Seattle General Strike

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Seattle General Strike
Part of the First Red Scare
Seattle General Strike.jpg
Union Record Monday, February 3, 1919
DateFebruary 6–11, 1919
Caused by
Resulted in

The Seattle General Strike of 1919 was a five-day general work stoppage by more than 65,000 workers in the city of Seattle, Washington, which lasted from February 6 to February 11 of that year. Dissatisfied workers in several unions began the strike to gain higher wages after two years of World War I wage controls. Most other local unions, including members of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), joined the walkout. Although the strike was non-violent and lasted less than a week, government officials, the press, and much of the public viewed the strike as a radical attempt to subvert American institutions.

General strike strike action in which a substantial proportion of the total labour force in a city, region, or country participates

A general strike is a strike action in which a substantial proportion of the total labour force in a city, region, or country participates. General strikes are characterised by the participation of workers in a multitude of workplaces, and tend to involve entire communities. General strikes first occurred in the mid-19th century, and have characterised many historically important strikes.

Seattle City in Washington, United States

Seattle is a seaport city on the West Coast of the United States. It is the seat of King County, Washington. With an estimated 744,955 residents as of 2018, Seattle is the largest city in both the state of Washington and the Pacific Northwest region of North America. According to U.S. Census data released in 2018, the Seattle metropolitan area's population stands at 3.94 million, and ranks as the 15th largest in the United States. In July 2013, it was the fastest-growing major city in the United States and remained in the top 5 in May 2015 with an annual growth rate of 2.1%. In July 2016, Seattle was again the fastest-growing major U.S. city, with a 3.1% annual growth rate. Seattle is the northernmost large city in the United States.

A trade union is an association of workers forming a legal unit or legal personhood, usually called a "bargaining unit", which acts as bargaining agent and legal representative for a unit of employees in all matters of law or right arising from or in the administration of a collective agreement. Labour unions typically fund the formal organization, head office, and legal team functions of the labour union through regular fees or union dues. The delegate staff of the labour union representation in the workforce are made up of workplace volunteers who are appointed by members in democratic elections.


Some commentators raised alarm by calling it the work of Bolsheviks and other radicals inspired by "un-American" ideologies, making it the first concentrated eruption of the anti-left hysteria that characterized the Red Scare of 1919 and 1920. [1]

Bolsheviks faction of the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labour Party

The Bolsheviks, also known in English as the Bolshevists, were a faction founded by Vladimir Lenin and Alexander Bogdanov that split from the Menshevik faction of the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), a revolutionary socialist political party formed in 1898, at its Second Party Congress in 1903.

First Red Scare Early 20th-century American historical event

The First Red Scare was a period during the early 20th-century history of the United States marked by a widespread fear of Bolshevism and anarchism, due to real and imagined events; real events included the Russian Revolution and anarchist bombings. At its height in 1919–1920, concerns over the effects of radical political agitation in American society and the alleged spread of communism and anarchism in the American labor movement fueled a general sense of concern.


The 'Wobblies' (IWW) joined the general strike and advocated for One Big Union. The hand that will rule the world.jpg
The 'Wobblies' (IWW) joined the general strike and advocated for One Big Union.

In these years, more workers in the city were organized in unions than ever before. There was a 400 percent increase in union membership from 1915 to 1918. At the time, workers in the United States, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, were becoming increasingly radicalized, with many in the rank and file supportive of the recent revolution in Russia and working toward a similar revolution in the United States. In the fall of 1919, for instance, Seattle longshoremen refused to load arms destined for the anti-Bolshevik White Army in Russia and attacked those who attempted to load them. [2]

Pacific Northwest Region that includes parts of Canada and the United States

The Pacific Northwest (PNW), sometimes referred to as Cascadia, is a geographic region in western North America bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the west and (loosely) by the Rocky Mountains on the east. Though no official boundary exists, the most common conception includes the Canadian province of British Columbia (BC) and the U.S. states of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. Broader conceptions reach north into Southeast Alaska and Yukon, south into northern California, and east to the Continental Divide to include Western Montana and parts of Wyoming. Narrower conceptions may be limited to the coastal areas west of the Cascade and Coast mountains. The variety of definitions can be attributed to partially overlapping commonalities of the region's history, culture, geography, society, and other factors.

