Seattle General Strike, 1919

  • By Patrick McRoberts
  • Posted 2/04/1999
  • Essay 861

The Seattle General Strike began at 10 a.m. on February 6, 1919, and paralyzed the city for five days. Never before had the nation seen a labor action of this kind. Many in Seattle were expecting revolution -- and a few wanted it -- but when 65,000 laborers walked off the job that day, the result was more an eerie calm. Initially, the strike demonstrated the power of union solidarity, but it soon fizzled. For labor, the Seattle General Strike was a glorious folly that led to government crackdowns and to the distrust of the public and the press for a decade to come.

The Shipyard Strike

The Seattle General Strike grew out of a shipyard strike that began on January 21, 1919. In that strike, 35,000 union members, most of them affiliated with the Metal Trades Council, walked out of Seattle shipyards that were still bustling with wartime prosperity: World War I had just ended. The strike was aimed as much at the federal government's Emergency Fleet Corporation, which coordinated wartime shipbuilding, as at the private shipyard owners themselves.

As the shipyard strike began, Seattle's Central Labor Council of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) debated launching a general strike in solidarity with the shipyard unions. Ironically, the Labor Council held the key vote during a January 22, 1919, meeting while many prominent -- and moderate -- labor leaders happened to be in Chicago discussing the possibility of a nationwide general strike to protest the imprisonment of Tom Mooney. Mooney, a fellow AFL leader from San Francisco, was serving a life term for murder based on what labor leaders believed was perjured testimony. At the Seattle meeting, the remaining, more radical leaders voted to poll the various locals for a strike authorization in support of the shipyard workers.

Hope and Fear

These events took place during a time of mounting anxiety. The Allies had won the war, but turmoil was engulfing several regions of the world. While many middle- and upper-class Americans viewed the 1917 Russian Revolution with fear, many unionized workers, especially in those early years, hoped it might encourage a working-class revolt in the U.S. The Federal Government jailed numerous activists for sedition, and employers tried to break the unions with "open shop" rules. When the EFC imposed wages that fell below union goals, labor radicals such as Seattle School Board member Anna Louise Strong (1885-1970) saw red (though not in the political sense).

In this environment, one union local after another voted for the strike. The momentum became irresistible. The Building Laborers and the Hotel Maids unanimously favored mass action. Many others followed, but the exact aims of the action remained unclear.

Labor Not United

A debate raged within the labor organizations. A. E. Miller of the Metal Trades Council wanted to use the General Strike to force shipyard owners to the bargaining table. Unions in other industries wanted to address their own grievances. Some radicals, influenced by the Industrial Workers of the World or "Wobblies," hoped to overthrow the capitalist system.

On February 4, Anna Louise Strong published her views in the Union Record. By that time many citizens were convinced that revolution was afoot. She wrote: "We are taking the most tremendous move ever made by Labor in this country, a move which will lead -- NO ONE KNOWS WHERE!" She pledged that the unions would feed the people and take care of the sick. But she sent chills down the backs of the management class by asserting: "Labor will not only SHUT DOWN the industries, but Labor will REOPEN, under the management of the appropriate trades, such activities as are needed to preserve public health and public peace. Under its OWN MANAGEMENT" (Friedheim, 110-111).

The idea of seizing the means of production had long been a mainstay of the Left, so it is not surprising that many took Strong's language as labor's official manifesto. The media did nothing to quiet the public's fears. The Seattle Star, a labor-friendly newspaper, railed against the radicals:

"The general strike is at hand. A general showdown -- a showdown for all of us -- a test of Americanism -- a test of YOUR Americanism. This is no time to mince words. A part of our community is defying our government, and is, in fact contemplating changing the government, and not by American methods."

A Great City Stopped

As the strike approached, many Seattleites armed themselves and stockpiled ammunition and supplies in their homes. Shelves were stripped bare in stores as the siege mentality took hold. Meanwhile, the union strike committee made preparations for running the city. They determined which unions would be exempted and which vital services would be kept running.

For example, the meatcutters' union had just been through a bitter strike that had resulted in many of the larger employers switching to open, non-union shops. The weakened union now represented workers primarily in small butcher shops. Rather than exhaust the union and penalize the small butchers who had kept union meatcutters on, the committee decided that the meatcutters would continue to work. But since they were on strike, they would not be paid, and in this way the small butchers would be rewarded. Vital services such as utilities and health care were also provided for, but the city's essential streetcar system halted in its tracks.

