to negotiate a deal with increased wages. Railroad monopolist Jay Gould was supposed to abide by the agreement, but he didn’t. Things then exploded in March 1886 when Knights leader Charles A. Hall was unfairly dismissed, and another strike was called, this one lasting until September.
Sadly, there were violent clashes between pro-strike crowds and the police, all the way from Texas to Illinois, which cost nine people their lives. In the end, the strike wasn’t supported by other unions, and it wound up failing.
8. Secession of the Plebs — ancient Rome, 494-287 B.C.
The term “Secession of the Plebs” describes the multiple times that the underclass of ancient Rome refused to work for the wealthy ruling classes until their demands were met. Between 494 and 287 B.C. the “Plebs” — as the farmers, laborers, and bakers, et cetera were known — went on strike five times, and the fifth one actually led to some lasting change.
Quintus Hortensius passed the “Hortensian law,” which gave the Plebs equal political rights. This included creating the Plebian Assembly, which enabled the lower classes to create their own laws and elect their chosen representatives.
9. Tomb workers’ strike — ancient Egypt, 1156 B.C.
When the disgruntled artisans and tomb-builders of Egypt’s Set-Ma’at downed tools and marched on the city chanting, “We are hungry!” officials had no clue what to do. After all, this was the first documented case of workers striking in world history — it was quite literally unprecedented!
The problem arose when monthly pay was delayed for 18 days, all while workers were busting their humps to prepare for a costly festival honoring Ramesses III’s 30 years on the throne. There wound up being several strikes over a three-year period before a compromise was reached.
10. One day strike — India, 2016
On September 2, 2016, the biggest industrial action ever mounted in the world took place in India. Tens of millions across the country’s public sector went on strike for a 24-hour period, reportedly setting the economy back more than $2 billion. They were protesting the “anti-worker and anti-people” policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Economist Jayati Ghosh told The Guardian, “Less than four percent of workers in India come under labour protection… There’s a general sense that instead of targeting poverty they are targeting the poor, and there has been a real running down of spending on essential public services.”
11. Miners’ strike — U.K., 1972
In January 1972, after negotiations for a 43 percent pay increase stalled, Britain’s miners went on strike for the first time since 1926. Inflation had seen their meagre wages fall significantly behind comparable industries — but they knew the country needed the coal they dug to keep the power stations going.
In response, the government scheduled blackouts to conserve electricity and declared a state of emergency. An agreement was soon struck, but as inflation kept rising, further strikes were called in ’73. This led to the “Three-Day Week,” in which businesses were only allotted a three-day electricity supply!
12. Writer’s Guild of America strike — U.S., 2007-08
In late 2007 the 12,000 members of the Writer’s Guild of America threw Hollywood into disarray by putting their pencils down. They wanted a bigger piece of the financial pie from the work they helped create — work which regularly made studios billions. The main requests they made were higher residual rates from DVD sales and “new media” showings.
In essence, writers were nervous about their work being distributed on this newfangled thing called the internet without them being fairly compensated! Even though a deal was worked out, a strike would come to pass again in 2023, thanks to the rise of streaming TV.
13. Postal strike — U.S., 1970
When 200,000 letter carriers — around 30 percent of the U.S. Postal Service workforce — stopped working, the entire country was brought to its knees. President Nixon actually brought in the National Guard to pick up the slack and attempt to deliver a chunk of the reported 270 million pieces of mail in circulation each and every day.
In total, the strike lasted eight days and workers eventually got a six percent increase in wages. The Union Federation AFL-CIO sarcastically remarked, “Finally, the Post Office Department figured out it needed postal workers.”
14. Flint sit-down strike — U.S., 1936
This strike was a lesson in the effectiveness of simplicity. Instead of walking off the job, the Flint, Michigan, United Auto Workers union fought back against General Motors by sitting down on the job. For 44 days they camped out on the floor of the factory, playing cards and ping-pong!
Sociology professor Judith Stepan-Norris told History, “If the company had tried to replace them, they would have had to engage in a one-on-one battle at each workstation. And what replacement worker wants to do that?” The union wound up sealing a deal to resume work in February 1937.
