The Seattle General Strike of 1919

In 1919 Seattle shipyard workers were locked out of their jobs, by order of the United States government in cooperation with the employers. This lock-out was understood by them and other workers in Seattle as part of the escalating attack on all working people to eliminate the gains they had made during the First World War. Their response was the general strike of February 1919

The main text of this pamphlet was scanned by anarchists to mark the 80th anniversary of the Seattle General Strike in 1999. It contains an account of the history of the 1919 general strike, put together by the Seattle General Strike History Committee historian, Anna Louise Strong, then a "progressive" reporter for the union-owned Seattle daily, The Union Record. The account was compiled shortly after the end of the strike, while the memories of participants were still vivid and clear. Before being published in final form, everything was submitted first to the history committee and then published in The Union Record, where workers comments were invited.

There is also a preface by Root And Branch, which reprinted the History Committee's account in 1972 as part of their Pamphlet series. Root and Branch is a council communist, libertarian Marxist group.

The History Committee account and the Root and Branch preface were scanned from the 1972 Root and Branch addition, Root & Branch Pamphlet 5, Cambridge, Mass. 02139.

The entire text of the Root and Branch pamphlet was read and discussed by a group of anarchists in Seattle in 1998, and the brief informational introduction containing BACKGROUND NOTES was added as a result of the discussions

We feel that this text is important because, as a concrete account of a general strike which actually occurred in the United States, it helps to counter the ideological lie that ordinary working people in this country have always been too satisfied, too divided or too intimidated to resist the powers that be in any politically significant way. When it occurred, the Seattle General Strike was viewed as a real challenge to the capitalist status quo. Although there were no major violent confrontations between people involved in strike activities and the guardians of law and order, a much more powerful and longlasting challenge was offered, the positive activities of providing socially necessary goods and services which were democratically self-managed. This was seen, by both participants and opponents, as part of the process through which ordinary working people were preparing themselves to take control of industry, their own lives and society.

Reprinted in its entirety, with a new preface as Root & Branch Pamphlet 5 Cambridge, Mass. 02139

Printed by The Bum Press, Charlestown, Mass, March, 1972


This text supplied by "robby Barnes" <>

Straight to the pamphlet

These writings, by various people at different times, have been brought together to help us to remember the past and create the future.


Remembering the past is a vital part of understanding our present problems, confronting the system that has made our lives so miserable, and taking direct action to create a new and better world.

In our opposition to the present destruction of the natural world, ongoing wars and nationalist brutalities, and the impoverishment of the many while the rich get richer, we want to remember the one hundred thousand people who, eighty years ago, took a stand against this brutal system in the Seattle General Strike. Their enemy is ours, and in their struggle, they laid the basis for ours today.

Capitalism has from the start been a global system, developed as capitalists, aided by governments of nation-states, have exploited local and far-away people. By the beginning of the Twentieth Century, the United States economy was integrally bound up with foreign trade. In 1897, the foreign investments of United States capitalists amounted to $700 million. By 1914 they had more than quadrupled to $3 billion. In 1907, in a lecture at Columbia University, the soon-to-be President Woodrow Wilson said: "Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process...the doors of the nations which are closed must be battered down." And after he became President, Wilson continued to support "the righteous conquest of foreign markets," even as he advocated the ideology of "national self-determination of peoples" to weaken rival capitalist powers. In this he was being neither hypocritical nor deceitful. On the contrary, he well understood that the national and global expansion of business, and the ideology of nationalism were linked in buttressing the hegemony of the capitalist class.

In fact, the nation-state and the capitalist economy are interconnected. The modern state and capitalism developed at the same time and depend on each other. States create the social and physical circumstances for the "progress" of capitalism. The ideology of nationalism has been used as the justification for the expansion and consolidation of the rule of the elites within and through nation-states. It has both helped to secure new markets and enforced conformity and subservience on diverse local populations.

