Seattle General Strike of 1919

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

Against the backdrop of the unprecedented proletarian political ferment of 1919 the U.S. working class did not hesitate for a moment to take up the class struggle at the point of production throughout the country in industry after industry. In all there were 3.630 strikes involving 4,160,000 workers during 1919, including:

  • a general strike in Seattle in February
  • a bitter nationwide steel strike involving 375,000 workers fighting against a 68 ­hour work week and unsafe work conditions in September
  • a rash of wildcat strikes culminating in a nationwide miners' strike in November by 400,000 workers
  • a general strike in the clothing industry in New York City that won a reduction of the workweek to 44 hours 
  • streetcar strikes in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Denver, Knoxville, Nashville, Kansas City
  • a textile strike by 32,000 workers in Lawrence, Mass.

The militant participation of foreign-born workers in this strike wave, particularly Eastern Europeans influenced by the Russian Revolution was especially significant. As part of its service to the bourgeoisie in weakening and dividing the working class, the reactionary AFL had long denigrated immigrant workers, supporting racist legislation to block the further immigration of workers from Southern and Eastern Europe and insisting that immigrant workers were unorganizable, and undisciplined. However, under the inspiration of events shaking the European continent, foreign speaking immigrant workers put themselves in the forefront of the struggles both at the point of production and within the Socialist Party, demonstrating graphically the truly international nature of the proletariat as a class.

Distortions of the Seattle Strike

The year 1919 began with the Seattle General Strike. Leftist historians frequently pay only lip service to this important event, preferring instead to extol the alleged virtues of the union organizing drives of the CIO in the 1930's. However, the CIO drive was a manifestation of the counterrevolution, not an echo of the international revolutionary wave, as was the Seattle General Strike. The CIO drive of the 1930's was a government-supported effort to introduce unionization on a massive scale in basic industries, as part of the American bourgeoisie's mobilization of society for imperialist slaughter in World War II. Leftist historians like, Philip S. Foner, tend to deny the revolutionary potentiality of the Seattle strike, belittle the revolutionary utterances of its participants as non-representative and unwittingly playing into the hands of capitalist attempts to red bait the strikers. Instead Foner insists the strike was just a sympathy strike. One historian insists it was not revolution but a misguided rebellion against everything and therefore against nothing in particular. Other leftists falsely emphasize the revolutionary potential of the unions. And within the proletarian camp, councilists, like Jeremy Brecher in his 1970 book, Strike uncritically hail the Seattle strike in workerist fashion, totally ignoring or underestimating the political shortcomings of the struggle. This does a terrible disservice to the working class, because learning the lessons of past struggles, both positive and negative, is a crucial element in the deepening and generalizing of revolutionary consciousness. It is within this revolutionary marxist context that the historical legacy of the Seattle-General Strike, with its strengths and weaknesses can be recognized and saluted.

The General Strike Occurred Despite the Unions, Not Because of Them

Seattle workers were already particularly radicalized, especially in their sympathy for the Revolution in Russia and it was this radicalization that shaped the evolution of the strike. While what transpired in Seattle was called a General Strike and was organized formally within the framework of the unions, it had less the characteristics of the general strike orchestrated from above by union officialdom, than  it did the central characteristics of a mass strike, in which workers from all sectors and industries joined the struggle around their own demands and in which control of the struggle was placed in the hands of a strike committee controlled by the masses of workers.

The struggle broke out among the metal trade workers in the shipbuilding industry, a dominant force within the Seattle proletariat. During the war, union leaders had worked feverishly to dissuade disgruntled shipbuilders from striking employing both blatantly patriotic appeals and dire warnings that such job actions were a violation of their contracts and hence illegal. But as soon as the armistice was reached in November 1918, workers began to demand wage increases. Employers were willing to agree to raises for skilled workers but not the unskilled. However, because wartime government controls were still in effect the government's Emergency Fleet Corporation ordered the companies not to yield to any of the workers' demands and threatened to cut off steel allotments if raises were given to any workers. Workers soon grasped a central characteristic of the class struggle in decadent capitalist: economic struggle is quickly transformed into a confrontation with the state.

