A short account of the Seattle General Strike of 1919
On February 6, 1919 Seattle workers became the first workers in United States history to take part in an official general strike One hundred thousand workers went out on strike for 6 days and paralysed the city. This event has been hidden from history.
Seattle came to prominence with the gold rush in Alaska to its north, with miners stopping there on their way to seek their fortune. In addition the lumber industry began to take off and Seattle became an important port for the transportation of timber.
Many workers in North West America in the lumber industry and other industries were migratory and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the revolutionary unionist organisation founded in 1905 did much organisational work among them. They agitated against the bosses’ organisations which attempted to counter organising among workers, keep wages low and working conditions cheap.
The First World War brought further prosperity to Seattle with the expansion of the ship building industry. With the USA’s entry into the War in 1917, the American Federation of Labour (AFL) unions were given permission to organise among workers, as long as their leaders squashed any chances of strike during the war. At the same time repression began against the IWW, the only union which had opposed the War, the anarchist movement and anti-war members of the Socialist Party of America like Eugene V. Debs.
The membership of the IWW rose to 150,000 in 1917 with Seattle as one of its main bases. There was great sympathy among Seattle workers for the Russian Revolution of 1917 and it should be remembered that many Russian ships docked at Seattle and so there was contact between Russian and American workers. The Socialist Party in Seattle, seen as on the left of the party nationally,, had 4,000 members.
Sympathy for the Russian Revolution and growing sentiment against the War merged with discontent over wages and conditions to create a volatile situation. In Tacoma, 32 miles south of Seattle, A Soldiers, Sailors and Workmens’ Council was set up and talked about the overthrow of the government and the takeover of industries by the workers. In Seattle itself there was a mass meeting at which speakers called for a general strike to stop supplies being sent to Siberia to help the White armies there.
The AFL had 110 craft unions in Seattle, with 65,000 members. IWW membership was much smaller, but there was quite a lot of dual carding, where IWWers took out AFL membership, to gain entry in to jobs. Unlike the IWW, the AFL banned white workers organising alongside black, Asian and Hispanic workers and there were a few segregated black unions.
The AFL unions created a coordinating body, the Central Labor Council(CLC). Membership of the CLC was composed of radical workers.
On 21st January 21st , 1919, 35,000 shipyard workers went out on strike to demand higher wages. The following day they approached the CLC to demand a city wide strike to support their cause. This was agreed and a ballot was started in the 110 unions to support the strike.
Only a small number of unions voted not to support strike action, with the result that 100,000 workers came out on strike. The CLC voted on January 29th to set up a General Strike Committee.This would combine the CLC and grassroots delegates from the unions.
In reaction to this, reactionary union leaders in the craft unions set up a Committee of 15 to stop the strike.
Between February 3rd and 6th food kitchens and child care were organised, as well as communications -the publication of newspapers and press releases, and the removal of rubbish from the streets. Conservative union leaders and their supporters were worried about the radical nature of the strike and the propsed slogan ‘Workers, You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Chains’ was replaced by ‘Together We Win’. They also attempted to set an end date for the strike but this was defeated.
The establishment press in the city now began a vicious campaign against the strike. The Seattle Star appealed to the ‘Americanism’ of the workers and talked about Bolshevik agitators who were preparing a revolution.
The rich began to stockpile food. Ole Hansen, Seattle’s Mayor, ordered in State and Federal troops. These were linked with the city police and the anti-strike volunteers made up of university students and members of the middle class.
In response to this , Anna Louise Strong wrote the following in the CLC paper Union Record on February 4th:
“We are undertaking the most tremendous move ever made by LABOR in this country, a move which will lead—NO ONE KNOWS WHERE! Labor will feed the people. Labor will care for the babies and the sick. Labor will preserve order. 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 a road that leads—NO ONE KNOWS WHERE!”
On the 6th 65,000 members of the AFL unions went out on strike, as well as 3,500 in the IWW unions, and black and Japanese workers in their segregated unions, as well as many non-unionised workers. Pickets a put up by the strikers blocked 40,000 others from going to work.
The supply of food to strikers and their families was very efficient. An unarmed War Veterans Guard was also set up by the CLC to protect the strikers against attacks by cops, troops and anti-strike militias.
However, the Committee of 15 had exempted telephone operators, government workers and food market workers from the strike, hindering its effectiveness.
On the third day of the strike the Committee of 15 attempted to end the strike but were defeated on the floor of the assembly of the General Strike Committee.
Hansen began to up the ante on the threat of armed attacks on the strikers. This resulted in the return to work of street car workers, as well as some restaurant workers, barbers and shop workers.
The Committee of 15 again attempted, on Saturday February 8th, to end the strike the following day. This was again rejected. However, on Sunday, there were meetings within union branches to end the strike on February 11th. Under pressure, workers reluctantly ended the strike on that day. None of the demands of the strike had been won.
Now the backlash began. The Union Record was shut down by federal agents and there were raids on the halls of the IWW and the Socialist Party. 39 IWW members were arrested in connection with the strike. The CLC to their credit supported the arrestees.
This repression was to escalate with the murder 9 months later of 5 IWW members at Centralia and the Palmer Raids, where many anarchists, socialists and IWWS were arrested and deported from the USA.
The Seattle General Strike illustrates the power of the working class and how it can successfully run society. At the same time it illustrates the nature of trade union leaderships and their sabotage of workers struggles.
The example of Seattle needs to be resurrected to show that the working class can paralyse the workings of capitalist society and prepare for a new world and that this is still possible in the USA and throughout the world.
The above appeared in Virus, No. 1 (2019) magazine of the Anarchist Communist Group