Ten economic protests that changed history

The Occupy Wall Street demonstrations and tea party rallies are the latest of more than 200 years of economic protest that have brought down governments and changed the course of nations. The most far-reaching ones aren't always the biggest or even successful initially (one of our Top 10 started with a confiscated vegetable cart). Sometimes it's hard to tell if they're more about politics or economics. Here is our list of 10 of the world's most important economic protests. Let us know your picks in the comment section.

1.Boston Tea Party – 1773

Copy of an 1846 lithograph of "The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor" by Sarony & Major. Boston citizens' protest against Britain's tax on tea became an iconic event and galvanized protests by the colonists, which eventually led to the American Revoluion. (National Archives and Records Administration )

In 1767, the British government passed the Townshend Acts, imposing taxes on several products imported to British colonies. The colonists refused to pay, angered not only by the financial burden, but also that they were expected to pay taxes imposed by a parliament that didn’t represent them. The British repealed the taxes, except for the tax on tea.

Although tea was a staple of colonial life, paying the tax implicitly meant acknowledging the British government’s right to tax the colonists. In 1773, when tea arrived in New York and Philadelphia, the East India Company ships were not allowed to dock.

In Boston, three ships successfully entered the harbor, infuriating locals. Thousands of people filled the wharf, and during a mass meeting it was decided the ships should leave without collecting any taxes. They were informed that the ships would not leave without payment, so later that evening a group of between 50 and 200 men, some dressed up as Mohawk Indians, boarded the ships. It took three hours, but the colonists threw 342 barrels of Darjeeling tea – nearly 42 tons – into the sea.

In retaliation, London soon passed a series of strict measures of control over colonists, which they called the Intolerable Acts. This included closing the port of Boston, and was a direct impetus to the American Revolution.

Slave uprising in Saint Domingue - 1791

An illustration of François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture from a history book by A. Thiers. Louverture was a leader of the 1791 slave rebellion that led to the establishment of the independent state of Haiti, (El Bibliomata/Creative Commons Attribution/File)

Between 1651 and 1791, more than 800,000 slaves were brought from Africa to the French Caribbean colony of Saint Domingue, the New World's most prosperous outpost. They worked the sugar, cocoa, and other plantations under the strict, sometimes brutal, authority of French plantation owners. By 1789, the year of the French Revolution, slaves made up nearly 89 percent of the Saint Domingue population. 

Inspired by the revolution and led by a freed slave, François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, the enslaved population rose up against the ruling elite two years later.  What started off as a civil war with black slaves fighting against white landowners eventually morphed into an international conflict with Spain supporting the rebels and England siding with the white plantation owners.  By the early 1800s, the rebels had founded the independent nation of Haiti, only the second revolution in the New World to create permanent independence (the American Revolution was the first) and a key event in the history of African advancement in the hemisphere. 

French revolution – 1830

Louis-Philippe d'Orléans leaves the Palais-Royal to go to the city hall in Paris two days after the July Revolution in this 1832 painting by Horace Vernet. He becomes King Louis-Philippe, replacing the deposed Charles X. (Reunion of National Museums (France)/File)

Rebellions against monarchies and repressive governments occurred throughout Europe between 1830 and 1832.  The first movement began in France, prompted by King Charles X, who published a series of decrees diminishing the rights of citizens, including their right to vote and freedom of the press.

The ‘July Revolution,’ led to the overthrow of the king.  Protesters, predominately workers and students, barricaded the streets, in light of stagnating wages and chronic unemployment, and demanded a republic. Although they were overruled by the upper-middle class that established a constitutional monarchy, the revolution unified worker protests and encouraged the formation of labor organization on a national scale, according to Bernard Moss, a history professor at the Institute of European Studies in London.

Through their participation in the 1830 revolution, French workers began a lasting legacy of fighting for socialist values and ideologies that is visible in France today.

Russian revolution – 1905

Russians take to the street after Czar Nicholas II issues the October Manifesto on Oct. 17, 1905, in this 1907 painting by Ilya Yefimovich Repin. Pressured by rising protests from peasants and workers alike, the czar granted various civil liberties to the population, such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association. And it would lead to a Russian constitution that included an elected parliament. But he continued to exercise control, sowing the seeds for the 1917 revolution. (Russian Museum (St. Petersburg)/File)

In January 1905, Russian peasants and workers joined the Russian middle class to protest the oppressive Russian monarchy.  The workers and peasants raised economic and political demands, and in the countryside peasant workers seized land and created a nationwide Peasant Union. 

