When Workers Ran Seattle: Lessons from the 1919 General Strike
On a cold January day, 98 years before the January 2017 Women’s March surged across the U.S. opposing Donald Trump’s divide-and-conquer agenda, 35,000 Seattle dockworkers walked out in an action that led to the first general strike (a strike of all workers in an area) anywhere in the U.S. Inspired by the Russian Revolution a year and a half before, Seattle workers completely shut down the city for five days in February 1919 in solidarity with the struggle of the dockworkers.
It was more than a protest. For the first time, working people in Seattle felt their power to run society for human need rather than corporate greed. It lasted a mere five days and ended in retreat, but it would have a lasting impression and legacy that would inspire many workers for decades to come.
An Injury to One Is an Injury to All
During World War I, workers in the US were faced with wage freezes in the name of doing their patriotic duty for the war. Meanwhile they had to deal with price hikes to support increasing profits for the billionaire-class of that day which, in effect, meant pay cuts for the working class so that the richest could see their wealth soar.
This hypocrisy is mirrored today as workers have still not recovered from the 2008 recession. Meanwhile the Wall Street billionaires who caused the recession are making more money than ever. During the recession, many workers swallowed the idea that there had to be social service and budget cuts. But a few years later as it became apparent to more and more people that the bankers who caused the crash were getting bailed out at our expense, the mass anger erupted in the Occupy movement of 2011.
Something similar happened in the US after WWI. During the war workers reluctantly swallowed the loss of pay, but when the war officially ended in November 1918, they wanted their promised pay increases. What they found instead were bosses that went on a right-wing “open shop” offensive, which finds its echo today in the “right to work” offensive. Both of these policies aim to break union rights, which results in lower living standards for all workers.
But workers in Seattle weren’t having it. When Seattle dockworkers demanded pay increases for all, the employers responded by offering increases only for the better-paid jobs. This is a classic divide-and-rule tactic which has echoed throughout history. Employers divide workers at every possible turn – whether by job roles, race, gender, sexual orientation, or nationality – to maintain control over their employees. This time, however, the divide-and-rule tactic failed. Inspired by the heroic Russian Revolution and the realization that their power came from their collective action, 35,000 dockworkers walked off their jobs together.
Over the course of the war, with the need to build and transport massive amounts of military equipment and supplies, labor unions had flourished. In 1915, Seattle had 15,000 workers organized into various unions. By 1919, that number had risen above 60,000. Workers were organized and were quickly radicalizing. The dockworkers appealed to the Seattle Labor Council (SLC) to join their struggle. At the time, many of the conservative local labor union leaders who might have mobilized opposition to this move were at a conference in Chicago. In their absence, the SLC agreed to poll their members on the question of joining with the dockworkers in a city-wide general strike in sympathy with the shipyard workers. The general strike call won the support of a large majority in every union and a general strike was set for February 6, sponsored by 110 unions. Workers in Seattle generally understood what the dockworkers understood – that their power came from their ability to stand together, and the only way to protect themselves was to protect each other.
Fueled by Revolutionary Ideas
The Seattle General Strike was part of an international wave of revolts, strikes and revolutions which were inspired by the victorious workers’ revolution in Russia. At that time, the Stalinist degeneration of the revolution was not yet on the horizon and the USSR was the only society that had democracy for working people and the poor. Workers had run their bosses out and had democratic control over their workplaces. They were also the first country to fully legalize divorce, abortion, and LGBTQ rights. The revolution spurred on workers’ hopes around the world that a better world was possible and was currently being born..
These workers were increasingly influenced by the ideas of the Socialist Party and, more prominently in Seattle, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) who believed that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” Their organizing strategy was to stand together across job lines, race lines, and all other dividing lines for maximum unity against the employers. The only way to stop the bosses’ attacks was to defend any targeted worker with the full strength of all workers. Today, the working class needs to relearn this kind of solidarity – it is a powerful weapon for building resistance to Donald Trump and his right-wing agenda.. The IWW were also revolutionaries in that they believed that society could and should be run by working people.
