Seattle General Strike Project
Sources and Research Guide to:
The I.W.W. in The Seattle General Strike
By Colin Anderson
The Industrial Workers of The World (I.W.W.) were an influential radical labor organization that was very active from the late 19th century up until the 1920’s, when they declined from prominence. Their political and ideological ideas made them unique from other labor organizations at the time. Essentially, they wanted to make workers more class-conscious and unite them in "One Big Union." They leaned towards the socialist ideas of figures like Marx and Lenin, which were spreading throughout the globe, sparking revolutions of both thoughts and, in the case of Russia, government.
The I.W.W., or Wobblies as they were commonly called, were particularly active in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle was a hotbed for radical activity by the Wobblies, and many Seattlites who were not I.W.W. members sympathized with many of their ideas. The organization came to prominence in the region through the timber industry, which provided its workers with an environment that facilitated the I.W.W.’s spread. Towns outside of Seattle were also penetrated by the Wobblies, and the story of the organization’s struggle against persecution includes violent episodes in both Everett and Centralia.
By the time of the Seattle General Strike, the I.W.W. was past its peak of support and was suffering from a red scare in the wake of world events like the Russian Revolution. Although many people still supported the ideas of the I.W.W., it had become dangerous to openly declare oneself a card-carrying member of such a radical organization. Many of the rank-and-file workers in Seattle, as elsewhere, were members of both the I.W.W. and less revolutionary A.F.L. unions.
The records of the events leading up to the strike, as well as historical evidence from the years after the strike, show that the Wobblies did not directly have much to do with the strike. They were, however, the most radical labor organization in a town that was unique for the radical nature of its labor movement in general. It is no coincidence that the first official general strike happened in a town that was a center of Wobbly activity.
Some people believed that the Wobblies had much more to do with the strike than they actually did. There was a widespread fear among the conservatives of Seattle that the strike was a revolutionary action that the I.W.W. was behind. The press generally took a position that lent itself to such opinions, as well. Mayor Ole Hanson publicly blamed the Wobblies for the strike as he toured the country following the strike telling the story of Seattle’s general strike. Many Wobblies were arrested following the strike and accused of being behind it. In this way, the general strike probably helped perpetuate the I.W.W.’s decline in the wake of the strike.
The people who were actually involved with the strike, including members of the General Strike Committee, have denied that Wobblies played any official role. Interviews, court records, and literature show us that they actually tried to explicitly distance themselves from the I.W.W., even though they likely agreed with some I.W.W. principles. The truth of how much of a role the Wobblies played is very hard to quantify. It probably lies somewhere between the extreme blame given by conservatives and the denial by A.F.L. labor leaders. What is important to realize is the Wobblies’ place in the radical labor environment in 1919 Seattle.
Robert Tyler’s book, Rebels In The Woods, is an excellent history of the I.W.W. in the Northwest. It does an excellent job of providing an understanding of the organization’s rise and influence in the region.
For a better understanding of the General Strike, including the I.W.W.’s role, Robert Friedheim’s book, The Seattle General Strike is the source to consult.
The University of Washington’s Suzzalo Library is an excellent place to learn more about the I.W.W., and its place in the strike.
There is a collection of materials collected and researched by Robert Friedheim for his book that is a great place to find primary sources on the strike.
The Industrial Worker and Industrial Solidarity are both I.W.W. newspapers that are a good place to get a sense of the Wobblies’ perspective on the strike. Looking at other newspapers, both labor and mainstream publications, is a good way to gain a sense of the difference in perspectives that existed regarding the I.W.W. and the importance of radicals and revolutionaries in the Seattle General Strike.
The library's collections also include I.W.W. pamphlets and booklets that provide their own ideas.
At the National Archives and Records Administration in Seattle, there are other collections with much primary source information on the Wobblies. These collections are: the Naval Intelligence Reports, Records of the 13th Naval District, Record Group 181, and the Military Intelligence Division, Plant Protection, Record Group 165, Box 2.
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