Seattle General Strike: Labor’s Most Spectacular Revolt
On February 6, 1919, Seattle’s workers struck—all of them. In doing so they took control of the city.
The strike was in support of 35,000 shipyard workers, then in conflict with the city’s shipyard owners and the federal government’s U.S. Shipping Board, which was still enforcing wartime wage agreements.
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.
Seattle’s Central Labor Council, representing 110 unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), called the strike. The CLC’s Union Record reported 65,000 union members on strike—a general strike, the first and only of its kind in the U.S. Perhaps as many as 100,000 people participated.
Seattle in 1919 was a city of 300,000. A prosperous and progressive city, it had women’s suffrage, prohibition, and planning. Its prosperity was built largely on its port and its state-of-the-art municipal piers. Seattle was terminus of the northern railroads, gateway to Alaska, and two days closer to China than its rival, San Francisco.
Seattle from the start was a working-class destination. 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, then in his opinion “the most advanced” U.S. state.
Seattle’s unions were allies of reform. They supported women’s suffrage, were divided on prohibition, and endorsed public ownership of markets and laundries. Many demanded workers’ control of the shipyards. In the 1910s, they shifted to the left, driven by conflict with employers and in keeping with the new syndicalism, a radical trade unionism based on workers’ power on the job, and the national strike wave that began and intensified during the war.
Socialists led the city’s unions, including the CLC and the powerful Metal Trades Council, but most other unions as well. They were advocates of industrial unionism. Seattle was also home to the Industrial Worker, the western paper of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). It became the basecamp for radical workers throughout Washington and Alaska, as well as Oregon and the mining towns of Montana.
When the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations met in the city in 1914 for five days of hearings, Wisconsin labor specialist John R. Commons attended, observing that in Seattle he “found more bitter feeling between employers and employees than in any other US city.”
AN EXPLOSIVE MIX
Western Washington’s timber industry dominated the regional economy, and in few industries was conflict more intense. IWW organizer James Thompson testified before the Industrial Relations Commission that 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 agricultural workers, 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.
The organized labor movement grew in these years, though not evenly. The bitter 1916 waterfront strike was lost. Just north in Everett, the shingle weavers strike ended in catastrophe, with six Wobblies murdered in the Everett Massacre. Still, the IWW fought on. In June 1917, 50,000 loggers and mill workers struck, ultimately winning the eight-hour day.
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’s unions are flourishing.” These included large numbers of women workers—telephone “girls,” laundresses, and hotel maids. Organized labor grew by 300 percent in that year alone.
NO ONE WENT HUNGRY
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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 became a mainstay at the Union Record during the time of the strike, “divided into two hostile camps.” Class lines had hardened.
The general strike as a tactic was widely identified with the IWW. Yet the CLC had used the threat of a general strike 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, Seattle’s best-known socialist, the workers’ “Joan of Arc,” 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 shipyard workers, on strike since January 21, appealed to the CLC for support, there was no opposition to speak of. Union members elected the strike’s leadership, a committee, 300 strong, comprised largely of rank-and-file workers. They in turn elected an executive committee. These bodies ensured the health, the welfare, and the safety of the city.
Garbage was collected, the hospitals were supplied, babies got milk, and 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. Off the streets, Seattle was a festival—in union halls, co-op markets, “feeding stations,” and neighborhood centers where workers and their families gathered.
On Saturday there was a dance. And a massive rally in Georgetown—the crowd was so large that the building, “settling,” had to be evacuated. And in all these places the strike was the topic. It was analyzed, criticized, extolled, and debated. Thus, when these worker-representatives packed the rowdy, emotion-filled Strike Committee meetings they came prepared—they were making history and they knew it.
MADE THEIR POINT
The Seattle Star asked, “Under which flag—the red, white, and blue or the red?” The Times, hysterical, appealed for federal soldiers. The Mayor, Ole Hanson, well knowing this was not the case, proclaimed a revolution underway. The conservative AFL joined in, denouncing the strikers and sending out staff from the East and Midwest in the 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. Still, solidarity ruled, an accomplishment of great pride. Seattle’s unions remained “strike prone,” co-ops flourished, and the Union Record’s circulation surpassed 100,000. The shipyard strike, however, lasted into the spring, eventually dissipating as the authorities held fast.
Much is made of this, the splintering of the strikers. Duncan would have preferred all to go back together, but the truth was that there were many who favored staying out. Still, the rank and file, the majority, 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.
How to assess this? The Times pronounced, “The Revolution Is Over.” Samuel Gompers at the AFL joined in extolling the “revolution” defeated; he praised his emissaries 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.
Seattle’s workers, their unions intact, would live to fight another day. And Max Eastman, the Greenwich Village intellectual, spoke for many when he judged that the strike had “filled with hope and happiness the hearts of millions of people in all places of the earth…you 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 in May, as well as Labor’s Civil War in California: The NUHW Rebellion. He is the editor of E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left. His daughter is Sam Winslow of Labor Notes.