Seattle: The 1919 General Strike
The United States has one of the richest histories of class struggle in the world. One of the best examples is the Seattle General Strike of 1919. Unfortunately for many, struggles like this are part of a forgotten history that the 1% has successfully buried. Fortunately for us, historian Harvey O’Connor has brought this incredible history to light in his memoir Revolution in Seattle. O’Connor worked in the logging camps outside of Seattle and was a member of the Lumber Workers Industrial Union 500 of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). He became a socialist and a journalist, working on several radical newspapers, including the IWW’s Industrial Worker, the Socialist Party’s Seattle Daily Call, and the Seattle Central Labor Council’s paper, the Seattle Union Daily Record. Many of the stories he tells come from these firsthand experiences.
First published by Monthly Review Press in 1964 in the ferment of a new generation of radicals, this gripping account of working-class solidarity and union power in the Pacific Northwest went out of print and was republished by Haymarket Books in 2009. Today, as yet another radicalization in the United States begins, this account of a true general strike—including the conditions that paved the way, the incredible coordination and creativity shown by Seattle’s rank-and-file union workers, and the obstacles they faced—is a crucial read for those who take seriously the challenges we face today.
The background to the strike
The year 1919 was, to cite labor historian Philip Foner, “one of the most militant in United States labor history.”
During its twelve months, 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. The Literary Digest called it a year characterized by “an epidemic of strikes,” and the Outlook lamented, “Everywhere strikes…. The strike fever is in the air…. The disease that has struck our industrial systems breaks out in one place as it subsides in another; one strike is scarcely over when another one begins.”1
The Seattle General Strike marked the climax of post-First World War class struggle in the United States. One hundred thousand workers not only shut the city down, they ran the city for five days, from February 6–11. O’Connor’s chapter on the strike is a riveting account of why it happened and how workers ran the city. The first five chapters cover the three decades prior to 1919. Understanding this background clarifies why the general strike happened.
In the late 1800s, the Puget Sound region was home to a socialist cooperative movement, with the goal of building socialist “colonies” that would grow across Washington. Eugene V. Debs was one of the early supporters of this movement. 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. Tens of thousands grew up reading the radical press for years before the strike.
There were two main left-wing parties that had widespread support in the region, the Socialist Party (SP) and the 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, its members organized against the First World War, supported strikes, and worked closely with the IWW (known colloquially as the Wobblies).
The IWW published its paper, the Industrial Worker, in Spokane, Washington, starting in the spring of 1909. It led some twenty free speech fights in the Northwest where dozens, sometimes hundreds, were arrested for speaking out in public on soapboxes on street corners. Armed vigilantes organized by police and the bosses assaulted Wobblies for supporting local labor action. One of the bloodiest attacks, in 1916, came to be known as the Everett Massacre, when 200 police deputies met a boatload of Wobblies intending to land on the docks at Everett with a barrage of gunfire, killing eleven and wounding thirty-one.
The chapter “From Timber Beast to Lumber Worker,” recounts the IWW organizing drives and incredible “work to rule,” or strike-on-the-job, campaigns to win higher pay, a safer work environment, and better lumber camp living conditions. Many workers today could benefit from learning the lessons from these classic labor battles.
In 1918, the Union Record became the first labor-produced daily in the United States. With a circulation of 50,000, it rivaled the mainstream press in Seattle. It was the only daily newspaper in the United States to publish a speech by Russian revolutionary V. I. Lenin made in April 1918 to the Congress of Soviets on the tasks of organizing power. Twenty thousand copies of Lenin’s speech were published and distributed throughout Seattle.
It’s not a coincidence that O’Connor spends almost half the book on telling the stories of struggles prior to 1919. The important point to understand is that for three decades prior to 1919 socialists and Wobblies of various sorts had been organizing among Seattle workers. They faced massive state repression, lost many struggles, won some, and gained valuable experience during the process.