Ever since the emergence of the nation-state system and capitalist class as a ruling class, rivalries between business interests have resulted in wars between nation-states. War and nationalism have also served to channel the anger of the ordinary people into hostility against the people of other nations and away from those who directly exploit them.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the First World War was justified as being a war for national self-determination, and a "war to end all wars." Nevertheless, it mainly resulted in producing great power for the elites of some nation-states, and wealth for those who supplied the arms and equipment for the rival soldiers to kill and mutilate each other and the millions of unfortunate civilians who happened to be in the way.

For the European powers, the First World War began at the end of July, 1914, when the government of Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and August 1, when the German government declared war on Russia. Then, on August 2, 1914, the German government declared war on France and the British government followed up by declaring war on Germany--which resulted in a devastating war which continued for four bloody years.

Because the United States remained neutral in the First World War until 1917, its businesspeople were able to trade with both sides, and reap tremendous profits. By 1917, United States businesses' trade with the Allies had grown seven times in value, and trade with Germany and the other Central Powers had also grown. As the War progressed, the British government and its allies, as well as private European businesses, bought more and more American military equipment, and civilian goods. To pay for these purchases, they borrowed more and more money from American financiers, who also reaped tremendous profits. But, eventually, it became untenable to maintain this lucrative trade and secure repayment of the massive loans made by the allied nations without an end to the war. Then, in February 1917, there was a revolutionary upheaval in Russia, and the capitalist elites all over the world began to worry.

It was time for the United States government to enter the war and break the long-standing stalemate. On April 6, 1917, President Wilson signed the declaration of war against the Central Powers.

By November, 1918, German forces on the Western Front were defeated. German sailors rebelled. Revolutions began in several German cities. On November 9, 1918, the German emperor was forced to resign. He and his son fled to Holland. Germany became a republic. The new German leaders surrendered to the Allied powers on November 11, 1918, and the First World War ended.

But this didn't herald the era of participatory democracy and prosperity in the lives of ordinary people that so many had hoped for. On the contrary, both victor and defeated nation-states continued to exploit their own populations and to expand their rule. The U.S. government pursued its subjugation of all too many weaker nations, including Haiti, Cuba and Nicaragua in the 'twenties and 'thirties, and cooperated with a series of brutal regimes, including the Italian Fascist and German Nazi governments. It also supported American firms which did business with those regimes--until the very moment it entered World War II.

But simultaneously, very many ordinary people all over the world became acutely aware that war, poverty and exploitation are all integral to the capitalist system. And many began thinking about their own potential to take control of their own lives and self-manage the activities necessary for social life, rather than placing their faith in capitalism or the State elites to improve things.


Before World War I, most American exports were transported overseas in foreign-owned ships. But, when Britain entered the war, the British navy blocked German ships from engaging in international commerce, and the German Navy interfered with British and allied shipping. Because of the decrease in the number of available ships for freight, and the threat of German submarine attacks, the cost of shipping goods and the price of marine insurance rose rapidly. As a result, American exporters found it difficult to send their goods overseas. This situation provided a prime opportunity for United States businessmen to develop the national ship-building and merchant marine industries.

Shipbuilding had been a great American industry in the age of wooden ships. But, United States shipyards had not generally kept up with the new technologies required for steel-hulled vessels, because of the high price of American steel at the beginning of the 20th century.

Then, the First World War offered American businessmen a prime opportunity of gaining government financial assistance and a predictable regulated marketplace for producing steel-hulled vessels. On September 7, 1916, Congress passed legislation creating the United States Shipping Board, to set industry-wide standards and regulations for American-owned freighters.

A subsidiary of the Shipping Board, the Emergency Fleet Corporation (EFC) was empowered to promote construction of shipyards and the manufacture of modern steel-hulled vessels and wooden ships, and to purchase and supervise the use of those ships. During World War I, it used $2.9 billion of government funds to provide the capital required by private companies to build up the shipyards and to purchase ships made in the shipyards. The government owned the ships and bore most of the economic risks, but the shipyards were operated mainly by private businesses, which reaped the profits.