The arrival of the Shilka arriving in Seattle on December 24, 1917 added to the thought of Bolshevik involvement. The ship had been damaged and thrown off course in a storm and limped its way into the port almost out of fuel, food and fresh water. The U.S. Attorney in Seattle was tipped off by an "informant" that the ship was coming and it was going to "aid the enemy." [3] The enemy at this time would have been the labor parties threatening a strike. Many believed that its arrival signified a Bolshevik connection with the labor unrest in Seattle.  A lot of rumors came about because of this ship's arrival.  The Seattle Post-Intellegencer ran a front-page article about an I.W.W. ship being held that contained over 100 thousand dollars to go to help the I.W.W. members get out of jail. [4]   This article proved to be false as the search of the vessel by local law enforcement turned up nothing of significance.  A first-hand account of a sailor aboard the ship claimed that there was no evidence found on board because the only evidence was some flyers in a briefcase that were carried off of the ship upon its arrival. [5]   Another passenger that arrived with the ship was arrested for taking part in labor talks with one of the unions in the area. [6] Although there was never any concrete evidence connecting the Shilka to the labor parties of Seattle, there was enough to show that the labor parties at the least had the support of Bolshevik Russia. There was a lot of fear of the Bolsheviks because it was known that they had been hoping for a revolution in the Western World in order to help support the poor Russian ways by pooling resources together. [7] The ship spent about a month in port before it was allowed to leave and never heard of or seen again in the Seattle area.

Most unions in Seattle were officially affiliated with the AFL, but the ideas of ordinary workers tended to be more radical than their leaders. A local labor leader from the time discussed the politics of Seattle's workers in June 1919: [8]

I believe that 95 percent of us agree that the workers should control the industries. Nearly all of us agree on that but very strenuously disagree on the method. Some of us think we can get control through the Cooperative movement, some of us think through political action, and others think through industrial action.

Another journalist described the spread of propaganda relating to the Russian Revolution: [8]

Propaganda Form of communication intended to sway the audience through presenting only one side of the argument

Propaganda is information that is not objective and is used primarily to influence an audience and further an agenda, often by presenting facts selectively to encourage a particular synthesis or perception, or using loaded language to produce an emotional rather than a rational response to the information that is presented. Propaganda is often associated with material prepared by governments, but activist groups, companies, religious organizations and the media can also produce propaganda.

For some time these pamphlets were seen by hundreds on Seattle's streetcars and ferries, read by men of the shipyards on their way to work. Seattle's businessmen commented on the phenomenon sourly; it was plain to everyone that these workers were conscientiously and energetically studying how to organize their coming to power. Already, workers in Seattle talked about "workers' power" as a practical policy for the not far distant future.


Seattle shipyard workers leave the shipyard after going on strike, 1919. Seattle General Strike 1919 Participants Leaving Shipyard.png
Seattle shipyard workers leave the shipyard after going on strike, 1919.

A few weeks after the November 1918 armistice ended World War I, unions in Seattle's shipbuilding industry demanded a pay increase for unskilled workers. In an attempt to divide the ranks of the union, the yard owners responded by offering a pay increase only to skilled workers. The union rejected that offer and Seattle's 35,000 shipyard workers went on strike on January 21, 1919. [9]

Controversy erupted when Charles Piez, head of the Emergency Fleet Corporation (EFC), an enterprise created by the federal government as a wartime measure and the largest employer in the industry, sent a telegram to the yard owners threatening to withdraw their contracts if any increase in wages were granted. The message intended for the Metal Trades Association, the owners, was accidentally delivered to the Metal Trades Council, the union. The shipyard workers responded with anger directed at both their employers and the federal government which, through the EFC, seemed to be siding with corporate interests. [9]

The workers immediately appealed to the Seattle Central Labor Council for a general strike of all workers in Seattle. Members of various unions were polled, with almost unanimous support in favor–even among traditionally conservative unions. As many as 110 locals officially supported the call for a general strike to begin on February 6, 1919, at 10:00 am. [10] Among the strikers were war veterans who wore their uniforms as they went on strike. [11] :86–87

Life during the strike

The strike committee set up soup kitchens and distributed as many as 30,000 meals each day. In the photo, a woman serves a plate of food to a striking worker. Serving Food Seattle Strike 1919.png
The strike committee set up soup kitchens and distributed as many as 30,000 meals each day. In the photo, a woman serves a plate of food to a striking worker.

