When Workers Stopped Seattle

The Seattle General Strike of 1919 is a forgotten and misunderstood part of American history. But it shows that workers have the power to shut down whole cities — and to run them in our interests.

Seattle General Strike participants leaving the shipyard after going on strike, January 21, 1919. Webster & Stevens / Wikimedia

On February 6, 1919, at 10 AM, Seattle’s workers struck. All of them.

The strike was in support of roughly thirty-five thousand shipyard workers, then in conflict with the city’s shipyard owners and the federal government’s US Shipping Board, the latter still enforcing wartime wage agreements. Silence settled on the city. “Nothing moved but the tide,” recalled the young African American, Earl George, just demobilized at nearby Camp Lewis.

Seattle’s workers simply put down their tools. It was, however, no ordinary strike. There had been nothing like it in the United States before, nor since. In doing so, they virtually took control of the city. Anna Louise Strong, writing in the Union Record, announced that labor “will feed the People . . . . Labor will care for the babies and the sick . . . . Labor will preserve order . . . .” And indeed it did, for five February days.

Seattle’s Central Labor Council (CLC), representing 110 unions, all affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), called the general strike. The Union Record reported sixty-five thousand union members on strike. Perhaps as many as one hundred thousand working people participated; the strikers were joined by unorganized workers, unemployed workers, and family members.

The strike rendered the authorities virtually powerless. 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 in 1919 was a city of three hundred thousand. 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 for the victims of the squalid East. Free-thinkers and utopians had encamped in utopian “colonies” nearby in the 1890s, intent on founding an industrial democracy in their own time. Eugene Debs encouraged socialists to settle in Washington, at one point even suggesting three hundred thousand resettle from Chicago. He considered it “the most advanced state” and admired its 1900 platform: “We are fighting for no half-way measures.”

Seattle’s unions supported the reforms of the era’s Progressives. They endorsed women’s suffrage and public ownership, but were divided on prohibition.

Nevertheless, labor steadily shifted to the left in the 1910s, driven by widening conflict with employers and in keeping with the new syndicalism and the national strike wave that began with and intensified during World War I. The economic recovery that began in 1914, spurred on by the war in Europe, would last into the summer of 1920. It gave millions of workers both the confidence to switch jobs when it was to their advantage, and the willingness to strike on a scale that “dwarfed all previously recorded turnover and strike activity.” In the years 1919–1922 there were more than ten thousand strikes involving eight million workers, four million in 1919 alone.

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, and nearly all Socialist Party members, were advocates of industrial unionism. They sat at the helm of the city’s unions, where they had their own version of it, “Duncanism, “after CLC Secretary James Duncan. The craft unions were united in “councils” with joint bargaining. The Metal Trades Council was the most powerful of these. Seattle was also home to the Industrial Worker, the western paper of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Its crusades for direct action and industrial democracy were influential far beyond its numbers, perhaps no place more so than in the Northwest. Seattle, then, became the base camp for radical workers throughout Washington, but also in Alaska, Oregon, and the mining towns of Idaho and Montana.

When the US Commission on Industrial Relations met in the city in 1914, 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.”

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. A bitter waterfront strike in 1916 was defeated. A strike that same year by shingle weavers in nearby Everett was broken, brutally and in the end only with workers murdered. The strikers had appealed for support, and in early November 1916, 250 unarmed IWW members boarded the steamships Verona and Calista in Seattle, setting sail to support their embattled fellow-workers in Everett. 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; as were two deputies in the crossfire. Seventy-four IWW survivors were charged with murder.

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 the city’s 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 fifty thousand loggers struck; the strike would stretch 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 and the authorities responded with savage repression. For the loggers, the Red Scare (and the Palmer Raids) began in Washington’s woods, culminating in Centralia in November 1919, where Wesley Everest, veteran, logger, and IWW member, was lynched.

In the city, CLC secretary 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 Seattle CLC, unlike many counterparts, understood and endorsed the “vital importance of the [AFL] Pacific Coast movement’s campaign to organize women workers in all industries.” The Union Record championed the women’s unions and their strikes. It also covered an array of women’s issues — Mary Heaton Vorse, one of labor’s most celebrated journalists, was a frequent contributor. Readers debated whether married women ought or ought not to work. Organized labor in Seattle grew by 300 percent in 1917, and the closed shop became the rule.

In 1919, with 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 a mainstay at the Union Record in the time of the strike, “divided into two hostile camps.” Class lines had hardened.