The Shipping Board was organized on January 30, 1917, and the Emergency Fleet Corporation on April 16, 1917, after the United States entered the war. After some confusion, Edward N. Hurley became president of the United States Shipping Board and Emergency Fleet Corporation, and Charles Piez became general manager and vice-president of the Emergency Fleet Corporation. Government and business leaders considered Piez to be particularly well-suited for this position because he was a successful practicing engineer and businessman. He was also a member of several boards of directors of large enterprises.

Under Piez's supervision, the EFC subsidized American entrepreneurs in constructing enormous shipyards and manufacturing hundreds of ships. By 1919, the EFC had helped to build 647 ships for the United States Merchant Fleet.

The large amount of government funds available for the construction of shipyards and the great profits to be made through ship contracts encouraged businessmen all over the country, including in the Northwest, to go into the shipbuilding business. Before 1914 there was only one shipyard in Seattle manufacturing steel-hulled vessels, the Seattle Dry Dock and Construction Company. Then, between 1914 and 1917 two more ship yards for steel-hulled vessels were built, and by the end of 1918 five Seattle firms were constructing steel-hulled ships. The EFC also subsidized construction of shipyards capable of building modern wooden ships and purchased wooden-hulled vessels. This was of particular benefit to Northwest entrepreneurs, because of the easy availability and low cost of lumber in the region. With the help of the EFC, the wooden-hulled ship industry expanded rapidly to the point where twelve shipyards were producing wooden ships in Seattle by 1918.

During the First World War, ship construction became Seattle's most important industry. Throughout the war, Seattle shipyards produced 26.5 percent of all ships constructed for the EFC. During 1918 alone, there were ninety-six ships constructed in Seattle yards, sixty-one of which were steel freighters. The largest of the Seattle shipyards was Skinner and Eddy.

More than 35,000 workers were employed in the metal and wooden shipyards and allied trades. Since Seattle's local labor force was insufficient to operate the shipyards, a large proportion of the workers were recruited from other western cities and towns. The call was put out through newspaper advertisements and employment agents sent out by the shipyards. To attract workers from other cities, they promised higher wages than those offered either in non-shipyard work in Seattle or in the shipyard industry elsewhere on the West Coast. The United States Department of Labor also sent out "scouts" to recruit skilled workers. And Seattle union members were urged to visit locals of their unions in other cities to pass on the word that there was lots of work in Seattle.

Both the U.S. government and private vigilante business interests used World War I as an excuse to engage in a sustained and brutal campaign against radicals, including many labor activists. In March 1917 the Idaho and Minnesota legislatures passed the first Criminal Syndicalism laws. these laws were used to criminalize and prosecute labor activists, especially members of the Industrial Workers of The World (also known as Wobblies), and immigrants who expressed radical ideas of any kind, as well as people who were known anarchists and socialists.

The Industrial Workers of The World (I.W.W) was, from its beginnings in the first decade of the 20th century, a revolutionary union, opposed to the compromises of the A.F.L. unions with the capitalist system, and against capitalist exploitation. It was for workers full participation in managing and owning their workplaces through "industrial democracy." The I.W.W. also opposed "all nationalistic sectionalism, or patriotism, and the militarism preached and supported by our one enemy, the capitalist class." Their commitment to these principles did not waver, even when the First World War commenced, and it became dangerous for people in the United States to openly voice anti-military, anti-nationalist or anti-war ideas. Despite this danger, in their 1916 convention the I.W.W.s announced, "We condemn all wars, and for the prevention of such, we proclaim the anti-militaristic propaganda in time of peace, thus promoting class solidarity among the workers of the entire world, and, in time of war, the general strike, in all industries."

