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The Seattle General Strike: The Revolution That Never Had A Chance

By Andrew Knox

For Fred Nollan, English 102, Winter Quarter 2010 Seattle Central Community College

On the first day of February, 1919, mild hysteria spread over the populace of Seattle. Like a disease, fear and panic subtly permeated the community. There was still order, that was not in question. The question was, rather, how long would this order stand? Edwin Selvin, editor of the Business Chronicle, paid for publication of an article in the Seattle P.-I., claiming that a community crisis confronts Seattle and Tacoma. Upon how the citizens meet this greatest of crises and upon them alone depends the well-being of the entire Puget Sound region(Selvin 7). While perhaps hyperbolic, and writing in the interest of business, Selvin had a point. The following two weeks in Seattle would affect the entire nation, sparking the first Red Scare in the United States and eventually leading to the Cold War. This panic was the threat, and subsequent action, of a general strike. A general strike is a strike that involves the complete paralyzing of industry in an area by means of complete labor stoppage (Cambridge). The difference between a strike and a general strike is comparable to the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic. One is local, the other is widespread. A

standard strike has only the capacity to disable a certain company the strikers bear grievance against, whereas, a general strike has the capacity to disable an entire area such as, within the context of this paper, the City of Seattle. Just saying a general strike disables a city is too vague, however, as a general strike shuts down all of the businesses, the city government (both in political and infrastructural terms), the entertainment sectors, automobile transportation and public roads, food production, virtually any facet of a community. In concise terms, a general strike paralyzes an entire society. In the closing days of World War I, the Russian monarchy was deposed by a group of Marxist-Communists calling themselves the Bolsheviks. This was an unprecedented

development in the history of political affairs: a revolution of the working people standing up to the aristocracy that had perennially taken advantage of them. The Bolsheviks, and the new nation state they crafted, the Soviet Union, were seen by people in power around the world as extremely dangerous rabble-rousers, idealizing the unity of the common man and setting into motion schemes to export their revolution to the corners of the earth. Even in the United States there was fear of a Bolshevist uprising, because, although human equality was the rule, it was not the reality. The Seattle General Strike of 1919 starred two opposing forces: organized labor and the establishment. Key establishment figures in the Seattle General Strike include Ole Hansen (the Mayor of Seattle), Charles Piez (the Director General of the Emergency Fleet Corporation), and Major Gen. John F. Morrison (a military commander assigned to maintain order in the area). To this day, it is not crystal clear if these men were acting on their own interests, or in a fiduciary role, on behalf of the power elites, who pulled the strings behind the scenes. The term power elites refers to the upper-class movers and shakers in a society, the men with the money that run the market and make the big decisions (Shively 7). Power elites are variously business leaders, political leaders, or wealthy people of any occupation interested primarily in retaining their wealth. This is not to say that there wasnt a substantial group of poor laborers who were drawn into supporting the establishment through propaganda that inserted notions of communism bad, America good; that economic and social mobility was more than a cleverly constructed mythology. In 1919, as is so today, the ability to move up and out of the lower class was rare; if you were born poor, you would most likely die poorer. Through monopolistic control of the

media, power elites are able to shape public opinion, contorting it into designs that even undermine the public interest. The modern dream of America, one that has become less and less true with every passing year, is that even I can get rich. Disenchantment with the American dream and the highly visible wealth disparity between rich and poor were the two biggest factors that caused the Seattle General Strike.

The Rising Tide In 1919, labor organization and unionization were on the rise, fueled by distrust of the plutocracy and great wealth disparity that had developed in the lassez-faire capitalism of the late 1800s. The working conditions, number of mandatory hours in a work day, and wages had all been incrementally improved since the turn of the century; primarily through the efforts of labor super-unions such as the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). But there was still discontent, as an editorial in The Nation noted, The most extraordinary phenomenon of the present time... is the unprecedented revolt of the rank and file... the common man, losing faith in the old leadership, has experienced a new access of selfconfidence... authority cannot any longer be imposed from above; it comes automatically from below (Zinn 371). The two super-unions, the AFL and the IWW, were often at odds recruiting members and gathering political influence, mainly because of key disagreements in the way that labor improvements should be implemented. The AFL's method was somewhat conservative,

arranging negotiations between employers and union locals, using strikes as a method of last resort. The IWW was an openly socialist organization that viewed employers with contempt, as

