This Day In Labor History: Feb. 6, 1919, The Seattle General Strike!

Class War
This Day In Labor History: Feb. 6, 1919, The Seattle General Strike!
File:Seattle General Strike.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

On February 6, 1919, the Seattle General Strike began. This event, perhaps the most successful general strike in American history, was also arguably the most serious working-class threat to industrial capitalism industrialists ever faced. The forces of order certainly felt this way. It also spurred on the Red Scare, deportation of radicals, and a crackdown on labor activism that dominated America after World War I.

The Seattle General Strike began with a longshoremen's strike, as shipyard workers protested two years (yes, two years!) without a pay raise. 35,000 workers walked off their jobs. They believed they would receive a raise after government wage controls during the war were ended. Instead, the government-appointed leader of the Emergency Fleet Corporation, designed to promote the rapid construction of America's Navy, conspired with business leaders to keep down wages. A telegram meant for the business leaders fell into union hands, convincing the shipbuilders that they had no alternative but to strike. They walked off their jobs on January 21, 1919. Over the next two weeks, business cut off strikers' credit at grocery stores and police raided a cooperative set up to get food to the strikers.

The rest of Seattle labor saw this as the first strike against organized labor in one of America's most militant cities and in a region where radical unionism under the auspices of the Industrial Workers of the World had a strong hold. But the IWW would not lead the general strike. The Metal Trades Council suggested a general strike, which was approved by the Central Labor Council and set for February 6. On that day, an additional 25,000 workers went on strike, shutting down Seattle. This was the first large-scale general strike in American history. Radicals had discussed for a generation or more, but it had never been successfully pulled off. The strikers sought to take over basic city services. They organized feeding tens of thousands of people, staffed hospitals, and ensured order in the streets. The city ran peacefully.

Most of the locals engaged in the general strike were affiliated with the AFL. This was a strike led by Seattle's skilled labor. The IWW dominated agricultural and logging workforces played a very small role here. But as was frequently the case throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, AFL locals were far more radical than the international leadership and especially than the federation itself. And radicals, including Wobblies, were finding jobs in the shipyards, bringing new ideas onto the shop floor.

The forces of order in Seattle and the nation were outraged by the general strike. Perhaps union solidarity might have helped stand up to this pressure. But the American Federation of Labor leadership also opposed such a radical action. AFL president Samuel Gompers had sought to make himself and his movement respectable during World War I. Gompers sought to clamp down on strikes, isolate radicals, and show the AFL to be the responsible option that employers should negotiate with. This didn't really work, as anti-labor employers hated all labor unions equally. There's a story of Gompers at a dinner with other high-powered people. Gompers talked of how respectable labor had acted during the war. A big capitalist then lambasted him, basically calling him a Bolshevik and saying that labor was the Allies' greatest enemy during the war. After that outburst, the capitalist received congratulations from his friends across business. Gompers feared that not only was the Seattle action being run by extremists, but that it would give the AFL bad publicity and undermine organization efforts in the rest of the country. Gompers declared the strike unauthorized and withheld strike funds.

If this wasn't bad enough, the predictable crackdown by business, police, the media, and politicians came with full force. Declaring the strikers Bolsheviks, mayor Ole Hanson gave strikers an ultimatum: Run City Light (the city's electrical company) at full power or the National Guard would take it by force. In an era when a lot of households did not have electricity, City Light was primarily used by business and running it at low capacity was a tool for strikers against business trying to force people onto the job. Fearful of violence and dispirited by the lack of AFL support, a few workers started returning to work on February 8 and the strike was declared over on February 9.

In the end, the general strike strategy was a total failure because it showed Seattle business that they could take the biggest punch labor could deliver and survive. After the general strike collapsed, what could labor do next? The answer was not a whole lot. As Dana Frank shows in her book, Purchasing Power: Organizing, Gender, and the Seattle Labor Movement, whereas in 1919 it seemed that Seattle labor was on the verge of starting a revolution in the United States, a decade later it was completely decimated in that city, weak, divided, and unable to stand up to the assaults of employers upon working-class lives.

In the aftermath of the strike, politicians sought to capitalize. Mayor Ole Hanson believed he had saved the United States from the Bolsheviks. Hanson, the son of Norwegian immigrants, initially had a pro-labor reputation. As a state legislator in 1909, Hanson had been a strong supporter of organized labor. Only three days before the strike, the Seattle Union Record, the labor newspaper of note in the city and a paper very sympathetic to radicals, had commended Hanson for his calm leadership through these difficult times. But during the 1919 General Strike, Hanson came down not only as anti-strike, but as the leader of those who thought the strike the greatest threat in history to this nation. After his threat of martial law helped break the strike, Hanson became famous for his stand against anarchy and Bolshevism.

In a move later perfected by Sarah Palin, Hanson immediately resigned from the mayor's chair, wrote a book, and went on a national speaking tour to raise his profile. He quickly became one of America's most popular speakers on the dangers of anarchism and Bolshevism. Part of his speech:

"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."

The peaceful nature of the strikers itself was a threat to order! The fact that workers could run a city for 72 hours without control by capitalists and police–what could be more threatening than this!

As 1920 went on and the nation began moving away from the most egregious violations of working-class rights that defined the Red Scare, people tired of Hanson. He hoped to capitalize by moving up in the Republican Party, but after giving his speech at the 1920 Republican National Convention, he was forgotten about and faded from view. He then went on to found San Clemente, California, promoting Spanish Revival architecture by creating a clause in the city charter demanding that new buildings go before an architectural review board to ensure compliance with the city's chosen architectural style.

Why This Matters Today?

As a labor historian, I frequently get asked by people about general strikes. They catch the romance of the labor movement like nothing else. Everyone just … walks off the job! But this serves as a kind of labor anti-politics, where the hard work and compromises that politics require just disappear as part of a spontaneous action that leads to some vague result around worker power. General strikes were effectively declared illegal by the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 that banned sympathy strikes, among other horrible anti-labor provisions. So we haven't seen this tactic in a long time.

However, it has come back as part of our labor lexicon. Association of Flight Attendants President Sara Nelson helped end the 2019 government shutdown by talking out loud that airport workers should engage in a general strike to shut down transportation until Republicans agreed to fund the government. This call by a mainstream union leader to engage in a general strike was nearly unprecedented. Moreover, several labor councils responded to Donald Trump's threats of not leaving office after he lost the 2020 election by exploring the possibility of general strikes, although AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka quickly put this idea down. However, the fact that people are talking about it again is critically important. As the Seattle General Strike and other examples through American history show, if we do again engage in general strikes, they are going to come out of the established labor movement, not some syndicalist fantasy of revolutionary change. And if you believe the latter, well, start organizing your racist family members and coworkers that you don't like, because they are the ones who are going to have to walk off the job with you.

Further Reading

Dana Frank, Purchasing Power: Organizing, Gender and the Seattle Labor Movement, 1919-1929.

Robert L. Friedheim, The Seattle General Strike.

Cal Winslow, Radical Seattle: The General Strike of 1919.

This is now your open thread, so go ahead and talk amongst yourselves! Enjoy!

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Erik Loomis

Erik Loomis is Associate Professor of History at the University of Rhode Island. He's the author of A History of America in Ten Strikes (The New Press, 2018).


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