When a peaceful march in St. Petersburg devolved into a bloody confrontation with Russian troops killing more than 100 marchers (perhaps a few thousand, according to some sources), it was given the name “Bloody Sunday.”  This event spurred more than 400,000 workers in Russian Poland to join the strike, and the labor stoppages quickly spread throughout the Russian empire, generating self-organized councils called "soviets" in the process. Though originally focused on labor rights like land use, the creation of an eight-hour workday, and improved working conditions, the demands became increasingly political.  Protesters called for freedom of speech, the right to form political parties, and an elected parliament.

“What was meant to be a simple manifestation of economical discontent grew up, invaded all trades, spread to St. Petersburg, then all over Russia, and took the character of such an imposing revolutionary manifestation that autocracy had to capitulate before it,” Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin wrote in 1914.

Czar Nicholas II capitulated, allowing the establishment of an elected parliament. But he would dissolve it two years later, which brought the revolution to an end.

One of the groups active during that period was the Bolshevik faction of the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, led by Vladimir Lenin, who would go on to lead the successful Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and set Russia on a dramatically new path as a communist state. 

Barcelona, Spain, general strike - 1919

This hydroelectric plant in Barcelona, known locally as "La Canadiense" because its principal shareholder was the Canadian Bank of Commerce of Toronto, sparked a huge strike after it cut wages and laid off eight union organizers. The strike forced the Spanish government to codify the eight-hour workday. (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo/File)

In early February 1919, a Canadian-financed hydroelectric plant in Barcelona started cutting wages and laid off eight union organizers.  The layoffs sparked the National Workers Confederation (CNT) union to lead a general strike that spread throughout the city and involved more than 100,000 electrical, print, and textile workers. They demanded the rehiring of all strikers, wage increases, and an eight-hour workday. 

The strikes lasted nearly two months. Factory workers held sit-ins and walkouts across Spain in solidarity, and the protesters were ultimately successful in forcing the Spanish government to accede to its demands.  The strikers also demanded the release of imprisoned strikers. When authorities refused, they went on a three-day strike. But the police quickly arrested union leaders and the strike fizzled.

The strike is remembered for forcing the Spanish government to create a law mandating the eight-hour workday. Spain became the first nation in the world to institute it.

Gandhi's salt march in India – 1930

Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi (pictured here in 1947) led marchers on a 240-mile journey to a seaside Indian town to protest the British salt tax. The march received widespread attention, gaining new recruits for Gandhi's nonviolent movement, which eventually led to India's independence. (AP/File)

The salt march was the beginning of Mohandas Gandhi’s campaign of civil disobedience against British rule in India.

Salt production in India was a lucrative trade, but was monopolized by the British colonizers.  By law, the British forbade the Indian population from producing or selling salt without British oversight. Despite its local abundance, salt was also heavily taxed in India.  As a result, salt sold for exorbitant prices and the majority of Indians were unable to afford it.  Everyone understood the necessity of salt to everyday life in India, which made it an issue with enough importance to gain a mass following.

In 1930, Gandhi marched through the Indian state of Gujarat to the town of Dandi in protest of the increasingly repressive salt tax. The 240-mile journey began on March 12, and Gandhi visited villages along the way, speaking on the unfairness of the tax.  Hundreds joined Gandhi as he continued his march to the sea.  The group arrived in early April, and broke the law by picking up handfuls of salt along the shore, technically producing salt.

No one was arrested that day, but Gandhi continued encouraging civil disobedience throughout India for the next two months.  By late 1930, nearly 60,000 protesters were in jail as a result of peaceful marches across the country, and for making salt.  Though Gandhi’s followers were peaceful in their demonstrations, their marches were often met with violence, which brought worldwide attention to the movement.  Gandhi was imprisoned as well, but his movement continued.  He was released in January 1931, and represented the Indian National Congress at the Round Table Conference in London that fall.  The conference discussed the future of the Indian constitution.  Gandhi continued to mobilize the Indian population and fought for independence until it was achieved in August 1947.

Flint, Mich., sit-down strikes – 1936/37

Workers occupy the Chevrolet Fisher body plant factory No. 3 in Flint, Mich., in 1936. Borrowing a page from French strikers, the workers conducted the sit-down protests inside while sympathizers picketed outside. The action led to General Motors' recognition of the United Auto Workers, a huge victory for America's fledgling industrial unions. (Dick Sheldon/Library of Congress/File)

The 1935 National Labor Relations Act aimed to eliminate the interference of employers in the organization and unionization of workers.  However, the US auto industry defied the landmark legislation, refusing to comply with autoworkers’ attempts to organize in Michigan.

On Dec. 29, 1936, General Motors (GM) transferred all union members out of its Chevrolet Fisher Body plant No 2 in Flint.  The next day, at 7 a.m., workers occupied the plant, and began a sit-down strike, a tactic that had proved effective in French workers’ protests.  By physically occupying the plant, the workers kept GM management out, while sympathizers protested and picketed out front.

