It's the 90th anniversary this month of the general
strike that brought the city of Seattle to a virtual standstill -- one of the
very few general strikes in U.S.history and certainly one of the most dramatic
Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson described it this way:
"Street car gongs ceased their clamor. Newsboys cast their unsold papers
into the streets. From the doors of mill and factory, store and workshop, streamed
65,000 working men. School children with fear in their hearts hurried homeward.
The lifestream of a great city stopped."
Many people throughout the country believed it marked the
start of a Bolshevik revolution like that which had overthrown the Russian
government only two years earlier.
Some of the men who left their jobs did intend it to be
just that -- particularly a band of some 3,500 members of the Industrial
Workers of the World, whose own radicalism engendered great public fear far out
of proportion to their numbers and effectiveness.
But most of the men, as most of their supporters, were
intent on nothing more than strengthening the U.S. labor movement, guaranteeing
their rights to collective bargaining and improving their pay and working conditions
in the face of increasingly fierce hostility from employers and government
It was one of no less than 3,600 strikes that broke out
nationwide in that post- World War I year of 1919. Steelworkers, coal miners,
workers of all kinds - even policemen -- walked off the job in response to
drastic reductions in the wages that the heavy demand for labor during the war
had brought them, the onerous working conditions that were now imposed on them
and the widespread attempts by government and employers to destroy their
The American Federation of Labor's local council called
the Seattle strike in support of 35,000 striking shipyard workers. They had
been on the picket lines for 2 1/2 weeks, only to be ordered back to work on
pain of losing their jobs if they continued to demand the right to bargain
through their union for better pay and working conditions.
The AFL council reasoned that if the shipyard owners'
arbitrary actions went unchallenged, employers everywhere would be emboldened
to act similarly.
Soon after the strike broke out on February 6, Mayor
Hanson climbed into his flag-draped automobile and led 950 federal troops into
the city. Hanson, insisting that strikers would resort to violence, also swore
in 3,000 special policemen and deputies to join the troops.
He needn't have bothered. Strikers did bring Seattle to a
halt, closing schools and virtually all businesses and stopping public
transportation. But they did so without a single reported incidence of violence
-- not even a single arrest for strike-related offenses.
Strikers made certain, furthermore, that essential
services continued. Hospital and laundry workers remained on the job, for
instance. So did firemen, garbagemen and, of course, policemen. Unionized truck
drivers delivered milk from nearby farms to three-dozen distribution stations
around the city and brought 30,000 cooked meals a day to 21 other locations.
After six days, it ended. Responding to growing public hostility that threatened to
seriously harm the labor movement nationally, the American Federation of
Labor's conservative national leaders denounced use of the general strike as a
tactic. That left the AFL affiliates in Seattle with little choice but to call
off the general strike.
The striking Seattle shipyard workers who the general
strike was called to support continued their strike alone for nine more weeks.
In the end, they won nothing.
Despite its brevity and lack of success, the general
strike played a major role in the social and political turmoil - the so-called
Red Scare -- that erupted after World War I. Union-busting employers,
vote-chasing politicians, sensation-seeking newspapers - all painted the strike
as the first in what surely would be a nationwide series of efforts by radicals
to overthrow the U.S. government.
What followed was one of the most disturbing periods in
U.S. history. Thousands of aliens were arbitrarily arrested and summarily
deported and thousands of citizens were jailed for allegedly subversive
activities or even for simply holding allegedly subversive views. Government
agents raided the headquarters of unions and radical organizations to search
for alleged terrorists. Mobs attacked their members.
Few, if any, revolutionary plots were uncovered. But that
wasn't the intent of employers and the government anyway. Their real purpose
was to weaken the growing movement to better the economic and political status
of working people that was
signaled by the general strike in Seattle.
By 1921, it was over. The pro-worker movement had been
crushed. It was not until the coming of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New
Deal administration a dozen years later that working people finally won the
firm legal right to unionization and other basic economic and political rights
they had so long wanted and had so long needed.
Copyright (c) 2009 Dick Meister