labor The General Strike that Shut Down Seattle 100 Years Ago
On February 6, 1919, the city of Seattle ground to a halt as 60,000 workers walked off the job in a general strike that would last 6 days. Workers from all 110 unions of the Seattle Central Labor Council participated in the strike, which faced fierce opposition from both business and governmental leadership. While the strike was historic, it stands as a frequently misunderstood event in U.S. labor history. In this excerpt from Seattle General Strike: The Forgotten History of Labor’s Most Spectacular Revolt, author Cal Winslow shines a light on the truth about a strike that captured the attention of the nation 100 years ago.
“There will be many cheering and there will be some who fear.
Both of 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.”
Seattle Union Record, February 6, 1919
Thus, Anna Louise Strong, writing on behalf of the strikers, announced the 1919 Seattle General Strike.
“Labor,” she wrote, “will feed the People… Labor will care for the babies and the sick... Labor will preserve order…” And indeed, that it did, for five February days. There had been nothing like it in the US before, nor since.
At 10 am, February 6, 1919, Seattle’s workers struck, all of them. In doing so they literally took control of the city. The strike was in support of shipyard workers, some 35,000, then in conflict with the city’s shipyards owners and the federal government’s US Shipping Board, the latter still enforcing wartime wage agreements.
Seattle’s Central Labor Council (CLC), representing 110 unions, all affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), called the strike. The CLC’s Union Record reported 65,000 union members on strike. Perhaps as many as 100,000 working people participated; the strikers were joined by unorganized workers, unemployed workers and family members. Silence settled on the city’s streets and waterfront, “nothing moved but the tide.”
The strike rendered the authorities virtually powerless – there was indeed no power that could challenge the workers. There were soldiers in the city, and many more at nearby Camp Lewis, not to mention thousands of newly enlisted, armed deputies – but to unleash these on a peaceful city? The regular police were reduced to onlookers; the generals hesitated.
Today, this strike is largely forgotten, or worse, when remembered, dismissed as a long lost cause, sometimes reduced to a “disaster” – that is, a near fatal setback for Seattle’s working people. It was neither.
Seattle in 1919 was a city of 300,000. A prosperous and progressive city, it had won women’s suffrage, prohibition and planning. Its prosperity was built largely on its port, its municipal piers were state-of-the art, pride of the city’s reformers. Seattle was terminus of the northern railroads, gateway to Alaska, and it was two days closer to China than its rival, San Francisco.
Seattle had long been a working-class destination, for the adventurous as well as the victims of the squalid East. Free-thinkers and utopians had encamped nearby in the 1890s, intent on founding an industrial democracy. Socialists, including Eugene Debs, had encouraged settling in Washington, “the most advanced” state in the union.
Seattle’s unions were allies of reform. They supported women’s suffrage, endorsed public ownership, but were divided on prohibition. Nevertheless, they steadily shifted to the left in the 1910s, driven by widening conflict with the employers and in keeping with the new syndicalism and the national strike wave that began with and intensified during the war. Then, too, the international revolt – culminating in 1919 with rebellion in Germany, Hungary, Egypt, the Irish war of independence, the fate of the revolution in Russia still unknown.
Seattle’s socialists, many Socialist Party members, were advocates of industrial unionism; they sat at the helm of the city’s unions. Seattle was also home to the Industrial Worker, the western paper of the Industrial Workers of the World’s (IWW). It had become the basecamp for radical workers throughout Washington, also Alaska, as well as Oregon and the mining towns of Montana.
When the US Commission on Industrial Relations met in the city in 1914, John R. Commons, Wisconsin’s labor specialist attended, observing that in Seattle he “found more bitter feeling between employers and employees than in any other US city.”
Western Washington timber continued to dominate the regional economy, and in few industries was conflict more intense. IWW organizer James Thompson, testifying before the Industrial Relations Commission, reported the loggers “breathe bad air in the camps. That ruins their lungs. They eat bad food. That ruins their stomachs. The foul conditions shorten their lives and make their short lives miserable.”
When winter rains made work in the woods impossible, loggers settled in Seattle, sleeping in Skid Road’s flophouses, seeking relief in its brothels and cheap saloons. There they were joined by migrant agriculturalists, redundant railroad workers and blacklisted miners. They also mingled with Seattle’s radicals, including the rapidly increasing ranks of shipyard workers - it was an explosive mix.
