The strike was a spectacular show of force for the city’s workers, and inspired a tradition of local labor organizing that lives on 100 years later.
On February 6, 1919, 65,000 union workers in Seattle walked off the job. On that Wednesday morning, barbers, newsboys, ice wagon drivers, stereotypers, electrical utility workers, and bill posters didn’t show up for work, a demonstration of solidarity with shipyard workers who had already been striking for two weeks in pursuit of higher wages. The next morning, one longshoreman remarked, “Nothing moved but the tide.”
The Seattle General Strike paralyzed the city for six days. After 101 of 110 local unions affiliated with the Central Labor Council voted for the strike, the General Strike Committee organized kitchens and milk stations to ease the pain on workers. “Labor will feed the people,” wrote Anna Louise Strong, a columnist with the Seattle Union Record who advocated for the strike. Wagons only moved through the city if they displayed authorization from the strike committee.
One hundred years later, as Seattle remembers the movement that put it in the national spotlight, it’s also reflecting on its place in the history of American labor organizing.
“The general strike put Seattle on the map,” says University of Washington labor historian James Gregory. “Seattle has had a strong labor movement ever since.”
In the late 1910s, the Pacific Northwest was a hotbed of political radicalism. As the Bolshevik Revolution was raging in Russia, the Industrial Workers of the World—known as the Wobblies—were organizing workers up and down the West Coast with the hopes of fomenting a worker’s revolt of their own on U.S. shores. The federal government had frozen wages during World War I, but over two months after the euphoria of Armistice Day, workers were anxious for pay raises that Charles Piez, manager of the government-chartered Emergency Fleet Corporation, was reluctant to give.
Authorizing the strike was a risky move. The nationwide Pullman Strike of 1894, in which 30 people died, remained a sobering reminder that America’s business and political elite didn’t take kindly to agitating workers. Twenty-five years later, a disciplined organizing committee convinced Seattle’s strikers to stay home rather than provoke the police with a picket or march. As a result, the events of 1919 never erupted into violence, even after the Secretary of War ordered National Guard troops to Seattle and Mayor Ole Hanson threatened martial law on fears of a Bolshevik-style uprising.
“The Seattle strike had been entirely peaceful, which was a brand new thing for big strikes,” Gregory says.
Though it began to fizzle after just three days—and though the Emergency Fleet Corporation canceled the shipyard workers’ contracts in March—the action reverberated throughout North America. Thousands of strikes big and small rippled through cities across the country. A general strike hit Winnipeg in May, and Seattle was a model for strikers in San Francisco and Minneapolis-St. Paul in 1934, and Oakland in 1946.
Over time, though, labor strikes slowed to a trickle in the United States. The postwar era brought relative prosperity, and the power of organized labor waned in the 1980s under the Reagan administration, which famously fired striking air traffic controllers. But the past few years have seen a resurgence of major labor mobilizations over the minimum wage, hotel and domestic worker protections, and paid family and medical leave. The use of strikes as an effective labor tactic has reemerged as well, with Seattle and Washington state often at the forefront.
“There’s a pretty direct line from 1919,” says Gregory, who credits the Seattle General Strike with laying the foundation for today’s worker activism. He cites high-water marks like the 1999 WTO protests that saw a historic alliance between organized labor and environmentalists. There’s also the Fight for 15, a national minimum-wage movement that began in 2012 with fast-food worker strikes in cities like Seattle and New York and became supercharged when the airport suburb SeaTac and later Seattle proper adopted $15 hourly minimum wages.
“Mass political engagement gets ignited here in a way that does change conversations,” says Rachel Lauter, executive director of labor advocacy group Working Washington.
With the fast-food worker strikes as a spark, Gregory sees signs of a comeback.
“The strike basically disappeared as a tactic for unions, but in the last two years, with all the teacher strikes and the gesture by the air traffic controllers and TSA during the government shutdown, people are thinking about using the strike again as a weapon of democracy,” he says.
Statewide teacher strikes in Arizona, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, as well as a recent strike in the nation’s second largest school district in Los Angeles, have likewise galvanized national attention. Locally, a dozen Washington districts went on strike last year over the allocation of funds following a landmark state supreme court ruling.
But labor organizing has a different flavor in the Pacific Northwest today than it did a century ago, when Wobblies were passing out pamphlets in logging camps and shipyards. Hundreds of Google’s 3,000 Seattle area employees walked out last year to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment, but the region’s 50,000 Amazon employees have shown little interest in unionizing. Microsoft’s use of contract labor in the 1980s did prompt the formation of the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, which is an association, not a union. Today, the region is on the front lines of labor organizing again, not to corral six-figure Amazonians but those disrupted by tech innovation.
In 2015, Seattle City Council passed a law allowing ridehailing drivers to unionize, a salvo in the war over the gig economy still playing out in federal court.
“Why people went on the general strike very much mirrors some of the conditions we see now,” saysa Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who chairs the labor committee and hosted a centennial celebration in City Hall on Thursday.
Despite the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which weakened public-sector unions, Washington saw its union workforce increase 10 percent last year to about 665,000, according to David Groves of the Washington State Labor Council. At 19.8 percent of the workforce, the state has the third highest union density in the country behind Hawaii and New York. That pro-worker culture buoyed crane operators in the nation’s crane capital, who struck for 17 days last year amid Seattle’s historic building boom.
“Until you get out to the Midwest and some of these ‘right to work’ states, you don’t realize how good you have it here in Washington,” Ryan Brazeau, a ferry quartermaster currently serving as business agent for the Puget Sound Region of the Inlandboatmen’s Union, said at the centennial commemoration.
But as for the solidarity of a century ago that brought the entire city to a standstill, which some misty-eyed labor radicals pined for at a Wednesday event at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, labor leaders are skeptical that anything like that could happen today.
“It’s hard to imagine unless it was in protest some major national development,” Groves said. “I’m having trouble imagining the scenario that would bring people to that point.”