Beyond Occupy Wall Street: 11 American Uprisings You've Never Heard of That Changed the World
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
As far as major protests go, the United States experienced a period of relative quiet from 1980 until 2011. For 30 years after Ronald Reagan broke the PATCO strike, “class war” in America was largely one sided. America’s working class took hit after hit without much in the way of a response.
While Occupy Wall Street has been in the news of late, uprisings of the American working class are actually nothing new. In fact, the United States boasts a long track record of actions against corporations and the government. Here are 11 of those uprisings that Occupy Wall Street protesters and everyone else seeking social change would do well to study. Each of these movements won lasting social change. Their failures and limitations provide lessons about what not to do, while their successes offer a guide to future action.
1. Lowell Mill Women’s Strikes (1834 and 1836)
Some of America’s earliest labor strikes, the Lowell Mill women’s strikes bear more than passing similarity to contemporary events. A booming economy led to plentiful jobs with higher wages. When the economy cooled, capital imposed a 15 percent wage cut at the Lowell mills. There wasn’t even a word for “strike” yet, but the overwhelmingly female workforce did just that. The first strike in 1834 failed, with women heading out of town or returning to work at poverty wages.
While the 1834 strike failed, women learned lessons from the bitter, pitched battle in the streets of Lowell, MA. By 1836, the economy degraded further. A rent increase at company boardinghouses acted as the spark to the powder keg. Women formed the Factory Girls’ Association to lead another strike. The second strike lasted several weeks, ending with a victory for the mill workers.
The significance of the Lowell Mill Strike of 1836 lies beyond merely defeating a rent hike. The strike won broad community support, a strategy essential at winning strikes. It was also the first time a woman spoke in public in Lowell. The strike stands as an early example of the power of organized labor, and offers lessons for how labor can draw in the broader community. Finally, the organized withdrawal of funds from local banks finds echoes in today’s “Move Your Money” movement, where people withdraw money from corporate banks, moving them to community banks and credit unions.
2. Great Railroad Strike (1877)
The postbellum political and economic landscape was a brave new world for everyone. With slavery demolished, Union and Confederate soldiers returned, overflowing the labor market. By 1873, the Long Depression (known as the Great Depression until the 1930s) of Europe infected the United States. The rapid, unrestrained growth of the American economy, built on the expansion of rail, ground to a dead halt. Add to this an election many considered rigged or stolen and some kind of social unrest was a foregone conclusion. When the Baltimore & Ohio line cut wages for the second time in a year, the nation exploded.
Centered in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Missouri, the Great Railroad Strike was no friendly, police-approved picket line; it was more analogous to the Great Slave Rebellion of Spartacus. Rail traffic literally ceased in key cities like Pittsburgh. The United States Supreme Court declared the strikes (and all strikes for that matter) illegal.
When the strike moved to St. Louis, America stood on the precipice of real insurrection. The Knights of Labor, one of America’s earliest trade unions and the Workingmen’s Party, affiliate of the Marxist International Workingmen’s Association and forerunner of the Socialist Labor Party, led a demonstration into East St. Louis, setting the stage for the first general strike in United States history.