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Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

The Seattle General Strike of 1919

By Roberta Gold
From Encyclopedia of Labor History Worldwide, by St. James Press.
Reprinted by permission of The Gale Group.

The Seattle strike of 1919 was the first large-scale general strike in the United States. Although sparked by wage grievances of shipyard workers, the strike quickly grew into a larger showdown between the city’s AFL movement and local politicians, business interests, and federal war agencies, all of whom saw it as a crucial test of the power that organized labor would wield in the wake of World War One.

For four days, labor reigned. 65,000 walked off their jobs. Strikers served food, supplied hospitals and kept peace in the streets with astonishing organization and efficiency. But under pressure from the mayor, federal troops and unsupportive AFL internationals, the walkout collapsed.

It left an ambivalent legacy. The failure of such a massive action to raise shipyard wages -- let alone ward off the union-busting and red-hunting that followed -- showed the limits of local labor’s power against state-supported, anti-union capital. Yet the memory of a moment when working people not only shut down an entire city, but ran a successful system of essential services along syndicalist lines, also offered hope. In the short run it fueled Seattle’s vibrant union-affiliated cooperative movement. In the long run it inspired generations who dreamed of building a labor-based social order.

The Strike

Seattle in 1919 was an auspicious stage for labor’s critical fight. The port city’s workers were among the most organized in the nation, with solid union presence in building, longshore, transport, retail and other trades by the mid-nineteen teens. Although most locals were affiliated with the AFL, both their membership and their institutional linkages departed in important ways from the AFL’s elite craft archetype. Seattle’s craft locals forged industrial ties through trade councils that coordinated such fields as Metal and Building, and they maintained a citywide coalition through the Seattle Central Labor Council (CLC). They also stretched the usual AFL boundaries by organizing in such “unskilled” fields as waitressing and longshore work. Finally, many Seattle unionists stood well to the left of the AFL mainstream in political ideology. Socialists (and, to a lesser extent, Wobblies) formed substantial minorities in some unions and occupied a number of leadership positions. Rank and filers enjoyed a flourishing working-class culture and associational life embodied in such institutions as the widely circulated labor-owned daily The Union Record, the popular leftist speaker circuit, and an array of consumer and producer cooperatives. In some respects, however, the standard AFL exclusivity prevailed: as in California, the AFL in Seattle grew from a movement among white working men to drive out Chinese labor. And as in much of the U.S., AFL locals in Seattle barred people of color — the city was home to several thousand Japanese, Chinese and African American workers — as well as, in most cases, women.

Having laid this complex groundwork by the middle teens, Seattle’s AFL movement gained a powerful advantage from labor market changes generated by the world war. The war cut off American access to European fleets, creating a sudden need for merchant vessels to sustain the nation’s commerce. Congress responded by creating an Emergency Fleet Corporation (EFC) authorized to fund new construction at private shipyards. EFC orders placed with Seattle yards in 1917 made the city a boomtown. Overnight, owners sought to hire thirty-five thousand new workers, and men thronged to Puget Sound to earn the high shipyard wages. Organizing thrived in this seller’s market and the shipyard locals won a concession of both practical and symbolic importance: the closed shop. Led by the exponentially expanding metal trades, who filled the yards that built steel-bottomed ships, Seattle’s union ranks grew from 15,000 to 60,000 in three years. Moreover, many new shipyard unionists were Wobblies and Socialists from the outlying timber camps who brought militance as well as numbers to the Seattle movement.

But if if the latter teens looked propitious for local labor, they held ominous signs as well. Class-inflected upheavals in America and Europe – including the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 – stoked fears of radical upsurge and sparked a U.S. crackdown on the left. Meanwhile, the 1918 armistice spelled trouble for an American labor movement built on war production. By January 1919, Seattle’s wooden shipyards were closed, and metal yards were facing steep cuts.

Against this stormy political-economic sea, Seattle’s shipyard workers and the EFC charted a course toward conflict. They first clashed in the summer of 1917, when the EFC established a Shipbuilding Labor Adjustment Board (known as the Macy board after its chair, Everit Macy) to handle wage and other labor questions through the war. The Macy board quickly angered Seattle’s metal trades workers when it set uniform ship-building wages below those prevailing in the expensive port city. EFC general manager Charles Piez provoked the workers further when he reneged on his promise to let Seattle locals negotiate directly with yard owners rather than be bound by board rates. The locals struck, then yielded to patriotic calls and returned to work. But they did so aggrievedly and they looked forward to armistice when they could win back what they saw as just wages and rights. Within days of the November 1918 peace the Metal Trades Council requested direct negotiation, and members authorized a strike to back up their demands. Bargaining stalled when the owners, having offered a small increase to the elite crafts, refused to discuss raises for the underpaid lesser-skilled workers. More outrageous to the unions, Piez tried to intervene in the new peacetime negotiations by wiring the owners to stand firm or lose their steel ration. Through a messenger boy’s “mistake” the telegram reached union rather than employer offices. It confirmed labor’s fears that more than shipyard wages were at stake: government and capital were out to drive back labor’s wartime gains, including the closed shop. On the morning of January 21st, 1919, Seattle’s shipyard workers walked silently off the job.

