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Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

The Seattle Telegraphers Lockout of 1918

By David Radford
Splicing the Alaska telegraph cable at Smith's Cove, Seattle.  Photo Credit: Asahel Curtis.  Courtesy of UW Digital Collections

It was the late spring of 1918. The Great War was turning in favor of the allies, and dominating everyday events as men and some women from all over the United States were leaving to join the battlefields of the European ‘old world’ – a world which was seemed to be coming ever closer. A sense of great change was in the air, for the American and world political, social and technological order. New media like cinema made mass communication even easier, shrinking the globe still further. In a small corner in the northwest of the country, a city called Seattle was epitomizing these changes in a profound way that would influence labor for decades to come.

Between 1900 and 1910, the population of Seattle grew by a staggering 300%, driven by newly developing industries, a pool of natural raw materials and immigration. However with great growth came an increasing division between the haves and have-nots, which planted the seed for strong labor and political movements. The story of the workers struggle against the Western Union and Postal Telegraph Companies in 1918 embodies the social and political fragility of the times and the state of labor in Seattle in the year preceding the first general strike in US history.

On Monday April 29 1918, a local branch of the Commercial Telegraphers Union held a small meeting in Seattle, unaware of the storm of controversy and political wrangling that would follow for the next four months and the shockwaves that would bring labor in Seattle ever closer together. Telegraphers from the local Western Union and Postal Telegraph Companies, many of them young women, enthusiastically attended the meeting. The following day they attended work, excited by the possibilities of unionism, but many still undecided about whether or not to join the union. They wore red, white and blue ribbons to work that Tuesday, the colors of the CTU. The reaction was immediate. The two companies began to discharge any workers deemed to have an affiliation to the union. Any telegraphers who wore the colors were made to leave. Others were discharged after intensive questioning, deemed sympathetic to the union. Many of these women stood up for their fellow employees out of solidarity and the company fired them. The discriminatory firings by both companies continued throughout the first week in May and brought the situation to the attention of labor and union leaders, and the National War Labor Board.

J.F. Campbell, vice-president of the Commercial Telegraphers International Union in Vancouver B.C. became the union representative for the situation in Seattle, which was growing in scale day by day. By May 2, 175 telegraphers and clerks had been locked out, by May 3 around 200 were discharged. Campbell began a campaign of awareness for the locked-out workers, bringing the situation to labor and political leaders and to the public through the media, including local newspapers like the Seattle Union Record and The Seattle Daily Times. In a widely published letter, he highlighted the dangers of a depleted workforce in a vital war industry:

“As far as our members were able, since the war began, they watched day and night for spy work. Now that they are out on the street, the spies will have a free hand to work their infamous schemes. One spy, officially placed or working on a trunk wire, easily might be able to flash information to the enemy that would cause the loss of thousands of lives.”[1]

The following day the CTU international was called to Washington D.C. to present their case to the National War Labor Board. The NWLB was a body formed in April 1918 under the advisory of Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson, and consisted of five representatives of employers, five representatives of Labor and two co-chairmen, representing the public. Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labor was responsible for choosing the labor men and one of the chairmen. The employers and other chairman were chosen by Alexander W. Alexander, executive secretary of the National Industrial Conference Board. The NWLB was a new body and the Seattle telegrapher’s case would test its core values and principles. The NWLB was established with one objective: “to govern relations between workers and employers in war industries for the duration of the war”[2] The CTU and the locked-out telegraphers were optimistic of a speedy and successful resolution, especially considering the four fundamental principles of the NWLB:

1.   There should be no strikes or lockouts during the war

2.   The rights of workers to organize in trade unions and to bargain collectively through chosen representatives is recognized and affirmed. This right shall not be denied, abridged, or interfered with by the employers in any manner whatsoever…

3.   Employers should not discharge workers for membership in trade unions, nor for legitimate trade union activities.

4.   The workers, in the exercise of their right to organize, should not use coercive measures of any kind to induce persons to join their organization nor to induce employers to bargain or deal therewith.[3]

However, the telegraphers had not foreseen the limited power and ambiguity of the NWLB or the stubbornness of the telegraph companies which led the situation to worsen and carry on for months rather than days.

