The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

A Century Ago:
The 1919 Social Explosions in the U.S.

Jun 9, 2019

The following text is a presentation given by Spark on June 9, 2019 at the Lutte Ouvrière annual festival in Presle, France.

In 1919, American workers carried out the biggest strike wave up until that time, with 3,630 individual strikes involving one out of every five workers in the country. These included 350,000 steel workers, 120,000 textile workers and 30,000 silk workers. In Boston, the police went on strike, and in New York City cigarmakers, shirt makers, carpenters, bakers, teamsters, harbor workers and barbers were out on strike. In Chicago, the press reported more workers on strike than ever before.

There was no telling how far this strike movement would go. When it started, Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party leader, had just begun to serve a 10-year term in prison for opposing World War I. A year earlier, he had been arrested for giving a speech that had called for revolution. In the speech Debs said, “Yes, in good time we are going to sweep into power in this nation and throughout the world. We are going to destroy all enslaving and degrading capitalist institutions and recreate them as free and humanizing institutions. The world is daily changing before our eyes. The sun of capitalism is setting; the sun of Socialism is rising....” Sitting in his prison cell in 1919, Debs told an interviewer that he did not expect a “prearranged” nationwide general strike. But, he said, “in the heat of passion men may lay down their work and be swept into a revolution with cyclonic fury.... Anything is possible as an outcome of the present situation.” Many, besides Debs, saw this as a realistic possibility. After all, the 1917 Russian Revolution showed the world that the working class could take power, opening up the possibility of building a socialist society.

The Seattle General Strike

Certainly, the revolutionary spirit of the time and above all the spirit of the Bolshevik Revolution permeated the five-day Seattle General Strike of February 1919. Participants knew that they were not at the point of making a revolution. But that is what many wanted. And for a short time, power was in the hands of the General Strike Committee and the city stopped functioning except for the activities organized by the strikers to provide essential services, such as food supply, hospitals, garbage collection, street lighting, etc. To keep the peace, strikers formed the “Labor War Veterans’ Guard,” made up of army veterans. The force did not carry weapons and used “persuasion only.” General arrests dropped to less than half their normal number. Major General John F. Morrison, stationed in Seattle, claimed that he had never seen “a city so quiet and orderly.” The strike was eventually thrown back. But writings from that time showed that workers had felt their own power in that strike, and many understood that their class could bring about a new social order. The strikers’ newspaper, the Union Record, tried to show parallels between their strike and the workers’ revolutionary movement that was sweeping across parts of Europe. “The trade union is to the American workers what the Council of Workmen and Soldiers is to Russia, Austria and Germany. The labor council is the central soviet….

What the strikers had done gave them a much broader view of the class struggle and the role of the American working class. A few months after the strike, Seattle longshoremen stopped a boatload of Remington rifles disguised as sewing machines from being sent in a U.S. government-chartered ship to the White Army in Vladivostok, and then tried to get longshoremen up and down the West Coast to do the same — thereby helping to defend the Russian Revolution.

The National Steel Strike

The national steel strike was the pivotal industrial conflict of 1919. That strike exposed the enormous strengths of the working-class movement at that time, but also glaring weaknesses and divisions. The dominant company, United States Steel Corporation, had been put together when the House of Morgan combined 12 large firms in 1901. Along with three or four other companies, U.S. Steel had a stranglehold on the single most basic product of the American economy.

Since its creation in 1901, U.S. Steel’s policy was, “unalterably opposed to any extension of union labor,” as the company’s chairman declared. The company tolerated the old union of the most highly skilled workers, especially since their numbers continued to shrink, compared to the mass of production workers, as the industry became increasingly mechanized. But the company fought tooth and nail to keep the union out for the mass of unskilled production workers.

In the U.S. at that time, practically the only stable labor unions were those of the skilled trades, organized in the American Federation of Labor (AFL). These unions largely ignored the great mass of unskilled production workers. Others did try to organize industrial workers, most especially the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a revolutionary union which proclaimed the need for the workers to organize themselves into one big union. As its leader, Big Bill Haywood, proclaimed at the IWW’s founding convention in 1905: “We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working-class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working-class from the slave bondage of capitalism.” But while the IWW led big, hard strikes and other movements, particularly in the West and in the South, its gains were fleeting in the industrial centers. And by 1919, many of the IWW’s main leaders were either in prison or facing prison because of their opposition to World War I, or they were assassinated or lynched.

