This year, the term “strike” turned 250 years-old. Of course, the word was around well before 250 years ago (as were work stoppages), but 1768 was the first year the term “strike” was used to describe a collective work stoppage.
Where did it come from?
According to an article in Jacobin magazine, the term originated during coal-heaver and sailor strikes in London in 1768. In contributing the term, the sailors played a part in history, larger than any they could have imagined at the time.
The term came from the act of “striking”, which describe a situation where sailors would remove the topsails of their ships, rendering the ships motionless. In 1768, the sailors won pay raises by striking their sails and marching with drums passed establishments that sold things the sailors could not afford on their pre-strike wages. Inspired by the sailors, coal heavers also used the strike and, in 1768, secured agreement on better wages.
The Strike today
The strike today is as important as ever, with strikes occurring the world over. Just this year, for instance, a major rail strike in France has been used to protest government plans that union(s) say will lead to privatization. Also, in Germany, IG-Metall, Germany’s largest union with some 2.3 million members, used 24-hour strikes to successfully negotiate a pay increase of 4.3% and the right to a 28-hour work week. And in Canada, CP Railway workers have recently used the threat of strike action in their negotiations with the company.
This is to name only a few instances of strike activity around the world. No matter how you look at it, the strike remains a powerful tool for workers in seeking fair compensation and benefits for their labours.
250 years and the “strike” is still the go-to verb for collective work stoppage. Workers have long known that the strength of their bargaining position comes from solidarity and the ability to remove their labour. This was as true 250 years ago as it is today, proving once more that time may erode even the greatest empires, but it can’t destroy an idea.