From 1916 through 1920 the I.W.W. won some of its most enduring victories and built up its strength to what was probably its peak membership of about 40,000 in 1923. In the southwest oil fields I.W.W. organizing resulted in the formation of an Oil Workers Industrial Union chartered January 1, 1917. When the Metal Mine Workers were chartered on January 29th they already predominated over the A.F.L. Mine-Mill in the Globe and Miami districts of Arizona, and the Miami wage scale became the standard for bargaining in other areas. On the east coast the I.W.W. rapidly organized merchant seamen. And, the U.S. Shipping Adjustment Board was forced to recognize the I.W.W. as the bargaining agent for the Philadelphia longshoremen. On February 7th, 1918 the Shipping Adjustment Board asked that the I.W.W. provide a member for its three-man adjustment commission empowered to settle wage disputes. The I.W.W. General Executive Board responded that this was autocratic and the Shipping Board made an exception for I.W.W. democracy and accepted the MTW representative on the understanding that he was at all times under the instruction of the union and its membership.

On the Great Lakes, where the A.F.L. unions had been wiped out in the long strike of 1909-13, I.W.W. membership began to grow. But, once the United States entered the First World War, arrests and nationalistic vigilantes stopped it.

In June 1917, several hundred sailors stationed in Bremerton, Washington were given special leave and wrecked the IWW hall in Seattle. Before the event the Roseburg, Oregon News had announced that these men had been given a few hours leave to drive the I.W.W. out of the city. (See: THE I.W.W.: ITS FIRST FIFTY YEARS: 1905-1955, by Fred Thomson; Industrial Workers Of The World, November 1955, page 110.)

But, because the rapidly expanding industrial enterprises in Seattle required more workers than they could easily get, the workers found themselves in a relatively strong position.

In order to head off the development of radical workers organizations, the employers and the government decided to temporarily tolerate the conservative American Federation of Labor union organizations. This respite enabled the Seattle shipyard unions to grow enormously, as non-union workers recognized the advantages of joining the unions soon after they were hired. In this way, the shipyards became almost 100 percent unionized.

And, despite the dominance of the A.F.L., among the many workers attracted to the Seattle shipyard boom there were radicals, including members of the I.W.W. There were approximately 900 Wobblies in Seattle who, because the A.F.L. had job control in the yards, held cards of both organizations.

However, the government and the employers decided to centralize bargaining over all labor disputes involving wages, hours, and working conditions for the duration of the war. For this purpose the three-man Shipbuilding Labor Adjustment Board (S.L.A.B.) was set up on August 20, 1917, by agreement of the Navy Department, the Emergency Fleet Corporation, and, after consultation with Samuel Gompers, various craft-international union presidents.

V. E. Macy, a New York bank director, was appointed chairman of the S.L.A.B. by President Wilson. E. F. Carry, a Chicago businessman, was the EFC representative, and Gompers appointed A. J. Berres, secretary of the Metal Trades Department of the A.F.L. The S.L.A.B. became popularly known as the Macy Board after its chairman V. Everit Macy.

As part of their predictable regulated marketplace the employers and government officials wanted to establish industry-wide national and regional standards for wages. But, the members of the Seattle shipyard unions opposed this move on the grounds that they deserved higher wages for comparable work than shipyard workers in other areas of the country. They based their argument on the fact that the distance of the Northwest from other industrial sections caused the cost of living in Seattle to be higher than the national average. In addition, they feared that if all workers were forced to accept a national or even a regional wage standard, their wages would not be raised to Seattle's high level, but dropped to the lowest denominator. And they well understood that any national or regional wage standard would be used as a first step in removing the advantages the Seattle labor movement had won through hard struggles, and the next step would be to destroy their organizations.

In July 1917, the Metal Trades Council of Seattle, negotiating for all the shipyard unions in the city, presented the employers with a set of demands for a new industry-wide agreement in Seattle. It called for wages of $8.00 per eight-hour day for skilled craftsmen, and increases in pay for semiskilled and unskilled workers. Skinner and Eddy, because its government contracts were more recent and reflected rising ship prices, at first agreed to comply with these demands. But the other shipyard owners claimed that they could not make any profits if they agreed to increase wages.