The IWW approach of organizing workers into one union, rather than being split up into separate craft unions, based on their skills, represented a major step forward for labor. These small craft unions, under the umbrella of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), mainly organized only workers with the same skills (often only the better-paid workers). The craft union model meant that there were often multiple unions representing different sets of skilled workers in one company. At times this led to counterproductive fighting among unions – rather than solidarity.
There were some factors in Seattle that led to wide support for a general strike. Over the previous decade, radical struggles had spread reflecting the increased influence of the ideas of the IWW. Being a seaport, and with the Russian revolution on trading routes just across the Pacific, the influence of the Russian Revolution was stronger than elsewhere in the U.S.. In the months before the Seattle general strike there were various reports of workers reading socialist literature from Russia, including from the Bolsheviks. While a wave of radicalism was sweeping across the country, the rest of the country was not ready for a general strike. This, as we will see, alongside the lack of a mass revolutionary party capable of connecting radical workers across the U.S., was to be a major factor in the failure of the Seattle general strike, due to its inability to spread beyond the city limits.
The Power of the Working Class
At 10am on Thursday February 6, the strike began as the 60,000 workers represented by the Seattle unions walked out on their jobs, joined by over 40,000 unorganized workers. Each of the 110 unions that participated elected three members to make up a General Strike Committee (GSC) which would be the main decision-making body during the strike. The GSC, in turn, elected a 15-person Executive Committee to deal with the minute-to-minute decisions.
Industrial silence washed over the city. Over the course of the general strike, any necessary jobs to be performed had to be approved by the GSC, making it the sole functioning authority within the city. Requests for exemptions for commercial institutions were rejected. For the first time the city’s economic activity only continued with the approval of the working class.
The GSC approved necessary deliveries, as well as light, heat, and repair jobs. The firemen were exempt and allowed to stay on duty. Pharmacy clerks could only dole out needed medical prescriptions, but would not sell anything else. Garbage collectors collected any trash that would rot or otherwise cause disease. Shutting down business meant that all of the city’s needs, down to keeping the city fed, had to be organized by the GSC. Twenty-one strike kitchens were set up around Seattle, feeding all-you-can-eat meals to over 30,000 workers and community members every day.
Each task approved by the GSC was left to the various workers’ unions to implement. So, while the GSC kept a central democratic overview of priorities, workers for the first time had control over their work through their union with no boss to force grueling conditions upon them. Furthermore, workers showed they could run key city services without direction from the boss. The milk-delivery workers, for instance, developed an ingenious system to work around the bosses’ organizations. When the bosses locked up the milk storage with armed guards, the workers developed a system within a day where they picked up milk from local farmers around Seattle. They set up 35 milk delivery stations where they delivered 3,000 gallons of milk per day. This is a mere whisper of the innovative power of the working-class when freed from the restrictive dictatorship of their bosses.
Who Runs the City?
So what did the city government do during this general strike? Were they supportive or at least neutral to these developments? No – they unequivocally took the side of the employers. Just as today, corporations dominated politics and, when push came to shove, politicians of both major parties worked for the billionaire class of their day. They would go to any lengths necessary to defend their interests. But what did that look like during the general strike?
“We organized 1,000 extra police, armed with rifles and shotguns, and told them to shoot on sight anyone causing disorder. We got ready for business. I issued a proclamation that all life and property would be protected; that all business should go on as usual. And this morning our municipal street cars, light, power plants, water, etc., were running full blast. There was an attempted revolution. It never got to first base.”
This is the statement that Mayor Hanson made to the world at large. It was never intended for those in Seattle, because it was far from the reality. As is always the case, the establishment was fearful of crediting this working people’s movement with the power that it had out of fear that it would spread. As we will see, for a general strike to succeed., spreading the strike is of life-or-death importance. In fact, the power and water was never turned off. The only thing that had changed was control, which was now in the hands of the GSC.
