History Content for the Future

ICONIC STRIKES #1: Deir el-Medina – The First Strike

This week on our second season of BETWEEN TWO WARS, Indy looks at the Seattle General Strike and how it helped catalyze a Red Scare that was about to sweep the nation. Seattle wasn’t the only history-making strike though, so this week we have dedicated our posts to just that: Iconic Strikes Throughout History.

The first ever recorded strike in history occurred under Ramesses III of Ancient Egypt, where a bloody war had just been won. It was born of a double issue: a shortage of grain, and a breach of the idea of Ma’at – harmony and balance, which the King is supposed to uphold.

According to a contemporary papyrus document, the strike began in year 29 of Ramesses III’s reign (ca. 1157-56 BC), after delayed wages for those working at the Necropolis in Set-Ma’at, known as Deir el-Medina. Records were made of grain sent to the workers, but with a festival approaching to celebrate the end of the war, their pay was late again and again. When the workers had been waiting for 18 days beyond payday, they had had enough and laid down their tools. They marched, first to a temple dedicated to Ramesses III where they demonstrated, and then to another temple where they staged a sit-in.

The idea of Ma’at had now been disturbed for the first known time during these strikes, and solutions were unknown to officials in charge. So pastries were sent to the workers, but were rejected. Back payment was finally negotiated, but refusal of coming payments soon led to another strike – this time on the principle of Ma’at being ignored.

The influence of the strikes at Deir el-Medina was profound on the Egyptian people. The Necropolis workers were highly skilled and respected, yet still did not receive pay. Then what could others expect? But they also showed the power of the united workers, and that standing up against unjust treatment was a possibility.

Image: Detail of ‘Joseph Dwelleth in Egypt’ by James Jacques Joseph Tissot, c. 1896-1902 – Courtesy of the Jewish Museum.