Over the first weekend of the Seattle lockout, the situation changed from a battle between union and employer to a wider fight between labor and capital and became a war between friends and the enemy of United States security during wartime. Phrases like ‘unpatriotic, cowardly and despicable in every aspect’[4] had already been attached to the behavior of the telegraph companies. On Friday May 3 ‘Campbell…reiterated…that the telegraph lockout in Seattle is playing into the hands of German secret service agents and spies’[5] and urged the government to take control of national telegraph services. The following day the young women workers began to sell US thrift stamps as they waited for a ruling from the NWLB. The lines were set. The young, innocent, patriotic women willing to help the cause were up against the rich greedy un-American and potentially dangerous older men.

The next week saw Seattle labor and union council meetings, most of them held in Labor Temple, to discuss the situation. The NWLB met with unions and companies on May 8 to further discuss the situation. Without much of the modern technology we enjoy today it was much more difficult to enjoy fast and reliable communications and travel, and so processes like these inevitably took much longer to see through. Meanwhile, the telegraph workers organized fundraising activities, such as a dance night in Renton, to help them financially while they were locked-out of employment. The Western Union and Postal Telegraph Companies were now suffering badly. The loss of around 225 workers was impossible to sustain. They began to draft workers in from outside Seattle, the majority of whom where very young men and teenagers. Oftentimes, the new employees were not aware of the situation and were taken to work on miniscule wages. Almost immediately after their arrival, they threatened a strike.

The next public figure to become involved was Mayor Hanson of Seattle. As the local media and public overwhelmingly supported the telegraph operators, so too did Hanson join the cause, pressuring the Senate and the NWLB with letters on May 7, urging a speedy resolution to the conflict and warning that the outcome could lead to a nationwide telegraphers strike by the CTU.  The solidarity within the CTU was further emphasized on May 11, when the Seattle Local Union no. 42 voted against autonomy to keep their strength in numbers in the fight against Western Union and the Postal. Ironically, a split from the CTU may well have sped up their reinstatement to work as the NWLB favored open shop local unionism over internationals having bargaining power, and so would have dealt with the matter with more speed and less deliberation. The workers understandably stuck to the fight for their full rights nevertheless.

As soon as it was clear the telegraphers would remain in the CTU, they received support from other crafts within the industry. The wiremen were the first to offer their moral support and on May 15, R.L. Proctor, president of the Seattle Central Labor Council (CLC) aided the workers and wrote letters to Gompers and Frank P. Walsh, co-chairman of the NWLB. The letters were passionate, determined and forceful:

Seattle Central Labor Council …deplores the fact that it takes 2 weeks to rule that locked out telegraphers shall enjoy their constitutional right to organize and be reinstated immediately.[6]

It would take longer still. The approximately 125 women and 100 men who had been discharged continued to raise money for their defense fund with a tag day event on May 18, which brought in around $1200. Mayor Hanson, ever the supporter, bought the first tag of the day. Seattle was well and truly on the side of labor.

Over that weekend, co-chairmen Walsh and William H. Taft of the NWLB reached their decision in the case and left Washington D.C. for Philadelphia with the other 10 members of the board to meet Newcomb Carlton, President of the Western Union for talks and to announce their verdict. The Western Union had been less susceptible to listening to the NWLB than the Postal and it was widely expected that the Western Union would not respect the verdict of the board (that being that the workers should be reinstated), which only enjoyed advisory powers. If they failed to listen then the case would be heard by the President, Woodrow Wilson. In expectation of this, Mayor Hanson wrote the President a telegram and highlighted the frustrations of the majority of Seattleites:

Entire citizenship consider action by Western Union local officials as arbitrary, un-American, and unpatriotic in refusing to reinstate locked out employees who ask for no change in working conditions, but merely asked to go back to work and take same positions at same wages as before lockout. We do not like such things in Seattle.[7]

