Oral Histories and Strike Memories
Rob Rosenthal’s 1977 Interviews
In 1977, Rob Rosenthal interviewed 35 men and women who participated in or remembered the 1919 General Strike. He recorded the interviews while researching his MA thesis After the Deluge: The Seattle General Strike of 1919 and its Aftermath (UC Santa Barbara, 1980). Now a Professor of Sociology at Wesleyan University, Rosenthal has generously agreed to share these oral histories with the Seattle General Strike Project. These audio MP3 files and transcripts comprise a rare and valuable resource. The narrators speak not only about the events of 1919 but about later aspects of Pacific Northwest labor and political history.
Dave Beck and Earl George are the most famous of the men and women interviewed. Later to serve as President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Beck was 24 years old at the time of the General Strike, newly discharged from the Navy and was part of a group of Teamsters who opposed the strike. Earl George later became a Communist and the first African American to serve as president of an ILWU local. In 1919 he was newly released from the army and working on the waterfront. Beck and George are the only narrators whose names can be identified. The others use pseudonyms. Rosenthal explains the reasons and the interview process here.
The narrators were elderly at the time of the interview; most had been in their teens or 20s in 1919. They range across occupations, social classes, and political perspectives; including a number who joined the IWW and the Communist Party. Rosenthal was exploring the political legacies of the strike in his thesis and he asked important questions about how the dramatic events of 1919 lived on in political practice and historical memory.
Born in California. Just discharged from Navy, arrived in Seattle right around time of Strike. Opposed to Strike before and after, advocated laundry drivers oppose it. Says most people thought it was a miserable failure. Beck comments on history of labor movement, absurdity of general strikes, importance of business unionism. Knew many of the important figures in the Strike (Strong, Ault, Duncan).
Age in 1919: 24 — Occupation: Longshoreman | Edited excerpt. Full interview at the Wesleyan archive.
Born in Denver, served at Fort Lewis during WWI. General Strike was the beginning of my class understanding and in general heightened the development of the class-consciousness of the working class. Later George joined the IWW and then the Communist Party; he became an ILWU leader, and a civil rights activist. In interview he recalls many details of the Strike, and offers the memorable description that nothing moved but the tide.
Strike was crucial in his own development and in national Leftist politics. Solidarity was awesome in Strike. Was a member of the General Strike Committee, which organized feeding the workers' families, and working out exceptions for ambulance drivers and garbage collectors. Also established their own police force to counteract the “Mayor's police” and “hired guns.” Undivided sense of support and dedication by union members.
But the strike could not go on indefinitely: “you either have to bring it to an end, or you have to challenge the whole state authorities, and that was not the objective: it was not a revolution.” The General Strike was “a gigantic demonstration, and that's really all it could be.” The Strike occured right when employers were pushing the Open Shop (non-unionized workplaces), and the Seattle event helped other unions nation-wide to stand up to this “employers’ offensive.” “A big act by labor in one part of the country does have an effect elsewhere.”
with a tremendous amount to say about all sorts of things tied to labor struggles of the day.
Not even clear if he was in Seattle during the Strike. But a
Born in Umeå, Sweden. Read Union Record “religiously.” Shipyard workers thought Strike was great. Remembers details well. Joined Communist Party in 1938, still a member at time of interview.
Most people agreed with the Strike. Brought people together and showed labor was serious, but in the end, “no strike is worth it.” Remembers Wobbly work in the lumber camps.
Born in Alaska. Strike a good idea, shows you’ve got power, but it gets out of hand, too complicated. Many memories of Strike, including eating in the strikers dining hall, and rank & file opinions of the Strike.
Favored Strike and thought it was definitely worth it for labor: “It taught me to be a good union man” and led to a good union town for years.
The Strike was bad for labor, solidified anti-labor feeling. Shouldn’t have happened. Agitators spurred it on. Remembers several of the key figures well.
Born in Bellingham, WA. “It was very apparent it was a revolutionary movement,” and people like him didn’t like that. Later became a lawyer, active in national politics.
Her husband was pharmacist, owned his own drug store. General Strike didn’t affect them. Memories of the Strike, Anna Louise Strong, Ole Hanson.
Born in Ohio. Nobody seemed to want Strike. No strike is ever worth it for labor. But very exciting.
Strike wasn't discussed at the time. Just remembers not being able to get to work because the street cars weren't running.
Born in Indiana. Showed how dangerous a general strike could be, but also important for getting labor power. Doesn’t remember details.
Didn’t support the Strike, wasn’t interested. Bad for labor, “split everything
in half.” Good union man, anti-IWW.