Why the Seattle General Strike of 1919 should inspire a new generation of labor activists

It shut down a major U.S. city, inspired a rock opera, led to decades of labor unrest and provoked fears Russian Bolsheviks were trying to overthrow American capitalism. It was the Seattle General Strike of 1919, which began on Feb. 6 and lasted just five days.

By many measures, the strike was a failure. It didn’t achieve the higher wages that the 35,000 shipyard workers who first walked off their jobs sought – even after 25,000 other union members joined the strike in solidarity. Altogether, striking workers represented about half of the workforce and almost a fifth of Seattle’s 315,000 residents.

Usually, as a historian of the American labor movement, I have the unfortunate job of telling difficult stories about the decline of unions. However, in my view, the story of this particular strike is surprisingly hopeful for the future of labor.

And I believe it holds lessons for today’s labor activists – whether they’re striking teachers in West Virginia or Arizona, mental health workers in California or Google activists in offices across the world.

Low wages, soaring living costs

The Seattle General Strike had its origins in the city’s many shipyards.

During World War I, workers flocked to Seattle to take jobs as welders, pipefitters, riveters and other dozens of jobs in the early-20th century shipyard. In 1918, there were about 16,000 shipyard workers in Seattle. Just a year later, their numbers had swelled to 35,000.

While work in the shipyards was plentiful, it wasn’t exactly lucrative. Throughout World War I, workers continually demanded wage increases, and employers routinely ignored them. As rents and the cost of living climbed, the workers finally announced that, absent higher wages, they were going on strike on Feb. 6.

Many blamed Russian Bolsheviks for the strike. Tothebarricades.tk, CC BY
A few days before the deadline, the shipyard unions made a then-unprecedented request: They asked the Seattle Central Labor Council – which oversaw most of the city’s unions – to issue orders for a general strike, which brought out 25,000 cooks, waitresses, factory workers, store clerks and many others to join the 35,000 shipyard workers already striking.

Despite the usual divisions within unions along lines of race, gender, skill and citizenship, the majority of the locals belonging to the council voted to join the strike.

‘No one knows where’

Perhaps it was the rising cost of living that motivated workers across the city to walk off their jobs. Maybe it was a new culture of working-class solidarity emerging in post-World War I America.

Most certainly, it had much to do with the words of Anna Louise Strong.

A pacifist, feminist and welfare advocate, Strong made a name for herself reporting for Seattle’s Union Record, the major union newspaper in the city.

An editorial she authored on Nov. 4 encouraged Seattle’s workers to put aside their differences and embrace a new future in which all workers were united. Her editorial ended with what would become iconic lines in American labor history: “We are starting on a road that leads – NO ONE KNOWS WHERE!”