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Seattle Labor History Highlights

by James Gregory

Few cities make use of labor history the way Seattle does. The city proudly recognizes struggles like the Seattle General Strike of 1919 and the WTO “Battle of Seattle” as part of what makes the region famous and important. News media, city officials, and educators join in commemorating key anniversaries. This is no accident. It reflects the continued political importance of unions and the ongoing cultural work of labor activists and labor educators.

This stunning mural illustrating episodes from the state's labor history encircles the Washington State Labor Council headquarters on Jackson Street in Seattle, a recent example of how the labor movement values its history.

In a recent article, I discussed Seattle’s Left Coast Formula. The term references political traditions that Seattle shares with other West Coast cities, especially San Francisco. Linked by business enterprise, migration, and geo-economic function, left coast cities developed institutions and expectations that have kept radicalism alive for more than a century while allowing political elites identified as liberals or progressives to stay in power pretty consistently. No Guilianis or Bloombergs win elections in these cities. And the relationship more recently includes intriguingly complicated political negotiations. Seattle and its left coast sister cities respond both to the awesome authority of tech titan billionaires and to the insurgent demands of unions and radical social movements.

Part of an illustration that appeared in Portland's West Shore magazine months after the destruction of Seattle's Chinese community. See Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project

Seattle has a long history of labor radicalism dating back into the 19th century. A lumber village sited between trees and water, Seattle incorporated in 1869, taking the name of chief Sealth, a leader of the Suquamish and Duwamish people whose land had been seized in the 1850s. The Northern Pacific railroad arrived in 1884, expanding and diversifying the population. Chinese workers were among those seeking work and a new start. In 1886, mobs of whites, many of them affiliated with the Knights of Labor, attacked Chinatown and after a violent clash with city authorites, forced residents to board ships bound for San Francisco. Similar incidents drove Chinese workers out of Tacoma and much of the the Territory.

Washington became a state in 1888 and unions of many kinds were already exerting influence, as were radical farmers. The 1896 election of a People’s Party candidate for Governor, John R. Rogers, signalled a radical turn and inspired a deliberate experiment in political migration. Members of Eugene Debs’ Social Democracy of America announced a plan to take over a state and turn it toward socialism. They chose Washington and set out to recruit colonists. The result was a string of cooperative settlements up and down Puget Sound, most of which folded within a few years. But radicals continued to look to the region. By 1912 the state was one of the bright spots for the Socialist Party. Only four states counted more dues paying members than Washington.

Seattle picnic to raise money to defend IWW "class war prisoners" in July 1919. See IWW History Project

Washington became even more important to the Industrial Workers of the World. The key IWW newspaper, The Industrial Worker, set up operations in Spokane in 1909 and moved to Seattle four years later. These developments reveal one of dynamics of Seattle radicalism, the interplay between reputation and political migration. The story that something was happening in Puget Sound became self-fulfilling as members of first one generation of Reds then other generations moved across country to participate.

The general strike of February 1919 doubled that effect. Seattle is known for many things these days, but for much of the last century, a good portion of its reputation rested on the dramatic events of ninety-eight years ago.

The Seattle Union Record, the mass circulation paper owned the Labor Council, announces the plan to strike on February 3, three days before the start the general strike. See Seattle General Strike Project

It began in the shipyards which employed 35,000 workers during WWI. Promised raises that were never forthcoming, the shipyard workers struck and appealed to the Seattle Central Labor Council for help. In a remarkable show of solidarity, more than 100 unions agreed. On the morning of February 6, more 60,000 union members quit work, bringing the city to a stand still. Meanwhile the Labor Council arranged for unions to take over key services, including feeding thousands. Although entirely peaceful, the general strike was construed by the Mayor and the major newspapers as a call for revolution. As federal troops stood by, support withered and after five days, the Labor Council called it off.

Striking longshoremen escort the last scab off the Seattle waterfront during "gauntlet day." See Waterfront Workers History Project

The 1930s saw a new burst of radical labor activism, first in mass participation in unemployed movements, then in the building of powerful unions. The 1934 longshore strike that led to a general strike in San Francisco involved a near general strike in Seattle. For 83 days, maritime workers and their supporters kept the port closed despite several battles with police that cost three lives. Out of this struggle would come the ILWU which for the last 80 years has anchored progressive unionism up and down the West Coast. In 1935, a campaign to organize the region’s key industry– wood – resulted in a second pivotal strike and the creation of the International Woodworkers of America, another leftwing union.

Radicals were also effective in electoral politics. The Washington Commonwealth Federation, led initially by former socialists, then dominated by the Communist Party, pushed the Democratic Party to the left, winning elections and influencing state and local policy. “There are forty-seven states in the Union and the Soviet of Washington,” FDR’s campaign manager allegedly said during the 1936 campaign, signally a renewal of the state’s radical reputation.