Perhaps most important, Seattle was a union town. Out of a total population of 250,000 at the time, 60,000 were in unions, or 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 conservative head of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), Samuel Gompers. In his book The Seattle General Strike, Robert Friedheim explained how “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.” The Seattle labor movement was so distinctive that even the IWW characterized it as a movement “affiliated—more in form than in spirit—with the American Federation of Labor.”
During the First World War Gompers banned strikes and allowed the US 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.
Many thought the most radical labor council in the United States resided in Seattle. In multiple AFL conventions, the only vote cast against Samuel Gomper’s inevitable reelection came from the Seattle Central Labor Council.
The general strike
The largest and most organized section of the labor movement in Seattle was centered in the shipbuilding industry. A quarter of all US war ships 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 men struck in Seattle, with another 15,000 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, twenty-four 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 soap boxing 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 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 hot-headed 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 a 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. O’Connor writes:
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 I.W.W. card was as good as an A.F. 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 under way, swearing in 600 extra cops and deputizing 2,400 more. President Henry Suzzallo of the University of Washington (UW), chairman of the State Council of Defense, called for the secretary of war to send in federal troops. Students from the 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,” fulminated Hanson in a proclamation to the city, “shall not rule its affairs.” The US 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 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 struck in Seattle, incredible solidarity reigned, and the working class felt its power. But by the third day, cracks appeared. The Citizens’ Committee, headed by a banker, informed the Committe of 15, writes O’Conner, “that because the strike was considered a revolutionary attempt, it would not bargain on surrender terms,” indicating that it would only negotiate if the strike ended. 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 ship building 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.
By the third day, some unions began trickling back to work. 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.
End of the strike
Sadly, but not surprisingly, the AFL’s publication, the American Federationist, proudly boasted, “It was the advice and counsel and fearless attitude of the trade union leaders of the American International Trade Unions and not the United States Troops, or the edicts of a mayor, which ended this brief industrial disturbance of the Northwest.”
Not to be outdone, the mainstream press lavished praise on Mayor Hanson for stopping the “Bolshevik Revolution” in Seattle. Later Hanson resigned as mayor, embarked on a national speaking tour, and wrote a hysterical book called Americanism versus Bolshevism, with rants against the strike leaders such as: “With syndicalism—and its youngest child, bolshevism—thrive murder, rape, pillage, arson, free love, poverty, want, starvation, filth, slavery, autocracy, suppression, sorrow and Hell on earth.” This tour netted him $38,000 in seven months, more than five times his annual salary as mayor.
When the general strike ended, the shipyard strike continued. Many shipyard workers never returned to their jobs. The postwar recession cut just under 30,000 jobs from this industry in Seattle by 1921. It meant there were only 10 percent more workers in Seattle than the city had in 1914, before the war started. This wasn’t just a Seattle phenomenon. Throughout the country, employment figures in the metal trades, machine products, and the ship building industries dropped more than 39 percent.
In the last few chapters, O’Connor details the post–1919 heavy hand of state repression against the SP and the IWW and the devastating effect it had on the Seattle labor movement. As part of the “Great Red Scare,” party halls were raided, key leaders arrested, and another massacre of Wobblies took place in late 1919 in Centralia, Washington.
Despite the negative ending to the shipyard strike, 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.
O’Connor touches on some of the weaknesses of the strike. The GSC was not clear about its goals—was it merely a show of solidarity for the shipyard workers or was the muscle of Seattle labor to be deployed to force a decision? In one too-short paragraph he describes how strike leaders were afraid of the “revolutionary spark” that existed. Consequently, workers were ordered 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. Lastly, the failure of the strike to spread elsewhere meant “Seattle, unfortunately was all too unique in its militancy.”
It would have been useful to see those arguments fleshed out more. No one knows what would have happened had the strike spread to cities in California or on the East Coast. If all the shipyard workers in the United States had struck at the same time and for the same reasons, it would have put far more pressure on the bosses to settle, and Seattle strikers would not have been isolated. Moreover, the timing of the strike—after the war, when shipbuilding was in a dramatic decline—was not ideal.