This realization wasn't restricted solely to the shipbuilders. Workers in other industries interpreted the government intervention as a preparatory attack against all workers. On January 21, the 35,000 shipyard workers struck. Responding to an appeal for support from the metal trades unions, the Seattle Labor Council adopted a resolution on January 22 calling for a general strike to support the strikers, which was immediately endorsed by rank and file workers in 24 unions, including painters, barbers, blacksmiths, boilermakers, construction workers, carpenters, cigar makers, cooks, garment workers, longshoremen, milk drivers. Within two weeks, 110 local unions had voted overwhelmingly to join the strike, including even the most conservative of the AFL unions. But as these different categories expressed their' solidarity, the struggle was changed qualitatively from a "sympathy" strike for the metal trades workers, into a generalized struggle against capital, as workers in industry after industry openly discussed the fact that they too had grievances and demands to be made against their employers. This illustrated still another central characteristic of the class struggle in decadent capitalism: active solidarity and the successful generalization of struggles depend on workers joining the struggle on the basis of their own demands, not simply "sympathy."

This groundswell for the mass strike developed while Seattle's top 25 labor leaders were out of town, attending a conference in Chicago. As union officials they were dismayed by the turn of events. These so-called "progressive" union leaders quickly joined with AFL leaders in working to block or end the strike. Some historians have argued that there would have been no Seattle General Strike, except for the fact that the established union leadership was out of town. Thus despite the leftists penchant for extolling the role of the unions, the Seattle General Strike, erupted in spite of the unions, not because of them, pointing to yet another important characteristic of class struggle in decadent capitalism: the counter­revolutionary nature of the trade unions and their use by capitalism to control and derail workers struggles.

The General Strike Committee and Dual Power

The strike was scheduled for February. A General Strike Committee was empowered to coordinate the struggle. The Strike Committee was comprised of three hundred workers --mostly rank and file, everyday workers, with little previous leadership experience --three delegates from each union joining the strike. The General Strike Committee and a smaller 15 member executive committee, called the Committee of 15, met in daily session beginning on February 2  at first to plan the struggle and then to direct it. Every afternoon an open session of the committee was held so that any worker could attend, observe the deliberations and contribute to the discussion. The Committee quickly took on the characteristics of a rival workers' government in the city, an embryonic example of dual power, as the workers planned to safeguard the general welfare of the community during the strike. Careful decisions were made by sub­committees of the Committee of 15 to exempt vital services from the strike. For example, it was decided that garbage workers would collect wet garbage that might pose a health hazard. Laundry workers were authorized to keep one shop open to handle hospital laundry. Firemen were asked to remain on the job. A 300­ man force of labor war veterans was recruited to maintain peace and security. These worker guards carried no weapons, and wore only white armbands to identify them. They used their power of persuasion and the authority of the General Strike Committee to defuse difficult situations and preserve order.

Reflecting the genuine dual power that existed, employers, government officials, including the mayor, and groups of workers came before the Strike Committee to request strike exemptions. A request from the county commissioners to keep janitorial staff on the job at the government office building was rejected. A teamster's union request to haul fuel oil for a hospital was granted. A proposal from retail pharmacy clerks that prescription counters be allowed to operate during the strike was granted. Each pharmacy was ordered to display a sign that read: "No goods sold during general strike. Orders for prescriptions only will be filled. -The General Strike Committee." Milk workers were authorized to deliver milk for the children of the city; each wagon carried a sign that read: "Exempted by Order of the General Strike Committee." Restaurant workers ­cooks, waiters and other food industry employees established 21 dining halls and fed 30,000 people per day during the strike. Telephone workers were asked to put themselves at the disposal of the Strike Committee's security force and to maintain communications for the strike. Electrical service was maintained, except for commercial enterprises. When the strike began at 10 am on February 6 the city ground to a halt, a total of 100,000 workers joined the strike including 40,000 non-union workers. Streetcars stopped running, shops closed and nothing moved unless authorized by the embryonic workers' government. Order was maintained. Workers at the Seattle Union Record, the paper controlled by the Central Labor Council also joined the strike, and this unfortunately left the struggle without a daily news bulletin to keep workers informed and to counteract the rumors and false reports spread by the bourgeoisie. Seeking to avoid providing any pretext for the government to send troops or armed police against them, the Strike Committee called upon people to stay home and organized no mass demonstrations. The troops dispatched to Seattle at the Mayor's request on the second day of the strike, found a peaceful city with crime down by 66 percent.

The Unions Break the Strike

The forces of reaction moved quickly to counter the workers. The mayor hired additional police, deputized company goons, requested more federal troops, and issued an ultimatum to the workers to return to their jobs. However, it was not the threat of repressive force that was decisive in bringing the strike to a halt ­indeed the General Strike Committee ignored the mayor's ultimatum. It was the intervention of the international unions against the workers that was the key element in the bourgeoisie's counteroffensive. As soon as the strike began, the AFL unions bombarded the strikers with telegrams warning of the illegality of the strike, threatening suspensions and urging immediate end to the strike. As soon as they could get to Seattle, unions' leaders threatened and cajoled, and warned of dire consequences. At one point the executive committee seemed to bow to the pressure, and voted by 12 to 2 with one absent to end the strike. They then brought the back-to-work resolution before the full strike committee, where many of the delegates seemed to waver, until the committee adjourned for a meal break. Delegates consulted with the workers they represented during the break, and, imbued with the militancy of the rank and file, returned to the General Strike Committee meeting rejected the resolution to call off the strike. This illustrated another characteristic of workers struggle in decadent capitalism: the necessity for the workers to control the struggle themselves to have revocable delegates, to ensure genuine representation in the deliberative bodies that are established to coordinate the struggle.