The silence didn’t last. Citywide, labor felt itself under attack, as grocers cut off strikers’ credit and police raided the offices of the union-based Cooperative Food Producers, which had stepped in to fill the credit gap. The Metal Trades Council asked the Central Labor Council to propose a general sympathy strike. The ensuing debate showed clearly that both sides saw the conflict through a broad lens. “We knew that if the metal trades were forced to their knees our turn would come next,” said a plasterer explaining his local’s pro-strike vote. Moreover, “If Seattle gets away with this, the war will be carried further than the confines of Seattle,” the widely respected CLC secretary James Duncan forecast On the managers’ side, an observer noted, “It appears as if the federal government was using Seattle as an experimental station to find out just how much radicalism and unrest there is in labor.” A strong majority of union members and locals voted to strike. The CLC set a date of February 6th.

On that morning, labor was jubilant. So solidly did 65,000 organized workers hit the streets that forty thousand non-union employees were also idled by lack of tranport and work. (In a bittersweet vein of solidarity, segregated Japanese American locals struck as well and were rewarded with second-class labor citizenship, allowed to attend but not vote at CLC meetings.) Yet arguably labor’s greatest achievement was not in idling private industry but in organizing alternative public provisions. To feed the 30,000 single men who depended on restaurant meals every day, striking cooks prepared, and striking teamsters carried, hot food to labor halls that set up makeshift “eating stations.” To supply other vital needs, the General Strike exemptions committees dispatched teamsters to haul milk cans and hospital laundry. And to maintain public order, labor’s war veterans patrolled the streets unarmed to “persuade” fellow citizens to keep peace and to avoid clashes with the National Guard troops that the Secretary of War ordered to the city on February 6th..

These measures won much sympathy. But on another public service front, anti-union forces dealt the CLC a powerful blow. The issue was Seattle City Light. The CLC had decided that electricity was not a vital necessity for the public at large, and refused to let the utility run at full capacity. Mayor Ole Hanson, under strong pressure from business leaders, declared the strike a Bolshevik action and on 7 February issued an ultimatum: run City Light or it will be operated by the National Guard. The press decried the CLC’s intransigence, and the threat of armed federal strikebreakers raised fears of bloodshed. Meanwhile, AFL international officers, afraid that Seattle’s conflict would scuttle organizing efforts in the east, declared the strike an unauthorized action, withheld support funds, and threatened to revoke striking locals’ charters. Thus attacked on both flanks, the strike gave way. A trickle of strikers went back to work on Saturday, February 8th, and by Monday virtually all had returned. The CLC officially ended the action the next day.

Its fallout was mixed. From a shopfloor perspective, the strike was a defeat, since the shipbuilders lost their wage bid. Moreover, true to labor’s fears, Seattle industrialists soon launched a successful offensive against the closed shop. Within local labor ranks, criticism over the strike led to the ouster of militant leaders and the end of “Duncanism,” the earlier state of toleration between craft and industrial unionists. Government repression also intensifed. Federal agents arrested local Wobblies and Union Record editors on charges of criminal syndicalism and sedition, in what would later appear to be a curtain-raiser for the Palmer Raids. Mayor Hanson became a national hero for facing down Bolshevism.

But from a labor consumer perspective the strike was a success. If it did not break capitalists’ control of waged work, it did demonstrate that working people could circumvent capitalism in the consumer sphere by organizing cooperative modes of production and distribution. This cooperativist branch of Seattle’s labor movement did not die in February 1919; indeed, it grew dramatically in the months after the strike, until it included stevedoring, butchering, barbering and savings establishments, as well as numerous grocery and dry goods stores and the increasingly popular Union Record. Many Socialists whom red-baiters drove from the Party took up cooperative work instead and so stayed active on the left for years.

From a longer historical perspective the strike marked a watershed between labor’s wartime bargaining strength and its bitter postwar struggles in basic industries (mining, steel) and politics (the Red Scare). Less a tactical failure than a last stand, the Seattle strike left a memory of worker solidarity and social vision that far outlasted 1919.

Major Figures

James Duncan (b. 1879) Scottish-born marine engineer, was CLC secretary in 1919. A Socialist, he was a respected “progressive” labor leader in Seattle through the early twenties and ran strongly but unsuccessfully for mayor in 1920.

Harry Ault, (b.1884) founding editor of the Union Record, grew up on the Equity cooperative near Bellingham, Washington. He was active in the Socialist Party and preceded Duncan as CLC secretary. Through his paper he advocated for progressive and cooperativist labor projects.

Anna Louise Strong (1885-1970) was feature editor of the Union Record from 1918-21. Her February 1919 editorial “No One Knows Where” became an anthem of the strike’s radical aspirations. Later Strong traveled and lectured widely, reported on the Soviet Union and other European countries, and spent the last decade of her life in China as an honored guest of Mao Zedong.

Ole Hanson (b. 1874), real estate investor, was elected Mayor of Seattle in 1918. Having billed himself as a moderate before the strike, he subsequently embraced his status as American hero, resigned from office, and enjoyed a career as handsomely-paid lecturer on law and order.

Charles Piez (b. 1866), German-born engineer and businessman, was operative head of the EFC during the strike.

Sources for Further Reading

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

Robert L. Friedheim, The Seattle General Strike. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1964.

_________, Papers 1919-64. Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, WA.

James Gregory, ed., "The Seattle General Strike Project.

History Committee of the General Strike Committee, "The Seattle General Strike : An Account of What Happened in Seattle, and Especially in the Seattle Labor Movement During the General Strike, February 6 to 11, 1919." Seattle: Seattle Union Record Pub. Co., [1919?]