Workers run the city: The Seattle General Strike

Jul 17, 2019

Shipyard workers leaving on strike, Skinner and Eddy Corp., Seattle, 1919. Photo: Asahel Curtis (public domain).

To justify their rule, capitalists and their politicians tell us that we need them to organize society for us. They tell us that our suffering is not their doing, but the doing of other workers and oppressed people in the US and elsewhere.

From February 6-11, 1919, the workers of Seattle, Washington, staged a general strike that disproved these two foundational lies of capitalism. The strike demands ranged from better pay and working conditions to solidarity with the workers of Russia and opposition to US military intervention in the anti-Soviet civil war taking place there. Workers not only struck against the factories, shipyards, docks, and logging operations, but also undertook the direct management of civil affairs in the city, operating food banks and soup kitchens, providing childcare and other social services. The workers’ movement made strides in overcoming racist and nationalist divisions as they worked toward multinational and international unity. Although it took place 100 years ago, it still provides inspiration and fuel to our struggle today.

The Seattle General Strike was the result of a complex history of local economic development and political conflict, major organizing efforts by labor unions, and the particular historical conjuncture of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the effects of American global expansionism on the situation of workers and labor unions on the US West Coast.

The sharpening class struggle in Seattle

Seattle was a young city in the second decade of the 20th century. The area was the traditional home of the Duwamish and Suquamish peoples, who lived on and with the rich resources of the sea and the forests. Anglo “settlers” began to lay claim to land along Puget Sound in the 1850s, and the city of Seattle was formally established in 1869. Indigenous peoples were marginalized, dispossessed, displaced, and subordinated to American governmental authority through treaties and expropriations.

The timber industry soon became a major force in the local economy, and timber barons came to play powerful roles in local political life. The Yukon gold rush of the 1890s also drove local development, as Seattle became the port of departure for thousands of prospectors seeking their fortunes in the streams and mountains of Alaska and the Canadian Northwest. Shipbuilding grew on a large scale, and Seattle’s role as a Pacific port expanded with the arrival of the railroad and the increasing volume of trade between the US and Asia. Shipping time to China or Japan was several days shorter from Seattle than it was from San Francisco or Los Angeles.

As the number of workers in Seattle swelled, with working conditions harsh and wages low, labor organizing became critical to the future of the local masses. Trade unions, many affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), gained large local memberships. Union locals were coordinated through the Seattle Central Labor Council (SCLC). The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), also known as the Wobblies, had a large following in the Pacific Northwest, with their radical program of syndicalism and political agitation. The IWW national newspaper was published in and distributed from Seattle. The Socialist Party, led by Eugene V. Debs, had several thousand members in the area, and although it did not succeed in electing local officials, it helped shape the militancy of local workers and their support for workers’ control of industry.

In 1914 the Panama Canal opened, and this quickly increased the shipping of goods from West Coast ports, both through the canal to the east and across the Pacific. By the summer of 1916 the increasing pace of work and the demands of bosses for greater productivity without rises in wages triggered a longshoremen’s strike, which lasted from June 1 to October 4 of that year. The National Guard was mobilized to help break the strike, and in some ports such as San Francisco the struggle ended in the late summer. But strikers in Seattle and Tacoma held out until early October, demonstrating their high level of militancy. The strike was ultimately settled without meeting the workers’ demands, which increased their anger and frustration and set the stage for the next rounds of class struggle in the region.

Just north of Seattle, workers in the city of Everett were on strike in the Fall of 1916 as well. On November 5 the Verona steamship set out from Seattle with 250 IWW militants to provide support for the Everett strikers. When the ship arrived, a mob of gun-wielding vigilantes and local lawmen attacked it. Five workers were killed and many more were wounded. Two so-called “deputies” were also killed, though the shots which felled them came not from the Verona but from somewhere onshore. Afterwards, 74 workers were charged with murder, which outraged local communities. The trial became a political struggle, and local juries acquitted all accused in the Spring of 1917. This victory fueled further militancy, inspiring a major strike in the logging camps, with the leadership of the IWW. In March 1918 the loggers won their demands, including an 8-hour day and improvements in working conditions. The tide of class struggle was on the rise.