Seattle’s organized labor movement grew in these years, though not evenly. The bitter 1916 waterfront strike was lost. The strike of shingle weavers in nearby Everett was broken, brutally and in the end only with bloody murder. In early November, 1916 250 unarmed IWW’s boarded the steamships Verona and Calista in Seattle, setting sail to support their embattled Everett fellow-workers. There they were met and surrounded by gun packing deputes and vigilantes who opened fire from both sides on the Verona as it docked. Six Wobblies were killed, two deputies, the later in the crossfire. Seventy-four survivors were charged with murder.
The reception in Seattle of the news from Everett was first shock, then bitter recognition of the terrifying events, these so near to home. The massacre was seen as an assault on free speech, fair play and the very notion of ‘rights.’ Disbelief then anger coursed through Seattle’s working-class districts. In an act of collaboration increasingly common among competing unions, Seattle’s CLC joined in the defense of the victims.
The IWW made the Everett catastrophe its cause celebre. When the Wobblies were acquitted, it was cause for celebration; Wobbly membership soared, setting the stage for the general strike in the woods which followed that June. Some 50,000 loggers struck; the strike stretched into the next year. Ultimately, in part due to federal intervention, it was won – the eight-hour day, dramatically better conditions in the camps, child labor banned. But not without cost; the employers, the lumbermen, the authorities responded with savage repression – for the loggers, the Red Scare, the Palmer Raids as well, began in Washington’s woods, culminating in Centralia in November, where Wesley Everest, veteran, logger, IWW member, was lynched.
In the city, CLC secretary James Duncan, called 1917 “a red-letter year in the history of organized labor A dozen new unions have been organized and all of Seattle unions are flourishing.” These included large numbers of women workers, 1,100 “telephone girls,” hundreds of laundresses, and hotel maids. The CLC, unlike many counterparts, understood the “vital importance of the [AFL] Pacific Coast movement’s campaign to organize women workers in all industries.” Organized labor in Seattle grew by 300 percent in 1917, the closed shop the rule.
In 1919, the war behind them, Seattle’s workers were well organized and itching for a fight. It was a city, wrote Anna Louise Strong, who had become main stay at the Union Record in the time of the strike, “divided into two hostile camps.” Class lines had hardened.
The solidarity of Seattle’s workers was, by any standard, staggering; workers from barbers to boilermakers would cease work. There would be no pickets - as there were no strikebreakers. Still, qualifications need be made. Seattle and the Puget Sound country were not immune to anti-Chinese movements of the 1880s and 1890s. Thus, by 1919, the Chinese in Seattle were few, and the experience of the Japanese, then the city’s largest minority, was likewise one of discrimination and exclusion.
The historian Katsutoshi Kurokawa, however, has revealed change. In his study of Japanese immigrants in Seattle, Kurokawa writes, “The IWWs appeal for unity of workers of all countries, and its opposition to racial discrimination was genuine. The Japanese community in Seattle understood this fact.” Moreover, “In the late 1910s,” he writes, “progressive and radical activists who had no racial prejudice increased their influence in the Seattle labor movement.” Kurokawa points to Duncan’s inauguration as a “milestone." There were others; Seattle’s best- known socialist, the workers’ “Joan of Arc,” Kate Sadler was a fierce opponent of Asian exclusion. “Kate took to the streets to oppose it, from the skid road up and down." Strong, prior to settling in Seattle, had traveled to Japan, then as a child welfare advocate.
On the eve of the strike, the Japanese unions approached Duncan, offering support. This was accepted, they joined, contributing conspicuously, if somewhat symbolically, to the euphoric solidarity of the day. In the great meeting convened to sanction the strike, “A Woman Who Was There,” reflected on the “ high rhetoric, great emotion, even tears…” In the strike itself, she recalled, “The Japanese and American restaurant workers went out side by side. The Japanese barbers struck when the American barbers struck and were given seats of honor at the barbers’ union meeting that occurred immediately thereafter.”
The Union Record, in its first strike edition, concurred: “Even in the midst of strike excitement, let us stop for a moment to recognize the action of the Japanese barbers and restaurant workers who, through their own unions, voted to take part in the general strike. The strike here in Seattle is proving the biggest demonstration of internationalism that has yet occurred in this country. The Japanese deserve the greater credit because they have been denied admission and affiliation with the rest of the labor movement and have joined the strike of their own initiative. We hope that this evidence of labor’s solidarity will have an influence on the relations between the two races in the future.”
Kurokawa reports these events resonated widely throughout the Japanese population. Then, too: “Thus the action of Japanese unions toward the General Strike helped to change the attitude of organized labor to Japanese workers.”
