seattle general strike

Poster encouraging Seattle shipyard workers to seize control of the ships and port during the 1919 Seattle General Strike.

RUSSIA DID IT

 "SHIPYARD WORKERS – You left the shipyards to enforce your demands for higher wages. Without you your employers would be helpless. Without you they cannot make one cent of profit - their whole system of robbery has collapsed.

 The shipyards are idle; the toilers have withdrawn even tho the owners of the yards are still there. Are your matters building ships? No. Without your labor power it would take all the shipyard employers of Seattle and Tacoma working eight hours a day the next thousand years to turn out one ship. Of what use are they in the shipyards?

It is you and you alone who build; you create all the wealth of society today; you make possible the $75,000 sable coats for millionaire’s wives. It is you alone who can build the ships.

They can’t build the ships. You can. Why don’t you?

There are the shipyards: more ships are urgently needed: you alone can build them. If the masters continue their dog-in-the-manger attitude, not able to build the ships themselves and not allowing the workers to, there is only one thing left for you to do.

Take over the management of the shipyards yourselves; make the shipyards your own: make the jobs your own; decide the working conditions yourselves; decide your wages yourselves. 

In Russia the masters refused to give their slaves a living wage too. The Russian workers put aside the bosses and their tool, the Russian government, and took over industry in their own interests.

There is only one way out: a nation-wide general strike with its object the overthrow of the present rotten system which produces thousands of millionaires and millions of paupers each year.

The Russians have shown you the way out. What are you going to do about it? You are doomed to wage slavery until 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 thru them, the control over your lives instead of offering yourselves up to the masters as a sacrifice six days a week, so that they may coin profits out of your sweat and toil.“

American labor history is filled with similar complaints from the employing classes and their allies in government: not that unionized workers are violent, disruptive, or unprofitable but that they are independent and self-organizing. Indeed, so potent is their self-organization that it threatens—in the eyes of their superiors—to render superfluous the employer and the state. During the Great Upheaval of 1877, striking railroad workers in St. Louis took to running the trains themselves. Fearful the public might conclude the workers were capable of managing the railroad, the owners tried to stop them—in effect, launching a strike of their own in order to prove it was the owners, and only the owners, who could make the trains run on time. During the Seattle general strike of 1919, workers went to great lengths to provide basic government services, including law and order. So successful were they that the mayor concluded it was this, the workers’ independent capacity to limit violence and anarchy, that posed the greatest threat.
The so-called sympathetic Seattle strike was an attempted revolution. That there was no violence does not alter the fact…. 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…. That is to say, it puts the government out of operation. And that is all there is to revolt—no matter how achieved.
—  The Reactionary Mind - Corey Robin

Today in labor history, January 21, 1919: 35,000 shipyard workers in Seattle go on strike seeking wage increases. They appealed to the Seattle Central Labor Council for support and within two weeks, more than 100 local unions joined in a call for a general strike to begin on the morning of February 6. The 60,000 total strikers paralyzed the city’s normal activities, while their General Strike Committee maintained order and provided essential services.

Image: A revolutionary pamphlet given out during the Seattle General Strike which instigated the First Red Scare and the Palmer Raids.

Events Leading To General Strike

The Seattle General Strike of 1919 was a five-day general work stoppage by over 65,000 workers in the city of Seattle, Washington, which lasted from February 6 to February 11 of that year. Dissatisfied workers in several unions began the strike to gain higher wages after two years of World War I wage controls. Although the strike was non-violent and lasted less than a week, government officials, the press, and much of the public viewed the strike as a radical attempt to subvert US institutions.

In late 1918, workers of Seattle’s shipbuilding industry demanded a pay increase for unskilled workers and were instead offered pay increases only to skilled workers in an attempt to divide the union. The union rejected that offer and Seattle’s 35,000 shipyard workers went on strike on January 21, 1919. After Charles Piez, head of the Emergency Fleet Corporation (EFC), an enterprise created by the federal government as a wartime measure and the largest employer in the industry, sent a telegram to the yard owners threatening to withdraw their contracts if any increase in wages were granted, the shipyard workers responded with anger directed at both their employers and the federal government and immediately appealed to the Seattle Central Labor Council for a general strike of all workers in Seattle.

Members of various unions were polled, with almost unanimous support in favor–even among traditionally conservative unions. As many as 110 locals officially supported the call for a general strike to begin on February 6, 1919, at 10:00 am.

Strike

A cooperative body made up of rank and file workers from all the striking locals was formed during the strike, called the General Strike Committee. It acted as a “virtual counter-government for the city.The committee organized to provide essential services for the people of Seattle during the work stoppage. For instance, garbage that would create a health hazard was collected, laundry workers continued to handle hospital laundry, and firemen remained on duty. Exemptions to the stoppage of labor had to be passed by the Strike Committee, and authorized vehicles bore signs to that effect. In general, work was not halted if doing so would endanger lives.

In other cases, workers acted on their own initiative to create new institutions. Milk wagon drivers, after being denied the right by their employers to keep certain dairies open, established a distribution system of 35 neighborhood milk stations. A system of food distribution was also established, which throughout the strike committee distributed as many as 30,000 meals each day. Strikers paid twenty-five cents per meal, and the general public paid thirty-five cents. Beef stew, spaghetti, bread, and coffee were offered on an all-you-can-eat basis.

Army veterans created an alternative to the police in order to maintain order. A group called the “Labor War Veteran’s Guard” forbade the use of force and did not carry weapons, and used “persuasion only.” Peacekeeping proved unnecessary. The regular police forces made no arrests in actions related to the strike, and general arrests dropped to less than half their normal number. Major General John F. Morrison, stationed in Seattle, claimed that he had never seen “a city so quiet and orderly.

The methods of organization adopted by the striking workers bore resemblance to anarcho-syndicalism, perhaps reflecting the influence of the Industrial Workers of the World in the Pacific Northwest, though only a few striking locals were officially affiliated with the IWW.

End of General Strike

The General Strike ended after Mayor Hanson increased the police and military forces available to enforce order, though there was no disorder, and possibly to take the place of striking workers.

Mayor Hanson had federal troops available and stationed 950 sailors and marines across the city by February 7. He added 600 men to the police force and hired 2,400 special deputies, students from the University of Washington for the most part. On February 7, Mayor Hansen threatened to use 1,500 police and 1,500 troops to replace striking workers the next day, but the strikers assumed this was an empty threat and were proved correct. The Mayor continued his rhetorical attack on February 9, saying that the “sympathetic strike was called in the exact manner as was the revolution in Petrograd.” Mayor Hansen told reporters that “any man who attempts to take over the control of the municipal government functions will be shot.

On February 10, the General Strike Committee voted to end the general strike on February 11 and by noon on that day it was over.

Aftermath

Immediately following the general strike’s end, 39 IWW members were arrested as “ringleaders of anarchy”, despite their playing a marginal role in the development of events. Seattle’s mayor Ole Hanson took credit for ending the strike and was hailed by some of the press. He resigned a few months later and toured the country giving lectures on the dangers of “domestic bolshevism.” He earned $38,000 in seven months, five times his annual salary as mayor. He agreed that the general strike was a revolutionary event. In his view, the fact that it was peaceful proved its revolutionary nature and intent. He wrote:

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 practised 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.