What You Didn't Know About The First Documented Labor Strike

Throughout American history, labor strikes have shaped the way we work and live (via USA Today). Whenever the picket fences of the American dream come crashing down, the picket signs of protest rise like flags. From sit-ins to standoffs, peaceful negotiations to violent disputes, American workers have been willing to spend as many days as it takes striking in the name of higher wages and/or better workplace conditions.

Workplace strikes can temporarily bring the wheels of industry to a grinding halt. For instance, labor strikes have notoriously stopped the mail delivery system, brought the railroad to a standstill, and come dangerously close to causing an energy crisis (via Investopedia). In the same breath, when workers drop out of the workforce for an extended time, the end result is often better wages and working conditions to be had by all.

But where did the idea of a labor strike come from? It's actually much older than you might think.

The first documented labor strike took place in ancient Egypt

While in the States, people tend to reflect on labor strikes through pages of America's recent past, the truth is this act of protest is much older and further from home. According to World History, the first documented incident of workers setting down their tools and rising up against unjust wages happened in ancient Egypt in 1159 BCE, under the rule of Pharoah Ramesses III.

Historians speculate that the Egyptian economy had fallen into decline as a result of consecutive wars waged against the Sea Peoples. When combined with poor harvests and corrupt officials skimming off Egypt's seemingly endless mountain of riches, the end result was stalled wages. After multiple instances of late payments, swaths of artisans and tomb builders collectively lay down their tools in a defiant demonstration. As they stampeded toward the city, you could hear their battle cry, "We are hungry!" echo out across the land.

History notes that these demonstrations were especially remarkable because the Egyptians had deified the Pharaohs of that time. Hence, their sit-ins were not only an act of defiance against the ruling class but also required challenging what they considered a living god. It took months of protests before a resolution was agreed upon, yet a fundamental dynamic change had happened. Per World History, workers had a new realization of their unified power.