“Streetcar gongs ceased their clamour; newsboys cast their unsold papers into the street; from the doors of mill and factory, store and workshop, streamed sixty-five thousand working men. School children with fear in their hearts hurried homeward. The life stream of a great city stopped.” 
Ole Hansen, Mayor of Seattle

“On a grey winter morning in February 1919, Seattle’s workers – all of them, stopped work, brazenly striking into unknown territory. The workers, member of 110 separate, local unions, not only shut the city down, but also took power, rendering the authorities helpless. The workers fed the people, ensured that babies had milk, the sick were cared for, and they kept the peace. This had never happened before, not in the United States”
Radical Seattle: The General Strike of 1919,  Cal Winslow

Over a century ago a historic general strike took place in Seattle on the Pacific North-West coast the like of which had not been seen before in the United States and it is fair to say, not since. In fact, this kind of total shut down verging on revolution has happened a mere handful of times anywhere.

The first quotation by Ole Hansen, the ambitious and self-serving Mayor of Seattle, a man with no love for organised labour, is nonetheless an accurate summary of what happened during those five historic days. The “life stream of a great city” did indeed stop but the school children had no fear in their hearts. Those who had were the factory owners, employers, the bosses of the shipyards and the wealthy, those who, unlike the workers, had something to lose.

The front page of the Seattle Union Record at the beginning of the Seattle General Strike

Cal Winslow, a labour historian and activist has written a remarkable book on the history of the labour and socialist movements in the US with particular reference to events in Washington State. The bulk of the book deals with the years before the historic strike to put the events of February 1919 into context as well as  to the early 1920s, dealing with the aftermath and the effects on the participants. This makes for at times, a slightly confusing read, but once the reader accepts that it is thematic rather than a straight forward chronological narrative it becomes easier to deal with. His style in any case is vigorous and graphic, sweeping us up in the excitement of the times.

Only the final two chapters describe the strike itself, the previous eight chronicle the many and various vicissitudes of the workers’ struggles and the rise of trade unions, not least the justly famous Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The remarkable thing was that the strike while envisaged and planned to be a general strike and had all the hallmarks of that, was in fact a sympathy strike with the 35,000 shipyard workers who had themselves downed tools for weeks beforehand to little effect.

They had long been demanding that employers, and the federal government, keep to their promises of better wages and conditions in the aftermath of the First World War. Nonetheless 65,000 trade unionists came out in support and it’s thought that as many as 100,000 others participated in various ways including unemployed workers. “Nothing moved but the tide” it was said of Seattle during those five days, in the sense that everything closed down, the privileged took flight or hid indoors, afraid of “Bolsheviks” on the streets and except for some vital services, all workers in all key industries shut up shop and gathered down town.

It should be noted that the city of Tacoma had also seen many strikes down the years and was itself a hotbed of radicalism. At the time of the big strike, the longshoremen there too had struck. All along the coast of Puget Sound there was unrest and union activism. Across the border with Canada in Vancouver too there were similar sentiments and sympathies as shipyard workers’ wages had been cut, strikes broken and lockouts enforced.

Inland Spokane was also a site of union activity, with the IWW being particularly prominent there. Over the course of the previous ten or more years in Spokane there had been extreme violence meted out to anyone who tried to organise, and there was a large number of unemployed and desperate men who occasionally took to rioting. The repression there was immense and more than once the jails were filled to beyond capacity. The prisoners were frequently victims of violence and torture, many leaving prison with “permanent scars and missing teeth.”  IWW members – known as Wobblies – in particular were subjected to beatings and deportations.