Section of the Pablo O'Higgins' mural "The Struggle Against Racial Discrimination" painted in 1945 for the Shipscalers, Drydock and Miscellaneous Workers Union Hall, a pioneering multi-racial union. When the hall closed in 1955, the mural was donated to the University of Washington, which promptly dumped it in a warehouse. After a campaign led by UW MEChA and Seattle's El Centro de la Raza, it was restored in 1975. It now hangs in Kane Hall.

If the left was visible and effective throughout the 1930s and 1940s, two unions of lasting importance belonged not to the CIO, but the more conservative AFL. Teamster Dave Beck developed organizing and boycott strategies that became key to unionizing the trucking industry from Seattle to Los Angeles. In 1936, airplane mogul Bill Boeing signed a contract with the Army Air Corps to build B-17 bombers and at the same time agreed to recognize the International Association of Machinists as the bargaining agent for workers in what would soon become the most important employer in the state.

Bill Boeing was a notorious segregationist and “Whites only” was the rule in the IAM, so the company and union collaborated to deny employment to Black and Asian workers until a 1940 campaign led by the African American publisher William H. Wilson and his Northwest Enterprise, and drawing support from the Communist Party and progressive whites, forced Boeing to begin hiriing African Americans. The IAM agreed to the expanded labor market but refused membership to African American workers until 1946.

Civil rights activism had a longer history than labor movements in the region, starting with the first Native struggles to protect livelihoods and freedom. An early NAACP chapter had scored small victories in the 1910s and 1920s. In the 1930s, Filipino cannery workers formed an effective and radical union while the Japanese American Courier tried to represent the city’s largest community of color.

On March 27, 2005, Machinists Union District Lodge 751 held a conference honoring the black women who had broken the color line and worked at Boeing during World War II. See "Battle at Boeing."

The campaign for rights and dignity took new and more effective forms in the 1960s, first with the clever campaigns of CORE, SNCC, the Japanese American Citizens League, then with the new radicalisms of the late 1960s and 1970s.

Seattle’s Black Panther Party chapter, initiated by members of the Black Student Union at UW, captured the imagination of a generation and soon a vibrant Asian American movement and Chicano activists were making waves and making history. In 1970, members of the pan-Indian organization, United Indians of All Tribes, scaled the fences of Fort Lawton, the soon to be de-commissioned Army base near the heart of Seattle and reclaimed the land for its original owners. Violently evicted, they returned, and ultimately won a victory that established the Daybreak Star Cultural Center.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer front page story about the United Indians of All Tribes' first attempt to reclaim Fort Lawton land on March 8, 1970. See Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project report

Our current political era dates from the WTO demonstrations in the final days of the last millennium. That event was the coming out party for a reenergized and reradicalized labor movement, which has been a powerful ally for progressives ever since. It inspired activism on many fronts including the social movements that Ruth Milkman links to the Millennial generation. It also fired up eco-radicals who joined trade unionists in the streets in 1999 and have maintained an effective blue-green alliance ever since. This was on display two years ago when climate change activists supported by labor blockaded a shell oil platform that was headed for Alaska. The press called it “Paddle in Seattle” as hundreds of kayaks filled Elliot Bay.

In today’s resurgent progressive politics, the labor movement plays a pivotal role. Leaders of the state federation and King County Labor Council pursue an aggressive social justice agenda centered on living wage campaigns. This began to yield results in 1996 when the State Labor Council funded a successful statewide ballot measure that gave Washington the highest minimum wage in the nation. Teachers unions and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) followed with other ballot measures. In 2001, Washington voters gave home care workers the right to join a union and to bargain collectively with the state. Today, 40,000 home care and day care workers are members of SEIU. Meanwhile, Seattle unions launched a campaign for a sick leave ordinance. In 2011, the city council agreed, making Seattle just the third city in the country to require all employers to provide sick leave benefits.

When 40,000 union members joined thousands of activists organized by Global Exchange, The Ruckus Society, and Rainforest Action Network, they were signaling the start of a labor, environment, global social justice coalition. The demonstrations in late November 1999 forced the cancellation of the Ministerial meeting of the WTO. Photo: Al Crespo. See WTO History Project

All this was a prelude to the push for a $15 minimum wage which began not in Seattle itself but in the nearby city of SeaTac, where the airport is located. SEIU, with support from other unions, crafted a SeaTac ballot measure raising the minimum wage for employees of the airlines and airport-related businesses. When residents of the suburb voted yes in a tight 2013 election, the stage was set to move the campaign into Seattle itself. Six months later, in June 2014, the city council passed a phased-in $15 minimum wage.