In 1918, a former member of the IWW, William Z. Foster, who would become a future leader of the U.S. Communist Party, reached a compromise with the leaders of the AFL in order to organize the production workers in the steel industry into unions. But to use the resources of the AFL, both financial and organizational, it meant to accept everything that went with it, including union officials who, buckling under the pressures of the capitalist class and the government, weakened the organizing and the subsequent strike by hesitating and vacillating repeatedly. Most important, it meant accepting that the production workforce would be divided up into two dozen separate unions, which not only didn’t make sense to the workers, but weakened the workers’ fight at every turn. In the end, the skilled trades unions provided little funding for organizers, or financial support for the strikers, anyway.

Once the steel workers’ union organizing drive began, the steel companies reacted violently. They carried out mass firings. Local governments banned union meetings, imprisoned and sometimes murdered union organizers. All this was accompanied by anti-communist hysteria. But the union organizers pushed back. On April 1, 1919, thousands of miners in Pennsylvania went on strike to demand that local officials allow union meetings. This forced some town mayors to issue the required permits. The mass meetings built up workers’ confidence in the union. The AFL held a national steelworkers’ conference on May 25, 1919, to build momentum for the organizing drive. After a long delay, union officials finally agreed to a strike referendum in the mills in August. The response was a 98% vote in favor of a general steelworker strike to begin on September 22, 1919.

The steelworkers carried out their strike threat. The September strike shut down half the steel industry throughout the Midwest and continued to spread in the coming days and weeks.

The employers responded with an all-out war. Thousands of veterans, university students, small businessmen and steel company managers were pressed into service as deputies. In some cities, the national guard or else the U.S. army carried out military occupations. State police dragged strikers from their homes and jailed thousands.

Along with the violence and repression, the capitalists and their government played on the divisions that they had created in the working class to weaken the steel strike. A large proportion of the strikers were recent immigrants, of many nationalities, many languages. The detective company hired by the steel companies played on these divisions, spreading rumors in order to get the workers to stab each other in the back. U.S. government agents deported thousands of striking workers who were immigrants. And the companies brought between 30,000 and 40,000 black workers into the steel districts as strikebreakers. These workers had few compunctions about this, since traditionally AFL unions had been white-only. The only way blacks could enter most industrial jobs was as strikebreakers. In a steel mill, one lone black machinist stayed on strike to the end, but was still not admitted to the machinists’ local.

The steel strike did get a boost when coal miners and railroad workers went out on their own strikes. But when the unions reached settlements with their employers, the miners and railroad workers went back to work, thus leaving the steel workers more isolated. As October and November wore on, many skilled trades union members crossed the picket lines to return to work. The Chicago mills gave in at the end of October. By the end of November, workers were back at their jobs in many cities.

This defeat was not inevitable. The biggest problem was the narrow, trade unionist perspective that William Z. Foster and the other union leaders gave to the striking workers, that is a strike for union recognition and a contract against their individual employers, with the ultimate aim of reaching some kind of peaceful agreement, when in reality, two classes, the capitalists and the workers, were engaged in a war that only one side could win. The simple trade unionist demands weakened the workers in this fight, with each individual set of workers isolated from each other, even though they were all taking on the same enemy at the same time. It also left the striking workers disarmed, because their leadership did not propose that workers organize their own defense forces against the violence of the state.

The Black Population

Of course, no one will ever know how far the workers could have taken the fight, if their leadership had provided the same revolutionary perspective that Debs, the Seattle strikers, and the old IWW leaders put forward. But certainly, Woodrow Wilson and the other leaders of the capitalist class understood that the workers’ own actions put revolution on the agenda.

And this revolution could come from not just the striking workers, but the mass of the most oppressed parts of the working class, the black population.

When the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, hundreds of thousands of black sharecroppers and agricultural workers were recruited out of the South to work in the industrial jobs left open by workers who had been drafted into the military. Tens of thousands more black workers were also recruited into the military. No longer were black people bottled up in the rural Jim Crow South, living under a system of semi-feudal peonage. They were now in the center of the biggest cities, the economy, as well as the military, which gave them new possibilities to take on their oppressors. The capitalists and their politicians recognized the potentially explosive possibilities. In a private conversation in March 1919, President Woodrow Wilson explained that “the American Negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying Bolshevism to America”.

For the capitalists and their government, the only answer to this threat was a reign of terror. The bourgeoisie resuscitated the KKK. Hollywood did its part by glorifying the KKK in the movie called “Birth of a Nation.” The KKK grew by the millions in the North as well as the South. The KKK did not just stage gigantic parades and rallies — it lynched black people and murdered union organizers.