Thousands more Wobblies descended on Spokane, some coming from as far away as Chicago, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the Rebel Girl as she became known. She was to become internationally known for her championing of immigrant strikers, many of them women in the mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts. By the age of 19 she had already been jailed for her activities. In Spokane she was considered the most “dangerous” of the IWW agitators and she was jailed again. Finally the authorities became overwhelmed and had to relent and the IWW won all of their demands there, including the right to assemble, speak in public and hire halls for meetings and to sell their paper The Industrial Worker.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

Spokane, Tacoma and Seattle itself were just a few of the towns and cities throughout the Pacific West and North-West which became scenes of battles for workers rights. From Seattle to San Diego in California ferment reigned. Some battles were won and many lost as authorities everywhere reacted with at times murderous violence. Deportations were frequent.

Meanwhile back in Seattle debate and controversy raged over the question of the very nature of trade unionism itself. Craft unionism meant that workers were organised according to occupation or “craft” while industrial unionism organised members according to industry, a big difference which led to much more solidarity within and between industries and a very powerful tool when it came to making progress against employers.

In and around Seattle industrial unionism was long established, including in the United Mineworkers of America and the Western Federation of Mineworkers and became the programme of some on the left in the Socialist Party and of course the IWW. However, the American Federation of Labour (AFL) a huge organisation which claimed to be the voice of US labour, held industrial unionism to be anathema to its members, although by then it too had gained some currency within some ranks of the AFL.

The other hot issue was the “closed shop” versus the bosses “open shop”. The closed shop was a radical and practical method of organising and gave the unions who managed to practice it the advantage because it meant that in any closed shop workplace, nobody could be hired who was not a member of the relevant union. The open shop, on the other hand, gave the employers the whole advantage. Needless to say employers abhorred the notion of the closed shop and the very notion of organised labour itself and resisted, sometimes with extreme force, efforts to organise closed shops.

It is hard to overestimate the bitterness of workplace strife at the time and the repressive force used by company bosses and city authorities to the extent that funerals were frequent. Seattle became a “union city” it was true but sometimes at the expense of injury, imprisonment and death. Poverty was deep and pervasive but so was resistance and the determination of working men and women to better their conditions. Strikes were particularly commonplace in the shipyards.

Seattle shipyard
Seattle shipyard

The number of shipyards and the number of ships built increased in preparation for the war and throughout the period 1914-1918 and as a result Seattle became a boom town. The “boom” was not evenly distributed, however, and that only heightened the discontent among workers. They still lived in the most minimal of conditions, with poor housing, food and clothing and existence was a daily struggle, particularly for women and children. Injury and death were constant risks and extreme exploitation was the norm.

Nonetheless as Winslow describes it, “still the called each other ‘sister’ and ‘brother’ and created a culture of their own with scores of newspapers, socialist schools, IWW singing, community dances and picnics, lectures indoors and out, and, of course their unions and political parties.” The largest political party was the Socialist Party headed by Eugene Debs. The SP largely supported the unions especially the IWW. People really did think it was possible to create a new kind of society and did everything in their power to bring it about and workers’ control was seen as the way to achieve that aim.

Challenged by a class system “where hunger and cold, prostitution and intemperance, poverty and premature old age and mortality, panic and industrial terror pervaded social life” they still dreamed of and fought for a culture that valued “equality, cooperation and solidarity”. Utopia in fact. It was the setting for many struggles and strikes, victories and sacrifices which culminated in the five days that shook Seattle in 1919.

Many events took place before then however, among the most profound and inspiring to these poverty stricken but brave people was the Russian Revolution in October 1917. It seemed to usher in the possibility of a completely new world and people rejoiced as it continued and deepened. When a Russian steamer ‘The Shilka’ sailed across from Vladivostok just before Christmas of that year into Seattle’s Elliott Bay crewed by a soviet of sailors, it was greeted by thousands, workers from every industry turning out to cheer it in.

So did the non-cheering city police. The ship was searched for guns and what was called ‘Bolshevik gold’ but all they found was a cargo of vegetables and the crew mainly just wanted to refuel. However the sailors found themselves overwhelmed by the welcome they received from the people and were “feted non-stop”. It was the beginning of a long term love affair by Seattle’s workers with the Russian Revolution. That revolution and other workers’ rebellions became a factor in the labour movement and eventually the General Strike.

