February 10, 1919: The Seattle General Strike, Day Five

Crowds gather at the intersection of 9th Avenue and Pine Street on February 6, 1919, the first morning of the strike

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

Wednesday, February 5, 1919, was the final day before the Seattle General Strike, and for the strike’s Executive Committee, many questions were still unanswered. Most outstanding was that of city power. Officials had complained of the mass chaos, and the public health and water supply crises, that would result from a full shutdown of Seattle City Light. Unbeknownst to all, however, the city’s weak electrical unions were not in a position to accomplish a full shutdown. They would, however, attempt to bluff the mayor into allowing one by giving a newspaper interview that morning stating they were to receive “no exemptions,” not even for the sake of public health and safety. The interview caused panic in the streets and anger within the Seattle Central Labor Council. After a meeting with the SCLC’s Metal Trades Council, the electrical unions suddenly announced they would be open to some exemptions. The mayor, however, would state that City Light would run in its entirety even if he had to use soldiers to run it.

With tensions on the rise and the hours before the strike ticking away, the Executive Committee would call the mayor to an 11th-hour meeting. Hanson, who had been working on “plans for defense, including securing cartridges, shot guns and machine guns, and drawing a map showing the places where men were to be stationed,” would head to the Labor Temple and restate his intention to use troops to run City Light. However, he would also again declare his support for the remainder of the strike. After he had left, at 3:30 a.m. on Thursday morning, the Executive Committee would vote to allow all of City Light to run, except for the commercial service. For the average Seattle resident, no change in service would be noticed.

A Quiet Appeal

On the first morning of the strike, curious people gathered in the streets long before the 10 a.m. call. They would be joined by 1,500 soldiers from Ft. Lewis (then “Camp Lewis”), who would then be stationed at the armory and seen by virtually no one. For international union leaders, it was also an early morning, as they arrived in town with the first train, hoping to shut the strike down. The steam whistles blew, and the streets emptied. Then quiet. An eerie calm that strikers and observers alike would note. The riots did not come. In their place were rumors of assassinations, arson, imprisonment, poisoning, pillaging, and destruction. None were true. The streets of Seattle were empty but for the occasional truck marked “Exempted by the Strike Committee,” and arm-band-wearing Labor War Veteran Guards. These men, approximately 300 in number, had been organized by the Law and Order Committee to enforce Seattle Health Commissioner McBride’s ordinance against public gatherings, and, consequently, to prevent the strike from coming to violence. They were unarmed, believing in a “big idea,” that, in the words of one guard, shunned “police force with clubs” in favor of “officers [who] understand human nature and use brains and not brawn in keeping order.” In the eyes of this guard, “if you explain it to them reasonably,” people will respond reasonably.

For the mothers of Seattle, the morning might have been met with concern for keeping their babies fed. But 35 milk stations had been established around the city by the Milk Truck Drivers to supply young children. The Drivers had rejected a plan they created with their employers that might have let many poor children go hungry, in favor of purchasing milk from dairies outside the city with their own money. At the strike’s height, the Milk Stations distributed a full 30,000 gallons of milk a day.

At noon, the second meeting of the General Strike Committee commenced. Virtually all the SCLC’s 60,000 members had struck as promised, and they had been joined by the Japanese unions as well. They would be invited to send a delegation to the General Strike Committee, in spite of being denied any say in the strike’s conduct. In addition, 40,000 non-union workers had walked out, with no assurance of a job to go back to.

About 100,000 people were now part of the Seattle General Strike, and with their families, this comprised well over half the city’s population. “The strikers were at once brought face to face with the way in which the whole community, including their own families, is inextricably tied together,” Anna Louise Strong would later write. No longer a union slogan, in a city without a functioning ruling class, an injury to one family was an injury to all.

By late afternoon, the first meals were finally served at the 21 union-run dining halls around the city, serving an all-you-can-eat buffet of beef stew, spaghetti, steak, pot roast, bread, and coffee for $4.07, or $2.91 with a union card, in today’s dollars. Those with IWW cards initially paid full price, but by the strike’s end even members of the public were given the discount.

By all accounts the streets were safe. The completeness of the peace would surprise many–not the least of which was Ole Hanson. But with no blood on the streets, there was no blood on his hands, and a man famous for changing his position was free to change it once more.

Friday the 7th rolled in, and with it a different air. The rumors were gone. The fear was gone. No longer something ethereal, the end of all work in the City of Seattle was something real. Something tangible.

With the morning had also come an additional 950 federal troops under the command of Major General John F. Morrison. They would be stationed at various strategic points around the city. In addition, Hanson would hastily hire an additional 600 police officers. The only requirement for receiving a tin star and a gun that day in Seattle was to be a white male capable of standing in a room with a hand raised, reciting a pledge. Approximately 2,400 stars and guns were distributed in this way, many to youths from University of Washington fraternities who would then attempt to provoke fights with anyone they thought was a striker.

Hanson’s set pieces were in place for a play before the national media. He would contact the United Press bureau to declare the strike “a treasonable Bolshevist uprising” that he intended to put down. A messenger was sent to the Labor Temple to read an “Ultimatum to the Executive Committee,” in which Hanson stated that, unless the strike was ended by noon, he would declare martial law and use soldiers to run all industries in the city. There were two problems with this, however. First, the authority to declare martial law had been vested in Maj. Gen. Morrison only. And second, it was already past noon when the message had been delivered.

Hanson would state that “the faces of the very men who had been loudest in egging on the workers turned pale, for they knew we were prepared to go the full limit in defeating their nefarious and un-American aims.” He spoke of faces that he, of course, had not seen because he had not been there. The actual reaction at the Labor Temple was confusion, caused both by the clock, and by the sudden change in attitude. Hanson would call for the Executive Committee to come before him, and six members would. The committee members stated that, if martial law was declared, they would call out workers in allied unions across the state. “If you want the strike to spread,” they told him, “declare martial law.” Proving that business was still in power in the Mayor’s Office, the Conciliation Board, a body which represented Seattle business leaders, would be called to join the meeting. But the officials declared they would have no dealings with revolutionaries. Hearing this, Hanson would tell the committee members, “Then that’s all there is to it, boys.” The new deadline for martial law was 8 a.m. Saturday morning.

–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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