In response, the Metal Trades Council prepared to call all their Seattle members out on strike. To head off the strike, Edward Hurley, president of the Shipping Board and Emergency Fleet Corporation, asked the Council to send three delegates to Washington, D.C. to present the union case before the Macy Board.

The Seattle Metal Trades Council agreed, and sent three delegates to Washington D.C. But on September 7, Hurley demanded that the EFC have the power to veto Macy-Board decisions, so that his agency could have the final say on the cost of ships. In response, Carry resigned from the Macy Board, leaving it without authority to hear the complaints of the Seattle Metal Trades Council delegates. The delegates, therefore, decided to return to Seattle on September 23. The Macy Board's power to make binding decisions was restored and Carry rejoined the Board only after they left.

Only after the strike began did the Macy Board go to Seattle to hold hearings and negotiations. But it was not able to begin hearings in Seattle until October 8, because Carry became ill and was replaced by a new EFC representative, Louis A. Coolidge. Five international union presidents involved in shipyard work were also asked to join The S.L.A.B. in Seattle, to help assess the situation and bring about a settlement with the Seattle unions.

The Macy Board public hearings in Seattle lasted five days. The Board decided to also hold hearings in Portland and San Francisco before deciding the case. In the meantime, the Board instructed the shipyard workers to return to work. At first, the shipyard workers of Seattle refused to return to work. But, after strenuous efforts and appeals to patriotism, the international presidents were able to get the Seattle shipyard workers to temporarily return to work under the old conditions.

After its hearings in the other West Coast cities, the Macy Board announced the establishment of a uniform wage scale for the San Francisco, Columbia River, and Puget Sound districts. It decided it would allow all shipyard workers in this region a 31 percent pay increase over the wages prevailing on June 1, 1916. This discounted the wage increases which the workers had won since that time. And even worse, these wage rates became not the minimum wage rates, as the workers had hoped, but maximum wage rates.

The S.L.A.B. did make an exception for Seattle skilled shipyard workers by permitting the Skinner and Eddy schedule for its skilled workers--$5.50 per eight-hour day--to become the pay standard of the Puget Sound district. But, the Seattle metal-trades unions protested this decision on the grounds that the 1916 pay scale as benchmark was highly discriminatory, particularly against unskilled and semi-skilled workers, who were not as well organized as the skilled workers in 1916, and therefore had substantially lower wages than they later achieved.

Moreover, the Metal Trades Council noted that the EFC, by applying the 1916 wage scale in Seattle shipyards, enabled the shipyard management to pay unskilled and semiskilled union workers 22.5 cents less than their fellow unionists were making for comparable work outside the shipyards. At the same time, the Macy decision was meant to set workers against each other by allowing the shipyard management to pay skilled workers 60 cents an hour more than their fellow members in comparable jobs outside the yards.

The Seattle unions also objected to the fact that the wage increases granted to the West Coast shipyard workers were not as great as those given to workers in Eastern yards.

The Seattle Metal Trades Council attempted to appeal the Macy Board decision, but their appeal was rejected. For more than a year Seattle shipyard workers continued to work, although under constant protest against the unfairness of the Macy Board decision, in which they had had no real say." Metal-trades representatives constantly stressed the point that the international officers of their unions illegally committed them to abide by the decisions of the Macy Board, since the constitutions of many of the craft unions specifically stated that the International officers had no authority to bind locals with referendum votes.

While the war continued, the unions asked their members to stay on the job out of patriotism, but in November 1918, less than two weeks after the Armistice, Seattle metal-trades officials asked their locals to vote on an authorization to strike.

The vote was counted on December 10, 1918. Bert Swain, secretary of the Metal Trades Council, announced on the following day that "the proposition to reject the Macy award, which carried with it authorization to the Pacific Coast Council of the Metal Trades to call a strike has been adopted by the requisite two-third majority in a majority of the unions affiliated with the Seattle Council." The vote count for each of the seventeen unions were not made public, so that the employers could not offer a wage increase only to the smaller unions which voted not to strike and thereby break labor's solidarity.