Although the GSC never made any moves to directly challenge the city government, the GSC ran the city during the general strike. The mayor and other members of the political and business establishments were regular attendees at the GSC asking for exemptions, but any that were deemed as being for profit were immediately rejected.
The mayor continually tried to call off the general strike. On Friday morning, the first day after the start of the strike, the mayor issued a proclamation for the strike to end by noon. Noon came and went, and the strike soldiered on. Then he issued a second proclamation for the strike to end by Saturday morning, but to no avail.
The most honest part of the mayor’s statement, however, resides in telling his 1,000 newly hired police officers to, “shoot on sight anyone causing disorder.” It is one piece of evidence among many that the mayor and the political establishment stood firmly opposed to the general strike and had but one goal in mind during those five days: break the strike by any means necessary. The fact that they were not given an excuse to do so is a testament to the organization and discipline of the general strike. However, if the strike hadn’t ended, the stalemate between the government and the workers would not have lasted. The US government was preparing to get involved and assert itself by violent military force.
The Seattle Times reported on Sunday (Day 4 of the strike):
Ordered to Seattle by the War Department at Washington DC, Major General John F Morrison, commanding the Western Department of the United States Army, with headquarters in San Francisco, reached the city shortly after 4 o’clock yesterday afternoon [Saturday February 9].
General Morrison said he had been instructed to take such action here in handling the general strike situation through the intervention of federal troops, as in his judgment seemed necessary to reserve order and protect life and property.
Since the general strike was absolutely peaceful (even more peaceful and with a lower crime rate than in business-as-usual Seattle), the idea that the army was there to protect lives was absurd. That final word in the above quote “property” is the key – the army was called in to protect the property of the businesses which were now either shut down or being run by the workers. Generals from nearby Camp Lewis set up their headquarters in the downtown Federal Building just three days into the general strike. The army was stationed at the outskirts of Seattle.
This is the naked reality of the state. Then as now, the government serves the interests of the corporate class. In times of acute struggle when workers rise up, it is prepared to use its armed forces to come down brutally in order to ensure the continued reign of the capitalists over society. This is a key lesson to learn from the general strike.
Not eager to give the mayor’s 1,000 extra police or the nearby troops any excuse that could be construed as “disorder,” the striking workers under the leadership of the GSC created their own company of peacekeepers called the Labor War Veterans Guard. This was, in a sense, a police force for labor but in an important sense it was nothing like the police. Written on a board in their office was this mission statement:
“The purpose of this organization is to preserve law and order without use of force. No volunteer will have any police power or be allowed carry weapons of any sort, but to use persuasion only.”
This is a dramatic break from how policing was done. Then, as now, this is hard to imagine, yet under this regime of non-violence, crime dropped by half. The commander of the U.S. Army detachment sent into the area told the strikers’ committee that in forty years of military experience he had never seen so quiet and orderly a city.
This has important lessons for today. The Black Lives Matter movement has re-opened up a discussion about who the police serve and why. Working people in every age and every country who have moved into struggle have found the same response: even if you stand for peace and justice, if your actions threaten the profit-driven status quo, such as the Black Lives Matter movement as it seeks to change institutions of racial oppressions such as the mass incarceration state and the racist criminal justice system, you will be met with state-sanctioned violence. For workers organizing in early 1900s Seattle it was no different and they understood this lesson. That is why they did not rely on the existing police to keep the peace during the general strike, but relied instead on their own forces.
Have You Heard the News?
Just before the strike, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (PI), a Hearst-owned mainstream newspaper in Seattle, made threatening appeals for workers to decide, “which flag they were under, and, if under the American flag, to put down Bolshevism in their midst.” Like all the other capitalist-owned presses at the time, scared for the sake of their profits and their business, they attempted in every way to use their newspapers to scare workers from striking. True to form, 97 years later, in the wake of Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant being elected and the successful $15/hour movement, the Seattle PI would declare, “The Socialist Alternative movement has become a tapeworm in the Seattle body politic.”
