Reading the other day that South Africa is approaching the end of what has become known as its annual “strike season”, during which employers and trade unions negotiate wage deals, the question of where it all comes from came to mind. In English the word “strike” to describe industrial action goes back only about two and a half centuries. As a form of protest by workers, however, it dates back more than 3 000 years!
Considering the disruption that often accompanies modern-day strike action, there is an element of irony in the fact that the origin of the word “strike” is closely associated with a process of smoothing things over.
The word comes from the Old English, pre-7th century word “striccan” which meant to stroke or to smooth. Then a “straccian” or “striker” was a man with an important job of great responsibility. He was the man who had to maintain the accuracy of a measure of corn in line with the terms of the Magna Carta of 1215, which provided for one measure (the London quarter) of corn to be used nationally.
But there was a constant struggle between local custom and the law. To ensure that both buyer and seller of grain received a fair deal, it was the “striker” who, by passing a flat stick or "strike" over the rim of the vessel holding the grain, leveled the grain to remove any excess.
Proverbially speaking, the seeds for the modern use of the word to describe industrial action was sown when a derivative of the word “stroke” or “struck” developed to describe what sailors were doing when they took down their ship's sails.
The word “strike” in the modern sense was first used in 1768 when sailors, in support of demonstrations in London, "struck" or removed the topgallant sails of merchant ships in port, thus crippling the ships.
In modern times, strikes by workers to pressurise first employers, and later governments, for better wages and/or working conditions, came into full bloom in the days of the Industrial Revolution (1750 to 1850). It was during this period in economic history that strikes by the large labour forces in factories and other industries became commonplace.
In many countries the initial reaction was to ban strikes to avoid economic and social disruptions which often accompanied them and appease the rich, politically influential factory owners. It was only towards the end of the 19th and early 20thcenturies that most Western countries started legalising strikes.
But the tactic of withholding labour as a form of protest and industrial action to gain better reward for workers goes much further back in history. The first recorded strike started in November in the year 1152 BC under Pharaoh Ramses III of Egypt’s 20th dynasty.
The artisans at the royal city of Deir el-Midina downed tools in a labourers' revolt to protest against their meager wages. Revolts were unheard of in those days in Egypt and it scared the authorities so much that the artisans were given the increase in wages they were demanding.
Today the right to strike is recognised in most countries by, among others, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which was adopted in 1967.
But the battle to find a balance between the interests of workers and their employers goes on. Also in South Africa labour legislation is presently under review. It is unlikely that the days of a striker which can smooth out things by the simple stroke of a straight stick, will return any time soon.