15. United Auto Workers strike — U.S., 2019
The United Automobile Workers union went on strike for 40 days in 2019, as its representatives tried to negotiate a better deal with General Motors. It landed a deal for employees which included an $11,000 signing bonus, performance bonuses, two annual raises, two lump sum payments, and a much sought-after healthcare package. There were also new provisions for temporary workers.
Union VP Terry Dittes spoke of how proud he was of his colleagues, stating, “Their sacrifice and courageous stand addressed the two-tier wages structure and permanent temporary worker classification that has plagued working class Americans.”
16. New York shirtwaist strike — U.S., 1909
The shirtwaist blouse was one of the most common women’s fashions around the turn of the 20th century, and thousands of women were employed in New York’s garment district making them. 20,000 shut down their machines on November 23, 1909, though, as they fought for higher wages, better hours, and more protection in the workplace.
The strikers were primarily young Yiddish-speaking women, and many were subject to unwanted advances from male employers. Even though they didn’t receive all their demands, their stand did help transform the garment industry for the better.
17. Garment workers’ strike — U.S., 1982
“A lot of people just assumed that the women would not want to strike. They had never attended meetings, and they certainly had never struck before.” These are the words of Katie Quan, one of 20,000 female garment workers in New York’s Chinatown who went on strike in 1982.
Employers had tried to slash their benefits and refused to acknowledge their workers union. So, the ladies marched through the streets and, when their union was recognized, it became a landmark moment for women’s rights in the workplace.
18. Great coal strike — U.S., 1902
When the Eastern Pennsylvania branch of the United Mine Workers of America union walked off the job in 1902, they felt they had a good hand. Their location was home to the biggest anthracite coal supply in the country, and a heating crisis could develop if they weren’t given the 20 percent increase in wage they were demanding.
President Theodore Roosevelt tried to negotiate a deal but failed — for an agreement to be reached, it took banker JP Morgan stepping in to foot the bill. The miners wound up accepting a ten-percent increase and went back to work.
19. Miike struggle — Japan, 1960
When the Mitsui corporation made clear its intentions to lay off 1,462 coal miners at the Miike mine in Northern Kyushu, the most significant labor struggle in Japanese history took place. The union went on strike and protested the layoffs, leading to them being locked out of the mine for 312 days.
As is often the case, the protests turned violent when the police cracked down. Horrifyingly, one of the union members was actually stabbed to death by a Yakuza gangster! In the end, the union could take the strike no further and it surrendered — then Mitsui replaced them in the mine with a more compliant union.
20. Steel strike — U.S., 1959
This strike — which lasted 116 long days — held the record for longest downing of tools in the U.S. steel industry for 27 years. It came about because management wanted to amend a clause in contracts to make it easier for them to alter the number of workers required for a task, or to introduce new machinery which would adversely affect workers’ hours.
When it was all said and done, the workers returned to their posts with the clause intact — but in the meantime, bosses had begun importing foreign steel, which would negatively impact U.S. production in the future.
21. Women’s strike — Iceland, 1975
On October 24, 1975, almost the entire female population of Iceland went on strike. They didn’t go to work, they didn’t cook or clean, and they took no responsibility for their children for a whole day. They wanted wages in line with men, and for unfair discrimination against women in the workplace to end.
The following year, a law was passed granting them equal pay. Annadis Rudolfsdottir told The Guardian, “Remarkably, although Icelandic society was almost brought to a standstill that fine day, its women had never felt so alive, so purposeful and so determined.”
22. Essential/Frontline worker strikes — The World, 2020
During the COVID-19 pandemic, staff classed as “essential” — healthcare professionals, supermarket staff, supply chain workers — went to work while the rest of us practiced social distancing at home. There were also strikes all over the world — too many to mention, in truth. But they included U.S. essential workers from Target, Amazon, and Walmart downing tools because they felt their companies didn’t provide adequate safety precautions and appropriate hazard pay.
Elsewhere, doctors and nurses in places as far flung as Hong Kong, Zimbabwe, and Papua New Guinea also went on strike, as did sanitation workers in Pittsburgh and Kent.