A cooperative body made up of rank and file workers from all the striking locals were formed during the strike, called the General Strike Committee. It acted as a "virtual counter-government for the city." [12] The committee organized to provide essential services for the people of Seattle during the work stoppage. For instance, garbage that would create a health hazard was collected, laundry workers continued to handle hospital laundry, and firemen remained on duty. Exemptions to the stoppage of labor had to be passed by the Strike Committee, and authorized vehicles bore signs to that effect. [10] [12] In general, work was not halted if doing so would endanger lives. [12]

In other cases, workers acted on their own initiative to create new institutions. Milk wagon drivers, after being denied the right by their employers to keep certain dairies open, established a distribution system of 35 neighborhood milk stations. A system of food distribution was also established, which throughout the strike committee distributed as many as 30,000 meals each day. Strikers paid twenty-five cents per meal, and the general public paid thirty-five cents. Beef stew, spaghetti, bread, and coffee were offered on an all-you-can-eat basis. [10]

Army veterans created an alternative to the police in order to maintain order. A group called the "Labor War Veteran's Guard" forbade the use of force and did not carry weapons, and used "persuasion only." [10] Peacekeeping proved unnecessary. The regular police forces made no arrests in actions related to the strike, and general arrests dropped to less than half their normal number. Major General John F. Morrison, stationed in Seattle, claimed that he had never seen "a city so quiet and orderly." [10]

The methods of organization adopted by the striking workers bore resemblance to anarcho-syndicalism, perhaps reflecting the influence of the Industrial Workers of the World in the Pacific Northwest,[ citation needed ] though only a few striking locals were officially affiliated with the IWW. [10]

Radical visions

The pamphlet entitled "Russia Did It." Russia Did It.jpg
The pamphlet entitled "Russia Did It."

Revolutionary pamphlets littered the streets of the city. One called "Russia Did It" proclaimed: "The Russians have shown you the way out. What are you going to do about it? You are doomed to wage slavery till you die unless you wake up, realize that you and the boss have nothing in common, that the employing class must be overthrown, and that you, the workers, must take over the control of your jobs, and through them, the control over your lives instead of offering yourself up to the masters as a sacrifice six days a week, so that they may coin profits out of your sweat and toil. [13]

In an editorial in the Seattle Union Record , a union newspaper, activist Anna Louise Strong tried to describe the general strike's power and potential: [14]

The closing down of Seattle's industries, as a MERE SHUTDOWN, will not affect these eastern gentlemen much. They could let the whole northwest go to pieces, as far as money alone is concerned.

But, the closing down of the capitalistically controlled industries of Seattle, while the workers organize to feed the people, to care for the babies and the sick, to preserve order—this will move them, for this looks too much like the taking over of power by the workers.

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.


And that is why we say that we are starting on a road that leads – no one knows where!

Newspaper across the country reprinted excerpts from Strong's editorial. [15]

End of the general strike

Police setting up a mounted machine gun during the strike. Seattle General Strike 1919 Police setting up mounted machine gun.png
Police setting up a mounted machine gun during the strike.

Three simultaneous movements brought the strike to an end.[ citation needed ] Mayor Hanson increased the police and military forces available to enforce order, though there was no disorder, and possibly to take the place of striking workers. Union officials, especially those more senior and those at higher levels of the labor movement, feared that using the general strike as a tactic would fail and set back their organizing efforts. Union members, perhaps seeing the strength of the forces arrayed against them, perhaps mindful of their union leaders concerns began to go back to work.[ citation needed ] The General Strike Committee attributed the end of the strike to pressure from international union officers and the difficulty of continuing to live in the shut-down city. [16]

Mayor Hanson had federal troops available and stationed 950 sailors and marines across the city by February 7. He added 600 men to the police force and hired 2,400 special deputies, students from the University of Washington for the most part. [11] :87 On February 7, Mayor Hansen threatened to use 1,500 police and 1,500 troops to replace striking workers the next day, but the strikers assumed this was an empty threat and were proved correct. [17] The Mayor continued his rhetorical attack on February 9, saying that the "sympathetic strike was called in the exact manner as was the revolution in Petrograd." [18] Mayor Hansen told reporters that "any man who attempts to take over the control of the municipal government functions will be shot." [19]

The mayor's newly hired deputies receive their weapons. Seattle General Strike 1919 Deputies receiving weapons.png
The mayor's newly hired deputies receive their weapons.

