Labor Strike in Egypt

The first recorded labor strike in history took place in which country?

And the answer: Egypt.

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Taking place in the mid-twelfth century BCE during the rule of Pharaoh Rameses III and documented on papyrus, the strike is believed to have occurred during the building of the royal necropolis at Deir el-Medina. Dissatisfied with their delayed payments, the workers threw down their tools and staged a sit-in, refusing to work.

The first strike ever recorded in history actually represented a departure from Egyptian cultural customs. The notion of Ma'at, a principle which promised peace in the afterlife in exchange for leading with good intentions, was a central cultural value of Egypt that informed societal standing and hierarchy. However, disobeying harmony in striking from work comes within a historical context: the collapse of the Bronze Age. Historically, a lack of harmony in Egyptian society was most often the cause of tension in its citizens. Yet, fascinatingly, this strike is considered to be the act which first marks the deterioration of the Bronze Age.  

All records of this strike refer to dates with reference to the then-current Pharaoh, Ramses III. During the 29th year of his reign (roughly 1170 BCE), artisans tasked with building the necropolis, or burial chambers, of King Ramses III repeatedly went on strike, complaining of insufficient rations. Although historians are unclear on as to exactly why they weren't receiving rations as usual, evidence suggests corruption in the ruling class began to rise in this period. Feeling pressure from invasive groups, the Egyptian upper-class likely sought to control resources as much as possible to prevent deterioration of their status.

Yet, the workers on strike returned victorious. After marching to the temple of Ramses II, the workers 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 ultimately returned to their labor.

Learn more about the history of labor strikes here.

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