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

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If mental_floss were a TV show instead of a magazine and website, I might not be writing this right now. As you've probably heard, the Writers Guild of America is striking against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. The groups were unable to reach an agreement on several major issues, including what writers should be paid when their shows become available online. Some late-night shows, including both Letterman and Leno, have already started showing reruns as a result of the strike. Be warned: when the Writers Guild went on strike for five months in 1988, it resulted in the popularity of non-scripted shows like Cops.

Based on this, I thought it was fitting that we look at some of the other strikes in American history. Let's just hope that the Writers Guild strike doesn't turn out like the Ludlow Massacre.

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.

Keep reading for labor strife at Disney, the NFL, the Post Office and more.

2. The Haymarket Riots of 1886

haymarket.jpgThose of us who enjoy the eight-hour workday may have unionists involved in the May 1, 1886, Haymarket Square Rally to thank. Although several strikes for the same cause came earlier, Chicago was the movement's heart. The "peaceful" part of a peaceful demonstration by 10,000 workers ended when the picket line was crossed. Unionists attacked the offenders and police opened fire, killing four demonstrators. That night, about 1,000 angry people gathered in Haymarket Square to express their outrage. At the end of the rally, a bomb exploded and killed one policeman immediately. Six others later died from injuries and sixty more were wounded. Police opened fire on the crowd, killing one and wounding many. Four people were hanged in connection to the bombing, although no evidence existed to prove them guilty.

3. Newsboys Strike of 1899

newsies.jpgWhat does Batman have to do with the Newsboys Strike? We'll get to that in a second. Newsboys were pretty low on the social totem pole in New York City at that time "“ many of them slept on the streets and were paid only 30 cents a day. They had to pay for the papers they sold out of those meager wages, so when William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer increased that price by 10 cents for every 100 newspapers, the newsboys called a strike. They brought traffic to a dead halt by demonstrating on the Brooklyn Bridge for days. The leader of the strike was a newsboy called Kid Blink, so called because of his poor vision in one eye. After two weeks of reduced circulation of their newspapers, Pulitzer and Hearst finally relented and bought back all of the papers the boys had refused to sell, plus paid the boys more money per paper sold.

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.

massacre.jpgBecause many miners lived in homes provided by the company, anyone who went on strike was immediately evicted. The union had foreseen this and leased land for evicted workers to live on, in tents. The tent villages were strategically placed near the coal camps so strikers could harass replacement workers. The mining companies hired a detective agency to protect the replacement workers. The "protection" consisted of agents firing random shots into tents, unprovoked, and patrolling the camp in an armored car with a machine gun mounted on it. To protect themselves, miners dug pits beneath their tents that they could crawl into when they needed better shelter.

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

mickey.GIFWe all know the stories of things hidden in Disney cartoons "“ the dust cloud that spells out "Sex" in The Lion King, and Aladdin supposedly telling children to take off their clothes. But did you know that even Dumbo has controversy hidden within the animation?

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

postalstrike.jpgAs if Richard Nixon didn't have enough black marks on his tenure as President. In 1970, postal workers went on an illegal two-week strike because of low wages, bad working conditions and pathetic benefits.

In an attempt to stop the strike, Nixon went on national T.V. 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

airtraffic.jpgWhat does an industry do when nearly three quarters of an essential part of its workforce goes on strike? That's exactly what happened on August 3, 1981, when about 13,000 air traffic controllers ceased work, demanding better benefits, more pay and fewer hours. President Reagan immediately held a press conference and said that if strikers didn't return to work in two days or less, they would be fired. He wasn't kidding. More than 11,000 of them were terminated and the rest of them went back to work.

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

keanu.jpgAnother strike that worked against the strikers was the NFL walkout of 1987. Without much of a reason, players went on a 24-day strike when their old agreement expired. The owners refused to give in and continued scheduled games with replacement players. The owners actually made about $121,000 more per game because they could pay the replacements far less. The striking players, however, ended up personally losing about $15,000 per game "“ about $80 million overall. (Side note: Joe Montana crossed the picket line to play with the scabs.)

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.

replacements.jpgThe strike ended when the players caved and agreed to get back on the field on October 15. Even this was met with contention by the owners, who wanted the players to return on October 14 so they could play in that weekend's games. When the players didn't show up until the 15th, the owners refused to let them play that weekend. After lawsuits from both sides, things eventually settled down enough for games to continue with the original teams. Most replacement players never played pro football again.

One of the fun things that resulted from the strike (in my opinion) were 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?

November 7, 2007 - 8:01am
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