The Seattle general strike, 1919 - Jeremy Brecher

Crowds gather on 6 February, the first morning of the Seattle general strike

Jeremy Brecher's historical account of the general strike and takeover of the city by workers in Seattle in 1919.

Real wages had risen considerably during World War I as a result of the enormous demand for labor; with the end of the great wartime industrial expansion and the return to "normalcy," it was widely felt necessary to reduce wages if profits were to be maintained. As John Maynard Keynes once pointed out, this can be done with less resistance by inflation than by direct wage cuts. So in 1919, the government simultaneously ended wartime price controls and allowed corporations to resume their traditional union-breaking policies. Between June, 1919, and June, 1920, the cost of living index (taking 1913 as 100) rose from 177 to 216.1

Anger, hope and militance grew as in a pressure cooker. Nowhere did this radicalization go further than in Seattle. The radical I.W.W. and the A.F.L. Metal Trades Council cooperated in sponsoring a Soldiers', Sailors', and Workingmen's Council, taking the soviets of the recent Russian revolution as their model. When a socialist and former president of the Seattle A.F.L., Hulet Wells, was convicted for opposing the draft during the war and then tortured in prison, the Seattle labor movement erupted with giant street rallies. Even the more conservative members of the Seattle labor movement supported the Bolshevik revolution and opposed the U.S. intervention against it.2 In the fall of 1919, the Seattle longshoremen refused to load arms and munitions destined for Admiral Kolchak, leader of the counter-revolution in Siberia, and beat up the strikebreakers who tried to load them.3 Seattle union membership increased from 15,000 in 1915 to 60,000 by the end of 1918 - more than the total number of industrial workers.4 The Seattle trade unions were formally affiliated with the A.F.L., but their ideas and action differed greatly from A.F.L. policy. As Harry Ault, editor of the union-owned Seattle Union Record, and a moderate in the local labor movement, put it:

I believe that 95 percent of us agree that the workers should control the industries. Nearly all of us agree on that but very strenuously disagree on the method. Some of us think we can get control through the Cooperative movement, some of us think through political action, and others think through industrial action. . . .5

Pamphlets on the Russian revolution circulated by the scores of thousands. A Seattle labor journalist later recalled-

For some time these little pamphlets were seen by hundreds on Seattle's streetcars and ferries, read by men of the shipyards on their way to work. Seattle's business men commented on the phenomenon sourly; it was plain to everyone that these workers were conscientiously and energetically studying how to organize their coming power.

Already, workers in Seattle talked about "workers' power" as a practical policy for the not far distant future. Boilermakers, machinists and other metal trades unions alluded to shipyards as enterprises which they might soon take over, and run better than their present owners ran them. These allusions gave life to union meetings. . . .6

The militant spirit and trade union growth centered among the 35,000 workers in the shipyards, an industry built with Federal funds and virtually created by the war, in which the Emergency Fleet Corporation of the United States government was the ultimate employer. Less than two weeks after the Armistice, the shipyard unions voted to authorize a strike. The unions proposed a pay scale that would raise wages for lower-paid workers and not for the skilled; the yard-owners in turn tried to split off the skilled workers by offering them alone a wage increase. The skilled workers refused the bribe and on January 21st, 1919,35,000 shipyard workers struck.7 Unexpectedly, Charles Piez, representing the U.S. government as head of the Emergency Fleet Corporation, telegrammed the yard owners to resist any wage increase, threatening otherwise to withdraw their contracts. "Through the 'mistake' of a messenger boy," a reporter later recalled, "one of these telegrams was delivered not to the Metal Trades Association [the employers], but to the Metal Trades Council [the workers]. The anger of the shipyard workers was thus directed against Washington."8

Faced by a government and employer determination to starve them out, the shipyard workers appealed to the Seattle Central Labor Council for a general strike. The best-known local progressive and radical leaders were in Chicago at a special conference to organize a national general strike to free Tom Mooney. (Mooney was an A.F.L. official in San Francisco who had been convicted of throwing a bomb into a 1916 preparedness parade, despite the evidence of a photograph of him standing by a clock a mile away from the scene at exactly the time the bomb was thrown.) According to one of the leaders, Anna Louise Strong, the general strike in Seattle would probably not have occurred had they been in town. "They were terrified when they heard that a general strike had been voted. . . . It might easily smash something - us, perhaps, our well-organized labor movement."9

At a tumultuous session of the Central Labor Council, the shipyard unions' resolution that local unions poll their members on a general strike passed with virtually no opposition. The threat of a general strike was not taken seriously except by the workers themselves; as the Seattle Times wrote,

A general strike directed at WHAT?
The Government of the United States? Bosh!
Not 15% of Seattle laborites would consider such a proposition.10

Yet within a day eight local unions endorsed the strike at their regular meetings - most of the votes nearly unanimous. Within two weeks 110 locals had voted for the strike, even some of the more conservative doing so by margins of five and ten to one.

