Thursday, February 12, 2009

Seattle General Strike

Exactly 90 years ago this week, the city of Seattle held the first city-wide labor action or “general strike” in American history. The strike began in the Seattle shipyards on January 21, 1919 by workers who had expected a post-war pay hike to make up for two years of strict wage controls imposed by the federal government. Over those same two years, war production contracts had expanded dramatically.

When regulators refused the wage increases, the Metal Trades Council union alliance declared a strike and closed the yards. After an appeal to Seattle’s powerful Central Labor Council for help, most of the city’s 110 local unions voted to join a sympathy walkout. The Seattle General Strike began on February 6, 1919. The Seattle labor establishment closed down the city until February 11. More than 60,000 union members in a city of 300,000 people went on strike, and most of the remaining work force was idled as stores closed and streetcars stopped running.

Mayor Ole Hanson, elected the year before with labor support, requested federal troops to break up the strike. 950 sailors and marines were stationed across the city by February 7. At the same time, the Seattle mayor added 600 men to the police force and hired 2,400 special deputies. By the time the Central Labor Council officially declared an end on February 11, police and vigilantes were hard at work rounding up "Reds." The IWW hall and Socialist Party headquarters were raided and leaders arrested. Federal agents also closed the Union Record, the labor-owned daily newspaper, and arrested several of its staff.

Across the country headlines screamed the news that Seattle had been saved, that the revolution had been broken, that, as Mayor Hanson phrased it, “Americanism” had triumphed over “Bolshevism.” According to a statement by the Mayor:

"The so-called sympathetic Seattle strike was an attempted revolution. That there was no violence does not alter the fact . . . The intent, openly and covertly announced, was for the overthrow of the industrial system; here first, then everywhere . . . True, there were no flashing guns, no bombs, no killings. Revolution, I repeat, doesn't need violence. The general strike, as practised in Seattle, is of itself the weapon of revolution, all the more dangerous because quiet. To succeed, it must suspend everything; stop the entire life stream of a community . . . That is to say, it puts the government out of operation. And that is all there is to revolt -- no matter how achieved."

The University of Washington has compiled an excellent archive of photos and contemporary newspaper articles.

1 comment:

Twin said...

That's a badass little piece of history there. Thanks