Everything You Need to Know About the General Strike that Shut Down Seattle 100 Years Ago

Cal Winslow February 6, 2019

The Seattle General Strike of 1919. (Creative Commons)

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.

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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 61919

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 célèbre. 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, Olé 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.
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