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William Simmons

Lessons of the 1919 Seattle General Strike

(December 1945)

From Fourth International, Vol.6 No.12, December 1945, pp.373-377.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Seattle general strike stands out to this day as an important signpost in American labor history. It was the first general strike on the American continent. Extending to the nearby cities of Tacoma and Aberdeen, it tied up an entire fair-sized city from 10 A.M. Thursday, Feb. 6 until 12 noon on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 1919.

At the time this strike was proclaimed by big business newspapers from coast to coast as an attempt at revolution. Bolshevism, they said, had made its first actual appearance in the Northwest. Businessmen in Seattle took out riot insurance on their warehouses, and purchased guns. Just before the strike the local capitalist press, headed by the Hearst-owned Post-Intelligencer, made appeals in threatening undertones to the workers to state “which flag they were under, and, if under the American flag, to put down Bolshevism in their midst.”

Of course, the Seattle general strike was not an attempt at revolution. Nevertheless, it was thoroughly permeated by the revolutionary spirit of the time of which it was itself a product. Above all it was permeated by the spirit of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the subsequent revolutionary upheavals in Europe. The names of Lenin and Trotsky, the unfamiliar terms of Soviets and Bolsheviks, were then well-known to the Seattle workers. And in the minds of most of them these names, these terms, became associated favorably, though as yet not very clearly, with their own most cherished aspirations. Workers’ power in place of Czarist corruption, capitalist oppression and exploitation: that seemed to them to signalize a better world in the making.

In part this general spirit appeared in the pages of the Seattle Union Record, a daily paper published by the Seattle Central Labor Council, and enjoying at that time the largest circulation of any paper in the northwest. The day before the strike it said editorially:

On Thursday at 10 A.M.

There will be many cheering and there will be some who fear. Both these emotions are useful, but not too much of either. We are undertaking the most tremendous move ever made by LABOR in this country, a move which will lead – NO ONE KNOWS WHERE! We do not need hysteria. We need the iron march of labor.

The editorial then referred to the Wall Street agents, including Charles Piez, Director General of the Emergency Fleet Corporation, who provoked by remote control the original strike issues which arose in the shipyards:

The closing down of Seattle’s industries, as a MERE SHUTDOWN, will not affect these Eastern gentlemen much. They could let the whole Northwest go to pieces, as far as money alone is concerned.

BUT, the closing down of the capitalistically controlled industries of Seattle, while the WORKERS ORGANIZE to feed the people, to care for the babies and the sick, to preserve order – THIS will move them, for this looks too much like the taking over of POWER by the workers.

After 10 A.M. on Thursday not a wheel turned in any of the industries employing organized labor and in many others which did not employ organized labor. 65,000 workers, members of 110 different, regular AFL unions, all of organized labor in the city, came out solidly after a referendum vote carried by overwhelming majorities. They were joined by Japanese unions, by IWW local unions and by numerous unorganized workers. Headed by a General Strike Committee, composed of three delegates from each local union, plans were laid, and executed, concerning not only the immediate issues of the strike but the important affairs of the city as well. Under the management of the culinary trades 21 large eating places were established feeding about 30,000 people daily. For admission to the especially low-priced meals IWW cards were recognized as well as AFL cards. Within their own ranks the strikers maintained perfect discipline and order in their own way through their own Labor Guard. Persuasion was the only weapon employed by them. Nothing else was required inasmuch as the stern, overwhelming power of the complete tie-up made idle and deeply-awed onlookers of the regular police and its reinforcement of 600 brand-new cops together with 2,400 specially deputized thugs, all armed with rifles or shotguns. It was no secret either that a large contingent of soldiers, fully equipped, had been brought into the city from Camp Lewis. But commanding officers kept them discreetly in the background.

Police Provocations Fail

As a matter of fact the large police force was called into provocative duty only once and that effort fell flat. One of the daily capitalist papers, The Star, managed, with the help of printers ordered back to work by an international union official, to get out a small single sheet on the second day of the strike. Police cordons were drawn up at both ends of the street. Armed deputies attempted to pass out the sheet. But, outside of the “better” residential district where deliveries were made by machines full of armed guards, it found so few takers that the strikers dubbed it the “Shooting Star.” It appeared no more during the strike.