In joining the strike, the workers knew that they were risking more than a few days' pay. First, they risked punishment from their own internationals; and second, the loss of established contracts with their employers. For example, the Longshoremen's Union imperiled (and eventually lost) a closed-shop agreement for the Seattle waterfront, and the president of the International Longshoremen's Association wired the local that he would rescind its charter if it took part in the general strike.

The Central Labor Council agreed that the strike be run by a General Strike Committee of three members from each striking local, elected by the rank and file. The 300 members of the committee - mostly not officials but rank-and-filers with little previous leadership experience-started meeting four days before the strike; they and their fifteen-man executive committee were in daily session throughout the strike, forming virtually a counter-government for the city.

A study of the strike issued later by the General Strike Committee pointed out that:

A general strike was seen, almost at once, to differ profoundly from any of the particular strikes with which the workers of Seattle were familiar. . . . If life was not to be made unbearable for the strikers themselves, problems of management, of selection and exemption, had to take the place of the much simpler problem of keeping everyone out of work.11

Shipyard workers in Seattle in 1919 found themselves locked out by order of the U.S. government. Other Seattle workers felt this was the start of an attack on them as well. It was this sentiment that made them willing and eager to turn to the tactic of a general strike.

Workers in various trades organized themselves to provide essential services with the approval of subcommittees of the executive committee, which granted them exemptions from the strike.

Garbage wagon drivers agreed to collect wet garbage that would create a health hazard, but not paper and ashes. Firemen agreed to stay on the job. The laundry drivers and laundry workers developed a plan to keep one shop open to handle hospital laundry; before the strike they instructed the employers to accept no more laundry, then worked a few hours after the strike deadline to finish clothes in process so they would not mildew. Vehicles authorized to operate bore signs reading, "Exempted by the General Strike Committee."12

Employers and government officials as well as strikers came before the Strike Committee to request exemptions. According to one correspondent,

The extent to which the city recognized the actual rather than the titular government of the community is apparent enough to anyone who reads the carefully kept records of the strike committee, and observes what was actually done. Before the committee, which would seem to have been in well-nigh continuous session day and night, appeared a long succession of businessmen, city officials, and the Mayor himself, not to threaten or bully, but to discuss the situation and ask the approval of the committee for this or that step.13

Here are a few examples from the minutes:

"King county commissioners ask for exemption of janitors to care for City-County building. Not granted.
"F.A. Rust asks for janitors for Labor Temple. Not granted.
"Teamsters' Union asks permission to carry oil for Swedish Hospital during strike. Referred to transportation committee. Approved.
"Port of Seattle asks to be allowed men to load a government vessel, pointing out that no private profit is involved and that an emergency exists. Granted.
"The retail drug clerks sent in a statement of the health needs of the city. Referred to public welfare committee, which recommends that prescription counters only be left open, and that in front of every drug store which is thus allowed to open a sign be placed with the words, 'No goods sold during general strike. Orders for prescriptions only will be filled. Signed by general strike committee.'
"Communication from House of Good Shepherd. Permission granted by transportation committee to haul food and provisions only."

This is by no means all the business that came before the Committee of Fifteen in a single afternoon. An appointment of a committee of relief to look after destitute homes, the creation of a publicity bureau, an order that watchmen stay on the job until further notice.14

In some cases, workers improvised large-scale operations from scratch. For instance, the milk wagon drivers initially proposed to their employers that certain dairies remain open, but when the employers refused to open them except downtown, and attempted to take direction of the plan, the drivers decided to organize their own distribution system instead. They set up thirty-five neighborhood milk stations, purchased milk from small dairymen near the city, and distributed it throughout the city. Even more impressive was the commissary department, which served 30,000 meals a day to the strikers and community. The cooks, waiters and other provision trade workers purchased the food, located restaurant kitchens, and arranged to transport the cooked food to twenty-one eating places in halls throughout the city. This huge operation was running smoothly by the second day of the strike.

Two days before the strike the Union Record asked union members who had served in the armed forces to come to a meeting to discuss "important strike work."15 From this group was organized a "Labor War Veteran's Guard," designed to keep peace on the streets. Its principle was scrawled on the blackboard at one of its headquarters:

The purpose of this organization is to preserve law and order without the use of force. No volunteer will have any police power or be allowed to carry weapons of any sort, but to use persuasion only.16

On the eve of the general strike, an editorial in the Union Record tried to define the strike's significance:

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 drives 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.

What does Mr. Piez of the Shipping Board care about the closing down of Seattle's shipyards, or even of all the industries of the northwest? Will it not merely strengthen the yards at Hog Island, in which he is more interested?

