Seattle General Strike, 1919

"Nothing moved but the tide"

In 1919, a snapshot of some of the 35,000 Seattle shipyard workers. PHOTO: Asahel Curtis
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For six euphoric days a century ago, Seattle’s workers took over and ran the city. Industry barons trembled. “All of Seattle was silenced as organized labor went out in support of the 35,000 shipyard workers,” said the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

In 1919, rebellion was in the air all across the globe. In Washington state, two decades of efforts by radicals and union organizers — educating, agitating and organizing — had raised the political consciousness and class solidarity of workers.

The Union Record, with a circulation of 100,000, was the voice of labor in the Puget Sound. From its pages came inspiring news of the successful Bolshevik revolution in Russia. It even printed a speech by V. I. Lenin on the serious day-to-day responsibilities of revolutionaries when they take power.

Firebrand editorialist Anna Louise Strong. PHOTO: University of Washington Special Collections

Anna Louise Strong editorialized days before the General Strike, “We are undertaking the most tremendous move ever made by LABOR in this country, a move which will lead — NO ONE KNOWS WHERE!” Her words struck fear in the hearts of Seattle’s elite. And they inspired and galvanized her working-class sisters and brothers.

False promises. World War I had brought newfound wealth to the shipyards. And with the promise of better wages came thousands of newcomers. These wages could not keep up with inflation and the skyrocketing costs of housing and food. It was a burden on all workers. Despite the hardship, unions agreed to not strike during the war. Workers were promised when the war was over the government would not interfere with their fight for better wages.

Charles Piez, the government’s representative to the shipyard owners, made public promises to this effect. But in a telegram meant for owners only, Piez told them if they raised wages, he would cut off steel supplies needed to build ships. That telegram was misdirected to the Metal Trades Council which represented the workers in the shipyards. The unions felt betrayed, and the fight was on.

Thirty five thousand shipyard workers walked off the job on January 26. The Metal Trades Council appealed to Seattle’s Central Labor Council for support. Members of the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party were influential in many unions and they pushed for a general strike. In the end, the vast majority of Seattle’s organized labor voted to support the striking shipyard workers. It was an overwhelming show of solidarity.

The Central Labor Council authorized a massive sympathy strike — a general strike. On February 6, as the dawn turned to day, 100,000 workers — 65 percent in unions — stayed home.

Solidarity in action. Seattle unions fully understood they needed to be responsible to the community. The Labor Council established a Strike Committee to assess what services were essential, and developed a solid plan of action to provide them.

Without firing a shot, organized labor grasped the reins of government. The Strike Committee was not about to allow business to go on as usual. Only vital services were allowed to continue. Ambulances picked up the sick and injured, hospitals got their clean linens, babies got their milk. Garbage removal was deemed imperative to protect public health. All emergency services were maintained. Up to 30,000 meals were distributed each day. Despite rumors circulated by Mayor Ole Hanson, the committee had no intention of cutting off water or electricity!

This success threatened the city fathers. The pro-business press whipped up hysteria over an alleged conspiracy between the Soviet Union and the Central Labor Council. Headlines raged for law and order. Mayor Hanson pleaded for military intervention to end the strike.

The Strike Committee deputized 300 returning vets as a labor guard. Unarmed, they kept the peace, and prevented the government from injuring or killing any of the strikers. This was one of the few work stoppages of its time where no worker blood was shed.

As the days passed, solidarity waned. Rather than let things fall apart, the strike committee ordered an official end to the sympathy strike. On February 12, most of Seattle went back to work.

The 35,000 shipyard workers would continue to picket for another month before they folded. Charles Piez successfully pressured shipyard employers to not settle. The Metal Trades Council was not able to get their promised wages.

It is easy to see the General Strike as a lost battle because the shipyard workers didn’t get their pay increases. However, that is not the whole story. Historian and General Strike participant Harvey O’Connor stated that unionists were proud of how they conducted this fight. The strikers broke new ground. They proved that organized labor could seize control, provide for the community, and economically threaten those who exploited them. This was a victory for all of labor. The power of the working class in all its glory was on display. This is the legacy of the Seattle General Strike.

Onward and upward. An economic battle lost does not mean an end to the class war. The spirit of the Seattle General Strike was not forgotten, nor what it so valiantly tried to achieve. A dozen years later, in the midst of a devastating global economic collapse, the U.S. industrial working class rose up with a vengeance.

Like sunlight twinkling off the Puget Sound, early twentieth century Seattle sparkled with excitement. Workers in the Emerald City were conscious of their class, proud of their competence, and unified in common purpose. They knew damn well they were being exploited. They understood solidarity. They may not have won justice for the shipyard workers, but they left behind valuable lessons on how to wage the class war.

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