Mental Floss

8 Strikes that Turned Ugly (or Inspired Keanu Reeves Movies)

Stacy Conradt
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As we head into Labor Day Weekend, we thought it would be fitting to revisit some notable strikes in American history—from the railroad industry to the Post Office, Disney to the NFL.

1. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877

After the Panic of 1873, a country-wide depression, things in America kind of went downhill for a couple of years. By 1877, more than a quarter of all workers were laid off and those who had jobs suffered severe wage cuts. Railroads were no different. Strikes began in Pennsylvania, soon followed by Virginia, where federal troops were deployed to get transportation going again. Fed up with the state of the country's economics, workers across the nation protested the way strikers were being treated. From Maryland to St. Louis, militia was called in to try to control the crowds. Unfortunately this only made the situation worse "“ more than 100 people were killed. Overall, about 100,000 workers went on strike.

2. The Haymarket Riots of 1886

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3. Newsboys Strike of 1899

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This story of a band of scruffy kids triumphing over the publishing giants was made into a 1992 Disney musical called Newsies, starring a young Christian Bale"¦ also known as the latest reincarnation of Batman on the big screen.

4. The Southern Colorado Coal Strike of 1914

From 1913-1914, the United Mine Workers of America ordered a strike against Colorado coal mining companies (one of which was owned by the Rockefeller family). The reasons cited included that the companies were cheating workers out of wages and not following Colorado mining safety laws or eight-hour workday laws.

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On April 20, a fight broke out between the two parties and the tent village was set ablaze. Four women and 11 children had been hiding in a tent pit when the fires started. Two of the women and all of the children suffocated, leading the UMWA to call this incident "The Ludlow Massacre." Between the fire and the shootings, a total of 45 people died.

Ludlow is now a ghost town. A monument was erected in 1918 to recognize those who died for the cause.

5. The Disney Animators Strike of 1941

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There were some disgruntled animators at Disney after Snow White was released in 1937. Employees had put in a lot of uncompensated overtime in order to get the first feature-length animated film out and were not given the bonuses they were promised for doing so. In fact, many of them were laid off. One of the rounds of layoffs hit members of the Screen Cartoonists Guild quite hard. When Art Babbitt, an animator on the Three Little Pigs, Snow White and Fantasia was fired, it was the last straw. Employees went on strike for five weeks, which happened to be in the middle of the making of Dumbo. As a result, many of the strikers are featured in the cartoon as circus clowns needling for raises. The strike was eventually settled overwhelmingly in favor of the Guild.

6. The U.S. Postal Strike of 1970

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In an attempt to stop the strike, Nixon went on national TV and ordered strikers back to work. Not only did this fail, it completely backfired: he angered workers in 671 other locations, convincing them to join the strike. In fact, government agencies not even involved with the Postal Service were angered enough by his television appearance to threaten to join the strike if Nixon pursued any legal action. Nixon ordered 24,000 military workers to replace the striking postal workers, but they weren't very helpful.

Negotiations were finally hammered out with the help of the Secretary of Labor. Unions got most of what they were asking for and also won the right to negotiate wages, benefits and working conditions.

7. Air Traffic Controllers Strike of 1981

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Working against them was the fact that the FAA had a backup plan, which worked beautifully. Most flights continued with no interruption, thanks to non-striking employees and military controllers who pitched in to help. Even worse, the public sided with the government. The end result was that the FAA discovered that they could fully operate with one third less air traffic controllers, so the strike really achieved the exact opposite of what the strikers had intended. Oops.

8. NFL Strike of 1987

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As in the case of the air traffic controllers, the public had little sympathy for the players or the union. Players were divided over whether to continue to strike or not and some of them returned to work. The owners stayed a united front "“ none of them entered separate negotiations.

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One of the fun things that resulted from the strike was nicknames for teams with replacement players: The Los Angeles Shams, the San Francisco Phoney Niners, the Miami Dol-Finks and the Chicago Spare Bears, to name a few.

Of course there are countless more, including transportation strikes, teacher strikes, and strikes in all the other major sports. What do you think has had the most impact? Have you ever gone on strike, or crossed a picket line? How'd that work out for you?

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