February 9, 1919: The Seattle General Strike, Day Four

Serving food to strikers. Photo credit: Museum of History and Industry, Seattle

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

January 21, 1919, would see the orderly walkout of some 35,000 workers from Seattle’s shipyards and allied trades. In the meantime, Charles Piez, General Manager of the Emergency Fleet Corporation (EFC), would act in the most schizophrenic manner possible. First, he told yard owners they could re-enter talks without penalty. Then, just as suddenly, he would threaten the cancellation of any outstanding government contracts if the wage scale was changed. He would say the government didn’t have the power to dictate wages for yard owners, then state that the SLAB contract was unchangeable and publicly declare it unpatriotic for owners to grant a wage increase. Shipyard owners would wash their hands, going on vacation, leaving the strike to simply starve itself out.

But in the Seattle Central Labor Council (SCLC), the wheels were already in motion. The SCLC’s Metal Trades Council had requested a sympathetic strike action to be held by all unions throughout the city, i.e., a general strike. By January 29, 110 unions, virtually every member of the SCLC, risking years worth of their own hard-fought concessions and, in some cases, their unions and very jobs themselves, had agreed. The City of Seattle was to be shut down.

The 11th Hour

Nearly all of Seattle’s labor union leaders were in Chicago, working to organize a national general strike to free famously railroaded labor leader Tom Mooney. According to Anna Louise Strong, among the leaders at the Mooney Congress, they would have spoken against the strike had they been in town. The fear was it “might easily smash something–us, perhaps, our well-organized labor movement.”

Businessmen would react by arming themselves in droves. Riot insurance was taken out on Seattle warehouses. Some wealthy families simply moved to Portland. The people of Seattle prepared for a long, drawn-out siege, with runs on supplies leaving store shelves bare.

The strike began to take shape on February 2 with the first meeting of a General Strike Committee. Composed of three rank-and-file members for each striking union, it was a large and unwieldy body of unacquainted individuals. The meeting would last 16 hours. In addition to fixing a date for the strike–Thursday, February 6–subcommittees on tactics, publicity, and finance would be formed. Immediately, the committee was faced with how unique an undertaking this was. The Garbage Wagon Drivers would ask the floor to state that Seattle Health Commissioner Dr. J.S. McBride had told their union that if they did not take away hospital garbage, infested with the flu, they would be arrested. The General Strike Committee realized it was not simply to govern a walkout. It would need to be a functioning counter-government for the entire city. It appointed an Executive Committee of 15, which the General Committee would have veto power over.

In its last order of business before reconvening on the 6th, the General Strike Committee would set the strike’s slogan. Proving themselves once again not to be the radicals they were portrayed as, they rejected the incendiary “We have nothing to lose but our chains and a whole world to gain” in favor of the union stock “Together We Win.”

The Executive Committee would get to work right away, and kept working at virtually all hours of the day and night until the strike ended. It would create subcommittees on exemptions for construction, transportation, and provisions, and a subcommittee to hear general welfare grievances. Its first exemption was to allow firefighters to stay on the job, with the Transportation Subcommittee producing the signage and papers necessary to indicate that those exempted were not scabs. Two days before the strike, Mayor Hanson called Seattle union leaders to a friendly lunch meeting. There he would say, “Now boys, I want my street lights and my water, and the hospitals. That’s all.” Confident they had city support, the Executive Committee began working on the flood of city exemptions, granting only those absolutely necessary for health and welfare. However, they would realize they could not simply state who would work and who would not. They would be forced to proscribe at-work behavior. In the most complicated example, the Laundry Truck Drivers and Workers formed a plan with their employers to leave one shop open to handle hospital laundry only, and to work in the other shops for a short period after the beginning of the strike to insure that wet laundry did not pose a health problem.

Rounding out that day’s meeting, the Executive Committee created subcommittees on public relations, the care of destitute homes, and a Law and Order Committee. Then, as the day’s final order of business, it would ask the most important question so far unresolved: When should the strike end? Should they even set a date? Harry Ault was joined by the head of the SCLC, James Duncan, in ardently pushing for a closing date. They would forward the question to the Metal Trades Council. But the Council simply did not believe that an end date would be effective, so the Executive Committee would not set one.

In an editorial that ran that day, Anna Louise Strong wrote:

On Thursday at 10 A.M.
There will be many cheering, and there will be some who fear.
Both these emotions are useful, but not too much of either.
We are undertaking the most tremendous move ever made by LABOR in this country, a move which will lead–NO ONE KNOWS WHERE!
We do not need hysteria.
We need the iron march of labor.

Her editorial had captured the spirit of the moment: Hope. But it was, for them, “a road that leads–NO ONE KNOWS WHERE!” and none could even say exactly where they hoped it would go. Nevertheless, for the American elite, Strong’s editorial was a declaration of revolution, and the eyes of the nation were firmly fixed on Seattle.

–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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