The sharpening of the international class struggle

The political situation in Seattle was shaped not only by local conditions, but also by developments on a national and global scale. The United States joined in the imperialist conflict of World War I in April 1917. The Socialist Party, the IWW, and many workers opposed US involvement. The US government, in response, persecuted and prosecuted anti-war workers and organizers. The Bolshevik Revolution broke out in November 1917, and this gave rise to a “red scare” on the part of the American ruling class, which further tried to suppress the internationalism of unions and workers.

The end of the war in Europe freed up American forces to be deployed to the Russian Far East, to be used along with Japanese troops to intervene in Russia in support of the reactionary “white” military trying to overthrow Soviet power and restore the rule of capitalism. Because of its proximity to Asia, Seattle was the logical port to use to ship men and materials to Vladivostok. By the Winter of 1918-19 the stage was set for a radical confrontation.

Just a year before this, an unusual moment of international solidarity had taken place in Seattle, which contributed a real sense of class consciousness and of personal connections to these large global issues. A Soviet freighter, the Shilka, had put in to Elliott Bay, the entry to Seattle’s harbor. The ship carried cargo of beans and peas, and when it entered port for re-fueling, workers in Seattle and from Russia met face to face, exchanging experiences and viewpoints. The held celebrations and held a mass meeting in the IWW hall, with a Soviet sailor as the guest of honor. The visit of the Shilka left a lasting sense of connection between the workers on both sides of the Pacific, which would play its part in launching the General Strike.

Workers stop “work,” but run the city

The General Strike evolved out of a work stoppage by 35,000 shipyard workers, which began on January 21, 1919. They appealed to the Central Labor Council for support, a General Strike committee was formed, and a call was issued for the strike to begin on February 6. When that day came, over 100,000 workers joined the strike. The demands included better pay and conditions, but also opposition to the loading and shipping of war materials to fight the Soviets. Not only dock workers and shipyard workers, but also loggers and workers from the city’s trades joined in.

For the next week the strikers essentially ran the city. They set up food services and child care, patrolled the streets to maintain order, kept supplies going to hospitals, and carried out political education programs. The Seattle General Strike was a laboratory in which the working class gained important experience in organizing and managing social affairs. It was also a struggle that pushed the struggle for multinational class unity forward. While the IWW and the International Longshoremen’s Association were open to workers of all nationalities, most trade unions in Seattle at the time excluded Japanese and Black workers. Yet when the general strike erupted, both groups of workers joined the ranks of strikers, with Japanese labor associations formally endorsing the strike actions.

Of course, the local and national bourgeoisie could not tolerate this kind of workers’ movement. Municipal, state, and federal authorities all mobilized to attack the strikers. The city government recruited “Special constables”–armed thugs deployed to intimidate the workers. The federal government sent in troops as well. Even the national leadership of the American Federation of Labor failed to support the strikers, as they feared the radicalism of the workers in the context of the repression of the red scare. Big media, in those days the national newspapers, acted as the voice of corporate interests and slandered the strikers as “traitors” and “Bolsheviks.” The General Strike Committee had to yield to massive physical and political pressure, and by February 11 the strike was called off.

The Seattle General Strike of 1919 did not establish worker power on an ongoing basis. The forces arrayed against the working class at that time were too strong to be overcome in one city or region. The power of American capitalism was still on the rise as the era of European imperialism was beginning to wane. That year also saw worker uprisings in Berlin, Vienna, and Budapest, and large scale strike actions in Scotland and Italy. The legacy of these struggles lives on, and in the present age of the decline of American and global capitalism it can serve to inspire socialists and working-class militants across America and around the world.

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