PROLETARIAN HISTORY: The Seattle General Strike

By Noah Long

February 11, 1919 marked the official end of the Seattle General Strike. Over five days, more than 65,000 workers engaged in work stoppages, shutting down the Seattle economy in the process. The Seattle General Strike would spark fears of a Communist uprising in the first general strike in the US since the Great October Socialist Revolution.

By 1919, the shipbuilding industry saw its most productive year yet in the wake of World War I, and had become the center of Seattle’s growing economy. Throughout the war years, wages for all shipbuilding workers had been frozen, and after the armistice in 1918 they had hoped to see their hard work pay off. Wage restrictions, however, remained in place. Shipyard owners saw record profits while workers struggled to pay for rising rents.

Shipyard workers set up the Metal Trades Council (MTC), composed of 21 separate craft unions, to demand higher wages. Shipyard owners countered with an offer to raise the wages of skilled labor only, an attempt to further divide the already stratified workforce. The MTC refused and on January 21, 35,000 shipyard workers went on strike.

On January 22, the MTC asked the Seattle Central Labor Council (SCLC), an affiliate of the then-racially segregated American Federation of Labor (AFL) representing 110 craft unions, to call for a solidarity strike. Due to stalling and obstructions from conservative leadership, the call for a general strike was not officially announced until February 3.

The general strike began on February 6, and the General Strike Committee (GSC) was formed with the purpose of providing for the striking workers and keeping emergency services running. The culinary union ran discounted kitchens, milk drivers delivered milk to babies, and Teamsters supplied necessities to hospitals. Veterans were called to patrol the city.

Inspired by the Bolsheviks, many saw this not just as a strike, but as the onset of a political revolution. Unlike the October Revolution, however, striking workers were encouraged to stay home and remain nonviolent.

There were still revolutionary elements among the strikers, and they distributed pamphlets and gave speeches during the strike. One of these pamphlets, named “Russia Did It,” eluded to socialist revolution and proclaimed that the “employing class must be overthrown” so that the workers could govern society. Anna Louise Strong, writing an editorial for the Seattle Union Record, noted the historic impact of the strike.

“The closing down of Seattle’s industries, as a MERE SHUTDOWN, will not affect these eastern gentlemen much,” Strong wrote. “They could let the whole northwest go to pieces, as far as money alone is concerned.”

“But, the closing down of the capitalistically controlled industries of Seattle,” Strong continued, “while the workers organize to feed the people, to care for the babies and the sick, to preserve order—this will move them, for this looks too much like the taking over of power by the workers.”

The mayor Ole Hanson, who ran on a progressive labor platform, wasted no time trying to suppress the strikers. The potential for the strike to become something more significant represented an even greater threat to bourgeois order. On the second day, Hanson called in 600 members of the National Guard and 2,400 volunteer policemen to patrol the city and intimidate workers. Threats were made that the soldiers would begin replacing workers and that martial law would be enacted.

There was also a deep internal debate among the strikers over what the general strike represented. To some it was simply about meeting the shipbuilders’ demands, while others sought wage increases for the lower-paid trades within the MTC, and still others saw the strike as a means of seizing power locally and running day-to-day affairs like a Soviet.

As these debates went on, it was clear that while none wanted to break working class solidarity with one another, the lack of a clear political objective and the contradictions among the workers themselves made sustaining unity in action difficult.

The national AFL condemned the strike from the beginning and sent leadership to pressure the locals into ending it. Unions like the AFL exist to smooth over the contradictions between the bosses and the workers, acting as mediators to secure modest gains with the long-term effect of keeping workers under control.

After several days, the MTC had still not gained any ground in their wage negotiations with shipyard owners. With pressure from the city, their own union leaders, and dwindling resources, morale was running low. By February 8, the Teamsters Joint Council ordered Teamsters back to work on the instruction of their International Auditor George W. Briggs, followed by the printing trades who also received pressure from their international officials. The Strike was officially called to an end by the GSC on February 11, with the shipyard workers agreeing to return to work in March.

The strike was declared a success by the unions for shutting down the city, remaining nonviolent, and showing workers they could provide for one another. To this day, many anarchists and labor activists romanticize the strike for the same reasons, despite the objective failure to accomplish its one demand.

Opponents of the strike also declared success; no violence had erupted, the strike wrapped up swiftly, and the striking workers did not get their wage increase. Mayor Hanson was hailed a national hero, and he traveled the country giving speeches on the suppression of labor struggles while furthering his political career.

The hysteria engendered by the strike became a major catalyst for the first Red Scare. Fears of a Bolshevik-style Communist revolution were used to gin up public support for the government’s repression of political activists and trade unions. Anti-communist propaganda was stepped up, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was established, and federal agents engaged in widespread deportations and raids against individuals and organizations they deemed a threat.

The strike was initiated by the fury of the masses, willing to stand together and fight their common enemy in the bourgeoisie. Months later the shipyard workers would show solidarity with the Russian revolution by refusing to handle ammunition freight destined for General Kolchak’s White Army. Unfortunately, this passion was purposefully squandered by sellout union leaders and by a lack of politically consolidated, revolutionary leadership. The only way for the working class to achieve meaningful strides is through strategic, militant struggle, under the guidance of the scientific revolutionary ideology of Marxism and a core of the most advanced and disciplined workers represented by the Communist Party.

At this time however, the working class in the US lacked this. The program of unified action and the revolutionary party of workers needed to carry it out were all absent. The left-wing of the Socialist Party had just begun the process of having their own conventions and meetings to become one of the parties that would form the basis of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), while the rest of the US left was focused on syndicalism and trade unionist politics.

Despite all these shortcomings, the rank-and-file of 101 AFL unions who joined shipyard workers already on strike for better pay, showed the potential that the industrial proletariat had. It was a remarkable display of the workers’ strength and a harsh lesson in the inevitable shortcomings of workers organizing solely along trade unionist lines.