The general strike as tactic was widely identified with the IWW. Yet, the CLC had used the threat of a general strike as a bargaining chip half a dozen times as a bargaining chip in fights for wages and benefits, as well as in its insistence that the closed shop prevail. But for Kate Sadler, the general strike was about far more—the power of workers to transform society: “We will progress to the full knowledge that no man is good enough to be another man’s master. That the private ownership of things used in common must go, and social ownership take its place.”
When the shipyard workers, on strike since January 21, appealed to the CLC for support, there was no opposition to speak of. The workers, union by union, elected the strike’s leadership, a strike committee comprised largely of rank-and-file workers. The strike committee elected an executive committee. These bodies, meeting virtually non-stop, ensured the health, the welfare and the safety of the city. Garbage was collected, the hospitals were supplied, babies got milk – the people were fed, including some 30,000 a day at the strikers’ kitchens. There may have been no other time before or since, when no one went hungry in the city.
The streets were safe - rarely safer - patrolled by an unarmed labor guard. It was reported that crime abated. Off the streets, Seattle was a festival - in the union halls, the co-op markets, “feeding stations,” and neighborhood centers where workers and their families gathered. On the Saturday night there was a dance. And a massive Monday night strike rally in Georgetown – the crowd was so large, the building, “settling,” had to be evacuated. The meeting reconvened, and with “great enthusiasm…it was decided to make the meetings a regular weekly event… it was unanimous that the strike should continue until a living wage had been obtained by the shipyard workers. …Many of those present expressed the opinion that the scope of the meetings should be enlarged to include the wives and daughters of the workers, and to make them real community gatherings.” In all these places the strike was the topic – it was analyzed, criticized, extolled and debated and thus when these workers representatives packed the rowdy, emotion-filled Strike Committee meetings they came prepared – they were making history and they knew it.
The Seattle Star asked, “Under which flag? – the red, white and blue or the red.” The Post Intelligencer, hysterical, appealed for federal soldiers. The Mayor, Ole Hanson, well-knowing this was not the case, proclaimed a revolution underway. The AFL joined in, denouncing the strikers and sending out from the East and Midwest staff in hundreds.
The strike lasted through the weekend, five working days. Then singly, then in small batches, unions began returning. On Tuesday, the strike was pronounced off. Much is made of this, the splintering of the strikers and the “early” end to the strike. Duncan, sensibly, would have preferred all to go back together, but the truth was that there were others, many, who favored staying out. The authorities, however, stubbornly resisted negotiation, solidarity strikes failed to materialize, and the majority, voting with their feet, felt they had made their point. “We did something in this strike which has never been done before,” explained Ben Neuman of the Hoisting Engineers, a leader of the strike committee. “Most of the men went back to work in good spirits,” observed “the woman who was there,” “realizing, not indeed that they had won the recognition of the shipyard workers which they had asked for, but that perhaps they had done something bigger.”
How to assess this? The dailies pronounced, “The Revolution is Over.” Hanson took personal responsibility for breaking the strike and embarked on a nationwide speaking tour to boast of this. Samuel Gompers at the AFL joined in extolled the “revolution” defeated and pledged to rid the unions of the radicals. But it had not been a revolution nor was it intended to be one. It was a strike to support the shipyard workers, though a very radical strike, with, in fact, a “revolutionary spark” inside it. Hardly a “disaster,” far from quashed, it remains, borrowing from Rosa Luxemburg, a link in the great chain of historic events, which is the pride and strength of international socialism. Well worth celebrating.
Seattle’s workers, their unions intact, would live to fight another day. In the meantime, the IWW was satisfied that Seattle had shown the general strike to be indeed a useful weapon in labor’s “arsenal.” The New York Call explained the strike as an indication that capital’s days were numbered. And Max Eastman, the Greenwich Village intellectual, spoke for many when he judged that Seattle “filled with hope and happiness the hearts of millions of people in all places of the earth…[it] demonstrated the possibility of that loyal solidarity of the working class which is the sole remaining hope of liberty for mankind."
Cal Winslow is the author of Seattle General Strike: The Forgotten History of Labor’s Most Spectacular Revolt, forthcoming from Verso, also Labor’s Civil War in California. He is editor of E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left.
Reprinted with permission from In These Times. All rights reserved. Portside is proud to feature content from In These Times, a publication dedicated to covering progressive politics, labor and activism. To get more news and provocative analysis from In These Times, sign up for a free weekly e-newsletter or subscribe to the magazine at a special low rate.
Never has independent journalism mattered more. Help hold power to account: Subscribe to In These Times magazine, or make a tax-deductible donation to fund this reporting.