What Have Strikes Achieved?

Withdrawing labour is an age-old response to workplace grievances. But how old, and to what effect?

Vicente Cutanda - Una huelga de obreros en Vizcaya
‘Una huelga de obreros en Vizcaya (A strike of workers in Biscay)’, Vicente Cutanda, 1892. Museo del Prado/Wiki Commons.

‘In Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the women of Greece unite together in a sex-strike’

Lynette Mitchell, Professor in Greek History and Politics at the University of Exeter

‘Strike action’ – the withdrawal of labour as a protest – was known in the ancient world. The Greeks, however, did not generally form themselves into professional guilds, at least not before the third century BC when the associations of ‘the musicians of Dionysus’ were formed alongside the growth in the number of festivals.

This did not mean, however, that the Greeks were oblivious to the significance of the withdrawal of labour. The epic poem the Iliad begins with Achilles – the best of the Greek fighters – withdrawing from battle against the Trojans because he has been deprived of his war-prize, the concubine Briseis.

Withdrawing one’s skills as a fighter in warfare was a significant bargaining tool. At the beginning of the fourth century BC, the Greek army of the Ten Thousand, who were employed by Cyrus the Younger in the war against his brother, Artaxerxes II, threatened to abandon the Persian prince unless he raised their pay to a level commensurate with the danger of engaging the ‘King of Kings’ in battle (they had originally been employed on another pretext and a different pay scale). In 326 BC, when the soldiers of Alexander the Great reached the River Hyphasis in the Hindu Kush, they refused to cross it and penetrate further east into northern India, thus forcing Alexander to give up his pursuit of limitless glory. The writer Arrian says that this was his only defeat.

War brought glory, but it also brought misery. In Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata, produced in 411 BC, the women of Greece unite together in a sex-strike in order to force their husbands to give up their wars with each other. Although the women struggle to maintain discipline among their own ranks (some of the most comic scenes of the play describe women sneaking away from the Acropolis, which the strikers have occupied), the eponymous Lysistrata, a woman of intelligence and determination, is asked to arbitrate between the Greek cities in order to bring the strike to an end; she presents the warring men with a beautiful girl, Reconciliation, and the play ends with the Spartans and Athenians remembering the wars fought together against the Persians. Peace is restored.


‘During the reign of Ramesses III underpayment had become typical’

Dan Potter, Assistant Curator of the Ancient Mediterranean collections at National Museums Scotland

Early in the 29th year of the reign of Ramesses III (c.1153 BC), the royal tomb builders of Deir el-Medina grew increasingly concerned about the payment of their wages. The workmen were paid in sacks of barley and wheat, which was not just their families’ food, but also currency. Late deliveries and underpayment had become typical, leading one scribe to keep a detailed record of the arrears. Supply issues were linked to the agricultural calendar, but the consistent problems of this period show it was also a failure of state. An initial complaint by the workers was resolved but the causes were not dealt with. With the approval of their ‘captains’ (a three-man leadership group), the workers staged eight days of action; they ‘passed the walls’ of their secluded village and walked down to nearby royal temples chanting ‘We are hungry!’ They held sit-ins at several temples, but officials remained unable, or unwilling, to assist. A torchlit demonstration later in the week forced through one month’s grain payment.

In the following months, they ‘passed the walls’ multiple times. Eventually, the recently promoted vizier, To, wrote to them explaining that the royal granaries were empty. He apologised with a politician’s answer for the ages: ‘It was not because there was nothing to bring you that I did not come.’ In reality, To was probably busy in the delta capital at the King’s Heb-Sed (royal jubilee). To rustled together a half payment to appease the striking workers. After this derisory delivery, the angry Chief Workman Khons proposed a door-to-door campaign against local officials which was only halted by his fellow captain Amunnakht, the scribe who recorded much of the detail we have about the strikes.

Even after a bulk reimbursement was paid early in year 30, inconsistent payments resulted in more industrial action in the ensuing years. The strikes were indicative of increasing regional instability, as Waset (Luxor) experienced food shortages, inflation, incursions from nomadic tribes, tomb robberies and more downing of tools. The workers’ village was partially abandoned around 70 years later.


‘Success depends on the response of the public and the possibility of favourable government intervention’

Alastair Reid, Fellow of Girton College, Cambridge

The word strike usually brings to mind a mass strike which goes on for a long time and completely shuts down an industry, such as the British coal miners’ strikes of the 1920s and the 1970s. These sort of disputes have rarely achieved anything positive: they are costly for the incomes of the strikers and their families and if their unions could afford to give the strikers some support, then that only drained the organisation’s funds. The stress caused has often led to splits within the union and friction with other organisations.

It is noticeable, therefore, that in recent years trade unions calling large numbers of their members out on strike have tended to focus on limited days of action rather than indefinite closures.

Sometimes the wider public has been sympathetic towards the strikers. This was the case during the London dock strike of 1889. However, when the disruption has affected public services, as in the ‘Winter of Discontent’ in 1978-79, strikers have become very unpopular. Often, when this sort of strike action achieved positive results for trade unionists, it was when the government had reason to intervene in their favour: during the First World War for example, when maintaining military production was essential.

The mass withdrawal of labour is not the only form of strike action that has been seen in the past. Highly skilled unions such as engineers and printers developed a tactic known as the ‘strike in detail’, during which they used their unemployment funds to support members in leaving blacklisted firms and thus effectively targeted employers one at a time. Another possibility is the opposite of a strike – a ‘work in’ – as at the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in 1971, when a significant part of the workforce refused to accept the closure of the yards and won significant public support for their positive attitude. In general, the mass strike is a dangerous weapon that can easily backfire: success depends on the response of the public and the possibility of favourable government intervention.


‘There was one clear winner: the Chinese Communist Party’

Elisabeth Forster, Lecturer in Chinese History at the University of Southampton

Gu Zhenghong was shot dead by a foreman on 15 May 1925, triggering China’s anti-imperialist May 30th Movement. Gu was a worker on strike at a textile mill in Shanghai. The mill was Japanese-owned, Japan being among the countries that had semi-colonised China. Outraged by Gu’s death – and the imperialism behind it – students and workers demonstrated in Shanghai’s Foreign Settlement on 30 May. At some point British police opened fire, leaving more than ten demonstrators dead. In response, a general strike was called, with workers’, students’ and merchants’ unions, the Shanghai General Chamber of Commerce, as well as the Nationalist Party (GMD) and the Chinese Communist Party among its leaders.

Among the strikers were students, merchants and workers in various sectors, such as seamen, workers at the wharves, at phone companies, power plants, buses and trams. Not all sectors participated and certain individuals broke the strike, some of whom were then kidnapped by their unions. The strikes were accompanied by boycotts of foreign goods and sometimes strikers clashed violently with the authorities.

The demands were broad and were not confined to work-related issues, but also covered anti-imperialist goals, such as an end to extraterritoriality. By August, enthusiasm for the strikes had waned. Merchants were tired of their financial losses. Some of the workers started rioting against their union, since strike pay had dried up. The strikes’ organisers therefore had to settle the industrial (and political) dispute.

Contemporaries were unsure if the strikes had achieved their goal. Strike demands had been reduced and not all were met. Many new unions had been founded, but some were also closed by the authorities, and labour movement organisers had to go underground or face arrest and execution. But there was one clear winner: the Chinese Communist Party. If workers had previously mistrusted communists as hairy, badly dressed ‘extremists’, the Party was now acknowledged as a leader of labour. Imperialism in China would end, but not until after the Second World War and the era of global decolonisation.