The day of the strike arrived with its eerie quiet. Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson (1874-1940) described it this way: "Streetcar gongs ceased their clamor; newsboys cast their unsold papers into the street; from the doors of mill and factory, store and workshop, streamed 65,000 workingmen. School children with fear in their hearts hurried homeward. The life stream of a great city stopped."

Fear of Insurrection

Seattle's Central Labor Council of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) had called the strike in support of striking shipyard workers. However, the concrete objectives of the strike remained unclear, and statements such as the powerful one by Anna Louise Strong that the strike will lead "who knows where" fed public fears of insurrection.

In addition to the union workers, some 40,000 others were idled either because their employer saw no use in opening or because they depended on the streetcars to get to work. Some Seattleites barricaded themselves at home in fright and a few of the wealthy departed the city on extended vacations.

Rumors flew. Strikers had dynamited the city's Cedar River dam, some said. The mayor had been assassinated, said others. Gunmen were reputedly coming from Chicago to aid the workers' cause. Water and food were said to be poisoned.

In truth, the strike itself proved orderly. Key services continued to operate based on exemptions from the strike committee. The unions set up food stations and sold meals to union members for 25 cents and to the general public for 35 cents.

The Official Reaction

To keep public order, army troops arrived from Fort Lewis, outside Tacoma. The soldiers tried to remain inconspicuous at their postings around the city, but strike leaders were well aware of their presence, if uncertain of their orders.

For his part, Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson (1874-1940) added 600 police to the force to be kept in reserve for expected trouble. He recruited 2,400 "special deputies" from University of Washington fraternities and student organizations. The college student deputies carried clubs and, when available, firearms. Machine guns were stationed at various points downtown. The potential for bloodshed was immense but it never materialized.

Mayor Hanson, an erratic and opportunistic figure, had been elected with the support of labor in 1918. (Hanson was a key real estate developer of the unique planned community, Lake Forest Park. He served as Seattle mayor from 1918-1920.) At first, business interests had distrusted him, but he gradually moved to curry favor with them. Unbeknownst to the Seattle public and to the strikers, he made a tough statement to correspondents of the United Press in time for the national Sunday papers, asserting that the strike was a revolution and avowing not to negotiate with its perpetrators.

Hanson warned agitators that "death will be their portion if they start anything" (Friedheim, 131). He issued an ultimatum that the General Strike must end by 8 a.m. Saturday, February 8, or he would declare martial law. Actually, he lacked the power to do so, and the deadline came and went with no martial law imposed. Despite pressure from business, Hanson probably knew that force would be answered with force. His tough pronouncements had already served to bolster his local support and bring him national acclaim.

The Strike Dwindles

At the same time, support for the strike among the various strikers began to flag. There was no productive outcome in sight. The streetcar workers were the first to return to work. Six streetcars began operating the morning of February 8. That day a scattering of restaurants, barbershops, and department stores opened for business. More locals defected, and the strike committee began to realize that the strike was struggling. They saw a clear choice between violence and surrender. The General Strike sputtered along until noon on February 11, when only the shipyard workers remained off the job.

Mills, factories, stores, hotels, barber shops, newsstands, and warehouses reopened. Trolley bells clanged. The strike ended as a public relations disaster for labor, while Ole Hanson took credit. The prevailing middle-class opinion was that Bolshevism had been beaten, law had triumphed. The federal government moved to arrest staff members of the Union Record and many businesses moved to institute "open shop" rules.

Labor was left divided and vulnerable. The vast majority of workers and leaders, who had wanted only better wages from shipyard regulators and employers -- not revolution -- were now cast as Un-American subversives. It would take more than a decade for labor to recover from the glorious folly of the Seattle General Strike


Robert Friedman, The Seattle General Strike (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1964); Richard C. Berner, Seattle 1900-1920: From Boomtown, Urban Turbulence, to Restoration (Seattle: Charles Press, 1991); Harvey O'Connor, Revolution in Seattle (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1964); Robert C. Simmons, "Seattle-Style Strike," The Seattle Times/Post Intelligencer, January 31, 1999, p. E-1.

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