The Seattle General Strike


SEATTLE-Eighty years ago, working people closed this city down. The great Seattle General Strike of 1919 was not the first or the last general strike in the United States.

But the Seattle strike demonstrated-to friend and enemy alike-the tremendous power that workers can generate when they act in solidarity with the struggles of other workers. In that respect, it still provides an example for workers today.

The strike came at a time in which two major international events-the First World War and the Russian Revolution-had produced a qualitative change in the consciousness of American workers, as they also did in other countries.

As the slaughter in Europe drew to a close, workers began to demand that their one-sided sacrifices “for the war effort” be ended, and that they be granted better wages and working conditions.

Profits had soared while wages were held down throughout the nation by government control. The economic situation of working people was very difficult. There had been a 50 percent increase in the cost of living during the last three years of World War I.

Seattle had a higher cost of living than elsewhere in the country because it was off the beaten path. There was then, as now, a housing shortage due to people moving into the area, and rents and home prices were high.

Many U.S. workers realized that this country, which had opportunistically entered the war late, had ended up with the lion’s share of the spoils and could well afford to grant their demands. And they knew that, if the bosses should refuse their demands, the Russian Revolution provided a positive example of what can happen when working people take matters into their own hands.

The pace of labor struggles quickly grew. According to “History of the USA Since World War I,” in 1917, there were 1,227,000 strikers, in 1918, there were 1,240,000, and then in 1919, the number more than tripled to 4,160,000. This was the highest ever up to that time.

Not only did the numbers dramatically increase, but the demands became more radical and included the nationalization of important sectors of industry and transport. In June 1920, the congress of the AFL overrode the objections of its bureaucratic leadership and passed a resolution demanding the immediate nationalization of the railways.

A radicalization began to take place simultaneously in the political life of this country. In 1918, the Chicago Federation of Labor called for a National Labor Party. Their platform included nationalizing the banks, transport, and other industries, as well as equal rights for Blacks.

And taking its inspiration directly from the Russian Revolution, the U.S. Communist Party was founded in 1919.

Events occurring in the Pacific Northwest during the period included a long and drawn-out free speech fight in Everett, Wash. It ended in the Everett Massacre on Nov. 5, 1916, in which many Wobblies (members of the Industrial Workers of the World, IWW) were killed.

The Everett Massacre radicalized Anna Louise Strong, a member of the Seattle School Board, who went on to investigate and publicize what life was like in the Soviet Union. It was Strong who wrote about the impending General Strike, in the Feb. 4, 1919, edition of Union Call, the most quoted editorial in Seattle’s newspaper history.

Her article read: “We are undertaking the most tremendous move ever made by Labor in this country, a move which will lead no one knows where.”

Workers’ solidarity with Russian Revolution

By 1919, the ruling class was rightfully fearful of a general strike. The October 1917 Russian Revolution, which had taken place little more than one year earlier, had engendered great sympathy among class-conscious U.S. workers.

While the U.S. ruling class sent troops over to overthrow the Bolsheviks, the IWW sponsored mass meetings to support Russian workers and raise funds for them.

One mass meeting took place on Aug. 10, 1918, at the Moore Theater in Seattle. Those attending called on the United States to withdraw its military intervention in Russia.

According to the book “Revolution in Seattle” by Harvey O’Connor, when the Longshoreman’s Union learned that the Remington Company was attempting to ship arms for counter-revolution in Russia, the workers refused to load the crates.

On Jan. 12, 1919, Mayor Ole Hanson ordered the police under Searing (later to become chief of police) to raid an open-air mass meeting of shipyard workers in an attempt to prevent a general strike. The workers were brutally beaten.

The shipyard workers went on strike Jan. 21 to fight reductions in wages and for a 44-hour workweek. According to O’Connor, $4.16 was the top daily wage for shipyard laborers at that time. The wages they were asking for were $8 for skilled workers and $5.50 for unskilled workers. These requests were rejected.

At 10 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 6, 1919, the General Strike began, and 60,000 workers went on strike in solidarity with over 25,000 metal trades workers in the shipyards. Fifteen thousand workers in Tacoma joined the strike.

International AFL officials sabotage the strike

The Seattle Central Labor Council’s strike committee, which organized and ran the strike, was made up of 300 representatives of various unions who almost unanimously voted for the strike. This committee, as well as a Workmen’s, Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Council, appealed to the strikers to fight for the nationalization of key industries along with their other demands.

An executive committee of 15 was chosen by the general committee to plan the details of the strike.

The reactionary executive committee of the AFL union condemned the actions of the strike committee, threatening various members with expulsion from their positions on the committee and from their jobs. International officers of the AFL invaded the area by the trainload and threatened to revoke the charters of the participating unions.

These threats were one reason the strike ended early. The Seattle union leaders gave in to the bureaucratic officers of their internationals.

This was unlike the Minneapolis general strike that took place 15 years later. That strike, under the leadership of revolutionary socialists and class-conscious officials, refused to buckle and succeeded in winning a tremendous victory for the Teamsters.