Heads of the city departments, including the mayor himself appeared before the General Strike Committee to ask for strike exemptions for various city institutions. Such exemptions were granted, for example, to hospitals for necessary deliveries, light, heat and repair; for city firemen; for drug clerks, to fill prescriptions only; for city garbage collectors, to pick up only such garbage as might otherwise cause disease, etc. Requests for exemptions from commercial institutions were rejected.

Wherever exemptions were granted the specific handling of each problem was turned over to the union concerned. The leadership could well afford to do so because the membership of every union was wholeheartedly in the battle, felt themselves an integral part of it, and, besides, the union men of each separate trade knew their own problems best. In some cases an ingenious system was worked out. Milk drivers, for instance, assigned to supply milk for infants and for the strikers needs, ignored the bosses’ organizations, collected their supply from small dairies outside the city and maintained firm control of distribution of 3,000 gallons daily through 35 stations established by the union. Members of the culinary trades were assigned to certain specified union shops and commissary stations where they worked voluntarily, their wages being deducted from the price of meals to the strikers. All exemptions carried large signs of authorization by the General Strike Committee.

No other authority had any real force during the fateful five days. No other power really prevailed but that of the strike. And while no attempt was made to dislodge the mayor or any of his councillors from their official seats the General Strike Committee was the city government in fact.

Thus, while the strikers serenely carried out their demonstration of solidarity, of power and of determination the mayor, Ole Hanson, found himself in such a dilemma that he finally wound up in babbling and impotent rage. Starting out as a patent-medicine salesman who did well for himself, it was said, with his Kikapoo Indian Saga, he was known before the strike as a rather jovial mayor, a miniature pork-barrel politician who attempted to play both sides. He was a man of limited vision and less integrity.

When the strike paralyzed the city his type of politics came face to face with the stern realities of the class struggle. At first Ole Hanson assumed the mediator’s role. However, to remove all doubts on this score the head of the local banking fraternity, J.W. Spangler, curtly informed the mayor that there would be no mediation. He said that “his people” took the stand that this strike was a revolution and they would not deal with revolutionists.

The mayor responded quickly. The next day, Friday morning, he issued a proclamation to the citizenry calling upon them to resume their business under his protection. From the labor movement he demanded peremptorily that the strike be called off by Friday noon or he would declare martial law. Later he demanded that it be called off Saturday morning, renewing the threat of martial law. Nothing happened. Saturday saw the strike still in full swing. Against the power of labor these threats were unavailing.

Equally futile, though far more bombastic, was the mayor’s account to the nation:

“We refused,” he said, “to ask for exemption from any one. The seat of government is at the City Hall. We organized 1,000 extra police, armed with rifles and shotguns, and told them to shoot on sight anyone causing disorder. We got ready for business.

“I issued a proclamation that all life and property would be protected; that all business should go on as usual. And this morning our municipal street cars, light, power plants, water, etc., were running full blast.

“There was an attempted revolution. It never got to first base.”

Seattle learned about this piece of bravado only at a later date. It was not meant for “home consumption.” In fact the light and water never had been shut off. The only visible effect of the mayor’s proclamation was that seven street cars attempted to start a run on the city’s one municipal car line and got stranded.

How the Strike Ended

How then did the Seattle general strike come to an end? Clearly, a strike of such a nature, paralyzing a whole community, had soon to find the limit of its duration in one way or another. After all, the general strike was a sympathy action in support of the struggle of some 35,000 shipyard workers for higher wages. Working under a closed shop and a single blanket agreement for all of the unions in the yards the Metal Trades Council, which was the bargaining agent, had sought an upward revision of wages particularly for the lower-paid and less skilled trades. The Metal Trades Council requested the general strike.

As could be expected, the more conservative and timid local leaders, who dreaded the whole idea, attempted vainly to fix a time limit to the strike at its inception. Failing then, they soon renewed their effort, spurred on by the tremendous pressure from international union officials. On Saturday afternoon the Executive Committee of Fifteen brought into the General Strike Committee a nearly unanimous resolution fixing 12 midnight that same Saturday as the time for the general strike to come to an end.

