Review: Seattle’s General Strike 100 Years Ago Shows Us Hope for Today
For five days in 1919, union members took control of the city of Seattle. They arguably ran it better, and certainly more justly, than it had ever been run before.
The strike began when waitresses, laundry workers, streetcar workers, and more—65,000 union workers in all—walked off the job on February 6, 1919, to support striking shipyard workers.
Thousands of workers volunteered to keep Seattle’s essential services operating. People were fed at 21 different locations; on February 9, volunteers served more than 30,000 meals. Milk distribution was organized at 35 locations. Garbage was picked up. Hospitals were supplied with what they needed. Public safety was secured by volunteer union patrols. No crime was reported during these five days.
Max Eastman, editor of the socialist magazine The Liberator, wrote that the strike in Seattle “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.”
Contrast Seattle 1919 with today’s unfolding horror. We’re all witnessing what it looks like when a shutdown and the provision of essential services are administered by capital and a pro-corporate government.
The Seattle General Strike was not just an event in labor history. It was a testament to what workers can achieve when they organize, and it has sharp lessons for today.
BUILT THROUGH STRUGGLE
What laid the foundation for the strike? It was organizing in the mines, woods, mills, shipyards, and farms. It was speeches delivered atop street-corner soapboxes and at mass meetings at the Dreamland roller skating rink. It was reporting by worker and socialist newspapers, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the Socialist Party, and the Seattle Central Labor Council. All this built a working-class consciousness and radical political infrastructure.
In his new book Radical Seattle: The General Strike of 1919, Cal Winslow vividly brings to life the workers’ movement of that time in the Pacific Northwest.
Organizing reached a fever pitch at the turn of the twentieth century. Workers were demanding decent wages, safe and humane working conditions, adequate food and lodging, the closed shop, and the eight-hour day. There was a popular push for big industrial unions, rather than separate unions by craft within an industry—and the IWW was demanding one big union across all industries.
The owners of capital, along with their political handmaidens, were vicious in their attacks on unions and workers. From capital’s perspective, unions weren’t just bad—they were anti-American. Those who sided with workers’ organizations were demonized, brutally attacked, and locked up.
Membership in the IWW grew rapidly as paid organizers were sent to agitate, educate, and organize in labor camps around Puget Sound. Working-class consciousness grew in “fits and starts,” Winslow reports, through strikes and bloody conflicts in the woods and sawmills and on the waterfront, and when word spread about the outrageous massacres of IWW activists in Everett (1916, 30 miles north of Seattle) and Centralia (1919, 80 miles south, after the Seattle strike).
A FERTILE GROUND
Seattle itself offered fertile ground for organizing. Since employment was seasonal in logging, fishing, the canneries, and agriculture, the off seasons brought thousands of unemployed workers to the city looking for shelter, food, work, and comradeship. The city was growing by leaps and bounds, with a manufacturing workforce 50,000 strong. By the end of World War I, Seattle had become the leading port on the West Coast.
Seattle also leaned progressive. There was general public support for women’s suffrage, direct democracy (initiatives, referendums, and recalls), municipal ownership of utilities and ports, and worker cooperatives. The state had a history of utopian communities.
In addition, workers had access to progressive and socialist newspapers, bringing them news of worker struggles and victories from all around the world. The Union Record, the first labor-owned daily newspaper in the country, published by the Central Labor Council, had a circulation of 120,000 after the general strike.
IWW activists in Spokane and throughout the state Washington had spent a decade challenging local authorities and taking repeated arrests in a free-speech movement that ultimately prevailed. These fights supplied a wealth of skilled orators who spoke on city street corners, in parks, and in civic and union halls about a range of progressive issues and solidarity. The voices of Emma Goldman, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Kate Sadler, and Eugene Debs were familiar to Seattle workers.
Seattle’s labor movement was unique. The Central Labor Council had strong, cooperative leadership that worked well with socialists and the IWW. The CLC differed from the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the East Coast unions in its strong support for industrial unions over craft unions, its support for a closed shop, and its use of secondary boycotts to support other unions’ organizing and contract fights.
TIME TO BE BOLD AGAIN
Between 1916 and 1918, Seattle’s union membership grew by 300 percent, to 60,000 workers. As rank-and-file CLC members and leaders worked with IWW members and socialists, Winslow writes, the local labor movement developed a “radical consensus” and “radicalized militant majority.”
Perhaps the single most important event in producing this radical consensus was the brutal Everett Massacre in 1916. Workers were arriving on a steamer from Seattle for a free-speech event to support striking shingle workers. The local sheriff and a citizens’ mob savagely attacked them in a hail of gunfire. Five or more people died, at least 30 were injured, and 74 were jailed.
Seattle workers in 1919 found the confidence to take the reins of their city—in spite of condemnation by capital, political leaders, and the AFL—because they had a strong sense of class consciousness and solidarity, and a vision of a more just world.
Today the failures of capitalism have been dramatically laid bare, as workers face the existential crises of climate disaster, income inequality, and a global pandemic. We urgently need the confidence of Seattle 1919. Labor, communities of color, tribes, and other allies will have to build it together.
Jeff Johnson is former president of the Washington State AFL-CIO.
Read more: an excerpt from the book.