Having failed to get the Strike Committee to abandon the struggle, the international unions focused attention on individual unions, in search of a weak link. The first cracks came from the streetcar workers, who were ordered back to the job by their executive board under pressure from the international officials, followed by teamsters. Sensing that the tide had turned the Strike Committee now opted for an orderly retreat, and ended the strike on February 11. The metal trade workers continued on strike against the shipyards.

Three political weaknesses in particular weighed heavily on the strike. The first was the failure to understand the union question, to recognize clearly that the unions who badgered them into liquidating their struggle were in fact part of the capitalist state apparatus a weapon against them  The unions, on their part, were quite clear about their counterrevolutionary role. The American Federation of Labor bragged openly about its dirty work for American capitalist order in ending the strike: "It was the advice and counsel and fearless attitude of the trade union leaders of the American International Trade Unions and not the United States troops or the edicts of a mayor, which ended this brief industrial disturbance of the Northwest." (Americall Fedemtiouist March 1919).

The second was the failure to understand the danger of remaining isolated. Even though they took up the struggle out of an understanding that they faced a generalized attack by the capitalist class, the workers kept the fight confined to Seattle. Strikers were asked to remain at home and off the streets, whereas delegations of workers should have fanned out across the northwest, and the rest of the country calling upon other workers to join the battle. By remaining isolated the Seattle workers left themselves open to the onslaught by the unions to destroy the struggle. The unions were able to concentrate their counteroffensive on a single city, rather than having to face a spreading wildfire across the country. Clearly as the thousands of other strikes that broke out that year demonstrated the basis for the Seattle strike to spread certainly existed.

The third weakness was the lack of an organized revolutionary vanguard that could intervene effectively in the struggle. The emotional identification with the Russian Revolution was not enough to rise to the challenge. The struggle needed a revolutionary minority capable of pointing out the real lessons of the soviets and the mass strike in Russia. However, the socialist left was at this moment embroiled in a battle to gain control of the Socialist Party, and delayed forming a communist party until the end of the summer of 1919. As far as Seattle was concerned, the left was late. The struggle was waged without the intervention of an effective revolutionary minority.

Lessons of the Seattle General Strike

The Seattle strike last only six days but it was crammed with valuable lessons. To recapitulate the central lessons of Seattle:

  • in the period of capitalist decadence economic struggles are quickly transformed into political confrontations with the state;
  • workers struggles can and must be generalized, drawing in other workers around their own demands;
  • struggles that remain isolated geographically, like struggles that are isolated in a single industry are doomed; contrary to the ideological denigration of the proletariat by bourgeois propaganda, the workers in Seattle demonstrated clearly that the proletariat has the capacity to organize and control society, and can do so in truly rapid fashion;
  • the trade unions are no longer organs of working class self-defense, but agents of the bourgeoisie within the proletariat, functioning to control, derail and render harmless the struggles of workers against capitalism;
  • the existence of a revolutionary organization, not to control the struggle, but to intervene in it as an active minority within the class to point out the general line of march to communism, to draw out the lessons other struggles, specifically about the need to spread the struggle to other cities and industry, is essential;
  • the need for workers to control the struggle themselves and to maintain a means for communication with all workers (the publication of daily news bulletins, daily mass meetings and demonstrations, etc).

As this summary demonstrates, we harbor no illusions about the shortcomings of Seattle. There is no need to glamorize, exaggerate or romanticize the Seattle General Strike. Revolutionaries must not for a moment hesitate to embrace it and salute it as a magnificent moment in the history of our class, and to learn from it, so that future struggles can build on that experience. As workers across the country today confront the continuing· attacks of the ruling class against their standard of living, and seek ways to respond collectively, revolutionaries must insist on the need for workers to push aside the unions and take control of the struggle into their own hands, and to work for the generalization of struggles. These are not abstract propositions, but rather the very concrete lessons of the struggle of the world proletariat in the 20th century, including the experience of the Seattle General Strike. 

Jerry Grevin  10/05/1999. Reprinted from Internationalism # 109