avatar
THE DAY SEATTLE STOOD STILL


It was 88 years ago this month. It was in Seattle: “Street car gongs ceased their clamor. Newsboys cast their unsold papers into the streets. From the doors of mill and factory, store and workshop, streamed 65,000 working men. School children with fear in their hearts hurried homeward.  The lifestream of a great city stopped.”

 

Many people throughout the country believed that the scene described by Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson marked the beginning of a Bolshevik revolution like that which had overthrown the Russian government two years earlier.

 

Some of the men who left their jobs on that sixth day of February, 1919, did indeed intend it to be just that – particularly a band of about 3,500 members of the Industrial Workers of the World, whose own bolshevism engendered great public fear far out of proportion to their numbers and effectiveness.

 

But most of the men, as most of their supporters, were intent on nothing more than strengthening the U.S. labor movement, guaranteeing their right to collective bargaining and improving their pay and working conditions in the face of increasingly fierce hostility from employers and government alike.

 

It was, in any case, the beginning of one of the very few general strikes in American history.

 

It was one of the most dramatic and disruptive of some 3,600 strikes that broke out in that post-World War I year of extraordinary labor militancy. Steelworkers, coal miners, workers of all kinds – even policemen – walked off the job in response to drastic reductions in the wages that the heavy demand for labor during the war had brought them, the miserable working conditions now imposed on them, the widespread attempts to destroy their unions.

 

The American Federation of Labor’s local council called the Seattle strike in support of 35,000 striking shipyard workers. They had been out for 2 1/2 weeks, only to be ordered back to work on pain of losing their jobs if they continued to demand the right to bargain for better pay and conditions.

 

AFL leaders reasoned that if the shipyard owners’ arbitrary actions went unchallenged, employers everywhere would be emboldened to act similarly.

 

Soon after the strike broke out, Mayor Hanson climbed into his flag-draped automobile and led 950 federal troops into the city.  Hanson, insisting that strikers would resort to violence, also swore in 3,000 special policemen and deputies.

 

He needn’t have bothered.  Strikers did bring the city to a halt, closing schools and virtually all businesses and stopping public transportation. But they did so without a single reported incidence of violence, not even a single arrest for strike-related offenses.

 

They made sure, furthermore, that essential services continued.  Hospital and laundry workers remained on the job, for instance, as did firemen and garbagemen.  Unionized truck drivers delivered milk from local farms to 36 stations around the city and brought 30,000 cooked meals a day to 21 other locations.

 

After six days, it ended.  Responding to growing public hostility which threatened to seriously harm the labor movement nationwide, the AFL’s conservative national leaders denounced use of the general strike as a tactic.  The AFL affiliates in Seattle had little choice but to call off the strike.

 

The shipyard workers were left to continue their strike alone for nine more weeks.  In the end, they won nothing.

 

Despite its brevity and lack of success, the general strike played a major role in the social and political turmoil – the so-called Red Scare – that erupted after World War I. Union- busting employers, vote-chasing politicians, sensation-seeking newspapers – all painted the strike as the first in what surely would be a nationwide series of efforts by radicals who, as Mayor Hanson charged, wanted “to take possession of our American government.” One U.S. senator declared that if the strike wasn’t stopped, “the nation will see a Soviet government set up within two years.”

 

What followed was one of the most disturbing periods in U.S. history. Thousands of aliens were arbitrarily arrested and summarily deported and thousands of citizens jailed for allegedly subversive activities or even for simply holding allegedly subversive views.  Government agents raided the headquarters of unions and radical organizations to search for alleged terrorists.  Mobs attacked their members.

 

Few, if any, revolutionary plots were uncovered.   For the “subversives” almost invariably sought only to better the economic and political standing of working people – just as government, employers and the press sought to thwart their efforts by labeling them as Bolsheviks and Communists.

 

By 1921, the national hysteria that began two years earlier when “65,000 working men” left their jobs in Seattle was over. The ferocity of the attacks on those struggling to upset the status quo had depleted their ranks.

 

It would not be until the coming of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal administration a dozen years later that working people finally would win the heightened status they had so long wanted and had so long needed.

 

Copyright © 2007 Dick Meister, a  San Francisco journalist who has covered labor issues for four decades. Contact him through his website,

Leave a comment