When workers’ power ran Seattle
On its centenary this week,recounts the largely untold history of the Seattle General Strike of 1919.
ONE HUNDRED years ago, workers in Seattle not only shut their city down with a general strike, but they ran it for five days, from February 6-11, 1919. In a country that has one of the richest, and yet one of the most often forgotten, histories of class struggle in the world, one of the best examples that showed the power of U.S. workers is the Seattle General Strike of 1919.
In the aftermath of the inspiring Los Angeles teachers strike victory, and as we approach the one-year anniversary of the West Virginia teachers’ strike taht sparked a “red state” teachers’ rebellion in multiple states, workers of all types would do well to seriously study the lessons to be learned from what happened in Seattle 100 years ago.
The Seattle General Strike marked the climax of post-First World War class struggle in the United States during a year when 3,630 strikes were called involving 4,160,000 workers, an increase of 2,933,000 over the number of workers involved in strikes in 1917.
TO UNDERSTAND the roots of the strike, it’s helpful to go back and study the radical history of the Northwest.
Starting in 1897, the area known as the Puget Sound region was home to a socialist cooperative movement, with the goal of building socialist “colonies” that would grow across Washington. A number of socialist newspapers were distributed throughout the Northwest, with the Seattle Daily Call championing the fight for the eight-hour day back in 1886.
There were two main left-wing parties that had widespread support in the region: the Socialist Party (SP) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In 1915, Washington state ranked second only to Oklahoma in the proportion of its population that was in the SP. In addition to election campaigns, SP members organized against the First World War, supported strikes and worked closely with the IWW (also known as “the Wobblies”).
The IWW published its paper, the Industrial Worker, out of Spokane, Washington, starting in the spring of 1909. It led many free-speech fights in the Northwest, where its members were arrested for speaking out on soapboxes on street corners and organized militant strikes in the timber industry.
In 1918, the Union Record became the first labor-produced daily newspaper in the United States. With a circulation of 50,000, it rivaled the mainstream press in Seattle.
The important point to understand is that for at least two decades prior to 1919, socialists and Wobblies of various sorts had been organizing among Seattle workers and circulating their publications.
They faced massive state repression, lost many struggles, won some, and gained valuable experience during the process. The classic, must-read book recounting this early radical history as well as the general strike itself is Harvey O’Connor’s Revolution in Seattle.
IN 1919, Seattle was a union town. Out of a total population of 250,000 at the time, 60,000 were in unions, just under 25 percent. This was double the national average.
In many ways, the culture of the Seattle labor movement was the polar opposite of that promoted by the conservative head of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), Samuel Gompers. In his excellent book The Seattle General Strike, Robert Friedheim explained, “The Seattle labor movement caused the AFL leaders endless trouble. It stood for everything Samuel Gompers rejected — labor in politics, industrial unionism, and nationalization of key industries.”
During the First World War, Gompers banned strikes and allowed the U.S. government to set wages. In exchange, the AFL “won” the right to unionize workers under government jurisdiction. However, it organized workers under a narrowly defined craft trade union model that largely represented skilled white men. The AFL refused to organize women, immigrants, African Americans, or unskilled workers into the unions.
The largest and most organized section of the labor movement in Seattle was centered in the shipbuilding industry. A quarter of all U.S. warships built during the First World War came out of Seattle.
The initial spark for the general strike was a strike by the shipyard workers that started on January 21, 1919. During the war, workers agreed not to strike, even though they didn’t feel they were properly compensated. When the war ended, the bosses tried to pit skilled workers against unskilled ones by only offering pay raises to skilled workers.
In response, 35,000 struck in Seattle, with another 15,000 coming out in solidarity in Tacoma. The next day, the Seattle Central Labor Council voted to instruct affiliated locals to poll their members on a proposal for a general strike in support of the shipyard workers. Within a week, 24 locals reported that their members were ready to strike.