oppressors; therefore, they were willing to dispense with formalities and begin strikes with little provocation. The IWW's slogan is an injury to one is an injury to all, which explains why they were extremely supportive of the general strike (IWW). At the time of the strike, Seattle had four daily newspapers: The Seattle Union Record, Seattle Times, Seattle Star, and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Most anti-strike editorials were written by business interests and printed in the Times or the P-I as articles with small disclaimers at the bottom stating that they were paid advertisements. Anti-strike editorials also likened the protesters to the recently vanquished foe of World War I, Germany, remarking that it begins to look as if the [strike] was to be fought to the finish upon the German principle that 'might makes right' (Open Letter). Analogies like these served to undermine the efforts of the strike, implanting the idea in the minds of the public that the strikers were un-American, even in league with America's enemies. Saying that the strikers used their 'might' meant that they were forcing the public to concede to their demands through the power of the withdrawal of labor. This precedent made it all the easier to blame the whole thing on communists after the fact. The Seattle Union Record, however, functioned as the counter-balance to conservative editorials in the other papers, as well as the mouthpiece of the organized labor movement. On several different occasions during the strike, the Union Record called out the other Seattle dailies to stop spreading what it perceived as lies. The daily paper that the Record went on record as distrusting was the Post-Intelligencer, which has become pre-eminently the spokesman of the interests of Big Biz in this community and under its new ownership seems more determined than ever to prostitute itself and besmirch the ethics of good journalism... let's cut out the camouflage and just plain lying and get down to real business and settle this strike in the way it should be

settled by giving the workers the little they ask, which is much less than their due(More P.I. Lies). Considering that the Union Record was strongly allied with the labor movement and the other major dailies were allied with business interests and the establishment, an independent view can not be culled from a single source, but from a synthesis of both sides. The origin of the strike was a series of disputes and grievances by the union of 35,000 shipyard workers in Seattle. The Shipbuilders Union in Seattle was a subordinate union to the Metal Trades Council of Seattle. The Metal Trades Council was composed of delegates from twenty-one different craft unions who drew up single blanket-agreement[s] made at intervals for all the crafts comprising it (GSC 26-29). Before the United States entry into World War I, the Macy Board, a government organization tasked with assigning wage rates and scales in industries across the country drew up an agreement that brought down the shipyard workers wages by an average of 22 cents per day. The shipyard workers thought this was unfair, given their productivity (Seattle shipyards produced 26% of all warships built during World War I), but settled for it as a sacrifice for the war effort. Given the relative efficiency compared to larger shipyards in larger cities, as well as the fact that the cost of living had skyrocketed in Seattle compared to Los Angeles, the shipyard workers demanded higher wages after the war, requesting rates of $8.00 per day for mechanics, $7.00 for specialists of semi-skilled mechanics, $6.00 for helpers with a scale of $5.50 for laborers, eight hours per day, forty-four hours per week(27). The Shipbuilders Union threatened a strike and the policy figurehead of the shipyard owners faction, Charles Piez, Director General of the Emergency Fleet Corporation, held tight to his conviction that he would have no dealings whatever with the men until they had returned

to work (27). Since neither side would budge, a strike was inevitable. On January 21 st, 1919, the Shipbuilders Union went on strike. Editorials in conservative, establishment daily papers derided the lack of transparency in the system of union organization, calling them a closed shop operation. Edwin Selvin went to lengths to discredit union council meetings, declaring that there is no democracy, no freedom of individual action, even no free speech in a Union meeting in short, the majority does not rule tactics of intimidation are practiced toward their members by the labor leaders(Selvin 7). Selvin also claimed that a radical, socialist-revolutionist viewpoint was the only view allowed uninterrupted speech on the meeting floor: if a conservative member attempts to take the floor to speak he is hooted down with cries of Shut Up!, Throw Him Out! and the like, and if he persists is offered physical violence (7). The Shipbuilder's Union and other metal craft unions were confederated together as the Metal Trades Council, and the Metal Trades Council was a major member of the Central Labor Council. The Central Labor Council, headquartered at the Labor Temple on First Avenue, was the meeting place of delegates from every labor union in the city and was essentially the highest legislature of Seattle organized labor. The day after the Shipbuilders Union strike began, the Metal Trades delegates suggested to the Central Council that a General Strike [be declared] throughout the city, in sympathy with the shipyard workers (GSC 31-35). The question the other unions considered was whether a sympathetic strike was worthwhile, or would it cause more damage to the unions and the community than to their adversaries? Their response was a resounding, if unexpected, yea vote, one account detailing the completeness with which the unions of Seattle voted for the General Strike came as a surprise to many unionists. Union after

