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The First Recorded Labor Strike in History

Ian Harvey

Workers strikes are a common way to push employers to pay a fair wage with fair benefits. When workers stop working, everything grinds to a halt.

The use of strikes has been around since 1159 BC when the workers of Egypt’s King Ramses III, who were not being paid as promised, sat down and refused to work.

According to reshafim.org, a papyrus written by the Egyptian scribe Amennakht at Deir el Medina records the strike on an almost day to day basis.

Ramses III offering incense, wall painting in KV11.

Ramses III offering incense, wall painting in KV11.

Ramses III inherited the title of Pharaoh about 1186 BC and began the 20th Dynasty in the New Kingdom, which lasted from about 1570 to 1069 BC.

He reigned over a relatively peaceful Egypt for over twenty years until an invasion by the “Sea People” seriously depleted both funds and laborers who would normally have been working the fields to produce much needed food.

The Sea People were a loose organization of mercenary and raiding types from the Mediterranean Sea area.

This famous scene from the north wall of Medinet Habu is often used to illustrate the Egyptian campaign against the Sea Peoples in what has come to be known as the Battle of the Delta.

This famous scene from the north wall of Medinet Habu is often used to illustrate the Egyptian campaign against the Sea Peoples in what has come to be known as the Battle of the Delta.

No one knows what nationality they were, or if, in fact, several different nationalities were represented in these groups. Experts debate on the suggestions that they could have been Philistines, Italian, Mycenaean, Trojan, or Minoan, but nothing has been discovered to shed any light on this subject.

Apparently, according to ancient.eu, the Sea People were so confident that they would subdue the Egyptians, they brought their families and household goods with them. Ramses knew the Sea People were powerful, as they had attacked Egypt several times before.

A partial description of the hieroglyphic text at Medinet Habu on the right tower of Second Pylon (left), and an illustration of the prisoners depicted at the base of the Fortified East Gate (right), were first provided by Jean-François Champollion following his 1828–29 travels to Egypt and published posthumously.

A partial description of the hieroglyphic text at Medinet Habu on the right tower of Second Pylon (left), and an illustration of the prisoners depicted at the base of the Fortified East Gate (right), were first provided by Jean-François Champollion following his 1828–29 travels to Egypt and published posthumously.

One of his strategies was to hide archers along the coastlines near the mouth of the Nile to prevent the boats from even entering the river. His tactics were a resounding success, and the prisoners taken were either forced into the Egyptian army or sold as slaves. Unfortunately, the war had proved to be extremely expensive.

The next few years were peaceful, which allowed Ramses to begin work on many temples, and he and his entourage took a grand tour of Egypt, further depleting the coffers. Add that to increasing corruption in Ramses’ administration and you have a recipe for disaster.

Relief from the sanctuary of the Temple of Khonsu at Karnak depicting Ramesses III. Photo by Asavaa CC BY-SA 3.0 – Copy

Relief from the sanctuary of the Temple of Khonsu at Karnak depicting Ramesses III. Photo by Asavaa CC BY-SA 3.0 – Copy

The first month in the 29th year of Ramses reign shows that the workers considered the elite of skilled craftsmen complained that their wages were eighteen days late. As a group they were met by the chief of police who agreed with their plight as they marched toward the Pharaoh’s palace.

They were offered about half a sack of barley with which to make beer, but the workers were not placated. By the third month, they were threatening to rob the tombs for money for food.

A carved relief from the Kadesh inscriptions showing Shasu spies being beaten by Egyptians.

A carved relief from the Kadesh inscriptions showing Shasu spies being beaten by Egyptians.

In the meantime, Ramses decided there would be a great celebration in honor of the 30th year of his reign. He and his advisors had no idea how to deal with the hungry workers as this sort of thing had never happened before. At one point, the officials gave the workers pastries reminiscent of Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake” remark. While the workers did take the pastries home to their families, they resumed their strike the next day.

Sarcophagus of Ramesses III (Louvre).

Sarcophagus of Ramesses III (Louvre).

The pharaoh and his immediate court knew nothing of the strike, as the direct supervisors of the workers feared execution for not being able to control their men. Ramses’ jubilee was a great success with everyone dancing and drinking, but the strikes returned after the festival ended.

The strikers were now disenchanted with the Pharaoh, who was supposed to be like a father to them, providing food and protection, and ensuring harmony in the people’s everyday lives.

Amennakhte’s papyrus only goes to the year 29, first month of summer, day 16, and makes no mention of the results of the strike, but we should assume there was some sort of agreement made which enabled the monuments to be built and the people to be fed.

Read another story from us:  Cheetahs were Domesticated as House Pets in Ancient Egypt

This was, however, the beginning of the decline of the Pharaoh’s power and his subject’s blind devotion. It was also the start of a dispute solution instigated by workers that exists to this day.