When the shipyard owners of Seattle were on the point of agreeing with the workers, it was Mr. Piez who wired them that, if they so agreed - HE WOULD NOT LET THEM HAVE STEEL.

Whether this is camouflage we have no means of knowing. But we do know that the great eastern combinations of capitalists COULD AFFORD to offer privately to Mr. Skinner, Mr. Ames and Mr. Duthie a few millions apiece in eastern shipyard stock, RATHER THAN LET THE WORKERS WIN.

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 which 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 WHERE17

Mayor Ole Hanson of Seattle described the start of the strike on February 6th, 1919: "Streetcar gongs ceased their clamor; newsboys cast their unsold papers into the street; from the doors of mill III and factory, store and workshop, streamed 65,000 workingmen. School children with fear in their hearts hurried homeward. The life stream of a great city stopped."18 The A.F.L. strikers were joined by the I.W.W., the separately organized Japanese workers, and perhaps 40,000 non-union workers who did not go to work because of sympathy, fear, closed enterprises, or lack of transportation.19 During the strike there was not a single arrest connected with it, general police court arrests sunk to less than half of normal, and according to Major General Morrison, in charge of U.S. troops in the city, in forty years of military experience he had not seen a city so quiet and orderly.20

The peacefulness of the strike did not prevent middle-class Seattle from seeing it as an attempted revolution. As Mayor Hanson put it,

The so-called sympathetic Seattle strike was an attempted revolution. That there was no violence does not alter the fact. . . . The intent, openly and covertly announced, was for the overthrow of the industrial system; here first, then everywhere. . . . True, there were no flashing guns, no bombs, no killings. Revolution, I repeat, doesn't need violence. The general strike, as practiced in Seattle, is of itself the weapon of revolution, all the more dangerous because quiet. To succeed, it must suspend everything; stop the entire life stream of a community. . . . That is to say, it puts the government out of operation. And that is all there is to revolt - no matter how achieved.21

Local radicals thought revolution would take more; a widely circulated leaflet, often seized on as proof of the strike's revolutionary intent, read:

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 not one thing in common, that the employing class must be overthrown, and that you, the workers, must take over the control of your jobs, and through them, the control of your lives instead of offering yourself up to the masters as a sacrifice six days a week, so that they may coin profits out of your sweat and toil.22

Feeling the available National Guard inadequate for the situation, the State Attorney General, acting for the Governor, telephoned Secretary of War Newton Baker for Federal troops; by Fri- day, February 7th, 950 sailors and marines were brought into the city and carefully placed at strategic points. The Mayor, dramatically portraying himself as the city's savior from Bolshevism, added 600 extra men to the police force and swore in 2,400 special deputies, many of them University of Washington students. By February 7th, Mayor Hanson felt he had the necessary forces to issue an ultimatum:

To the Strike Committee:
I hereby notify you that unless the sympathy strike is called off by 8 o'clock tomorrow morning, Saturday, February 8, 1919, I will take advantage of the protection offered this city by the national government and operate all the essential enterprises.
Ole Hanson, Mayor23

The limitations of a general strike now became apparent. The point had come where either the strikers had to try to make permanent the power they had taken over the organized life of the city-an act of revolution which would have meant an immediate military confrontation - or capitulate.

Whether to end the strike thus became the key issue. According to Anna Louise Strong,

. . . as soon as any worker was made a leader he wanted to end that strike. A score of times in those five days I saw it happen. Workers in the ranks felt the thrill of massed power which they trusted their leaders to carry to victory. But as soon as one of these workers was put on a responsible committee, he also wished to stop "before there is riot and blood."24

This situation was dramatized when the Executive Committee voted thirteen to one to recommend on Saturday, February 8th, to end the strike that night. The 300 members of the General Strike Committee were almost persuaded until they took a supper break and talked with members of their own rank and file; they returned to the meeting and voted overwhelmingly to continue the strike.

The heaviest pressures to end the strike now came from the international officials of the A.F.L. unions. Telegrams ordering local unions to desert the strike poured into the Labor Temple. So did international officers, arriving from long distances to try to force their members back to work. These efforts began to take their toll. The streetcar men were ordered back to work by their executive committee under pressure from an international official, but said they would rejoin the strike if called by the General Strike Committee; the Teamsters likewise were ordered back by an international officer, but the rank and file called another meeting at which it was expected they would vote to rejoin the strike; the stereotypers returned "under severe pressure from their international officers"25 and a false rumor that the strike had been called off. With these breaks appearing and the power of the opposition growing ever stronger, the General Strike Committee finally voted to end the strike Tuesday at noon. The strike was ended, as the General Strike Committee's history stated, by

Pressure from international officers of unions, from executive committees of unions, from the "leaders" in the labor movement, even from those very leaders who are still called "Bolsheviki" by the undiscriminating press. And. . . the pressure upon the workers themselves, not of the loss of their own jobs, but of living in a city so tightly closed.26

The immediate effect of the strike was inconclusive. The shipyard strike went on; the attack on unionism swelled in Seattle as elsewhere; the Socialist Party headquarters, a labor printing plant, and the I.W.W. hall were raided and thirty-nine "Wobblies" - l.W.W. members - arrested as "ringleaders of anarchy,"27 Although they played little role in the general strike.