They also divided one part of the working class against the other — which the trade unions accepted and became a part of, with their own whites-only policies. When the war ended and the troops returned, there were no preparations made to accommodate them. Thus, there was an enormous amount of competition for both already scarce housing and scarce jobs. It was an explosive situation created by the functioning of the capitalist system — which the capitalists played upon.

The Red Summer

While the big strikes were taking place, over three dozen race riots broke out in cities and towns across the country, as well as in one rural county. James Weldon Johnson, the head of the NAACP, called it The Red Summer, because of all the blood that was spilled. Officially, hundreds were killed, with the real numbers in the thousands.

The Red Summer’s greatest urban violence occurred in rioting that began on the segregated beaches of Chicago. It was set off when a black youth swam into an area customarily used by whites, where he was stoned, and drowned. When the Chicago police refused to take action against the attackers, young black men tried to retaliate. The riot lasted 13 days. The resulting 38 fatalities included 23 black people and 15 whites. The injured totaled 537, and 1,000 black families were left homeless, as white mobs destroyed hundreds of mostly black homes and businesses on the South Side of Chicago.

A massacre at the end of September in rural Arkansas was by far the bloodiest. Black sharecroppers had formed chapters of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America, whose goal was “... to further advance the cause, uniting the race into a perfect union in various counties.” The sharecroppers withheld their cotton in order to receive better compensation. Many also refused to pick cotton for white farmers unless they were paid the price they demanded. To protect themselves, union members armed themselves with rifles and pistols. Each member pledged to protect other members. On the evening of September 30, 1919, white men fired on a black church, where about 100 people were meeting. The people in the church shot back. In the gun battle, a white man was fatally shot and another wounded. The planters formed a militia to arrest the black farmers, and they recruited hundreds of whites from the region. They attacked black people at random over two days, killing an estimated 100 to 237 black people. Five whites were also killed. The Arkansas governor appointed a Committee of Seven to investigate. The group was composed of local white businessmen. They concluded that the Sharecroppers’ Union was a Socialist enterprise “established for the purpose of banding Negroes together for the killing of white people.” The headline that the Dallas Morning News ran about the report was: “Negroes Seized in Arkansas Riots Confess to Widespread Plot; Planned Massacre of Whites Today.”

The Palmer Raids

These riots and massacres of black people were the opening salvo of a sweeping government offensive against immigrants, communists and dissenters of all kinds, called the Palmer Raids, named after President Wilson’s attorney general. These raids took place in the broader context of the anti-communist hysteria, the Red Scare, coupled with anti-immigrant hysteria. With the U.S. about to enter World War I, President Wilson had already warned against what he called hyphenated Americans who, he charged, had “poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life. Such creatures of passion, disloyalty and anarchy, must be crushed out.” The Russian Revolutions of 1917 added special force to fear-mongering against labor agitators and partisans of anarchism and communism.

In December 1919, Federal agents picked up thousands of immigrants in coordinated raids all over the country, held them in seclusion for long periods of time, then deported them. Thousands more were arrested for being members of the Communist and Communist Labor Parties in simultaneous raids throughout the country. Several thousands of those were arrested simply because they attended what the authorities considered to be a subversive meeting. In New York City, after arresting and holding an anarchist typesetter for weeks, federal agents threw him from a 14th floor window. In January, 1920, two anarchist workers, Sacco and Vanzetti, were arrested on trumped-up murder charges and executed seven years later.

Over the next decade major employers followed up these raids with their so-called “American Plan,” appealing to reactionary patriotic attitudes to help root out unions and militants.

The Debs Campaign

In 1920, as that period began, Eugene V. Debs ran for president. Debs ran for president from prison. He ran for president in the middle of the “Red Scare” repression, when so many other workers and militants had been imprisoned, or deported and murdered. He ran for president in order to once again express his confidence in the ability of the working class to take power and free humanity from the ills of capitalism. With Debs restricted to his prison cell, countless ordinary people throughout the country carried out the Debs campaign. Debs got a million votes, more than any of his previous four runs. 1919 didn’t end in the revolution that Debs, the workers of Seattle and the militants of the IWW had hoped for. But in the face of growing repression, working people had used the Debs presidential election campaign to show their defiance of the capitalists and to proclaim their belief that the working class could build another kind of future, which is still on the agenda.