Tracing ‘Strike’ in U.S. Intellectual History

Christopher Phelps

In May, 1768, sailors in London lowered their sails and refused to hoist them again until wages were raised. A month later, London’s hatmakers also “struck sails” until their demands were met.

The hatters made language history by using the expression “to strike” as a generic term for stopping work to force changes in labor practices, said Christopher Phelps, a Center Research Fellow and associate professor of history at Ohio State University. Phelps is writing a book about the intellectual history of the labor strike in American social thought, to be published by Hill & Wang.

The word “strike” had numerous usages in English prior to the sailors’ and hatters’ work stoppage—blacksmiths, for instance, struck blows upon the forge—but it had not been used in connection with labor disputes, and was employed only as a verb. It took crossing the Atlantic to become a noun; in 1810, a Philadelphia walkout by shoemakers was called “a strike.”

Phelps’s book will trace the complex evolution of the strike in the United States. In particular, he will examine the attitudes and dispositions towards strikes manifested in American intellectual and cultural history, ranging from sociological theories of the strike to representations of the strike in American literature, theater and song.

At the time of the Philadelphia shoemakers’ strike, said Phelps, Americans were ambivalent about labor walkouts.

“Despite republican fears that an aristocracy was emerging among wealthy merchants and bankers, few thought strikes a constructive manner of response. Even early socialists thought strikes coercive and selfish, a view that lingered on in a host of nineteenth-century reformers. . . Because workers had few options so compelling as to withhold labor, however, the question was rejoined time and again. When labor did down tools, social critics were torn between backing workers’ just demands or condemning strikers’ tactical folly.”

In the late 1800s, the general view of strikes darkened as they were associated increasingly with violence, destruction, and foreign-born agitation. “Denunciation of ‘class legislation’ from press, pulpit, and podium stigmatized labor unions and the eight-hour day as intrusions into the market, contrary to natural law.”

Within the labor movement, how-ever, the cumulative effect of the violence triggered by walkouts “was to promote a view of strikes as inevitable in a corporate econ-omy riven with deep inequalities.” By the early twentieth century, militant industrial unions asserted that strikes, far from being unethical or fruitless, presaged a society that would abolish class divisions, whether by the ballot or the general strike.

“Lyricism was inspired by immigrant mill workers in 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, whose banners asked for ‘bread and roses too,’” Phelps said. Meanwhile, business unionists viewed strikes more prosaically, as a bargaining tactic for getting better wages and conditions. The 1919 strike, for example, crystallized the industrial unionist view that racist exclusion of black workers merely allowed employers to make shrewd use of African-American strike breakers.

When the right to strike gained federal recognition as a result of the Great Depression, it served as a powerful impetus for industrial unionism. In the mid-thirties, sit-down strikes called for workers to remain inside factories, which forced the recognition of unions in the auto industry; the unionization of other industries soon followed.

“Academic sociology and New Deal legal thought began to treat strikes more dispassionately,” said Phelps, but the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, along with insinuations that strikes were subversive, brought a decline in bold social movement unionism.

“The 1940s and 1950s brought the possibility that unions, rather than representing a new world within the shell of the old, were mere interest groups. Academic discourse, governed by pluralist theories of industrial relations, saw strikes as the consequence of feckless bargaining that could be minimized through proper managerial technique.”

The slide continued; New Leftists in the 1960s saw organized labor as hidebound or complicit, though there were counter-movements, notably the farm workers’ mass actions led by César Chávez. Beginning in 1973, economic stagnation and post-Vietnam malaise contributed to the election of Ronald Reagan as president. He promptly fired the nation’s striking air controllers.

“Unions—often portrayed as dinosaurs in a high-tech age—responded ploddingly,” said Phelps.

As strikes underwent a three- decade decline in magnitude and frequency, income inequality rose sharply and real wages stagnated. Blame for this fell in various directions: on the “unequal playing field” created when replacement workers caused strikes to fail; on the relocation of factories to the non-union American South or other countries; on labor’s own corrup-tion, bureaucracy, and failure of imagination.

“Although there are countless social histories of particular strikes,” said Phelps, “no over-arching history of the strike exists.” His book “will reveal that strikes have been focal points for the social imagination, lightning rods for Americans’ perceptions of their nation’s past, present, and future.”

Christopher Phelps is the author of Young Sidney Hook: Marxist and Pragmatist. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1997.