February 7, 1919: The Seattle General Strike, Day Two

Strikers stockpile groceries in preparation for the city shutdown. Photo credit: Museum of History and Industry, Seattle

Obtained: What was gained and lost during the Seattle General Strike of 1919–Part Two

Seattle sits more than a hundred miles, and an international border, from the nearest comparatively sized city, with Puget Sound to the west, the Cascade Mountains to the east, and rugged stands of open timber everywhere in between. In the early 20th century, this meant Seattle was isolated. Compared to other cities, it was much harder for workers here to connect with their international unions. Rather than accept isolation, workers in Seattle developed a very simple solution: Band together. Every union in the city, shipbuilding or otherwise, used one single body in the majority of their bargaining and decision-making: The Seattle Central Labor Council (SCLC). In the SCLC, the average worker who wanted to take the floor could reasonably expect to have their opinions taken seriously and used to shape policy. The unions of Seattle were truly under their own management. Workers thought of themselves not as members of a particular trade, but as part of a single unified body to which an attack on one was indeed an attack on all.

The Demands of the Owners

With labor in high demand and well organized, Seattle shipyard workers found themselves in a good position to ask for a much needed cost of living wage increase. Their terms were not exorbitant: a pay scale topping out at $8 a day, the equivalent of just $15.87/hr, roughly the starting wage for today’s shipyard worker, and, rich with fresh government contracts, Skinner and Eddy would initially agree.

However, the situation changed radically in August of that year, when the EFC would join with the AFL to produce the Shipbuilding Labor Adjustment Board. The SLAB was formed to establish standardized nationwide and regional pay scales for all subsidized shipyards. Workers in Seattle had good reason to fear the SLAB. A standardized pay scale would effectively slam the door in the face of local unions, rolling back years worth of gains made and completely destroying any negotiating power. Outraged, the SCLC’s Metal Trades Council, which encompassed all of Seattle’s shipbuilding unions, moved to strike.

Rather than see the closing of some of its most important yards, the EFC would call for a Seattle delegation to come to Washington, D.C., and state their case before the SLAB. Three Seattle union leaders would pack their things and make the long journey cross-country. But even as they went on the road, government was moving against them. On September 7, the EFC demanded veto power over the SLAB, making any negotiations with it meaningless. The Seattle union leaders, arriving to find a board without the authority to hear them, would simply turn around and go home. After the delegation left, however, the EFC withdrew its veto request and restored the board’s authority.

The gambit would fail. On September 29, the shipyards were on strike, and now it was the SLAB’s turn to run cross-country to meet with Seattle unions. However, what the board had in mind was not a negotiation, but a series of public hearings that lasted five days. After this, the SLAB would leave Seattle without resolving anything.

Even without a contract, the AFL would prove its compliance in the process, demanding that workers leave the picket line. At first they resisted. But five international shipbuilding union presidents were called upon to pressure workers back on the job. Using strenuous appeals to patriotism, they would succeed.

After holding hearings in other West Coast towns, the SLAB finally announced the establishment of a uniform wage scale for the Puget Sound district. The SLAB–a board on which sat an AFL secretary, and which had been backed by five international union presidents–had returned a wage scale that cut pay for entry-level workers to a level lower than comparable work outside the field. However, in what was advertised as a concession, Skinner and Eddy’s regionally leading pay for skilled workers–$10.97/hr in today’s dollars–was made the standard for skilled labor throughout the Puget Sound district.

The AFL then forced local unions to accept the new contract, violating the law and the AFL’s own constitution. The reason given for workers to stay on the job was, again, patriotism–an argument the workers of Seattle would not fight against.

The Problem of Propaganda

The SCLC was thought of as being “red,” and fully aligned with the IWW. Nothing could have been further from the truth. While there were radical elements capable of exerting considerable influence, this was a union of the Seattle working man, easily susceptible to the appeals of the state and to the racism and sexism of the time.

The First World War was sold to the public as “The War to End All Wars,” a horrifically violent struggle to end ages-old European autocracy and militarism, sure to usher in a long-term era of peace, prosperity, and participatory democracy on the world stage. Any group perceived as standing in the way had to be shut out, both nationally and by Seattle workers. In particular, the “boring” IWW members would be allowed to participate but denied a vote, and the unionized Japanese were excluded from the SCLC altogether.

African-Americans also found themselves a union target. Called upon to take the place of drafted workers, Blacks received a warm reception within the IWW, but would be shut out of mainstream unions in a tide of bigotry–a racial disparity employers gleefully exploited. With few opportunities, Blacks made perfect strikebreakers. Only after strenuous appeals by the dual-card IWW, would some unions ease their “color bar” and allow Blacks to join–but this was little more than an attempt by the SCLC to break independent Black organizations. Even with Black unionists in the workforce, employers continued to abuse the tension through the use of segregation.

Observing the racial situation, one young reporter would opine:

And I thought: WHEN
Will the workers be as clever
At STICKING TOGETHER
As the boss is
At DIVIDING THEM?

In her writings as part of the Seattle labor movement, Dr. Anna Louise Strong spoke out against the racism and sexism of the unions many times.

Attracted to both the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest and the exciting progressive attitude of Seattle, Strong was imbued with a sense of independence, a deep love of nature, and a high-quality education. After receiving her doctorate, she covered progressive causes for a Chicago paper, before traveling the world with a roving children’s exhibition.

She would become well acquainted both with the people of Seattle–becoming the “best known of the respectable women in town”–and with its surrounding countryside. Within a year of moving to the city, she was considered for the Seattle School Board. The only published Ph.D. to run, she won easily. She would later call the position “the most completely boring of my life.”

All of this changed, however, when America entered WWI. Convinced the nation she loved was dead, Strong spent the summer mountain-climbing and soul-searching, until she chanced upon a copy of a small socialist newspaper, the Seattle Call, one of many publications relaying stories from Russia of a nation truly being run by its people. Stories that were not true. By this point, the authoritarian rule of the Bolsheviks was firmly in place. Cut off from the truth by propaganda, Strong and many others would take hope from such publications that a great change was indeed about to sweep the world. Strong wrote several anti-conscription articles for the Seattle Call. For Strong’s upper-class constituency, radical politics was simply out of bounds. A recall vote was called, and Strong was ousted from the board.

–Jeremy R. Main. To be continued.

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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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