Obtained: What was gained and lost during the Seattle General Strike of 1919 — Part Three
Anna Louise Strong, despite having been ousted from the Seattle School Board in 1918, was not out of a job for long. Harry B. Ault, editor of the Northwest’s largest newspaper, the Seattle Central Labor Council’s Seattle Union Record, would quickly snatch her up and make her the paper’s star reporter, in spite of her new status as a controversial communist sympathizer. Strong had found the perfect home in the Seattle labor movement. While there was support for America within the SCLC, there was no love for the bosses. “I believe 95 per cent of us agree that the workers should control the industries . . . but very strenuously disagree on the method,” Ault would state. For the paper, Strong would contribute a daily ragged-verse-style poem under the pen name Anise, and an advice column under the pen name Ruth Ridgeway.
Strong’s writing was most concerned with labor’s treatment of women, who were being called to take the place of men sent overseas. Her advice column, in particular, became a forum for men and women to discuss the complex issues of gender in union politics. The majority of working men simply did not believe that women belonged in the workplace; however, their opposition may have had less to do with gender than with unfair competition. As women were not allowed to join unions, owners simply paid them less for the same work, much to the ire of unionists. When women attempted to join industries that unions had successfully made “closed shop,” requiring membership to join, male unionists were outspoken in their support of female workers. In direct defiance of international union regulations, the SCLC would organize and recognize these all-female unions, even giving women official positions in the unions of their male counterparts.
Joy and Sacrifice in the “New Era”
For more than a year, Seattle shipyard workers labored under a contract they had not voted on or approved, and tensions between owners and workers, already strained, neared the breaking point. The state would again crack down on the IWW, arresting and deporting nearly a quarter of their Seattle organization.
It was into this contentious political climate that an aggressive mayoral candidate would appear. On March 5, 1918, riding a tide of labor support, reform candidate Ole Hanson would take city hall. Labor had high hopes for this powerful new ally. However, the short, fiery, red-haired man now in charge of Seattle could not have been more strange.
Hanson had come to the city nearly two decades earlier, after a severe spinal injury in Butte, Montana, left him partially paralyzed. Emulating his hero Teddy Roosevelt, who had conquered illness through exercise, Hanson would physically attach himself to the back of a covered wagon and walk the 700 miles to Seattle’s Beacon Hill. Here a physically fit Hanson declared to amazed onlookers that he would be mayor of the city someday. He was a Bull Moose Republican, before becoming a Democrat, because they “kept us out of the war,” before becoming an avid pro-war advocate, proclaiming his mayoral candidacy a “patriotic duty.”
He would become well known for his fiery diatribes, delivered in the frenzied shrill of his high voice, earning him the nickname “Holy Ole” from his critics. Hanson was a man who “seemed to be wound up too tight,” according to a political associate years later. “I never heard anything like Old Ole until Hitler came along. He’d get so worked up he’d be almost screaming. He sure sounded sincere.”
Throughout all his histrionics, however, Hanson remained sincere on only one thing: Ole Hanson. Every stance he took on every issue was designed to insure that he held onto support and power.
On November 11, 1918, the First World War finally came to a close. There was dancing all over town. People gathered in the streets to celebrate not only the end of a war, but perhaps the end of all wars.
However, at the SCLC, post-war glee was short-lived. Months passed and the wartime wage controls of the SLAB showed no signs of being removed. With absolutely no legitimate reason for them to continue, government and business were sending a clear message to the workers of Seattle. They would hold this contract designed to destroy union power as long as it took.
However, as a new year dawned, it became clear how far they had misjudged. Seattle entered 1919 in peace, with flu deaths on the decline, and a population of about 400,000. In its five modern shipbuilding facilities, union organizing was stronger than ever. The SCLC now boasted over 60,000 members, an all-time high. But this “new era” promised by the elite had turned out to be one of crushing inflation, with employers content to allow real-world wages to decline. The cost of living would soar to nearly twice that of pre-war levels. Seattle unions would take a stand in this unbearable situation.
Skilled workers had voted against a contract that had personally benefited them. On January 16, with the possibility of a strike on the table, the SCLC’s Metal Trades Council would again meet with owners, demanding the same thing they had in 1917: a scale topping out at $8 per day, knowing full well this now meant a wage of just $13.33 per hour in today’s dollars.
The appearance of a mysterious telegraph at the Labor Temple would end the negotiation. It was from EFC General Manager Charles Piez, and had been addressed to the Metal Trades Association, a group representing the shipyard owners — not the SCLC’s Metal Trades Council. Similar names, and a delivery boy’s mistake, had placed in the hands of the union Piez’s stern warning to the shipyard owners: If they gave in to worker demands, he would not let them have their U.S. Steel allotments. Union anger was finally directed at government. On January 18, the Metal Trades Council distributed formal notices that all shipyard work would end in two days. In response, employers spread rumors that workers did not truly wish to go on strike. They would distribute petitions to their workers, non-binding under any legal standard, requesting a revote on the strike. Skinner and Eddy management held a straw vote “revealing” 95 percent opposition to the strike. Unbeknownst to them, however, in only one of the smaller unions had majority support for the strike not been attained.
–Jeremy R. Main. To be continued.