Strikes Were Once a Powerful Tool for Labor

At one time, strikes were a powerful tool for organized labor. At the end of the 19th and early 20th century, strikes helped chip away at the all-powerful control business had over workers. Big strikes led to shortages that affected consumers. Coal, steel and other types of strikes enabled labor to get bosses to the bargaining table.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

The strike was once labors' most potent and often-used weapon. Nothing drove home a union's demand better than the refusal to work if that demand was not met.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Early strikes could result in violence. There were confrontations, like the Homestead steel strike of 1892 near Pittsburg. That culminated in a battle between strikers and private security agents.

NORRIS: But gradually, over the years, workers gained muscle. By 1937, autoworkers could successfully strike GM in Flint, Michigan. They were led by a charismatic and iron-willed man name Walter Ruther.

WALTER RUTHER: I didn't join the labor movement to sit on may fat bottom. I joined the labor movement to get on with the job for which the labor movement was organized.

NORRIS: In the years after the Second World War, it would be common for Americans to wake up to news of yet another labor strike.

SIEGEL: The production line ground to a halt at the Buick plant of General Motors today in Detroit. GM blame the work stoppage in a steel plant, Midland Steel in Cleveland.

SIEGEL: There were newspaper strikes, like the one in New York City, which resulted in Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia taking to the airwaves to read the comics.

FIORELLO LAGUARDIA: Now, children, I know you're all disappointed today that you didn't get the funnies. So gather around - ah, you think play safe.

SIEGEL: Sometimes, the government stepped in to counteract the growing power of labor, opposed to our railroad strike, threatened to grind the whole economy to a halt, and President Harry Truman was forced to clamp down.

HARRY TRUMAN: Unless the railroads are manned by returning strikers, I shall immediately undertake to run them by the Army of the United States.

SIEGEL: Those rail workers resisted, and Truman drafted all the strikers into the Army and forced them back to work.

NORRIS: But for the most part, the threat of strikes became as effective as strikes themselves.

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