February 6, 1919: The Seattle General Strike, Day One

Seattle's Skinner & Eddy shipyard, "ground zero" for the Seattle General Strike

[Blogger’s note: In observance of the 91st anniversary of the 1919 Seattle General Strike, RSR is proud to present here guest blogger Jeremy Main’s feature-length article “Obtained,” which first appeared in print in the Seattle-based zine Prisoners’ Dilemma in early 2009. In keeping with the six days of the length of the 1919 Strike, the article is divided into six parts, to run in succession between today and February 11, the date of the 1919 Strike’s official ending. Enjoy!]

Obtained: What was gained and lost during the Seattle General Strike of 1919 — Part One

Seattle in 1919 would not have been much quieter than the city of today. Automobiles were on the streets. Much like today’s buses, streetcars rumbled throughout downtown. Overhead, the clatter of construction sounded off. And Seattle was no less dominated by pedestrian traffic then as now.

But one winter morning there came a new sound. From ships docked at the waterfront. From mills downtown and throughout the city. Throughout the streets pealed the shriek of steam whistles, a sound one might associate with the changing of shifts at a factory.

There was a lurch, and then the streets flooded with people walking out of the buildings, out of their places of employment, making their way home.

The traffic stopped. The streetcars stopped. The construction stopped. And then there was silence.

All that those in the streets could hear now was the sound of the wind, and the waves, and the seabirds. They looked up at the grey canyons around them that suddenly echoed with the sound of their own footsteps, and found the city foreign. What had it become? A prison? A grave? Or something more? As they looked up around them, they were as bewildered as any of us would be at that moment.

The Change In Tone

The Democratic National Convention of 1912 was held in Baltimore, Maryland, and was the venue for a contentious battle for nomination. It was here that candidate Woodrow Wilson would state a key plank of his campaign: “Our industries have expanded to such a point that they will burst their jackets if they cannot find a free outlet to the markets of the world.”

During his first failed attempt at the White House, he’d put it more succinctly: “Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process . . . the doors of the nations which are closed must be battered down.” After winning the nomination, then the presidency, Wilson put his words into action.

A change in the way America viewed the world had marked its entrance into the twentieth century. Between 1897 and 1914, U.S. foreign investment almost quadrupled to $3 billion — about sixty billion in today’s dollars. (All inflation-adjusted dollar amounts in this article are given in 2006 dollars.) Having conquered a continent, the U.S. would turn to the world stage in pursuit of treasure. For that, Wilson could not have asked for a better political climate. The Central and Allied powers were mobilizing in Europe. As a third party, the U.S. found it could trade with both sides.

Under Their Own Management

World War I ground hard into the coming years. By 1917, American business saw trade with the Allies increase seven-fold. Seattle now possessed three modern shipbuilding facilities, including the huge Skinner and Eddy yard at the foot of Atlantic Street. The massive need for labor had forced employers to make serious concessions, and those new to the city quickly saw the advantages of joining a union. Owners presided over a workforce virtually 100 percent unionized, into which even members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) had gained dual membership in the American Federation of Labor (AFL); this was what was then called organizational “boring.”

There was much trepidation throughout the country that labor power was growing out of hand. That fear was only exacerbated in February of that year, when Russia’s poor and destitute began to take power, kicking off a “Red Scare” that would bleed into the coming decades. It was feared that capitalism might be truly beginning to crumble — a fear skillfully and deliberately manipulated against the labor movement. Idaho and Minnesota were the first states to pass Criminal Syndicalism laws, making it illegal not only to join or create a group advocating illegal action to bring about change in government or industrial ownership, but any statement of support for such a group as well.

The events of 1917 would make businesses look even harder at their investments. And there they discovered a new problem: Allied powers were relying on U.S. banks to pay for U.S. military and civilian products, thus becoming incredibly in debt. The repayment of these loans now depended on an end to the war. On April 6, 1917, Woodrow Wilson signed the declaration of war on Germany, thus dragging the U.S. into World War I.

Government now moved to formalize its already tight relationship with business. On April 16, the U.S. Shipping Board created the Emergency Fleet Corporation (EFC). The EFC would subsidize shipyards with government funds, then purchase the ships made for the U.S. Merchant Fleet. For shipyard owners, this arrangement resulted in even more massive profits. For shipyard workers, it meant the U.S. government now had a direct stake in labor relations. With more and more workers drafted, and a dwindling supply of immigrant labor — employers’ traditional strike-breaking resource — a strike could completely grind to a halt a critical enterprise. The power that the alliance of business and government had now placed in the hands of workers was limitless.

The time had come for government to move against radicals with direct force. On June 16, as part of a series of nationwide attacks, hundreds of soldiers and sailors stationed at Bremerton, Washington, were given several hours of “special leave.” During this time they would travel to Seattle, to Second Avenue, and swarm the IWW Labor Hall there. Seattle police stood aside, only intervening to arrest 41 of the Wobblies themselves.

However, if the powerful men who then controlled Seattle’s fate thought that their shipbuilding enterprises would be eased by the persecution of the IWW — little more than 2.5 percent of Seattle’s shipbuilding labor force — they had missed the bigger picture.

Namely, the map of Seattle itself.

–Jeremy R. Main. To be continued.

About radsearem

Jeff Stevens is a Seattle native and author of the forthcoming City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle.
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