Luckily, workers had their own newspaper leading up to the general strike, called the Seattle Union Record. This was the paper of the Seattle Labor Council, and it had the biggest circulation of any newspaper in the Pacific Northwest. For organized labor, it was an indispensable tool. Contrary to the Seattle PI and other capitalist presses that did everything possible to suppress the strike and paint it as unpatriotic, the Seattle Union Record was an organizer. On February 4, two days before the General Strike, the Record printed an editorial by Anna Louise Strong, a socialist who was elected to the Seattle School Board which spoke about how the owners of the shipyards would rather let workers starve than share their profits. This painted a very different view of who were the “responsible” community members. She declared,
“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. If the strike continues, Labor may feel led to avoid public suffering by reopening more and more activities, UNDER ITS OWN MANAGEMENT.”
On the first day of the general strike, the GSC shut down production of the Seattle Union Record so as not to seem to be favoring its own publication. This led to thousands of workers protesting in the street to demand that it resume printing. The workers had almost as much of a need for information as they did for the food or milk distribution which had been so well organized. They were in the middle of a battle, and the army of labor needed to be conscious of its aims. They needed to know what was going on in order to fight best and most resolutely. Those risking their jobs, livelihoods, security and sometimes even their lives need to know what is happening. Luckily, under pressure from the workers, the GSC quickly learned their lesson and resumed printing the newspaper the same day.
The Need to Spread the Strike
The general strike had organized workers into struggle, but it was not yet a new government. With U.S. troops massed outside Seattle, it had three options: spread the strike nationwide, step back, or have a strategy to defeat the military force. It was also necessary to make a class appeal to the soldiers to come over to their side of the struggle combined with an appeal to workers around the country. Unfortunately, without the rest of the country acting in tandem, Seattle was isolated.
In Seattle, on Sunday, the fourth day of the strike, the international leadership of many of the unions, afraid of what had been started, began to order the locals to call off participation in the strike. Some local unions, including those affiliated with the Teamsters Joint Council, called on their workers to go back to work on Monday, which the workers reluctantly did.
On Tuesday, it was decided to end the strike in an organized retreat. This was a defeat as the shipyard bosses had not yet met the demands of the workers, but Seattle workers had been given a small glimpse of what a workers’ government could look like, and what it could deliver. They showed the entire country that workers could indeed run U.S. society. Not a single local union deserted the General Strike as a result of the pressure from the rank-and-file membership. In fact, it was just the opposite. The rank-and-file said they would be ready to come back out on strike if requested by the GSC. This shows the resolute solidarity of the workers. The GSC requested them to come out on strike again so they could end the strike on Tuesday at noon with closed ranks, which they did.
The general strike in Seattle, organizing the collective power of over 100,000 workers, showed itself to be vastly more powerful than the city government that oversaw capitalism. But the strike now faced the opposition of the more powerful entity of the U.S. government, which came to the aid of the Seattle bosses in the form of armed bodies of men with the threat of crushing the workers. With the corporate press blaring headlines of “revolution,” in the immediate aftermath of the strike, the headquarters of the Socialist Party and the IWW were raided and many arrests were made.
The Demand for a General Strike
The IWW had long focused on the call for workers to come together and shut the system down through a general strike. With the main union leadership out of town, and without access to immediate communications like today, their demand for general strike met little resistance.
The idea that a general strike was the key to emancipating the working class was central to the syndicalist ideas that dominate the IWW. Syndicalism avoided the issue of electoral politics in favor of the building of revolutionary unions as the only essential tool for workers’ emancipation. With control of the workplace as their decisive power, it was argued that by continually spreading a strike that the workers could paralyze the country and then become the masters of production. From there a new society, a workers’ commonwealth could be created without bosses.
While this idea was appealing to many radical workers, it does not factor in the role of the state (the courts, the police, national guard, army, navy, and air force) and the fact that capitalists as the dominant class will defend their interests by using the state to try to crush major threats to their power. When asked about this, IWW publications refused to conjecture. The Industrial Worker, the main newspaper of the IWW, stated: “To try to settle the question of ‘just what to do on the day after the general strike’ is like a man with black hair trying to foretell just when his hair will turn gray. Time alone will tell”[The History of The Labor Movement in the United States, vol. 4 by Philip S. Foner; p.141].
