The Strike Movement


This was almost 150 years ago, in 1835, when Irish immigrants unloading coal at the Schuylkill River docks struck for a 10-hour work-day and higher wages. The strike movement spread fast. Every union in the city struck for these demands. They sought public support through articles in the flourishing labor press, while employers raged against the “outside agitators’’ stirring up trouble.

Half a century later, in 1885, the first nation-wide general strike broke out for the 8-hour work-day. Karl Marx called the movement “the first fruit of the Civil War’’. At its national convention in 1884, the recently formed American Federation of Labor* had passed a resolution declaring, “Beginning May 1, 1886, 8-hours shall constitute a day’s work.’’

The movement spread like wildfire. About 350,000 workers of all trades participated. The 8-hour day was won by many workers, especially in the building trades. William Z. Foster declared that these struggles laid the ‘basis for the modern trade-union movement.

Seattle* in 1918 was the scene of the first general strike in behalf of international working-class solidarity. The Longshoremen’s Union of the Pacific struck for better working conditions and for an end to U.S. intervention against Soviet power.

Sixteen years later, in 1934, a general strike took place in San Francisco. It developed out of a bitterly fought struggle of the Pacific coast Longshoremen’s Union and is one of the most exciting pages in American labor history. The strike spread rapidly through the California Bay Area. But the employers, supported by the press and state and federal authorities, were aided — both openly and secretly — by the conservative union leadership. The sabotage reached its height when these “leaders’’ forced a motion through the top strike committee ending the general strike, then in its fourth day.

“sccording to Foster, “the San Francisco general strike was politically the highest point reached by the workers in the great national strike wave of 1934... It was a very important chapter in the development of the American labor movement.’’ Foster emphasised that “the Communist Party* had played a vital role in the struggle.’’

In November, 1936, a new kind of strike appeared. Thousands of automobile workers in Detroit refused to leave factories until wage and union demands were granted. They were the famous “sit-down’’ strikes.* Everybody was doing it. The auto workers set the style. Bus drivers, bakery workers, laundry, upholstery, battery, flat glass, steel workers, unemployed, — all went for sit-downs. The sit-down served to crack some powerful manufacturers like General Motors.