23. The Winter of Discontent — U.K., 1978-79
In the U.K., the winter of 1978 was the coldest on record since 1963, and the economy was in the toilet, leading to widespread strikes in many different industries. All in all, it was such a bleak period that it became known as “The Winter of Discontent” — a Richard III reference coined by a writer for The Sun newspaper.
As uncollected garbage piled high in the streets and gravediggers stopped burying the dead, the Labour government — led by James Callaghan — lost the 1979 election to Margaret Thatcher’s Tories. She then passed laws limiting the power held by trade unions.
24. The Pullman strike — U.S., 1894
Just days after President Grover Cleveland called in federal soldiers to quash the 1894 Pullman strike — which led to 30 deaths and $80 million in damages to Chicago — he created a new holiday. It’s believed Labor Day was a way to curry favor with voters, as the country had reacted badly to his controversial handling of the strike.
While the railroad workers who started the strike were ultimately unsuccessful in forcing industrialist George Pullman to give in to their demands, the strike did do a lot to legitimize the idea of labor unions in the U.S.
25. Philadelphia general strike — U.S., 1835
This was the first U.S. strike that featured the participation of workers from many industries. Back in 1835 people tended to work from sun up to sun down, meaning they often slogged through 15-hour days in the summer.
President of the Carpenters’ Society of Philadelphia William Thompson argued, “We have rights and duties to perform as American citizens and members of society, which forbid us to dispose of more than ten hours for a day’s work.” The strike was a success, and their work day was capped at 10 hours — which still sounds like a hell of a long shift to us!
26. Delano grape strike — U.S., 1965-70
This historic strike began on September 8, 1965 — and it took five long years before grape growers in the Delano area actually sat down to work out a deal with their angry pickers. Most of them were poor Mexican and Filipino immigrants who had picked grapes for decades in the hot sun with no guarantee of retirement money or medical care.
Led by Larry Itliong and Cesar Chavez, they eventually gained the support of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., which led to the public boycotting grapes. In the end, the deal struck in July 1970 was sweet reward for not abandoning the fight.
27. Stonemason strike — Australia, 1856
If you ever wondered who you have to thank — or blame — for the standard eight-hour workday, the answer is a labor union of Australian stonemasons in 1856! They were inspired by Scottish socialist Robert Owen, who in 1817 first suggested each day should consist of, “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.”
Amazingly, the stonemasons managed to negotiate being paid the same wage they had earned for a ten-hour day, which was truly a landmark victory for the working man.
28. May 68 — France, 1968
The events that simply became known as “May 68” were so significant they actually led to French President Charles De Gaulle fleeing the country. What began as a series of student protests escalated into widespread strikes — indeed, by the end of May, two-thirds of the French workforce had walked off the job.
This amounted to ten million people angry and disillusioned by their government, and De Gaulle genuinely feared a civil war was just around the corner. In the end, he dismantled the National Assembly and held a new parliamentary election — which, to his and the protestors surprise, his party won!
29. Velvet Revolution — Czechoslovakia, 1989
On November 27, 1989, a general strike took place in Czechoslovakia as citizens called for democratic elections and an end to the Communist rule of their country. It had all begun 10 days earlier, when enormous protests took place on International Students Day — protests that were violently responded to by the police.
The protestors didn’t resort to violence, though, and by November 20 Wenceslas Square in Prague was filled with 500,000 freedom fighters. The Communist Party leadership knew they had lost and resigned on November 28, and the non-violent overthrow of the government became known as the “Velvet Revolution.”
30. Memphis sanitation workers’ strike — U.S., 1968
In 1968 sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, were paid 65 cents per hour — a wage so low they actually qualified for food stamps. When two Black workers were crushed to death in a tragic compactor accident and the city offered no compensation to their families, 13,000 went on strike.
The cause soon became synonymous with Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement — in fact, King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, while in town to deliver a trademark speech. King’s widow subsequently led a silent march of 40,000 people through the city, forcing the government to finally make a deal with the sanitation workers.