Seattle in the hands of workers

July 16, 2009

Leia Petty reviews a republished classic that helps us reclaim the history of working-class radicalism in the U.S.

THE REVOLUTIONARY atmosphere and activities that took hold in the U.S. in the early 20th century have been systematically written out of popular history textbooks, leaving generations of workers, students and activists without the stories and lessons of a rich history of working-class radicalism.

One of these stories is the Seattle general strike in 1919.

Revolution in Seattle, newly republished by Haymarket Books, is a firsthand account of the general strike and history of radicalism in the Pacific Northwest in the decades prior, written by Harvey O'Connor.

O'Connor was only 23 years old at the time of the general strike. After graduating from Tacoma High School in 1914, he went to work in the logging camps and joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Between jobs, he began work as an editor for the IWW's newspaper, Industrial Worker, and continued writing throughout the rest of his life, working for various union papers.

In the foreword to Revolution in Seattle, O'Connor writes, "For many years, I have been increasingly concerned lest one of the most dramatic chapters in the labor history of the United States go unrecorded." His ability to record this chapter in history relies primarily on the accounts of workers and revolutionaries he collaborated with throughout his life--in addition to thorough readings of the radical and union newspapers of the time, namely the Union Record, the daily newspaper of the Seattle Central Labor Council.

Workers developed their own methods of distributing necessities during the Seattle General Strike
Workers developed their own methods of distributing necessities during the Seattle General Strike

This republished edition is welcome for a generation of workers who have yet to experience class struggle on the scale witnessed in the first half of the 20th century. O'Connor brings this history to life.

THE GENERAL strike was set off by a 35,000-strong strike of shipyard workers on January 21, 1919. The declaration of the end of the First World War hadn't brought an end to the wage freeze imposed by the U.S. government, and shipyard workers, feeling betrayed, walked out for higher pay.

Within two weeks, 110 union locals granted authorization for a general strike, and formed a 300-person strike committee to run the strike. They were eventually joined by thousands of unorganized workers, members of the IWW and Japanese workers, who were previously denied entrance into formal trade unions, but who saw the general strike as a means to achieve better working conditions in restaurants and barber shops.

Many unions that were hesitant to strike--due to intimidation from the city government or, worse, threats by their international union offices to replace strikers with scabs if they struck--quickly came to the defense of those who did strike.

The solidarity of the workers of Seattle emerged out of a feeling of anger toward the U.S. government and the example set by the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Union Record, for example, supported the aims of the Bolshevik government, republished some of Lenin's speeches and declared, "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."

Directly influenced by the formation of soviets in Russia, the working class of Seattle was determined to not just withhold its labor power, but to reopen industry in the interests of ordinary people. One of the leaflets published at Equity, a radical printing press, was titled "Russia Did It." The text read:

You have built the ships for your boss. Why not build them for yourselves? Why not own and control, through your unions, YOUR jobs and YOUR shipyards? Why not dictate yourselves the number of hours you should work, the conditions under which you work, the pay you should receive for your labor?

The workers of Russia did it, why not you? They refused to be starved by the capitalist class, and when the capitalists refused to meet their conditions, they took over themselves the industries, and operated and managed them in the interests not of the parasitical capitalists, but of the workers. The majority of class-conscious workers of America are with you. It is up to you. The world is for the workers.

Despite pleas by the city government of Seattle to call off the strike, workers began taking control, forming in practice, a counter-government to the official one. Practically every aspect of the city's life came before the strike committee for a decision.

Any worker who wanted to continue working or any business that wished to stay open had to make their case to the strikers' elected representatives. All cars and trucks transporting goods for the strike were marked, "By Order of the General Strike Committee" or "Exempt by strike committee."

Among those allowed to continue working were firemen and laundry workers, but for hospitals only; pharmacists were allowed to distribute prescriptions only. Garbage workers were directed by the welfare committee "that such garbage as tends to create an epidemic of disease be collected, but no ashes or papers."

The most complicated job involved feeding the strikers and residents of Seattle. The milk wagon drivers established 35 neighborhood milk stations across the city. The restaurant workers immediately moved into action, opening 21 eating places at a very low price. By the end, they were serving 34,000 meals per day.

The Union Record encouraged workers to use public libraries (which increased tremendously during the strike), urged small community "sings" and organized recreational gatherings. The bulletin called on workers to "make the most of your leisure time," and ended, "This is a fine weather for a vacation anyhow."

A War Veterans Guard--made up of First World War veterans and modeled on the Workers, Soldiers and Sailors Council in Russia--was established to enforce the decisions of the strike committee during the strike. There was not a single arrest connected to those participating in the strike, and general police court arrests sunk to less than half the normal numbers.

Despite the hysteria whipped up by the city government and media, Major Gen. John F. Morrison, in charge of the U.S. troops that were later called into the city, said that in his 40 years of military experience, he had "not seen a city so quiet and orderly."

THE OFFICIAL authorities responded to this show of workers' strength by attempting to smash the general strike.

Seattle's mayor, portraying himself as the city's savior from Bolshevism, made a plea to the secretary of war to send federal troops and impose martial law. This was in addition to the National Guard, the local police and 3,000 "special deputies"--essentially, armed vigilantes--who were deputized days before the strike.

The repression and threats took their toll on strikers. But perhaps more significant, as O'Connor shows, was the pressure exerted by union officials outside Seattle to end the strike immediately.

The Seattle Central Labor Council, affiliated with American Federation of Labor (AFL), stood on the radical end of the labor movement, having elected a prominent socialist as president a year before the general strike. Telegrams ordering local unions to desert the strike poured into the Labor Temple (the organizing center of the strike committee).

These demands from the national labor leadership existed before the general strike began, but they intensified throughout. Some union officials even traveled to Seattle--not to support the rebellion, but to force members back to work.

The Union Record, still widely read by workers, responded to the smear that anyone who participated in the strike was participating in an attempted insurrection:

If by revolution it is meant violence, the killing or maiming of men, surely no group of workers dreamed of such action. But if by revolution is meant that the Great Change is coming over the face of the world, which will transform our method of carrying on industry and will go deep into the very source of our lives, to bring joy and freedom in place of heaviness and fear--then we do believe in such a Great Change, and that the General Strike was one of the definite steps toward it.

Workers in Seattle were changed forever, and their example led the way for a year of strikes. Four million people throughout the country took part in strikes in 1919 alone. Revolution in Seattle documents the impact that the general strike had on the labor movement outside of Seattle.

In fact, O'Connor uses only one chapter of his memoir to describe the general strike itself. A significant part of the book documents the history of labor radicals in the decades prior to and after the general strike.

The Pacific Northwest was home to the socialist colony movement spearheaded by Eugene Debs in the late 19th century, the famous free-speech fights led by the IWW, and massive antiwar activism leading up to the First World War.

As a result, Washington state also witnessed severe government repression, including the murder of radical leaders in Centralia and Everett, paving the way for the 1920s "red scare." This history is also central to understanding how the general strike was able to develop so rapidly and radically, and the impact of the strike in the decades after.

The example set by the working class of the Pacific Northwest posed a serious threat to the credibility of the U.S. government. Local police, often with backup from federal troops, stopped at nothing to crush these inspiring acts of working-class resistance.

Undoubtedly, this is also why so few people today know this history. Revolution in Seattle is a much-needed contribution toward reclaiming the legacy of working-class militancy for a new generation.

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