union sacrificed cherished hopes, in order to go out with the rest (31-35). So, while all of the union delegates were in favor of starting a general strike, none of them believed the resolution had enough support to pass. At the following weeks meeting, the Central Council resolved to create a General Strike Committee. It was at about this time that some of the more ideologically inclined strikers learned that socialism was imperfect; that in the United States, big business and big government walked hand in hand, when post office workers spoke about the risks they faced for supporting the strike, Workers in the Post Office Department stated on the floor of the Central Labor Council that the regulations [regarding labor unionization by government officials] were such that they practically faced jail for striking. Thus for the first time, the Labor Movement in Seattle was brought face to face with the fact that government ownership may mean, not greater freedom for the workers but greater rigidity of regulations, and less freedom for the individuals employed than does even private ownership (31-35). While disheartening, and perhaps foreshadowing

the lack of government tolerance in the future, the absence of the Post Office Union did not break the strike. The General Strike Committee was formed from 300 members of 110 union locals to be the new legislation and management apparatus of organized labor. There was no stopping it now, the general strike was on.

Strike's On! From the very first minute, the strikers realized that a general strike could not be run like a standard strike. Workers could not just walk out, there was a great amount of administration required to keep the city alive while the old establishment was displaced. The strikers felt that

proving that the establishment and the power elites were superfluous to the maintenance of an ordered, peaceful community was more important than their original wage-related grievances, as one editorial published in the Union Record stated: not the withdrawal of labor power, but the power of the strikers to manage will win this strike(21-25). The Labor movement was so confident in its ability to manage a commune scaled up to the size of a city that all infrastructural, human survival elements were recommissioned under the General Strike Committee's jurisdiction. In the words of historian, Jeremy Brechter, the General Strike

Committee functioned as virtual counter-government for the city (Brechter 122). To assuage fears that the general strike meant violent upheaval and the destruction of civilization, the Labor leaders published three promises for conditions under the strike in a February 4th editorial in the Union Record, which was reprinted multiple times in all four papers and will hereafter referred to as the Union Manifesto. The three promises made were:

Labor will feed the people. Twelve great kitchens have been offered, and from them food will be distributed by the provision trades at low cost to all(GSC 21-25). Since all of the grocery and food stores were shut down, these non-profit kitchens prevented widespread starvation.

Labor will care for the babies and the sick. The milk-wagon drivers and the laundry drivers are arranging plans for supplying milk to babies, invalids, and hospitals, and taking care of the cleaning of linen for hospitals(21-25). These workers were given exemptions from the strike and permissions to use the roads for delivery of supplies to the needy.

Labor will preserve order. The strike committee is arranging for guards, and it is expected that the stopping of the cars will keep people at home(21-25). Order was probably their most successful point, arrests in the city dropped by half during the strike and the military officer in charge of the soldiers that later came in to break the strike, Major Gen. John F. Morrison, remarked about how he had never seen a city so quiet and orderly (Petty). But a prescription of civil order, milk, food and clean sheets doesn't keep the power on.

One major sticking point for the establishment, the general public, and even rank and file union members was whether or not the Seattle City Light power management apparatus would continue running. The representative of the electrical worker's union, Leon Green, made a pivotal decision: during the strike not a single light would burn in Seattle, and... the telephone system, the newspapers and every enterprise depending on "juice" would cease to run...[with] no exceptions (GSC 39). While the choice to turn off the power to the city was intended to hasten the acquiescence of the establishment to the striker's demands, it had the consequence of bringing the Mayor of Seattle, Ole Hanson, and his supportive constituency into the argument on the side of business. Hanson had previously been neutral and hands-off, but he viewed allowing the entire city's electricity to power down to be politically inconvenient. In an official announcement, Hanson declared that City Light should run, even if [he] had to bring in soldiers to run it (39). Hanson's stance on this issue, as well as his incumbent power as Mayor, made him the de facto agent of the anti-strike group.