All that afternoon and night the debate raged in the General Strike Committee. Finally, at 4:12 in the morning the vote of this general body showed such an overwhelming defeat for the resolution that it was unanimously decided to continue the strike. The larger committee of the rank and file had showed its greater fortitude and greater determination.

At Monday morning’s roll call, however, some unions were missing. Those affiliated with the Teamsters Joint Council had been ordered back to work on instruction of their International Auditor Briggs. Some of the printing trades had returned to work as a result of severe pressure from their international officials. Rump local executive board meetings of the street carmen, the barbers and the newsboys had taken similar action on orders from higher-ups. In no instance did any one union desert as a result of action taken by the membership. On the contrary, in every one of the unions reported as returned to work, information was sent that they had called special membership meetings and were ready to come out again on an instant’s notice in response to whatever the General Strike Committee would decide. And they did respond readily and completely when this leading body decided practically unanimously at its Monday session that they should come out again so that all would return to work unitedly with ranks closed on Tuesday at noon. The solid ranks of the workers were entirely restored, thus bringing to a magnificent close one of the great chapters of American labor history.

What was the Seattle general strike intended to be? What were its aims and objectives? What lessons can be learned from it? As the American working class at this moment faces problems which will inevitably come to a head among other forms, in a gigantic strike wave, questions such as these assume prime importance. Strikes, whether won or lost, convey valuable lessons. The present generation of trade unionists can learn from the experiences, the successes as well as the mistakes, of the past.

Insofar as Seattle was concerned, it was at that time one of the best organized cities in the United States. Trade unions had made numerical gains throughout the country during the war years, rising from a total membership of 3,104,600 in 1917 to a peak of 5,110,800 in 1920 before the decline set in which reached its lowest point during the great depression. The Seattle unions had, however, made relatively greater numerical gains due to the heavy concentration of shipbuilding there. Not less than 26¼ per cent of all ships built for the United States Shipping Board was built in the Seattle yards alone. From the relatively small numbers existing before the war the union membership in the yards rose to 35,000, all solidly knit together in the Metal Trades Council.

The general strike came in the wake of war demobilization. Industrial activity, however, was still at a high level with the employers’ “open shop” offensive clearly in the offing. War restrictions were relaxed. All the pent-up restlessness and dissatisfaction generated by these restrictions came into head-on collision with the budding “open shop” campaign. The clash came quicker and earlier in Seattle than elsewhere because the labor movement there found itself in the position of a strong outpost. The conviction took hold among its membership that they had to meet the preliminary assault and defeat it.

At the same time they were neither prepared nor eager to advance too far ahead of the movement in the rest of the country. Union consciousness and union solidarity had reached a high level in Seattle. Nevertheless these workers had no illusions that the general strike could stand or fall on the concrete issue of winning the wage demands of the shipyards unions. Their real purpose was to make a powerful demonstration of solidarity. Since it was necessary to make a test of strength, these unionists were ready to show that labor dared, to show that labor would fight it out.

True Significance of the Seattle Strike

It is in this connection that the stimulus given by the stirring events taking place abroad stands out in its true significance. The Seattle workers were also inspired by the great idea of struggling for a new and better world. They definitely considered their general strike as a contribution toward this end. But, in contrast to Europe, their generally awakening class consciousness had not yet reached beyond these more modest objectives.

Seattle had long been a rendezvous for lumberjacks and loggers of the Northwest. Among these largely unskilled migratory workers, radical and revolutionary ideas, mostly disseminated by the IWW, had made considerable headway. Their militant struggle for human conditions in the lumber camps had its repercussions within the Seattle labor movement. Seattle was also the shipping port for rugged proletarians migrating annually to Alaska, not to stake gold claims, but to toil in the fisheries, canneries and mining ventures of a virgin territory. Their return with experiences of bitter exploitation also made its impact.

These factors contributed to the existence of numerous radical elements and large-scale left-wing influence within the Seattle unions. It was of a definitely Marxist trend, coming in part from the Socialist Party and in part from the IWW. In justice to the latter it must be said that there they were not too strongly influenced by syndicalist ideas nor did they conceive themselves too definitely as builders of a union in opposition to the AFL. Rather, they accepted the role of a militant minority carrying the message of revolutionary industrial unionism. For purposes of practical activity they carried the membership cards of both organizations.