In addition, workers in Japanese unions, who weren’t allowed into the AFL due to racism, threw their support behind a general strike, and the 3,500 members of the IWW agreed to suspend any soapboxing for the duration of the strike. A February 2 special meeting of union representatives voted to set February 6 as the start of the general strike.
On Tuesday, February 4, the Union Record published the most famous editorial in its history, written by socialist Anna Louise Strong. It read:
On Thursday at 10 a.m.:
There will be many cheering, and there will be some who fear. Both these emotions are useful, but not too much of either. We are undertaking the most tremendous move ever made by LABOR in this country, a move which will lead — NO ONE KNOWS WHERE.
We do not need hysteria.
We need the iron march of labor.
LABOR WILL FEED THE PEOPLE
Twelve great kitchens have been offered, and from them food will be distributed by the provision trades at low cost to all.
LABOR WILL CARE FOR THE BABIES AND THE SICK.
The milk-wagon drivers and the laundry drivers are arranging plans for supplying milk to babies, invalids and hospitals, and taking care of the cleaning of linen for hospitals.
LABOR WILL PRESERVE ORDER.
The strike committee is arranging for guards, and it is expected that the stopping of the cars will keep people at home.
A few hotheaded enthusiasts have complained that strikers only should be fed, and the general public left to endure severe discomfort. Aside from the inhumanitarian character of such suggestions, let them get this straight —
NOT THE WITHDRAWAL OF LABOR POWER, BUT THE POWER OF THE STRIKERS TO MANAGE WILL WIN THIS STRIKE....
The closing down of Seattle’s industries, as a MERE SHUTDOWN, will not affect these eastern gentlemen much. They could let the whole northwest go to pieces, as far as money alone is concerned.
BUT, the closing down of the capitalistically controlled industries of Seattle, while the WORKERS ORGANIZE to feed the people, to care for the babies and the sick, to preserve order — THIS will move them, for this looks too much like the taking over of POWER by the workers.
Labor will not only SHUT DOWN the industries, but Labor will REOPEN, under the management of the appropriate trades, such activities as are needed to preserve public health and public peace. If the strike continues, Labor may feel led to avoid public suffering by reopening more and more activities,
UNDER ITS OWN MANAGEMENT.
And that is why we say that we are starting on the road that leads — NO ONE KNOWS WHERE.
THE LEVEL of organization and democracy shown by workers in Seattle gives lie to the idea that workers aren’t smart enough to run society without bosses.
Unions — 110 in all — each elected three delegates to a General Strike Committee (GSC). It then elected an executive committee of 15 to plan the details of the strike. However, the 330-person GSC could veto any action taken by the Committee of 15.
The committee held daily public meetings in the Labor Temple for anyone who wished to raise a concern about the strike. Salaries of all union officials were stopped for the duration of the strike.
Subcommittees were set up to handle special matters, such as publicity, finance, tactics, and granting strike exemptions. They wanted to shut the city down, but also maintain critical emergency services in order to keep the population safe and on the side of the working class.
One example of a special exemption read, “Garbage wagon drivers ask instructions. May carry such garbage as tends to create an epidemic, but no ashes or papers. Wagons to carry large signs: Exempt by Strike Committee.” Drug stores were closed except for prescription services. No private laundry services were allowed except for those that provided clean linens for hospitals.
The strike machinery was working a lot more efficiently than the most hopeful had expected. Thirty-five milk stations were functioning in the residential sections; 21 cafeterias were serving meals for 25 cents apiece to union men, for 35 cents to others; hospitals were getting their linen and fuel. A union card was the only credential for the 25-cent meal, and an IWW card was as good as an AF of L. The Japanese Labor Association, comprising hotel and restaurant workers, struck in sympathy with the labor movement which had never recognized them nor even regarded them as a part of unionism.
Strikers and their supporters served 30,000 meals a day by the end of the strike.
THE MAINSTREAM media dutifully did their part in attempting to sow division. The Seattle Star ran a headline, “Under Which Flag?” a not-so-subtle reference comparing the general strike to the Russian Revolution. Mayor Ole Hanson acted as if a revolution was underway, swearing in 600 extra cops and deputizing 2,400 more.