If you woke up in Seattle, on February 5 th, 1919, completely unaware of the previous developments, and happened to have the latest edition of either the Seattle Star, Times, or P-I, you would be convinced that a communist revolution was at hand, that chaos and genocide and feeding Christians to lions were in the near future. The Seattle Star's headline story read: the general strike is at hand. And more, a general showdown is at hand a showdown for all of us a test of Americanism a test of your Americanism... a part of our community is... defying our government and... contemplating changing that government, and not by American methods (Under). Other newspapers echoed the hysteria. The Seattle Times headline of the same day screams across the page stop before it's too late and the accompanying article called a general strike a dangerous weapon (Stop). The Seattle P.-I. took a different tact, reprinting the Strike's manifesto, which opened with the powerful and quotable lines, On Thursday at 10A.M. ... There will be many cheering, and there will be some who fear. Both of these emotions are useful, but not too much of either. While it was a sign of evenhandedness to reprint the Union Manifesto, the head article of the P.-I. on the day of the strike was less cordial: today is raised the issue between American democracy and the organized forces of revolt, insurrection and rebellion... and thereafter we will be permitted to exist under the benign direction of a soviet government. Rubbish! (Issue). Till the very end, the General Strike movement, through it's outlet, the Union Record, deflected criticism and shot back at the establishment, especially the prime labor negotiator for the area, Charles Piez. An editorial in the Union Record a day before the strike laid the blame for any possible damage or injury at Piez's feet, prosletyzing the responsibility for the present situation and everything that may come out of it rests with Piez and Schwab. The editorial went


further in ravaging Piez's character, resolving that reasonable men and women will not demand that the workers quietly submit to this autocratic unlawful and vicious meddling of an industrial baron drunk with power (Responsibility). Whatever their political persuasion and alliances, the citizens of Seattle were in unanimity regarding one point, which was summed up best in the Union Manifesto: that we are starting on a road that leads no one knows where!

No One Knows Where! But, many people did know where that road led... when the clock struck ten on the morning of February 6th, Seattle shut down. About sixty-thousand union members were

officially part of the strike, and another forty-thousand or so joined in sympathy. Any vehicle authorized to drive on the city streets had to bear a placard reading Exempted by the General Strike Committee. The General Strike Committee made good on the promises it made in its widely published and reprinted manifesto... twenty-one feeding stations cooked and served over thirty-thousand meals of beef stew, spaghetti and meatballs, bread and coffee which were sold to the public at 35 cents per meal, union members paid 25 cents. They set up thirty-five milk stations throughout different neighborhoods. Laundry workers were only allowed to clean linens destined for the hospital (Zinn 368). If the strikers' point was to prove how organized and self-sufficient they could be, then they proved it. The General Strike Committee formed subcommittees to manage every part of Seattle that did not involve corporations or profit. They proved themselves to be stricter

bureaucrats than those they struggled against. If you wanted to get something done in the Seattle city limits, you had to get it authorized by the General Strike Committee. As the General Strike


Committee became the de facto government of Seattle for five days, even government officials asked for specific exemptions. King County Council requested janitors, they were denied. The waste management employees were only allowed to pick up garbage that had the capability of contributing to disease, leaving paper behind. The only exemptions that had a great chance of passing the committee were ones that were strictly humanitarian. The Teamsters were only allowed to bring oil to Swedish Hospital and drug stores had to have signs declaring No goods sold during general strike, Orders for prescriptions only will be filled. Signed by general strike committee (GSC 35). After witnessing the vast injuries to the bank accounts of the power elites in the first day of the city shutdown, Mayor Ole Hanson threatened to summon the National Guard and declare martial law within the city. Playing on American's anxieties about communism, Hanson sent word out by the United Press throughout the country that he was putting down an attempted Bolshevik revolution. Hanson told Representatives of the General Strike Committee that

industries and businesses would be reopened at gunpoint if the strike was not disbanded. Ironically, these threats strengthened the resolve of the committee members; one labor lieutenant, Ben Nauman, was willing to call the Mayor's bluff: Ole [Hanson] attempted to call the strike off at noon of Friday, and said that if we didn't do it he'd declare martial law. Then he said that unless we declared the strike off Saturday morning he'd declare martial law. We didn't declare it off, and Ole didn't declare martial law (45). Many viewed these threats as political posturing or pre-emptive damage control for his re-election. But these were no idle threats, the military was on its way in.


