Feb 18, 2019
One hundred years ago, the workers of Seattle organized the first general strike in a major U.S. city. The workers proved they could run the city better than the bosses, without the bosses’ help – and that sent the bosses into a panic.
In 1919, Seattle was a union town, with over 100 American Federation of Labor (AFL) locals organizing everyone from boilermakers, carpenters and shipyard workers to cooks, barbers, newsboys, and hotel maids. The I.W.W.’s “One Big Union” lumberjacks had taken shipyard jobs during the war, and their ideas were popular.
During the World War from 1915 to 1918, war contracts for shipbuilding made Seattle boom. About 26 per cent of all ships built for the war came from Seattle yards and Seattle labor. The cost of living was high, but the shipyards could pay reasonable wages if pushed, and the unions did push.
But the end of the war meant the winding down of the contracts. The government’s Shipbuilding Labor Adjustment Board threatened to cut off steel to the shipyards – all the shipyards – unless pay cuts were imposed on the workers. From August 1917 to December 1918, the unions tried to negotiate. The owners offered small raises for the most skilled, but pay cuts of 15% for all general labor. Workers refused!
On January 21, 1919, 35,000 shipyard workers went out on strike. When the Central Labor Council (CLC) of Seattle took a vote to propose that other union workers strike, the response was volcanic.
The General Strike Committee (GSC) was set up, composed of 3 delegates from each of the 110 unions, to make all decisions on strike matters. An Executive Committee of 15 would handle details.
On February 6 at 10:00 a.m. 60,000 other union workers walked off their jobs and joined the 35,000 shipyard strikers. Seattle was quiet and calm. “Nothing moved but the tide,” said one striker.
Three hundred war veterans organized the Labor War Veterans Guard. Armed only with white armbands and their powers of persuasion, they kept the peace. City police normally recorded 100 incidents per day; during the strike, there were only 30.
Dairymen and truckers organized milk deliveries from farms to neighborhoods. It took only three days to iron out problems and get a smooth running system.
Cooks, restaurant workers, waitresses, and produce depot workers set up a Provisions Committee to feed strikers at 25 cents a meal and anyone else at 35 cents. They had 21 cafeteria halls supplied from central kitchens. By the fourth day they were serving 30,000 meals daily and, said one in charge, “If it went four or five days more, we could have reduced the price.”
The immense success of the sympathy strike scared the conservative union leaders almost as much as it scared the bosses and their government. The city government passed out arms and deputized 2600 “special” police.
The Executive Committee, influenced by the old conservative union leaders, recommended returning to work on Saturday night. That was soundly voted down by the delegates of the General Strike Committee. But the “old guard” kept sending more and more of the smaller unions back to work without authorization. By Monday, the delegates decided to end the strike in a unified way. On Tuesday, February 11, the sympathy strikers went back to work. The shipyard strike continued.
The History Committee of the General Strike Committee reported: “The workers of Seattle did not go back to work with the feeling that they had been beaten. They went smiling, like men who had gained something worth gaining, like men who had done a big job and done it well. The men went back, feeling that they had won the strike ... They had chosen the strike themselves, and it had been a great experience.”
But for the capitalists, it had not been a great experience. U.S. bosses had seen European workers in revolt, starting with the Russian workers in February of 1917, culminating in their revolution in November. They had seen soldiers refuse orders of their military leaders. There had been revolts in Germany, Hungary, Italy, Finland, and other places, against the terrible conditions wrought by World War I. The threatened bosses launched the Palmer Raids and the “Red Scare,” a campaign of repression against union and political militants.
Seattle was a small part of the uprising of a great many workers, challenging what the bosses were doing to them. But the wave of rebellions and uprising began to recede. The Seattle workers’ strike did not spread.
Seattle was a step along the road. The working class – in the United States and everywhere in the world – will have to go much further when it decides it has had enough of this capitalist system of exploitation and wars.