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Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

Electrical Workers' Unions and the Seattle General Strike

By Nicholas Greenwood
Local 77 members debated whether to strike City Light facilities including the Lake Union steam plant. Courtesy Municipal Archives


More than 100 local unions participated in the Seattle General Strike of 1919 in support of shipyard workers. Electrical workers’ unions, most notably the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers locals #46 and #77, became a key component in the high drama during the weeks leading up to the strike as city officials feared what might happen if Seattle lost its electricity. Leon Green, a mysterious figure who served as the business agent of Local 77 during that time, used his position to stir up controversy.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union first organized in 1891 to protect workers, improve workmanship standards, and develop safety regulations in the burgeoning industry of electrical utilities .[1] Local 77 was granted its charter in 1897. Local 46 was granted a charter in 1901 as Local 217, and later changed its number. By 1919, these unions were affiliated with Seattle’s Central Labor Council, the Metal Trades Council, and the American Federation of Labor. According to the Local 46 by-laws, the union represented such workers as linemen, estimators, inspectors, cranemen, construction stockmen, broadcasting servicemen, engineers, and wiremen. Members paid admission fees and regular dues according to their profession. The IBEW also allowed apprentices in its membership; they paid smaller fees and dues.

After World War I ended, employers in Seattle’s shipyards refused to raise wages for unskilled workers, as they had for skilled labor. The unions representing these workers, including the Metal Trades Council, struck on January 21st, 1919, and sent word to the governing Central Labor Council. According to Robert Friedheim, four hundred members of Local 46 participated in the shipyard strike, demanding “a pay scale of $8.00 a day for electricians and $6.00 for helpers”.[2] The CLC’s January 22nd meeting minutes makes the first mention of a call for a general strike: “Metal Trades Council requesting C.L.C. to call upon all affiliated unions to call a general strike of all industries on February 1, 1919, unless present strike is settled before that time.”

Throughout the last week of January and first week of February, the CLC sent delegates to the local unions, who voted quickly on whether or not to participate in the strike. The meeting minutes of Local 46 faithfully describe the moment on January 21st when the executive committee first discussed the general strike: "The communication from the Central Labor Council relating to a general strike on Feb[ruary] 1st was read. Considerable argument was indulged in looking to concurring in this resolution at once. A motion prevailed to make this a special order of Business our next regular meeting Jan. 30 at 8:30 PM."[3]

As for the next meeting on January 30th, specially noted with a red and black mark in the minutes journal, the strike date was changed to February 6th:

At this time the special order of business was announced as being before the house. The communication from the Central Labor Council calling for a general strike was read. Considerable discussion cropped up as to who was to be allowed to vote. The chair here ruled that the voting was to be absolutely according to the Int[ernational] Constitution and appeal was taken from the decision of the chair... The vote was completed and counted. It resulted as follows: In favor of a strike 180. Against a strike 15. After the note had been announced motion made and carried we cast unanimous vote of this Local for a general strike at 10 AM Feb[ruary] 6.

By the next morning, the Seattle labor daily newspaper Union Record announced Local 46’s decision on its front page, though its report perhaps deliberately stretched the truth by stating “every vote in the affirmative”. Local 46 also voted to support a co-operative store and for its strike committee to purchase coupon books for its members.

Meanwhile, Local 77 took its vote to participate in the general strike one enormous step further. According to Friedheim, when asked if at least a few electrical workers would volunteer to operate City Light and Power, Leon Green, 77’s business agent and a reporter for the Union Record, declared that there would be “no exemptions”. No electricity would run for street lights, hospitals, cold storage, water pumps, or in Green’s own words, “any private and public enterprise which depended on ‘juice’”. A city-wide blackout would accelerate the process for employers to meet strikers’ demands. Green’s repeating threat was only a bluff; he did not have connections with workers inside the City Light plant, who were members of Local 46.[4]

Local 46 distrusted 77, though it did receive money directly from Leon Green on November 14th, 1918, to pay for an adding machine. Anti-union business owner Broussais Beck sent spies out among the Seattle labor unions to report on their condition. A member of Local 46 explained the differences between 46 and 77:

This morning at the Labor Temple I met a man by the name of Fagler who is a member of Local 46. Inside wireman. We got to discussing the trouble between Local 46 and Local 77 and he said, “That is too bad that two locals belonging to the same international cannot get along but there is always a material difference between the inside and the outside men. The inside men are always more conservative than the outside lineman, because the linemen are more or less floaters, also they work at hazardous work and that naturally makes the linemen more radical...”[5]

Local 46’s own meeting minutes revealed an underlying contempt for Local 77 and its “floaters”:[6]

Communication from Secretary Local 580, Olympia, regarding floaters getting wiremens’ cards from Local 77. [9 January 1919]

A resolution was read giving the strike committee power to negotiate with the shipbuilders. Motion made and 2nd we adopt as read. Amendment offered we table until a special Com[mittee] be appointed to investigate certain statements contained in this resolution regarding the acts of Local 77 in the Metal Trades Council. [27 February 1919]

From C.P. Ford regarding a charter to telephone men. Referred to a committee to be elected to iron out troubles between 46 and 77. [20 March 1919]

Leon Green maintained his threat to shut down City Light, which set officials on edge. His uncompromising stance and unknown past made him a target among anti-communists and city officials. An article on the front page of the Seattle Star on February 6th reads: “Mayor [Ole] Hanson, in insisting that the city light department will operate with the aid of volunteers, said: ‘Leon Green, alien, slacker, Bolsheviki and I.W.W., is not running the city light department.’ Green is accused of being an alien—a Russian subject—and is not a citizen of the United States.”[7] Hanson’s primary concern was the electric fire alarm signal system; shutting off electricity would put the city at risk from potential fires.