Talks lasted from May 21 until June 2. In the meantime, President Wilson agreed he would help the telegraphers with reinstatement, should the companies not accept the proposals of the board and the workers continued volunteering for the cause of the war, raising money and waiting for a verdict to reach them. When the expected happened and the companies refused the decision of the NWLB, then the CTU decided that, after a month of this fiasco, it was time to threaten a nationwide strike. Within 8 days, operators, key men and railway wiremen had endorsed the strike orders, leaving the nation with a potential strike of 56,000 workers. Additionally, workers in Seattle unified by the CLC and meetings in the Labor Temple, threatened sympathy strikes.

President Wilson was handed the unenviable task of resolving this tense situation. However, June 13 appeared to be a turnaround day in the dispute, when the President announced his support for the NWLB’s recommendation for reinstatement and the Postal Telegraph Company announced that they would ‘waive their right to discharge men who have joined a union’.[8] Both companies feared the affect of unionism and had included clauses in employees’ contracts that forbade them to form or join unions. But optimism was dampened with news that the Western Union’s President had yet to give his response to the President. Moreover, the crucial issues of back pay and reinstatement still lay unresolved.

In early June, the lockout situation spread outside of Seattle to San Francisco, and was threatening to engulf the entire nationwide telegraph system as the Western Union and the Postal Company were among the two most powerful companies in the industry at that time. The AFL, the central labor movement, was angry but voted against wielding their greatest weapon, a general strike, fearing that it would hurt them during wartime. The Seattle CLC remained undecided over a city-wide strike. Tension and passions ran high, and the President received further calls for ‘reinstatement or strike’ or for the government to take control of the national telegraph system.

On June 15, after 11 days of the lockout in San Francisco, the Postal Company agreed to reinstate the 101 key men who had been discharged for wearing union colors. However, local Postal Company officers in Seattle stunned optimistic workers with this statement:

Postal Company local officers had no instructions from headquarters that would permit them to consider a general reinstatement, as requested by the committee.[9]

The threat of strike loomed large. Because Seattle workers had been locked out for a month and a half, there was a high figure for back pay which the company was unwilling to pay. The next week would be another one of waiting and fighting together for the Seattle workers. They discussed political tactics in the wake of the refusal of the companies to reinstate them. Elsewhere, on June 21 the AFL re-elected Samuel Gompers, which gave labor some stability in this tough fight. It was yet another embarrassing week for the Western Union as they were accused of sending espionage agents onto trains to send secret wire messages.

The Postal Company finally decided to reinstate 35 operators in Seattle on Monday, June 24, after 10 days of extensive negotiations. The company announced that operators were to be reinstated permanently under union terms, a temporary relief for the labor movement. However, the peace offer by the Postal only gave reinstatement to the key men and not the female telegraphers, and was seen by many as a form of reemployment with fewer seniority rights as they had enjoyed previously. Furthermore, the CTU failed to find all the 35 men to be reinstated; many had left Seattle and got other work, sensing the hopelessness of the situation. The Seattle Union Record newspaper contextualized the nature of the struggle on June 25:

With the boys in khaki “over there” and the locked out telegraphers “over here” it’s the same fight, to make and to keep democracy safe in the world. “Over there” tonight our boys probably will be pounding away at the enemies of democracy. “Over here” tonight, the locked out telegraphers will be “digging in” for what looks to be a long fight against “Kaiser Carlton” of the Western Union, who has defied President Wilson and the war labor board and refuses to allow workers to organize.[10]

The Washington State Federation of Labor was the next labor group to back the telegraph operators, at its annual conference, and renewed pleas to President Wilson to take over the telegraph lines to end the situation. With the continuing refusal of Western Union to comply, Wilson had little choice but to take over control of telegraph systems nationwide on July 31. This temporarily averted the threat of a large strike by labor and stuck to the principles of the NWLB, at least in the short term. The unions appeared to have won victory over the companies. However, the workers in Seattle, where the situation had all began over four months ago, lay in limbo in August waiting for the federal government to reinstate them.

