Monday, September 2, 2019

Remembering The Workers From The Seattle General Strike of 1919

They eagerly snatched up pamphlets about revolution to learn the secret of production without bosses. They opposed the U.S. occupation of Siberia, and in fact, openly supported the Bolshevik Revolution, which was then only months old. They flatly refused to load arms destined for Admiral Kolchak, self-proclaimed "Supreme Ruler of Russia," who was engaged in wholesale butchery of the Russian peasantry as head of the "white" army. They beat up scabs who came to rob them of their jobs.

They discussed "workers' power" as an immediate concern, not a utopian guidepost, and looked to take over the city's shipyards. When they struck to raise pay for the unskilled, Washington withdrew its federal contracts to induce the shipyard owners to resist. The workers appealed to the Seattle Central Labor Council to recommend a general strike. In less then two weeks, one hundred and ten locals voted overwhelmingly to do so.

On the morning of February 6, 1919 streetcar gongs fell silent, newspaper boys tossed their unsold papers in the street, schoolchildren scurried homeward, and 65,000 workers streamed out of factories, mills, stores, restaurants, and workshops. At 10:00 a.m. an eerie quiet hung over the city.

Workers at the anti-union Seattle Times stopped the presses and pro-union dailies wrote the news. A long line of businessmen and city officials humbly trekked to the general strike committee to request exemptions and approvals. Firemen, garbage wagon drivers, and laundry drivers serving hospitals got them, sporting signs on their vehicles: "Exempted by the General Strike Committee."

Milk wagon drivers set up thirty five neighborhood milk stations, purchasing from small dairymen near the city and distributing without resort to managers. Food service workers served 30,000 meals a day in twenty-one halls around the city. Ex-military men organized a "Labor War Veteran's Guard" to "preserve law and order without the use of force." They carried no weapons.

Awash in hysterical anti-Communist propaganda spread by the owners, public fears of a long and bloody siege propelled customers into the stores to stockpile necessities. Hardware store owners reported that they could not keep pace with the demand for guns.

Denouncing the strikers as "scoundrels" who "want[ed] to take possession of our American government to duplicate  the anarchy of Russia," Mayor Ole Hanson requested federal troops. "The time has come," he insisted, "for the people in Seattle to show their Americanism," then as now a euphemism for blind adherence to state doctrine.

But the expected "Bolshevik" bloodbath never materialized. During the five-day strike not a single person affiliated with it was arrested and crime plummeted in the city. Nor was the city ever without food, coal, water, heat, or light. Major General Morrison, in charge of federal troops in Seattle, commented that he had not seen such a quiet and orderly city in forty years.

The violent ones were the private owners of the economy, the Associated Industries of Seattle, who shamelessly called for violent repression in an ad published in the Tacoma Leader and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:  "We must smash every un-American and anti-American organization in the land. We must put to death the leaders of this gigantic conspiracy of murder, pillage, and revolution. We must deport all aliens, Socialists, Non-Partisan Leaguers, 'closed shop unionists,' Syndicalists, 'agitators,' 'malcontents,' all these must be outlawed by public opinion and hunted down and hounded beyond the horizon of civic decency."

Keep the peace, but don't let your guard down.

Happy Labor Day.


Jeremy Brecher, "Strike," (South End Press, 1972)

William S. Graves, "America's Siberian Adventure, 1918-1920," (New York, 1931)

Murray B. Levin, "Political Hysteria in America - The Democratic Capacity For Repression," (Basic Books, 1971)

Stewart Bird (with Dan Georgakas and Deborah Shaffer), "Solidarity Forever - An Oral History of the IWW," (Lake View Press, 1985)

Philip S. Foner, "History of the Labor Movement in the United States - Postwar Struggles, 1918-1920" (International Publishers, 1988)

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