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Egyptian laborers strike for pay, ~1170 BCE
The first labor strike in recorded history took place in the 12
Century, BCE, in Egypt. The strike was recorded on papyrus, discovered in Egypt, and though it is damaged and incomplete, it is the only record of the strike in existence. All records of this strike refer to dates with reference to the then-current Pharaoh, Ramses III. During the 29
year of his reign (roughly 1170 BCE), artisans tasked with building the necropolis (burial chambers) of King Ramses III repeatedly struck, apparently complaining of insufficient rations.
It is unclear exactly why the artisans were not receiving their normal rations, though there is evidence that the shortage of food was largely the result of corruption in the ruling class. The custom was a monthly ration of grain, but implicit in the document is the sense that the ration had frequently been delayed during Ramses III’s reign. In the 29
year, the grain did not arrive until the 23
day of the month, when Ammenakht, an artisan (and probably the scribe that recorded the strike on papyrus), complained to the local government authorities. The rations during the fifth month were more than 4 weeks late, and the sixth month’s rations were delivered two weeks into the month.
In the seventh month of the 29
year of Ramses’ rule, the workers had had enough. One day, all the workers simply lay down their tools and marched out of the necropolis they were building. According to Ammenakht, their supervisors had no idea where they had gone - they had never seen anything like this before. They marched to their local government officials, and demanded that they be paid their food rations. Though the local elders agreed that they should be paid, they were unable to provide the rations. The next day, the workers marched towards the temple of Ramses II, and were able to speak with the Visier (Mayor), who was finally able to secure a ration payment for the workers (though it was not a full payment). Satisfied, the workers returned to their labor.
There is evidence that the success of this strike compelled workers to continue to use the tactic effectively throughout the reign of Ramses III. As the strikes continued regularly, local government officials began to increase the number of workers they hired to deliver food and supplies to the workers, so that it was obvious to the workers that they were being heard. It is clear that the tactic was so new to all the authority figures in ancient Egypt that they were completely unprepared to deal with it in any way other than to simply attempt to appease the workers. They were very successful in their campaign, one of the first of its kind.