Chairman Ben F. Nauman of the strike committee said there were two main mistakes made, “the failure to decide on the duration of the strike at the beginning, and the failure to call it off Saturday night when it became evident that the ranks were breaking.” The GSC organized the walkout down to the most basic detail, but it didn’t provide the public and the strikers with sufficient information as to the reasons for the strike. They described it as a strike of solidarity with the shipyard workers, but didn’t clarify why this was important to the entire working class in Seattle, why it was important for people to put up with the inconveniences of a longer strike, and what they could do to help it win.
In this context, the decision to not publish the Union Record for the first few days of the strike was a colossal mistake. It left the ruling-class press an open field to spread lies about the strike. After the working class in Seattle had grown up for years with various forms of socialist and IWW press, to suspend the most crucial means of putting forward pro-union information at the moment it was needed the most is something our side can’t let happen ever again.
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. The SP, made up of reformists and revolutionaries, put forward no independent plan to win the general strike. Due to its largely electoral orientation, it hadn’t built up a large enough layer of cadre or leaders from the party located in key workplaces where it could have helped carry out a plan if it had one.
The IWW called for a general strike to end capitalism, and so presumably the general strike should have been its moment of truth; but it also failed to provide any alternative lead to that of the GSC. Its decision to refrain from soap boxing for the duration of the strike meant it stopped one of its most effective organizing tactics at precisely the point in which the need for public discussion and information about the strike was most crucial. Soap boxing, as well as indoor meetings, parades, public demonstrations, and cultural events, should have been encouraged on every possible street corner.
Of course, the IWW was merely following the lead of the GSC. It banned all demonstrations during the strike and encouraged strikers to stay home. But massive public actions show the ruling class that the masses are angry and are willing to take action. They help give confidence to workers by proving in action that they aren’t alone in their willingness to fight.
For his part, O’Connor distributed 20,000 copies of a leaflet entitled Russia Did It in an attempt to argue a way forward. It read in part,
The Russians have shown you the way out. What are you going to do about it? You are doomed to wage slavery till you die unless you wake up, realize that you and the boss have no one thing in common, that the employing class must be overthrown, and that you, the workers, must take over control of your jobs, and through them, the control over your lives instead of offering yourself up to the masters as a sacrifice six days a week, so that they may coin profit out of your sweat and toil.
Strike leaders publicly disavowed the leaflet, and its overall impact on the strike was minimal. As a piece of propaganda, however, it did not fall on deaf ears. The Seattle labor movement at the time was infused with the spirit of the Russian Revolution. On September 16, 1919, for example, Seattle longshoremen voted to refuse to load munitions onto ships bound for the counterrevolution in Russia, and on September 24 longshoremen distributed 30,000 leaflets demanding that the United States withdraw its troops from Russia.
Another weakness of the strike was that 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.”
The general strike ended before the question of self-defense arose. However, to be clear, the only way to counter fears people had of the army being called into the city would have been regular mass marches that could have showed the solidarity and power of the working class. Also, mass actions have in the past been key to winning over sections of soldiers, almost all of whom are working class, to the side of strikers; that is what happened during the mass strikes that toppled the Russian tsar in February 1917. Of course, the strike leadership was not prepared either politically or organizationally to put any of this to the test.
Finally, racism and sexism weakened solidarity during the strike. Though unions formally removed the color bar, in practice unions often excluded people of color. Only a few hundred African Americans worked in the shipyards. Japanese workers, mostly hotel and restaurant employees, represented the largest non-white group in Seattle at the time. They ran their own separate labor organizations because the AFL wouldn’t organize them. They were allowed to join the GSC, but were only given a voice, not a vote. It’s a testament to the Japanese workers that they were willing to strike in solidarity despite the history of racism against them. 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.
History never repeats itself in exactly the same way, and there have been many changes to the US working class over the last century, but as the working class reemerges on the world scene, there are many lessons we can learn from the inspiring history of the Pacific Northwest. Revolution in Seattle is a must-read for anyone who considers themselves a part of the 99% and wants to reclaim their radical history from the 1% who seek to keep it hidden.
- Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement of the United States, Vol. 8: Postwar Struggles, 1918–1919 (New York: International Publishers, 1988), 1.