This somewhat inchoate left-wing movement was at best only loosely organized. It made up in fervor and zeal for what it lacked in ideological training and experience. It lacked a revolutionary program of action. It lacked a revolutionary party. The Socialist Party had then just begun the process of producing the left wing which later led to the organization of the American Communist Party. Despite all of these shortcomings, due entirely to the immaturity of the revolutionary forces, the influence exerted by them had struck deep roots. The Seattle labor movement would never have reached its high level of union consciousness and development without them.

One result of this left-wing influence was manifested in the organization of the Seattle Workers and Soldiers Council. Ideologically the idea was inspired, of course, by the Russian Soviets. Practically it found good solid ground in the war demobilization, the closing-down of war industries and the return of soldiers and sailors. This experience graphically illuminates the temper of the Seattle trade unionists at the time.

Agitation for a Workers and Soldiers Council received great impetus from the general strike. The idea took hold within most unions of the city and became a movement. In fact it became so powerful that local conservative leaders stepped right into the middle of it, if not to behead it, then at least to regulate it and keep it “within bounds.” The agitation came to a head first in a large mass meeting called by the Central Labor Council. One of the largest halls in the city was jammed while some of these leaders in drooling monotones extolled the virtues of the Soviets. But the rank and file impatience with such a performance turned into enthusiastic acclaim when left-wing elements sprang to the platform and gave the idea flesh and blood by proposing steps toward concrete action. The ensuing conference that formed the Workers and Soldiers Council had an attendance of more than 300 local union delegates.

Of course this venture had its grotesque side in the amateurish attempts to transplant not merely the spirit but the body of the Bolshevik revolution so mechanically to American soil. A resolution was introduced calling for the creation of a Red Guard which was to receive pay only during actual hours of drill and active duty. But more realistic intentions predominated. Gropingly the left wing elements had sought means for better expression, for greater influence and leadership. They did not have illusions that the Workers and Soldiers Council could become a Soviet in actuality. But it did become the publishing medium for a considerable length of time of a weekly paper of revolutionary contents. And it did become an important medium to bring returned soldiers and sailors together to fight shoulder to shoulder with their fellow workers.

Lessons of the Strike

For us today there is a serious lesson in that latter fact alone. Now the organized trade union movement has become a much more complete expression of American labor. Problems growing out of World War II demobilization are far greater. At the same time the ranks of the American Legion are swelling to huge proportions. Its potentialities as an anti-labor instrument are well-known. And as yet, the trade union officialdom has remained criminally negligent in the face of these problems.

The Seattle developments also demonstrate how, due to active left-wing influence within the labor movement, international solidarity and concrete support of labor’s international struggles can take on real meaning. Toward the fall of the year of the general strike trainloads of ammunition arrived destined for Kolchak’s counter-revolutionary army in Siberia. The Soviets were very hard pressed at the time. The steamer Delight came into port to take the ammunition aboard. However, the longshoremen said “NO.” The steamer eventually pulled out – but with other cargo.

While this left-wing exerted an important influence within the Seattle labor movement, it was not the leadership. We all understand the determining role of policy and leadership in all labor developments. In a strike situation it becomes particularly acute and immediate. In regard to this problem also the Seattle workers enjoyed certain advantages. Over a long period of time the Central Labor Council had built up considerable authority and prestige. It functioned in actuality as a centralizing and guiding force. Delegates rarely failed to attend its meetings and to participate in the lively debates which sometimes ran into the late night hours.

City officials and city educators would often appear in the gallery reserved for the public. All important questions of policy and action were brought to the Central Labor Council for discussion and decision. And with the priceless aid of a daily paper, published under its ownership and control and enjoying a circulation at that time larger than any daily paper in the Northwest, its influence extended throughout the city and beyond. It was primarily through this local central body that the left-wing functioned most effectively, articulating the interests and aspirations of the rank and file and seeking to influence the council decisions.

Thus a broad representative leadership had been established which was progressive in nature and enjoyed the confidence of the membership. While the general strike set up its own special and immediately directing organ, the previous integration of the various important elements remained in effect. By and large this accounts for the unity, determination and breathtaking power of the general strike.