Albert S. Burleson, the Postmaster General, was placed in control of the telegraph and telephone lines. Rather than opening the way for unionism in the industry, the workers remained frustrated in their attempts to organize. Burleson used the decisions of the NWLB’s compromise proposal of June 1 in deciding the fate of the Seattle telegraphers. The idea was that the employer could not discriminate against the workers for organizing, yet they need not recognize the CTU. This proved arguably even worse for the employees. If they wanted to work, they effectively had to sacrifice membership of the CTU. As these men and women had very little experience in aspects of union activity such as collective bargaining, they were effectively made either toothless workers or unemployed union members. This sowed the seeds for government to transition from a friend to an enemy of labor. Foner had a negative view of the possibility of strong union activity under federal management:

Opposition to the unionization of telegraph and telephone workers actually increased under government control.[11]

Many telegraph workers did return to work in the industry, but others moved away from Seattle or into other industries where it was easier to organize. This was not so easy for the women, the majority of whom were only skilled as operators.

At the time this case was small news, in an era of world war, and rapid changes in the social and technological order. However, it highlighted the volatile relationships between labor, capital and government and how these conflicted and changed at regular intervals. The rapid growth of the corporation was beginning to see the era of the multinational and economic globalization, which continues unabated today. This can be seen in articles such as ‘Taking Over the Telegraph Companies’ (Seattle Union Record, p8, Aug 1, 1918) overleaf, which examines the relative powers of the Western Union Company and the US government and the power relationship between the two. The Union Record sees the relationship as detrimental to civil liberties, and a weakening of the labor movement. The paper sees the role of government to censor the companies, not to own monopoly industries. With effective checks and balances between capital, labor and government, then power would be more fairly distributed. It is still a pertinent political issue today, in the era of George W. Bush and the level of influence oil companies have on executive decision making.

On a local level, this case was not forgotten by the Seattle labor movement. It was as if a stone had been thrown into Elliott Bay, and the ripples had far reaching effects. The issue helped to solidify and bring together labor and unions in Seattle and create further mistrust for corporations and the authorities, which helped to bring about the first citywide general strike in United States history in 1919. This was one of many issues in the early twentieth century which helped to define Seattle as a city of solidarity and unity against the tyrannasaurical power structures that emerged with industrialization. This protesting spirit lives on, with the 1999 WTO demonstrations as a significant example.

Primary Sources

Seattle Union Record Newspaper (April – Aug 1918)
The Seattle Daily Times (April – July 1918)
Seattle Post-Intelligencer (June 1918)
Secondary Sources
Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States – Volume VII: Labor and World War I, 1914-1918, (International Publishers, New York, 1987)
Jeffrey Haydu, Making American Industry Safe for Democracy – Comparative Perspectives on the State and Employee Representation in the Era of World War I, (University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1997)

[1] Postal Telegraph continues to fire operators, The Seattle Daily Times (p4, May 2, 1918)

[2] Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States – Volume VII: Labor and World War I, 1914-1918, (International Publishers, New York, 1987), p. 175.

[3] Foner, p. 175.

 [4] Postal Telegraph continues to fire operators, The Seattle Daily Times (p4, May 2, 1918), quote by C.O. Young of AFL.

[5] Urges US to take over Telegraph Systems, The Seattle Daily Times (p3, May 4, 1918)

[6] Labor Council to Aid Telegraphers, The Seattle Daily Times, (p14, May 16, 1918)

[7] War Labor Board Expected to Act in Wire Case, The Seattle Daily Times (p10, May 21, 1918)

[8] President Backs Up War Labor Board Findings, The Seattle Daily Times, (p18, June 14, 1918)

[9] Negotiations with Postal Company End Abruptly, The Seattle Daily Times, (p26, June 16, 1918)

[10] Telegraphers Dance Tonight in Dreamland, Seattle Union Record (p4, June 25, 1918)

[11] Foner, p. 343.

©2003 David Radford