So you want to know what it is like to work a strike?  First, you need an understanding of why nurses strike. But if you want to skip around this long article, use the quick topic navigation below. See also our companion editorial on Working strikes here.

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Background

During the industrial revolution when poverty and massive unemployment were the status quo for most Americans, factory and mine owners gained great power as the major employers of the time. This imbalance of supply and demand meant that employers could pay workers very little. In fact, in many cases there was effectively negative pay, with provided housing and food costing more than it was possible to earn in seven-day workweeks. Working conditions were atrocious, and often life threatening. But for workers, it was the only game in town, and the deteriorating agricultural economy ensured an abundant supply of willing workers.

Eventually, workers realized that it was possible to band together in collective groups called unions as a way of gaining power. It is difficult to describe what these early unions went through. Employers were wealthy and could and did use brute force including murder to stop union activities and strikes (work stoppages). Factory and mine owners had far more political power than workers and it was common for unions and strikes to be made illegal by state legislatures. Even without legislation, the police were often beating heads along with employer brute squads. Workers were not without blame themselves and fought back using similar tactics and damaging property.

All of this seems like ancient history today. Many think that unions have lost their reason for existing and unions are indeed on the decline in many economic sectors. Some will point to the decline of manufacturing in this country as the result of unions gaining too much power, and becoming corrupt. True or not, it is indisputable that most of the rights we enjoy today as workers came about directly from union pioneers. The 40 hour week, minimum wage laws, child labor laws, overtime, and regulated safe working conditions are some of the major advances that we now take for granted.

Workers and employers are of course interdependent and both party’s interests are served by a continuing and mutually successful relationship.

 

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