Because the original shipyard workers’ strike was organized by the AFL, it is considered an AFL strike rather than an IWW strike. But since many workers held cards in both unions, and since the radical workers did the actual planning, the IWW deserves much of the credit.

It is even more impressive that the strike occurred when one realizes that the most radical local AFL officials were in Chicago participating in a rally for the release of Tom Mooney when the plans for the strike were made.

O’Connor mentions as well that it is amazing that the strike was pulled off by craft unions. Craft unionism, which was favored by the AFL, allows and even encourages one group of workers to feel they are superior to and can do without the aid of lower paid and less skilled workers. Thus the AFL excluded African and Asian Americans, as well as most women.

The Wobblies called the AFL “The American Separation of Labor.” The IWW instead advocated industrial unionism, which stresses the importance of uniting all workers in an industry regardless of their particular craft.

Ruling class sends in troops

University of Washington President Henry Suzzallo, chair of the State Council of Defense, demanded that U.S. Secretary of War Baker send in federal troops. And they were sent in-to “combat the Bolshevik threat.”

The media attempted to turn people against the strikers. The Business Chronicle tried to pit the working-class soldiers who had recently returned from the war against other workers by suggesting that striking workers be replaced by the soldiers.

Well-armed soldiers and sailors paraded through the streets, and trucks bearing machine guns raced back and forth to attempt to provoke the striking workers into using violence.

Nevertheless, first-hand accounts report a dramatic silence in the city. Instead of saws ringing, birds could be heard chirping. The only violence was a single instance, in which the police assaulted a worker.

Crime actually dropped to less than one-third of normal levels. The normal police docket of 100 per day fell to 30 per day during the strike.

Throughout the strike, there were 21 cafeterias serving meals for 35 cents, 25 cents with a union card. According to O’Connor, part of the reason things went so smoothly is that during planning of the strike there had been much discussion of Lenin’s speech regarding the importance of civic management when the people take power.

Reactionary backlash follows the strike

The strike lasted through Tuesday, Feb. 11. After the strike, 31 workers, all members of the IWW, were arrested and charged with criminal anarchy for trying to overthrow the government. No one was ever convicted.

The Equity Press, which published the IWW paper, and the Socialist Party were raided in the open-shop reaction that followed the strike.

The backlash included the passing of draconian federal laws outlawing progressive activities, such as publishing anything that advocated or justified sedition as means of effecting social, economic, or other change (the actual wording is even more vague). J. Edgar Hoover first showed his infamous abilities to round up radicals in “Justice” Department raids under these new laws.

The laws effectively condoned and promoted violence against leftists, as is demonstrated by the Centralia Massacre.

The IWW Hall in Centralia was attacked (for a second time) on Nov. 11, 1919, by the American Legion. In defending the hall, one Wobbly was beaten, castrated, and hung. While in Centralia recently, I learned of second-hand reports of other Wobblies that were killed, their bodies being burned in sawdust furnaces.

According to “The Bloodstained Trail; a History of Militant Labor in the U.S.,” the opportunistic Mayor Ole Hanson earned $38,000 on a seven-month tour lecturing on how he saved the country from a revolution. He also wrote a book and, because of his new-found popularity, had hopes of running for president.

This came from a politician who had entered office while loudly declaring he was a “friend of labor.” These declarations were undoubtedly due to the fact that over 25 percent of Seattle citizens were in unions.

According to Murry Morgan’s book, “Skid Road,” at the very beginning of the strike, Hanson asked some of the labor leaders to lunch and told them, “Boys, I want my street lights and water supply and hospitals. I don’t care if you shut down all the rest of the city.”

But in reality, Hanson had other perspectives. The night before the strike, the mayor sat in the bedroom of his new 14-room house and worked on plans for a military assault on the workers.

Was the strike a failure?

Although mainstream accounts touted the Seattle General Strike as a failure, this conclusion is an attempt to minimize an important event in labor history. The strike provided a practical training session for working-class politics.

It is no easy matter to stop the industrial activity in a city of 300,000 people.

If in addition, the city runs smoothly, everyone eats, babies and the sick are cared for, water and fuel delivery and fire protection are maintained, inexpensive food is provided for all, and electricity for critical areas is maintained, it becomes the people truly taking power.

Murray Morgan wrote in “Skid Road” that the main problem with the strike was that its goals were never declared. The means were confused with the end. The strike became the goal rather than the means to a greater end.

One lesson that was reinforced in Seattle was the consistent role of the state-from the mayor to the police-as a strike-breaker against workers.

Not long after the strike, in September 1919, some 365,000 steel workers in 10 states went on strike. In November 1919, over 400,000 United Mine Workers went on strike to demand a 60 percent increase in wages and a 30-hour workweek.

The Seattle General Strike was the beginning of a wave of strikes, but it was also practice for what it will be like when the working people in this country attempt to take control of all industries.

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