The sit-down strikes spread within the day to other GM facilities.  By Jan. 1, 1937 the strikers and their families were receiving aid from outside supporters and GM sought an injunction against the workers the following day.

The result of the Flint sit-down strikes, which lasted until Feb. 11, 1937, was GM’s recognition of the United Auto Workers. That proved a breakthrough for labor leaders who went on to organize steel and other big companies by industry rather than by individual crafts as in the past. 

Brazilian labor strikes – 1979

Brazilian Luis Inacio Lula da Silva speaks to supporters during his unsuccessful 1989 presidential campaign. Ten years earlier, Mr. da Silva, nicknamed "Lula," headed the metalworkers union that led huge strikes around São Paulo, which forced the government to pass a new wage law with automatic wage adjustments. The strikes helped undermine the dictatorship and catapulted da Silva to prominence. He eventually became Brazil's president in 2003. (Vanderlei Almeida/Reuters/File)

In the 1970s, Brazilian industrial workers conducted a series of strikes calling for higher wages. This was the first time workers organized on a wide scale in Brazil, in defiance of the military dictatorship.  The industrial working class was no longer willing to accept government-controlled unions, writes Riordan Roett, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins's Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

Laborers argued that the government falsified inflation numbers between 1973 and 1974, and thus demanded wage restitution.  In 1977 the government admitted inflation had been underreported spurring further uprisings and demands from Brazil’s industrial laborers.  In 1979, more than 170,000 metalworkers paralyzed the three main industrial suburbs of São Paulo, then known as the ABC region. The state intervened to bring large-scale striking to a halt, but it turned into a violent confrontation between armed forces and the unions. Strikes continued in the south of Brazil and in the fall of 1979 the government agreed to a new wage law that adjusted wages every six months.

“These strikes marked the beginning of the end of the dictatorship,” says Brodwyn Fischer, a history professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.  Strikes were led primarily by the metalworkers union, under the leadership of Luiz Inacio da Silva, known as Lula.  They marked the creation of Brazil’s Worker’s Party (PT), which is one of the nation's main political parties today.  Mr. da Silva went on to serve as Brazil’s president between 2003 and 2010.

Poland's Solidarity strikes – 1980

Solidarity founding leader Lech Walesa (left) speaks to workers during a strike at the Gdansk shipyard in this Aug. 8, 1980 file photo. The strike led to the creation of the Soviet bloc's first free trade union and a pivotal move in Poland's eventual rejection of communism. (Erazm Ciolek/Forum/Reuters/File)

In Communist Poland in the late 1970s, it was not uncommon for the police to attack, or even kill, a striking worker, says Norman Birnbaum, an emeritus professor at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington. But by 1980, prices of food and other commodities were rising quickly while workers’ wages were stagnant. Early in the morning of Aug. 14,  nearly 17,000 workers took control of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, Poland. Employees of 20 nearby factories got word of the strike, and joined workers in the shipyard by the end of the day.

The leader of the strike, unemployed electrician Lech Walesa, was able to rally support from sympathizers throughout the country who instigated similar demonstrations and strikes across Poland.  Seventeen days after taking over the shipyard, and negotiations with Poland’s communist government, Mr. Walesa announced to strikers that they were now allowed to organize and strike – a first for workers anywhere in the Soviet bloc.

“It was a pivotal movement that really pushed Poland to become a non-Communist nation,” says Charlie Lumpkins, who teaches labor studies at Penn State University in University Park, Pa.

The union Mr. Walesa founded called itself Solidarity and became a political opposition that eventually saw the dismantling of the Communist regime and, in 1990, the installation of Mr. Walesa as Poland's first directly elected president in the new era. 

Tunisia uprising – 2010/11

Protesters chant slogans against President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis Jan. 14, 2011. After demonstrators marched through the Tunisian capital Friday, Mr. Ben Ali fled the country, which led last month to the first free elections in North African history. (Christophe Ena/AP/File)

When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010 because a policewoman had confiscated his only means of living – a vegetable cart – he sparked mass protests among young Tunisians frustrated with unemployment, high inflation, government  corruption, and the poor prospects for their future. Protests escalated in the streets throughout the country, and President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled for 23 years, tried to mollify protesters by stating he would not seek reelection. 

Protests continued to grow, leaving more than 300 dead.  Mr. Ben Ali fled the country Jan. 14, 2011, and was replaced by an interim government. In October, Tunisia witnessed the first free election in North Africa’s history. Many point to Mr. Bouazizi’s suicide as the impetus for the so-called "Arab spring," which unseated three North African strong men and sparked similar protests in other Arab nations. 

Which economic protests would make your Top 10?