Perhaps the greatest effect of the strike was to suddenly bring American labor struggles into the context of the revolutionary conflicts sweeping the world in the wake of the war. The Union Record, for example, noted after the strike its similarity to the workers' government just arising in Belfast:

They are singularly alike in nature. Quiet mass action, the tying up of industry, the granting of exemptions, until gradually the main activities of the city are being handled by the strike committee.

Apparently in all cases there is the same singular lack of violence which we noticed here. The violence comes, not with the shifting of power, but when the "counter revolutionaries" try to regain the power which inevitably and almost without their knowing it passed from their grasp. Violence would have come in Seattle, if it had come, not from the workers, but from attempts by armed opponents of the strike to break down the authority of the strike committee over its own members.

. . . Our experience, meantime, will help us understand the way in which events are occurring in other communities all over the world, where a general strike, not being called off, slips gradually into the direction of more and more affairs by the strike committee, until the business group feeling their old prestige slipping, turns suddenly to violence, and there comes the test of force.28

This text has been excerpted from Jeremy Brecher's excellent book, Strike! and very slightly edited to make sense as a stand-alone text by libcom.org.

  • 1. Sylvia Kopald, Rebellion in Labor Unions (N.Y.: Boni and Liveright, 1924), p. 152.
  • 2. Robert L. Friedheim, The Seattle General Strike (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1964), p. 18.
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. William Short, History of Activities of Seattle Labor Movement and Conspiracy of Employers to Destroy It and Attempted Suppression of Labor's Daily Newspaper, the Seattle Union Record (Seattle: Union Record Publishing Co., 1919), pp. 1-2, cited in Friedheim, p. 24.
  • 5. Papers on Industrial Espionage (Mss. in University of Washington Library, Seattle), report of Agent 106, June 11, 1919, cited in Friedheim, p. 29.
  • 6. Anna Louise Strong, I Change Worlds (N.Y.: Henry Holt and Co., 1935), p.68.
  • 7. Seattle Times, Jan. 21, 1919, p. 1, cited in Friedheim, p. 75.
  • 8. Strong, pp. 74-5.
  • 9. Ibid., pp. 72, 74.
  • 10. Seattle Times, Jan. 28, 1919, cited in Freidheim, p. 84.
  • 11. History Committee of the Seattle General Strike Committee, The Seattle General Strike (Seattle: The Seattle Union Record Publishing Co., Inc., 1920), p. 15.
  • 12. Freidheim, p. 101.
  • 13. William MacDonald, "The Seattle Strike and Afterwards" (written in Seattle, Feb. 28,1919), in The Nation, Mar. 29, 1919, cited in Wilfrid H. Crook, Communism and the General Strike (Harnden, Conn.: The Shoe String Press, Inc., 1960), p. 53.
  • 14. History Committee, pp. 21-2.
  • 15. Ibid., p. 21.
  • 16. Ibid., p. 50.
  • 17. Ibid., pp. 4-6.
  • 18. Ole Hanson, Americanism versus Bolshevism (Garden City, N.Y.: Double- day, Page, 1920), p. 84, cited in Freidheim, p. 123.
  • 19. Freidheim, p. 124.
  • 20. History Committee, p. 46.
  • 21. New York Times, February 9, 1919, cited in Crook, p. 51.
  • 22. For a photocopy of the original, see State's Exhibit 40, transcript of People v. Lloyd, p. 467; Harvey O'Connor claims authorship of "Russia Did It," in Revolution in Seattle (N.Y.: Monthly Review Press, 1964), p. 143, cited in Freidheim, p. 10 1.
  • 23. Reprinted in Daily Bulletin, Feb. 8, 1919, p. 1, cited in Freidheim, p. 136.
  • 24. Strong, pp. 81-2.
  • 25. History Committee, p. 38.
  • 26. Ibid., p. 35.
  • 27. Ibid., p. 57.
  • 28. Ibid., p. 62.

Posted By

Steven.
Jul 22 2013 18:10

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slothjabber
Oct 15 2013 08:45

Missed this before. Thanks for posting - nothing to add at the moment but will come back to this. Seattle (and Winnipeg) need to be seen in context and more widely known about (not just by a handful of working-class history nerds).