Since November, there has been more electrifying moments. Protest marches seem to be weekly occurance, and for all intents and purposes are officially sanctioned. Seattle’s mayor and the state’s governor have joined many, including the January Womxns March which counted as many as 120,000 participants in a city of 700,000.

But in the article for Dissent, I described Seattle as a city with a dual personality. On the one hand, we have these dynamic social movements and progressive elected officials, while on the other hand, the city is being carved up and redeveloped in one of the most intense building booms in its history, largely engineered by a pair of billionaires, Paul Allen and Jeff Bezos.

If you want to contemplate the reconstruction of Seattle at the hands of the billionaires, there are two neighborhoods to visit. Across Lake Union, about a mile north of downtown, is an area now known as “Amazonia.” It’s other name is South Lake Union and it used to be a neighborhood of warehouses and auto dealerships. Fifteen years ago, Paul Allen who co-founded Microsoft and now plays with rocket ships, football and basketball teams, and real-estate, began buying up block after block of South Lake Union. Then he made a deal with Jeff Bezos to bring Amazon’s headquarters and thousands upon thousands of Amazon’s programmers, designers, managers, and engineers into the area. These “amazombies,” as they are called by some locals—they are mostly young white tech guys wearing distinctive badges– now number about 20,000 and are predicted to double in the next few years.

This is just part of the growth story. The city’s population has increased 21% in the last fifteen years. And now other companies like Weyerhaeuser and Expedia are moving from the suburbs into the heart of the city. So there is a weird schizophrenic feel to the city. The billionaire’s redevelopment plans and the radical movements and progressive leadership in city hall are all sharing this moment and they are linked in surprising ways. Not oppositional. Bezos, Allen, Microsoft, the Gates Foundation haven’t said a peep in opposition to what the city council has been doing. The $15 minimum wage law, fine. The paid sick days law, fine. LGBT and immigrant rights, fine. Most recently the very progressive City Council passed a Secure Scheduling law, requiring large companies to let their employees know their work schedules two weeks in advance. Starbucks is not happy about that, but the tech titans don’t care.

The Fight for 15 movement had been active for years before the SeaTac breakthrough in 2013. In Seattle, a proposed ballot measure that would have raised the minimum wage immediately to $15 was undercut by a phased increase law preferred by the mayor and city council. See SeaTac/Seattle Minimum Wage Project

Meanwhile, progressive politicians give a green light to what the billionaires want, freedom to carve up the city and public funds for new transportation systems. We are building tunnels and bridges like crazy and finally a light rail system, and streets are being retrofitted with bike lanes, and neighborhoods are being up zoned for greater density and huge complexes of apartments are going up in many areas. Count the construction cranes chopping up the skyline. Seattle is a developer’s dream.

Why the green light? It reflects a curious set of alliances that involves first, the labor movement, whose leadership is very progressive but also dedicated to supporting job creation and the construction trades. Secondly, it is driven by an urbanist coalition of eco activists and bicycle activists who want a green city, a denser city not dependent on automobiles. They have made common cause with developers and with Mayor Ed Murray whose housing task force is pushing relaxed zoning and the apartment building boom claiming that this will address the escalating price of housing and the crisis of hyper gentrification.

Kowtowing to developers seems like a weird answer to gentrification but oddly in this supposedly progressive city, opposition has been muted. There are of course critics like Kshama Sawant (our Socialist Alternative city council member). She and some others call for rent control, a millionaire’s tax, and other direct approaches. But state law prevents cities from enacting rent control. So the city council is fiddling with ineffective plans to require developers to include a few below market rate units while they rip down block after block of older structures and evict tenants who will not be able to afford the new housing.

Here is another little walk I would recommend. Travel south from campus across the Montlake Bridge and another two miles along 23rd Ave. This is the heart of the Central District, Seattle’s historic African American and also Asian American neighborhood. No longer. Hyper gentrification has forced families of color out of that neighborhood and more and more out of the city. The CD, as it is known, is now only 20% African American. San Francisco, Portland, Berkeley, even Oakland are experiencing something similar, becoming richer, whiter and more Asian, losing working class families even while their political reputations seem to promise a new era of progressive action.

Where does it lead? Can the exciting social movements continue in a city that is affordable only for well-paid tech professionals? Will the billionaires continue to tolerate them? Will the tech boom (or is it a tech bubble) continue? Will the political leaders and voters at any point find the courage to say no to the plutocrats? We will see.

This introduction was written by James Gregory for the Scales of Struggle Conference of the Labor and Working Class History Association which met in Seattle June 22-25, 2017