Backed by the vote for strike authorization, the Metal Trades Council demanded $8.00 a day for mechanics, $7.00 for specialists, $6.00 for helpers, and $5.50 for manual laborers.

On January 16, 1919, they met with representatives of Skinner and Eddy, Seattle North Pacific, and the Ames Yard. But, the employers' committee only offered to raise the wages of mechanics. They would not consider any wage increase for the less skilled, lower-paid workers.

After this rejection negotiations were broken off, and the Metal Trades leaders decided to proceed with the strike. But, in their struggle to improve shipyard wages and consolidate the little union power they had gained during the war, the unions found that they had to contend not merely with local management but with the power of the federal government as well. Piez, general manager and vice-president of the EFC, gave notice that those ship owners who might be considering giving into the union demands should reconsider, because if they did, they would lose their steel allotments.

Piez also felt that it was time to more thoroughly suppress the labor movement in the area, because he believed that the unsettled conditions in Seattle shipyards were being used by radicals for "subversive purposes." He was convinced that the real problem was not industrial, but political. With this in mind, Piez publicly condemned the strike, and publicly asserted that it would be unpatriotic and illegal for employers to grant higher wages.

Nevertheless, on January 18, A. E. Miller, chairman of the conference committee of the Metal Trades Council, began distributing the formal strike notices to the managements of the various yards. These notices stated that all work in the shipyards would cease on January 21.

Then, the employers began circulating rumors that the shipyard employees did not really favor the strike, but were forced into compliance by radical leaders. Foremen and other supervisory personnel began circulating petitions among the shipyard workers requesting that a re-vote be taken on permission to strike. Management representatives also conducted a straw vote at Skinner and Eddy, and claimed that it resulted in 95 per cent of the workers voting against the strike. In response, the Metal Trades Council issued a statement denying the rumors and challenging the validity of the petitions and straw vote because they were circulated by the employers.

On January 21, the strike began. About 35,000 men stopped working: 25,300 in the metal yards, 3,250 in the wooden yards, and the rest in allied trades. According to the Union Record, the walk-out was both orderly and free of violence. There was a similar strike in the Tacoma shipyards which had, in fact, gone out a few hours earlier than Seattle's. But the stoppage did not spread further down the Coast. Portland's Metal Trades leadership did not comply with the Seattle Metal Trades' request that they join the strike.

Then, some days after the strike began, the employers left Seattle on vacation. This move clearly indicated that they had no intention of negotiating and meant to starve the workers out.

At the same time, in telegrams to all the struck companies, Piez and Macy stated that the unions had violated their agreement with the government, and reasserted their agency's determination to stand by the Macy award and to approve no wage increases.

In response to this ultimatum, the secretary of the Tacoma Metal Trades Council proposed, on January 22, a general sympathy strike. Then, the Seattle Central Labor Council, on the following day, adopted a resolution proposed by the Metal Trades Council to call a general strike in Seattle, if the measure was approved by a referendum of local unions.


From February 6 to February 11, 1919, nearly 100,000 Seattle workers participated in a general strike. This pamphlet is a history of the strike, written by the History Committee of the General Strike Committee shortly after the end of the strike. It was compiled by Anna Louise Strong, then a "progressive" reporter for the union-owned Seattle daily, The Union Record. Before being published in final form, everything was submitted first to the history committee and then published in The Union Record, where workers comments were invited.

We are reprinting it for several reasons. First, it provides a concrete account of one of the few general strikes in this country's history. Although conditions have changed considerably, it still gives a good idea of what happens during a general strike and what problems arise. Second, the Seattle general strike was the general strike in the USA that went farthest towards workers' management, both in concept and in practice. It was seen, by both participants and opponents, as part of a process through which workers were preparing themselves to run industry and society. Final authority in running the strike rested with a General Strike Committee, three members from each striking local, elected by the rank-and-file. The 300 members of the committee were mostly rank-and-filers with little previous leadership experience. During the strike, this committee or its Executive Committee of 15 virtually ran Seattle. The strike was not a simple shutdown of the city. Instead, workers in different trades organized themselves to provide essential services, such as doing hospital laundry, getting milk to babies, collecting wet garbage, and many other things.