The State Attorney General called in about 950 Federal troops, and Mayor Hanson beefed up the police force by hiring 600 new officers and inducting about 2,400 special deputies, students from the University of Washington. If this display of force followed previous

government-labor relations patterns, it could have been a massacre. The Federal Government, from it's very beginnings, up until the New Deal, had no patience or tolerance for labor strikes. Peace and order at the turn of the century included strikebreaking by force and violence intended to stifle dissent against the business-governmental complex (Hagedorn 87). But the soldiers were not needed. The strike was beginning to collapse from within, from the top down. The Executive Committee of Fifteen, the top fifteen members of the General Strike Committee, realized the painful possibility of a violent government crackdown and saw little hope for winning the strike. The cards were stacked against them: the potential for deadly force/martial law, the cost of running the parallel government in a non-profit manner, and the lack of sustainability without business connections, each of these reason enough to call it off. They composed a resolution to end the strike, and this was only day two (GSC 45). The resolution was hotly debated, and the Executive Committee realized that the bulk of the strikers still had the passion and the patience necessary to march on. The resolution was defeated by a hefty majority, and the strike continued. However, by Monday, the Tenth, six unions were lost to attrition: Barbers, Stereotypers, Auto Drivers, Bill Posters, Ice Cream Drivers, and Milk Drivers had all gone back to work because they could no longer afford living without an income (Five...). Since the General Strike Committee was composed of different unions in different fields of work, union local representatives were swayed more by their international union superiors and fellows (in AFL and IWW unions) than by their Seattle


neighbors. The General Strike Committee shrunk and the strike went out with a whimper, not a bang. The strike was officially dissolved at noon on February 11th, 1919 (GSC 53).

Nothing Backfires Quite Like A Great Idea Newspapers across the country jeered the unions and lauded Mayor Hanson, who was credited with saving America from a Bolshevik revolution even if no such thing was close to happening. The fear of whatever communism was was printed onto every page that could hold ink, the first Red Scare was on. The antithesis of this communism thing was Americanism, the sort of ideology that suppressed women and minorities, endorsed thousands of members of the Ku Klux Klan marching in full white robes down Pennsylvania Avenue and thought that private property ownership was what separated America from the savages. Ole Hanson went on to a lucrative public speaking career, earning about ten times as much as his previous job (Murray 65). While any alleged fantasies of deposing the Federal Government through the General Strike may not have come to fruition, the outcome for the strikers was not an absolute defeat, either. The feeling of unity and solidarity by striking together made fraternal bonds and good memories throughout the city. While a strategic defeat for the strikers, their demands were not met, and many in the I.W.W. were arrested for anarchist conspiracies, the General Strike's History Committee's report has a happy ending, the vast majority struck to express solidarity. And they succeeded beyond their expectations... They learned how a city is taken apart and put together again... And that is why they went back from the 'glorious vacation' feeling that they had won. Not perhaps exactly the things they had set out to win, but something better (GSC 68).


Works Cited:

Brecher, Jeremy. Strike!. Revised edition. South End Press, 1997. "The Seattle General Strike of 1919." General Strike Committee, Web. 1 Feb 2010. < >.

"General Strike Definition." 1 Jan 2010. Cambridge University Press, Web. 25 Jan 2010. <>.

Gregory, James. "Seattle's Newspapers Report on the Strike ". University of Washington. 1/25/10 <>.

Hagedorn, Ann, Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919 (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2007)

Industrial Workers of the World. 1/25/10 <>. Murray, Robert K., Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 1919-1920 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 1955)

Petty, Leia. "Seattle in the hands of workers." 16 Jul. 2009: Web. 1 Feb 2010. <>.

Selvin, Edwin. "Real Cause of the Strike." Seattle P-I 1 Feb 1919. Print. "No One Knows Where!." Seattle Post-Intelligencer 5 Feb. 1919: 2. Print. "The Issue." Seattle Post-Intelligencer 6 Feb. 1919: 1. Print. "Five of Union Labor Units Vote to Return to Employment Today." Seattle PostIntelligencer 10 Feb. 1919: 1. Print.

"Under Which Flag?." Seattle Star 4 Feb. 1919: 1. Print.


"Stop Before It's Too Late." Seattle Times 4 Feb. 1919: 1. Print. "An Open Letter to Organized Labor." Seattle Times 2 Feb 1919: 6. Print. "More P.-I. Lies." Seattle Union Record 1 Feb 1919, Print. "Responsibility Rests with Piez." Seattle Union Record 5 Feb. 1919: 1. Print. Shively, W. Phillips. Power and Choice. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2008. Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. New York: Harper & Row, 1980. Print.