It was in this context that shipyard workers went out on strike, on January 21, 1919. It had been expected, indeed long postponed. The thirty thousand strikers “with splendid solidarity and great enthusiasm” celebrated; cheering throngs, undaunted by the winter rain, left the yards, swarmed into the city’s streets. The strike was “absolutely clean,” proclaimed A. E. Miller, chair of the Metal Trades conference. “The men walked out en masse, none remained in the plants.” Tacoma followed suit with fifteen thousand more, then Aberdeen. Again, none came to take their places.

The shipyard strike was about wages, pure and simple. Yet the city was on edge. Just three nights earlier, thousands of Seattle’s workers had packed the Hippodrome, where the Metal Trades, fearful of the discharged soldiers as potential strikebreakers, announced formation of a “Soldiers, Sailors and Workers’ Council.” The meeting was held despite the authorities; the hall was surrounded by military police.

The shipyard workers were defiant. John McKelvey, speaking for the metal workers, made this clear. The “shipyard millionaires,” he reminded readers, “have been getting all the credit for the ships we have built. Oh yes, they’re the ship builders. If they think they can build ships, let ‘em go ahead and build them! They’ve got the yards. Can they build ships?” Dan McKillop, a Boilermakers’ official, responding to ship builders’ threats to close: “If they think they can build ships, let them go ahead and build them.”

“The idea of a general strike swept the ranks of organized labor like a gale,” wrote O’Conner. On January 22, in a CLC assembly in the Labor Temple, the metal workers requested that Seattle’s workers join them in a general strike. They suspected that Seattle’s employers were planning a new open-shop campaign. With a general strike, they hoped not just to win their immediate demands, but present a show of force strong enough to put the employers back on the defensive. The fate, they believed, of the organized labor movement itself was at stake.

The hall of the Labor Temple filled with the representatives of the city’s local trade unions; the galleries were packed with rank-and-file militants. “Every reference to the general strike was cheered to the echo; the cautions of the conservatives . . . were hooted down,” or interrupted by shouting, clapping, and singing. The Council proposed a referendum on the general strike. This passed unanimously.

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 the 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 documented instances of solidarity with Japanese workers. In his study of Japanese immigrants in Seattle, Kurokawa writes, “The IWW’s 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. Sadler took to the streets to oppose it, from the skid road up and down. Socialist journalist, and chronicler of the general strike, Anna Louise Strong had traveled widely — including to Japan — before settling in Seattle.

On the eve of the strike, the Japanese unions approached Duncan, offering support. Duncan accepted and Japanese unions joined, contributing conspicuously 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, it concluded, “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.

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, 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 nonstop, ensured the health, welfare, and safety of the city. Garbage was collected, the hospitals were supplied, babies got milk, and the people were fed, including some thirty thousand 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 Saturday night there was a dance. A massive Monday night strike rally in Georgetown attracted a crowd so large, the building 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, Ole Hanson, disingenuously claimed that Seattle was facing a revolution. The AFL joined in, denouncing the strikers and sending staff out from the East and Midwest in hundreds.

The strike lasted through the weekend, five working days. Then, unions began returning to work, first individually, then in small batches. On Tuesday, the strike was pronounced off. Duncan, sensibly, would have preferred all to go back together. But just as some unions wanted to go back, many favored staying out. The authorities 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.”

Today, this strike is largely forgotten, or worse, when remembered, dismissed as a lost cause. The dailies had 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, extolling the defeat of the “revolution” and pledging to rid the unions of the radicals. One historian of the strike, Robert Friedheim, denigrated it as a “disaster” he concluded — that is, “a near fatal setback for Seattle’s working people.”

It was neither. It was a not a revolution nor had it been intended to be one. It was a strike to support the shipyard workers, though it did contain a “revolutionary spark.” Seattle’s workers returned to work “proud” of their strike, “cheerfully” believing they “had made their point,” wrote the Union Record. With their unions intact, they would live to fight another day.

In the meantime, the IWW commended Seattle as having shown the general strike to be a useful weapon in labor’s “arsenal.” The New York Call, congratulating the strikers, explained the strike as an indication that capital’s days were numbered. Max Eastman, the Greenwich Village intellectual, in Seattle, 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.”

Hardly a “disaster,” far from quashed, the Seattle General Strike remains, borrowing from Rosa Luxemburg, a link in the great chain of historic events, which is the pride and strength of international socialism.