It’s the 90th anniversary this month of the general strike that brought the city of Seattle to a virtual standstill — one of the very few general strikes in U.S.history and certainly one of the most dramatic and disruptive.
Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson described it this way: "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."
It was one of no less than 3,600 strikes that broke out nationwide in that
post- World War I year of 1919. Steelworkers, coal miners, workers of all kinds – even policemen — walked off the job.
They acted in response to drastic reductions in the wages that the heavy demand for labor during the war had brought them, the onerous working conditions that were now imposed on them and the widespread attempts by government and employers to destroy their unions.
The American Federation of Labor’s local council called the Seattle general strike in support of 35,000 striking shipyard workers. They had been on the picket lines 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 through their union for better pay and working conditions.
The AFL council reasoned that if the shipyard owners’ arbitrary actions went unchallenged, employers everywhere would be emboldened to act similarly.
Soon after the strike broke out on February 6, 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 to join the troops.
He needn’t have bothered. Strikers did bring Seattle 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.
Strikers made certain, furthermore, that essential services continued.
Hospital and laundry workers remained on the job, for instance. So did firemen, garbagemen and, of course, policemen. Unionized truck drivers delivered milk from nearby farms to three-dozen distribution 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 that threatened to seriously harm the labor movement nationally, the American Federation of Labor’s conservative national leaders denounced use of the general strike as a tactic. That left the AFL affiliates in Seattle with little choice but to call off the general strike.
The striking Seattle shipyard workers who the general strike was called to support continued 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 to overthrow the U.S. government, just as Bolsheviks had overthrown the Russian government only two years earlier.
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 were 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. But that wasn’t the intent of employers and the government anyway. Their real purpose was to weaken the growing movement to better the economic and political status of working people that was signaled by the general strike in Seattle.
By 1921, it was over. The pro-worker movement had been crushed. It was not until the coming of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal administration a dozen years later that working people finally won the firm legal right to unionization and other basic economic and political rights that they had so long wanted and had so long needed.
Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based journalist, has covered labor and political issues for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.