IWW leader Big Bill Haywood put it this way: “Capitalist governments may issue their mandates in vain. The power of the workers – industrially organized – is the only power on earth worth considering. Once they realized that power, classes will disappear, and in their place will be the only useful members of society – the workers” [The The History of The Labor Movement in the United States, vol. by Philip S. Foner; p.143].
Once the strike started, the IWW had no effective strategy on how to respond to the fact that the capitalist class could use the courts, army and police to defend their interests. This exposes very concretely the weakness of the refusal of the IWW to deal with politics. It demonstrates the importance of the Marxist view, that the working class needs to organize itself industrially and politically. Marx explained that while organizing in the unions was an essential part of the workers’ struggle, only by construction of its own political party could workers build a united working class movement that could confront the power of big business. By building a powerful working class political party, working people could support each other’s struggles. It would also build increased political cohesion and prepare the working class to overthrow capitalism and create a new socialist society based on workers control of production.
The working class in early 1919, while clearly becoming radicalized, was not ready to launch a struggle to overthrow capitalism. Instead, the call for a general strike needed to be grounded in winning the specific struggle while at the same time giving the working class a chance to feel its power.
What would a victory of Seattle General Strike have Looked Like?
A national general strike is a challenge for power over society by the working class against the ruling billionaire class – socialism vs capitalism. This necessitates the working class having a national revolutionary leadership which is committed to taking that step.
This was the role played by the Bolshevik Party in Russia. The workers’ soviets (Russian for “council”) in revolutionary Russia were, in essence, expanded general strike committees. These soviets, organized on a national basis, were the basic unit of a new workers’ government of the USSR which ended capitalism and began the construction of a new socialist society. The Bolshevik Party did not create the soviets, but they saw the potential for them to link up and form a workers government when other parties at the time were bowing their heads to the provisional government led by the capitalist class. The soviets officially became the government in October 1917, when the Bolsheviks had democratically won the majority of the workers, soldiers and peasants to the plan. They knew, however, that the socialist revolution would live or die depending on its ability to spread, and could not exist in just one country. The Soviet government served as a beacon and ignited revolutions around the world, many in countries where industry was much more developed, and the working class much stronger.
Unfortunately, in all the other countries that rose up in revolutionary movements in this era there was no mass revolutionary party like the Bolshevik Party to lead the workers to power. Tragically, the revolution in Russia was isolated internationally and was finally deformed and defeated with the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy, an anti-democratic counter-revolution years later.
1919 – A Year of Struggle
The Seattle General strike was a prelude to huge radicalizing events in the U.S. 1919 was to become one of the most radical years in U.S. history, with inspiring struggles but also, unfortunately, serious defeats. Workers were determined to reverse the attacks on living standards during the war years. Also, the Russian revolution had radicalized workers around the world. Strike waves swept the country. Massive strikes developed in the coal mines and steel factories. The Boston police went on strike. A national steel strike, which reached 350,000 workers at its height, was a heroic struggle lasting over three months. However, the fact that the AFL unions continued to insist on dividing steel workers into different skilled crafts, rather than uniting them into one industrial union, seriously weakened the strike.
The employers responded to these strikes with vicious tactics, including using police and the national guard against strikers. Scores of workers were shot down on the picket lines. Cities and towns denied workers the right to organize in public and jailed activists. The bosses whipped up racial divisions, hiring workers of other races and ethnic nationalities to cross picket lines. The government and bosses launched a massive red scare, resulting in thousands of socialist and radical activists and hundreds being deported.
It whipped up a climate of hatred and fear against striking and radical workers. In most cases, workers were able to maintain their strikes in the face of this repression, but in the end the bosses were able to defeat these struggles. However, out of these struggles seeds were sown for future victories.