President Henry Suzzallo of the University of Washington (UW), chair of the State Council of Defense, called for the Secretary of War to send in federal troops. Students from UW were paid to act as guards in their ROTC uniforms “to help save the world from the Bolsheviki.”
Rich Seattleites hoarded goods, while many fled to Portland to avoid the bloodshed the mayor and the media predicted. “The anarchists in this community,” complained Hanson in a proclamation to the city, “shall not rule its affairs.” The U.S. army, based on Hanson’s request, sent 1,500 troops into Seattle.
In fact, the strikers maintained perfect order. The GSC organized 300 veteran soldiers into a Labor War Veterans Guard to maintain law and order during the strike. They were armed only with white ribbons and their ability to persuade their fellow workers.
Major General J.D. Leitch, whose troops of the Thirteenth Division were brought in to suppress the expected disorder, publicly acknowledged he had never seen such a quiet and orderly city.
During the first two days of the strike, when more than 100,000 workers (union and non-union combined) struck in Seattle, incredible solidarity reigned, and the working class felt its power.
But by the third day, cracks appeared, and some unions began trickling back to work. Mayor Hanson ordered the Committee of 15 to end the strike immediately or face unspecified consequences. AFL international unions threatened to revoke local charters to pressure Seattle locals to end the strike.
Many strikers believed the power and unity of the general strike would shock the bosses into meeting their demands. However, with the end of the war, the need for warships diminished. Plus, the other shipbuilding centers around the country weren’t shut down, so production in California and on the Gulf and East Coasts continued. Seattle’s shipyard was expendable, despite its importance during the war.
On the afternoon of February 8, the Committee of 15 voted to end the strike, and after some debate, two days later, the larger strike committee adopted the same motion. On February 11, after five days, the general strike ended.
WHEN THE general strike ended, the shipyard strike continued. Unfortunately, many shipyard workers never returned to their jobs due to postwar recession job cuts.
In terms of a few of the weaknesses of the strike, strike leaders ordered workers to stay at home during the strike and avoid gatherings — which meant that the ranks of strikers remained passive participants throughout the strike, isolated from each other and therefore from the sense of their own collective power.
The Union Record wasn’t published for the first few days of the strike, depriving Seattle’s workers of a collective public voice and means of communication, and leaving the way open for the ruling-class press to spread lies about the strike.
Also, the GSC didn’t have a long-term solution for dealing with the federal troops that had been called in to restore order. The Labor War Veterans Guard ensured there was no violence or disorder, but the federal troops’ repressive presence, with machine gun nests placed strategically throughout the city, contributed to the weakening resolve of the unions.
As Anna Louise Strong remarked, “We lacked all intention of real battle. We expected to drift into power. The General Strike put into our hands the organized life of the city — all except the guns. We could only last until they started shooting.”
Racism and sexism weakened solidarity during the strike. Though unions formally removed the color bar, in practice, they often excluded Blacks and other people of color, while Japanese workers were forced to organize their own unions. They were allowed to join the GSC, but were only given a voice, not a vote.
And while women dominated certain trades like phone operators, sexist ideas — such as the notion that women should relate to the union movement through their husbands or that women entering the workforce were stealing “men’s jobs” — also undermined solidarity.
Finally, while the misleaders of the AFL played a key role in derailing the strike, the roles of the SP and the IWW must also be looked at with a critical eye. Despite both groups having organized in the area for well over a decade prior to the strike, neither had developed deep enough roots in the working class to be able to chart an independent course for the strike.
Despite the negative ending, the general strike displayed the power of workers to run society. The strike gave us a brief glimpse of how, over a period of five days, the working class could feed 30,000 people, keep the peace, run essential services like hospitals, and do it all without concern for profit.
History never repeats itself in exactly the same way, and there have been many changes to the U.S. working class over the last century. But as the working class and strikes re-emerge in the U.S., there are many lessons we can learn from the inspiring history of the Seattle General Strike.