The international offices of some of the unions and the national leadership of the AFL began to exert pressure on the General Strike Committee and individual unions to end the strike. [20] Some locals gave in to this pressure and returned to work. The executive committee of the General Strike Committee, pressured by the AFL and international labor organizations, proposed ending the general strike at midnight on February 8, but their recommendation was voted down by the General Strike Committee. [20] On February 8, some streetcar operators returned to work and restored some critical city transportation services. Seattle's main department store reopened as well. [21] Then teamsters and newsboys returned to work. [22] On February 10, the General Strike Committee voted to end the general strike on February 11 and by noon on that day it was over. [23] It stated its reasons: "Pressure from international officers of unions, from executive committees of unions, from the 'leaders' in the labor movement, even from those very leaders who are still called 'Bolsheviki' by the undiscriminating press. And, added to all these, the pressure upon the workers themselves, not of the loss of their own jobs, but of living in a city so tightly closed." [24] :35 [25]

The city had been effectively paralyzed for five days, but the general strike collapsed as labor reconsidered its effectiveness under pressure from senior labor leaders and their own obvious failure to match the Mayor's propaganda in the war for public opinion.[ citation needed ] The shipyard strike, in support of which the general strike had been called, persisted. [26]


Hanson, July 1, 1919 Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson 1919.jpg
Hanson, July 1, 1919

Immediately following the general strike's end, thirty-nine IWW members were arrested as "ringleaders of anarchy", [27] despite their playing a marginal role in the development of events.

Seattle's mayor Ole Hanson took credit for ending the strike and was hailed by some of the press. He resigned a few months later and toured the country giving lectures on the dangers of "domestic Bolshevism." He earned $38,000 in seven months, five times his annual salary as mayor. [28] He agreed that the general strike was a revolutionary event. In his view, the fact that it was peaceful proved its revolutionary nature and intent. He wrote: [13] [27]

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.

Between the strike's announcement and beginning, on February 4, the U.S. Senate voted to expand the work of its Overman Judiciary Subcommittee from investigating German spies to Bolshevik propaganda. The Committee launched a month of hearings on February 11, the day the strike collapsed. Its sensational report detailed Bolshevik atrocities and the threat of domestic agitators bent on revolution and the abolition of private property. The labor radicalism represented by the Seattle General Strike fit neatly into its conception of the threat American institutions faced. [29]


  1. Murray, Robert K. (1955-01-01). Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 1919-1920. U of Minnesota Press. p. 58. ISBN   9780816658336.
  2. History Committee of the General Strike Committee, accessed June 6, 2011
  3. Spence, Richard B. (2017-04-03). "The Voyage of the Shilka : The Bolshevik Revolution Comes To Seattle, 1917". American Communist History. 16 (1–2): 88–101. doi:10.1080/14743892.2017.1330106. ISSN   1474-3892.
  4. "Charles Pierce Lewarne. <italic>Utopias on Puget Sound, 1885–1915</italic>. Seattle: University of Washington Press. 1975. Pp. xiv, 325. $12.50". The American Historical Review. October 1976. doi:10.1086/ahr/81.4.985-a. ISSN   1937-5239.
  5. Mason Daniel; Smith, Jessica, eds. (1970). Lenin's impact on the United States. N.W.R. Publications. OCLC   92937.
  6. Magden, Ronald. “The Radical Era.” A History of Seattle Waterfront Workers, 1884-1934. 1st ed. Seattle, Wash.: International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union 19 of Seattle, the Washington Commission for the Humanities, 1991.
  7. Cole, G. D. H. (October 1952). "The Bolshevik Revolution". Soviet Studies. 4 (2): 139–151. doi:10.1080/09668135208409848. ISSN   0038-5859.
  8. 1 2 Brecher, 120
  9. 1 2 Foner, 65
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Zinn, 368–9
  11. 1 2 Hagedorn, Ann (2007). Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN   978-0-7432-4372-8.
  12. 1 2 3 Brecher, 122
  13. 1 2 Brecher, 126
  14. Brecher, 124-5
  15. Hagedorn, 87
  16. Zinn, 369–70
  17. Foner, 73-4
  18. Foner, 73
  19. Sobel, Robert. Coolidge: An American Enigma. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc. p. 124.
  20. 1 2 Foner, 75
  21. Foner, 74
  22. Foner, 76
  23. Foner, 75-6
  24. History Committee of the General Strike Committee (1919). The Seattle General Strike: An account of what happened in Seattle, and especially in the Seattle labor movement during the General Strike, February 6 to 11, 1919. Seattle: The Seattle Union Record, Publishing Co., Inc. hdl:2027/hvd.32044011842598.
  25. Brecher, Jeremy (2014-04-01). Strike!. PM Press. p. 112. ISBN   9781604869071.
  26. "Shipyard Strike May Be Long One" . Retrieved January 15, 2016 via University of Washington Seattle General Strike Project.
  27. 1 2 Zinn, 370–1
  28. Murray, 65-6; Hagedorn, 180
  29. Hagedorn 59,147-8; Murray,94-8

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Further reading