Obtained: What was gained and lost during the Seattle General Strike of 1919–Part Six
Eight a.m. on Saturday, February 8, 1919, had been set by Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson as a “new” deadline for martial law to be declared in Seattle if the general strike in effect that week had not been called off by its leaders. The time and date would come and would go. And workers were not back on the job.
When asked, Maj. Gen. Morrison stated that if it were necessary, he alone would declare martial law, and it would be no bluff. The mayor, however, would keep his fantasy going in the national press, branding himself the savior of Seattle: “I issued a proclamation that all life and property would be protected; that all business should go on as usual. And this morning our municipal street cars, light, power plants, water, etc., were running at full blast. There was an attempted revolution. It never got off first base.” Even those who had ardently supported an end date for the strike were now angry at the mayor’s sudden and irrational behavior and felt strong for having violated “two” calls for the strike’s end.
But the strike’s own success was beginning to take its toll. Anna Louise Strong would later write, “As soon as any worker was made a leader he wanted to end that strike… workers in the ranks felt the thrill of massed power which they trusted their leaders to carry to victory. But as soon as one of these workers was put on a responsible committee, he also wished to stop ‘before there is riot and blood.’ The strike could produce no leaders willing to keep it going. All of us were red in the ranks and yellow as leaders.”
On Sunday the 9th, bowing to the massive pressure applied by their international unions, several unions would go back on the job. Most crushing of these were the Street Car Men and the Teamsters. Both declared they would return if called by the General Strike Committee. However, the roll call for Monday the 10th saw even more unions missing, including the Stereotypers, Auto Drivers, Barbers, Bill Posters, and, most critical to the strike, the Milk Truck Drivers. Now, under pressure from smaller unions worried about their jobs, the Executive Committee voted to reconvene the strike the next day for its final day.
At noon on Tuesday, February 11, 1919, the longest and most successful General Strike in American history would come to a close.
What Was Gained and What Was Lost?
For Seattle unions, tangible gains from the General Strike were hard to find. Shipyard workers continued to labor under the SLAB’s wage scale until later that year, when, with government contracts drying up, all of Seattle’s shipyards were shut down. They were the first in the nation to be shuttered, closed a full year before the subsidized yards of other cities.
For Ole Hanson, the strike would bring fame. He was front-page news across America. He would resign as mayor in order to attempt to parlay his notoriety into what seemed to have been his goal all along: a run at the White House. He would make it as far as the Republican National Convention, but, with his endless tirades on Bolshevism growing stale, he would be shut out entirely. In the aftermath of the strike, Seattle Labor pursued political goals much less lofty, but no less failed.
The strike had created an anger and fear of Seattle Labor to last a generation to come. In the 1919 municipal elections, every Labor candidate was defeated. For the IWW, 1919 was to spell the beginning of the end, both in Seattle and abroad. Within a month of the strike, its hall was again raided and 39 members arrested as the “ring-leaders of anarchy.” The SCLC, recognizing the existence of “one common enemy,” would finally come to the IWW’s legal defense. However, in response to the strike, early that year the Washington State Legislature would pass a Criminal Syndicalism law of its own, part of a new round of vicious repression nationwide which would ultimately break the back of the entire IWW organization. Though Wobbly unions are still in operation today, there are now as many members around the world as there were in Seattle alone during its height.
The new doors to be battered down were in Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua, and in Germany and Italy right up until the very moment of WWII. The elite would apply the lessons learned to insure that another Seattle would not happen during this war. For its part, the AFL was only too happy to remain loyal, the events of 1919 having spurred it to remove any trace of radicalism from its ranks. For others, though, the year had displayed the inability of business and government to insure a progressive increase in the happiness and well-being of its citizenry. Modern Progressivism would take shape, and separate itself from its previous ally, the Labor Movement–a rift perhaps not bridged again until another winter’s day in Seattle, when “Teamsters and Turtles” would stand together during 1999’s World Trade Organization protest.
With the shipyards closed, Strong would later write, “workers drifted to other cities to look for work. The young, the daring, the best fighters went… Workers fought each other for jobs and not the capitalists for power.” Once so unified, the SCLC was now bogged down in endless bickering and finger-pointing over the strike’s failure, and would oust many of its most radical leaders. Owners punished the now weakened unions, with many concessions laid on the line not returned.
The SCLC began to grow more comfortable with the female workers in its midst, and would gain a new racial tolerance, with several unions dropping their color bars. The non-voting Japanese delegation became a permanent fixture in the SCLC, and the Longshoremen, once so violent with African Americans, now proudly welcomed them. For Strong, however, the end of solidarity in Seattle was simply too much. She left the city for Russia, and then China, along the way writing the book “Children of the Revolution.” She would meet several notable leaders, including Stalin and Mao Zedong, becoming a party-line militant, though she was deeply disturbed by the abuses she would witness. Ultimately, under suspicion of espionage, she would be deported from Russia, but would return to China.
Ironically, the one who would best articulate what was perhaps the strike’s greatest victory was Ole Hanson himself. “True there were no flashing guns, no bombs, no killings. Revolution, I repeat, doesn’t need violence. The general strike, as practiced in Seattle, is itself the weapon of revolution, all the more dangerous because quiet.”
The strike had proven something that to this day is not well understood: Non-violent revolution is possible. In the words of one labor group, there were “[s]ixty thousand men out and not even a fistfight.” The streets of Seattle had been flooded with guns, armed businessmen, almost two and a half thousand soldiers, and 3,000 members of the public hired or deputized to the police, including armed fraternity brothers. But in spite of this, and not because of it, the strike was peaceful. The General Strike and Executive Committees established a real-world infrastructure that prevented violence by meeting the needs of Seattle’s people. Its Labor Guards used consensus and understanding to defuse violence in the face of mass provocation. In the words of one reporter, “While the business men and the authorities prepared for riots, labor organized for peace.”
In her history of the strike, Anna Louise Strong urges us to learn from its mistakes and successes, and there are many lessons here for those who fight for equality and justice today. Revolution can only be strong when truly in the hands of its people. No matter how radical or well meaning, at every point the leaders of the General Strike only served to weaken it. Fear of a world no one had seen before left them completely unprepared when the strike presented it to them. Now, after almost a hundred years of the “new era,” as labor and progressivism inch closer together, we make the same mistake. Revolution seems intangible, ethereal. But simply because we cannot see it now doesn’t mean it is not possible. The General Strike proved that it can be real. On the streets of Seattle, it was born and died. In response to a newspaper report amazed at how fully labor had “organized for peace and order,” Strong would write: “And peace and order obtained.”
–Jeremy R. Main. Sources available upon request at firstname.lastname@example.org.