The night before the strike, at midnight, Ole Hanson met with an executive committee of union leaders to discuss the problem of City Light. The Union Record’s history committee reported later that during the midnight meeting, Hanson demanded that city water and light remain in operation for the public’s health and benefit, though other public utilities could be halted. At the end of the meeting, at 3:30 AM, his tone shifted: either union men could run the power plant, or martial law would be enacted in order to keep street lights on. He ordered for 1500 soldiers from the state militia and 1500 policemen to be brought in to keep the peace.[8] Those at the meeting did not know that the majority of engineers working inside the power plant were not organized, nor that the plant employees had already held their own meeting in which they physically removed Leon Green of Local 77 and a separate executive member of Local 46 from their presence. The employees voted not to strike.[9]

The general strike began on February 6th and was called off on February 11th. During that time, union members who performed approved work wore badges assigned by the strike committee. Enough electrical workers at City Light remained at their jobs to run the plant, though some of them struck. No electrical power was lost for the city. Men who stayed at work and got promoted within City Light over the time of the strike kept their new positions when it ended. Strikers were not fined, but lost their vacation time for the year).[10]

The strike caused damaging and long-lasting effects to organized labor. Public opinion swayed against unions with any associations with the Industrial Workers of the World. A surviving Broussais Beck spy letter dated on May 5th outlines the degraded condition of electrical labor:

At 10-30 a.m. I called at the Labor Temple and got to talking to Bill DeLaney, Business Agent of Local 46 Electrical Workers and we got to discussing the labor situation. He said, “The labor in Seattle is much weaker now than it was before the general strike. Local 77 of the Electrical Workers is almost out of business. The City Light men dropped their cards, the Telephone workers are not organized much and those that are organized are afraid to lose their jobs. When the Milwaukee Electrification is finished Local 77 will not have any members at all. It takes money and no local union can exercise any power without any money. It seems that in the electrical field the men are more tied down to their jobs... on that account the electrical workers are weak in case of a strike. They are too scared they will not be able to get their jobs back.”[11]

Local 77 lost its credibility with the public and nearly went completely under. Somehow, though, it survived. The local’s meeting minutes from November 1919 on reveal how much the union had diminished. The meetings were weeks and months apart, and appeared to have been short. Often the only business discussed during a meeting was the decision of whether or not to provide financial support to an individual or another union—declined in most cases due to a lack of funds:

Jan. 19, 1920. Ex[ecutive] Board met Monday at 7:30... Matter of com[unication] from Springfield Mo. asking aid taken up. Reg moved and sec[conded] that [Records Secretary] be instructed to inform Local #335 that the present state of our finances does not permit any contribution at this time. No further matters coming before the board. Board adjourned at 7:50 PM.[12]

The departure of Leon Green was one indication of the shakeup in Local 77 following the General Strike. A warrant was issued for the arrest of Green for his actions in the threatening to shut down the city’s electricity. He left Seattle and was rumored to have appeared later in Chicago and the Soviet Union.[13]

Meanwhile, Local 46, the more conservative union, purged IWW radicals from its membership and seemed to grow in influence in the immediate aftermath of the strike. [14]The local paid its members for each day of the strike and continued to support publication of the Union Record afterward. In May 1919, it adopted a five-day, forty-hour work week. In September that same year, the union reported that 720 workers were members; up from 364 just two years earlier.

The 1919 general strike hinged upon the question of electricity. Seattle survived the strike without incident, in large part due to the compromise achieved of electrical workers volunteering to keep the City Light plant running while other industries shut down. The two prevailing electrical workers’ unions in Seattle at the time, Local 46 and Local 77 of the IBEW, each played a significant role in the events surrounding the strike, though they could not have been more different from each other. Local 46 enjoyed a strength of size, organization, and purpose, while 77 was beset with trouble from affiliations with IWW and Bolshevik sympathizers, most notably the Wobbly activist Leon Green.

(c) 2019 Nicholas Greenwood
HSTAA 388 Spring 2018

[1] Freeberg, Ernest. The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America. New York: The Penguin Press, 2013, pg. 209.

[2] Friedheim, Robert L. The Seattle General Strike. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1964, pp. 40, 45, 69, 87, 98, 102-104, 113-122, 125, 130, 150, 152, 157.

[3] “1901 – 1914: Local 217.” IBEW Local 46. International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local #46. Web. 21 May 2018.

[4] Friedheim. The Seattle General Strike, pp 116-17.

[5] “Labor spy report by Agent #106 to Broussais Beck, May 3, 1919.” 5 May 1919. TS. University of Washington Libraries, Seattle. Digital Collections. Web. 13 May 2018.

[6] International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local #46. Meeting of IBEW Local #46. 2 January – 27 February 1919.

[7] “Volunteers Run the City Light Plant.” The Seattle Star. 6 February 1919: 1. Print.

[8] Friedheim. The Seattle General Strike, pp. 25-27

[9] Friedheim. The Seattle General Strike, pp. 116-17.

[10] Friedheim. The Seattle General Strike, p. 152.

[11] “Labor spy report by Agent #106 to Broussais Beck, May 3, 1919.” 5 May 1919. TS. University of Washington Libraries, Seattle. Digital Collections. Web. 13 May 2018.

[12] International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local #77. Meeting of IBEW Local #77. 19 January 1920.

[13] Friedheim. The Seattle General Strike, p. 150.

[14] Frank, Dana. Purchasing Power: Consumer Organizing, Gender, and the Seattle Labor Movement, 1919-1929. New York: University of Cambridge Press, 1994, pg. 105.