Only in this way could the difficulties of a strike involving one whole community have been overcome. They were indeed complex. Imagine joint action by 110 different local unions, all subject to the arbitrary rule and avarice of almost as many sets of more or less reactionary international officials. These were the serious limitations of an antiquated form of organization. Yet the unity of purpose was complete from the beginning to the end. It defeated intervention to the contrary from above. For the official record shows that in each case where influence from international officials was exerted it was against the General Strike Committee, against working class solidarity and on the side of the bosses. Whereas decision by membership vote in each case showed overwhelming support for the strike, and for its leadership, even to the point of overriding the intervention of the high moguls.

It is true that the significant events of the general strike took place so swiftly that this official hierarchy did not have much chance to interfere. That itself is an important consideration in a strike situation. Once decisions are made, swift action is essential. Equally important is the democratic procedure of the unions. Preservation of democracy throughout made it possible here for the rank and file to assert its will. In practical experience this had proved to be an integral part of the larger and broader struggle for labor’s democratic rights.

To the credit of the Seattle trade union movement, its leadership included, it must be said that it remained ever vigilant about labor’s rights in this broader sense. One instance alone will illustrate the point. Soap-box orators had held forth regularly on a large space at Fourth Ave. and Virginia St., when suddenly – not during the five days of the general strike – the police violently broke up a large gathering. The Central Labor Council immediately decided that this constituted an infringement on the rights of free speech. It voted full support and set a date for a test of the validity of this constitutional right. Many thousand workers turned out and thereby fortified effectively the already established tradition.

Aftermath of the Seattle Action

The aftermath of the general strike led to another eveii more telling example. No sooner had business activities been resumed than the county authorities raided the IWW and Socialist Party headquarters and held a number of IWW members on charges of being “ringleaders of anarchy.” The Central Labor Council responded quickly and effectively. Naming this “an invasion of fundamental rights,” it adopted a resolution practically unanimously:

“That the Central Labor Council immediately take up the defense of these men, in order that the fundamental rights involved in these cases which are necessary to our own existence shall be preserved.”

The Seattle general strike also had its weak points and its mistakes. I shall mention here only one which, however, is of singular significance because of the lesson it conveys. It concerns the all-important medium of publicity – in this case the Seattle Union Record.

When the general strike began the Executive Committee of Fifteen took upon itself to decide that this daily paper would suspend publication for the duration. A small strike bulletin was to appear in its place. No other motivation was given for

this decision but the namby-pamby one about fairness to competing dailies closed down by labor. An overwhelming protest from the strikers followed. The Union Record was “their paper.” Despite their desire not to give excuse for any incident arising from mass demonstrations, thousands of them jammed the streets surrounding the office of publication on the first day of its absence. The craving for news, for strike publicity, was almost greater than that for food. So on Saturday the General Strike Committee directed the Union Record to resume publication. The successful conduct of the strike had itself made that imperative.

The lesson is clear. An army fights well only when it is conscious of its aim. That is especially true for an army of strikers. But its aim must be clearly stated; the reasons must be given as clearly and precisely as possible. Every related event, every important development of the strike, must be made known and publicized as broadly as possible, especially to those who carry the burden of the fight, in order to keep them aware, to keep them alert, and to maintain the necessary confidence between the leadership and the ranks. That is why publicity by and for the workers becomes the life blood of a strike. It is one of the strikers’ best weapons. The lesson of the mistake made in suspending labor’s own paper was learned quickly in Seattle.

Viewed in retrospect the Seattle general strike signalized the appearance of a new labor generation. It was the first step taken toward breaking the deadly grip of the Gompers regime. Greater labor battles followed in a whole chain of events that passed through peaks of prosperity and depths of depression, until today the American labor movement stands out as a good deal more mature. The battles it now faces are far more gigantic and far more serious. Yet the experiences of the past retain their full validity. This brief account of the Seattle general strike can be appropriately concluded with a quotation from its Official History Committee. The Seattle workers, it said, were

“glad they had struck, equally glad to call it off, and especially glad to think that their experience would now be of use to the entire labor movement of the country.”

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