This period of radicalism, alongside the inspiration of the Russian Revolution led to the growth of a more cohesive and powerful left-wing in the Socialist Party. Blocked from taking the leadership of the Socialist Party, these activists were the key force leading to the founding of the Communist Party in September 1919. The Communist Party provided methods of struggle that educated a new layer of activists, putting its growing weight behind the formation of industrial unions which opened up membership to all workers irrespective of skill, gender or race.
In the next major labor struggles to break out, workers drew on the lessons of 1919 to win the most important victories in the history of the U.S. labor movement. Heroic struggles, including mass strikes in a number of cities in the 1930s led to new mass unions been built in the main industries in the U.S. The newly formed Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) broke from the AFL and organized workers in the steel, autos, rubber, and electrical industries. This creation of powerful industrial unions forced the employers to raise the living standards of the U.S. working class. It was only in the 1970s that big business was able to start seriously weakening these unions.
The labor movement also forced major concessions to be made by the Democratic Party including the famous New Deal reforms. Those concessions would be granted for one principal reason: the fear that if the billionaire class did not grant concessions, the workers of the whole country might do as the workers in Seattle had done for five days: take over…and that next time they might not give back the reins of power.
Fighting for Socialism Today
Today we face capitalism in deep crisis. Six people have the same wealth as half the world’s population, war is constant, and climate change is evident all around us. Millions of working people and young people responded to Bernie Sanders’ call for a “political revolution against the billionaire class.” But in the absence of a serious left alternative in November, many working people voted for a racist, sexist demagogue who also promised to stand up for the “forgotten men and women.” Trump is now going to war with every oppressed community of working people in this country, and seeks to eviscerate organized labor as well.
As people are looking to fight back, we find once again that our strength comes from collectively organizing. A new generation is testing out mass marches, protests, political organizing, walkouts, and direct action as we try to figure out how to change the horrifying trajectory the world is on.
While there are essential differences between 1919 and today, including the absence today of a sizeable layer of class conscious activists and the radicalizing effect of the recent Russian revolution, there is a growing mood for a united fightback and increased discussion about strike action and even a general strike.
However, as in the past, the majority of labor union leaders are playing a conservative role rather than leading the struggles against Trump’s racist, sexist and anti-worker attacks. Like in the past, workers will have to re-assert democratic control over their unions to turn them into the battle-tested vehicles for struggle that are needed to win against the attacks from Trump and the billionaire class.
Successful one-day national strikes have the power to decisively defeat policies, or even bring down whole governments. This was shown by the recent one-day strike by women in Poland which defeated proposed draconian anti-abortion legislation. Also, a recent one-day strike by students in Spain defeated an attack on public education. In 2006, the attempt by Republicans to make undocumented immigrants felons was defeated by the “Day Without An Immigrant” mass mobilization, where millions of immigrant workers and families walked off the job and closed down businesses.
We must go forward, armed with the hard-won lessons from the Seattle General Strike and all the other mass struggles which have been waged by working people in the past. We must build for mass days of action against Trump and the agenda of the whole billionaire class. Trump’s offensive is aimed at dividing working people. We must respond by organizing, uniting, and fighting back. As we fight back against Trump, we must be adept with strategies and tactics to deliver the fiercest blows against this regime including protests and strikes both local and national. Through all this, our guiding principle must be that “an injury to one is an injury to all.”
We must fight and organize against the immediate attacks coming from the Trump regime. But we must not limit ourselves to focusing on one issue. Capitalism is a global system, and our fightback must be likewise international in scope. That is why Socialist Alternative is in solidarity with the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI/CIT), an international sisterhood of revolutionary socialist organizations with roots in over 40 countries.
We must bring a socialist strategy and socialist alternative into the battles against Trump and the billionaire class. It means learning the lessons of the Seattle General Strike of 1919 and the Russian revolution of 1917. It means getting involved in a socialist organization and building for the future socialist society of tomorrow to spread the struggle for socialism not just nationally, but globally. The Seattle General Strike showed that better world is possible, but we will have to fight for it.
“Strike!” by Jeremy Brecher, 1972