However the aim of the strike was not revolution although it has been claimed that it was and that therefore the strike failed in that aim. It was rather a way of demonstrating the degree of solidarity between the Seattle unions and workers but foremost was the objective of supporting those 35,000 longshoremen and other shipyard workers.

Thursday 6th February 1919 dawned grey and cold as Seattle began to experience an unprecedented series of events which had been meticulously organised and prepared. All union members left their jobs and the strike was solid. In previous strikes, scabs had been brought in to take the place of striking workers but not this time, it was already an uncomfortable town for strike breakers. Along with the tens of thousands on strike in Seattle there were also 15,000 shipyard workers out in Tacoma. Men and women together. The races together.

It was entirely peaceful and no one went hungry; kitchens were organised and staffed by catering workers who did shifts between cooking and serving food and going out to join the pickets and the meetings. Milk deliveries were kept going for the sake of the children. The sick were cared for. In fact, some people were better fed during those days than they had ever previously been. It brought together all the industries of the city and state from the shipyards to the coal mines and lumber camps, to bakeries and restaurants, streetcar drivers and even musicians. But vital services like fire and ambulance were kept going. Electricity was not cut off because again electricians alternated working shifts with supporting the strike. The authorities were helpless in the face of this extremely well organised and totally peaceful strike in which the workers took complete power. The police stepped down as workers took control of security throughout the city and crime rates plummeted.

If there is a textbook or series of instructions on how to run a general strike then this is it! The planning beforehand was meticulous and the running of it highly disciplined and as far as the organisation of strike itself went, successful. The desired outcome was not achieved unfortunately. The reason for not gaining a definite end was that there was not a sufficiently clear objective stated at the outset and that was a costly mistake.

But nonetheless, when all the workers had returned they went back with pride in their hearts. They had held and controlled a city for five days and shown what could be achieved through solidarity and self organisation. They were “glad to have achieved so much education with so little comparative suffering”, says Winslow. There were no arrests during the course of the strike. The authorities had been outclassed and outwitted. It remains the only true general strike in US history and it could only have happened in Seattle.

Reprisals soon came however and they were brutal with a new wave of arrests, torture and deportations. Mobs were let loose to kill as they pleased which they did. Then came the dark summer of racist violence across the nation the “Red Summer” meaning the bloody Summer, with months of pogroms, lynchings and riots against black and Asian people. In Seattle the labour unions remained allied with workers of every race.

Anna Louise Strong

The author gives due credit to the women of the time and their tremendous contribution to the unions and the entire labour movement. Women like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Kate Sandler, Anna Louise Strong and the anarchist Louise Olivereau. Feminism if not in name but certainly in spirit was a live issue and it was taken for granted that women had an equal part to play along with men in the struggle for workers’ rights.

The employers’ “counter revolution” with their continual harassment and raids took their toll on the organised labour movement and in particular on the IWW which more or less collapsed in the following years. The depression, which came earlier in the west of the country, made things ever more difficult and reduced some of the gains made.

Environmental degradation was an early theme in the book. This Wilmslow describes with sadness, and was due to the growth of industry in Washington State, particularly the logging industry and the destruction of the once extensive forests. The felling of the trees, massive Douglas Firs primarily, also saw the clearing of the native people of the area as obstacles to the exploitation of the forests. Speculators, bankers, land agents, robber barons arrived all “seeking wealth by fair means or foul”. Foul predominated.

The book ends on a hopeful note, class consciousness had grown, workers had experienced the possibilities of their own power and fought to maintain it despite many setbacks, and had a glimpse during the General Strike of a future that could be. They insisted that what they foresaw and had struggled for was not mere “pie in the sky”. The final sentence closes with the aspiration that “a better world was indeed possible, it still is”.

Radical Seattle: The General Strike of 1919, Cal Winslow; Monthly Review Press

University of Washington Seattle General Strike Project