Third, the idea of strikers providing partial services presented here can be useful not only in general but in more limited strikes. Such tactics can help to keep non-striking workers (i.e. workers outside the striking plant, industry, or service) on the side of the strikers and at the same time hit the capitalists more directly. For example, in the 1970 postal strike, letter carriers promised to deliver welfare checks even while on strike. In Cleveland, in 1944, streetcar workers threatened to refuse to collect fares in order to win a pay increase; the City Council gave in before they actually used the tactic. Another possible example would be if garbage workers picked up garbage everywhere but the wealthy and business sections. This type of action would in most cases have to be taken outside the union, since few union bureaucracies would use such a clearly class-directed tactic, and thus of necessity the workers would have to organize this themselves.


The Seattle strike took place in a time of upheaval and crisis throughout the world. There had been a revolution in Russia, followed by revolts in Germany, Hungary, and several other European countries. it was widely believed that workers in these countries were overthrowing capitalism and taking over management of production for themselves. The Russian Revolution was supported by large numbers of workers in the U.S. as elsewhere. Late in 1919, longshoremen in both Seattle and San Francisco refused to load arms and munitions destined for Admiral Kolchak, leader of the counterrevolution in Siberia, and in Seattle they beat up the scabs who tried to load them onto the government-chartered ship. To many workers, the Russian revolution, as they conceived it (not realizing to what extent the Bolsheviks had already destroyed the power of the workers' own factory committees and soviets and instituted authoritarian rule), was something to be followed here. [Root & Branch note: As the leaflet "Russia Did It", circulated during the Seattle General Strike (referred to in the text but never quoted), put it: "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."]

In this country also there was widespread labor turmoil. Vastly expanded production for World War I and the cut-off of immigration made labor scarce, and placed workers in a powerful position. To ensure steady production, under the changed conditions, business and government made a deal with the conservative American Federation of Labor. Government and management would give up union-breaking and allow the A.F.L. to organize; in return, the unions would prevent strikes. (This wartime experience of government-guaranteed unionization later became the model for containing workers' movements in the 1930's.) However, despite the appeals to patriotism, the promises of a "new era" after the war, and the opposition of government, business, and the A.F.L., strikes mushroomed during the war: the war years 1916-1918 averaged 2.4 times as many workers on strike as 1915.

Two factors were largely responsible for this. First, there was an enormous inflation associated with the war: the cost of living practically doubled from August 1915 to the end of 1919. Thus while real wages increased, they lagged far behind workers' expectations; meanwhile, the work week was greatly lengthened. Second, as one wartime labor mediator wrote, "the urgent need for production ... gave the workers a realization of strength which before they had neither realized nor possessed."

Big strikes practically stopped spruce lumber production and closed down the most important copper areas early in the war. In Bridgeport, Conn., the most important munitions center in the U.S., workers repeatedly stopped production in defiance of the orders of both the National War Labor Board and their own national union leaders.

Increasing militance was accompanied by a growing spirit of solidarity. For example, shipyard workers on the Pacific Coast tied up the yards for several months in sympathy with the lumber strikers in the Northwest, refusing to handle "ten-hour lumber" in order to aid the lumberers struggle for the eight hour day. General strikes developed in Springfield, Ill., Kansas City, Mo., Waco, Texas, and Billings, Montana, all to support particular groups of striking workers.

When the war ended, the conflict increased. Now that the great war-time industrial expansion was over, capitalists widely felt it necessary to reduce wages relative to prices if profits were to be maintained. Thus the government simultaneously ended war-time price controls and allowed corporations to resume their traditional union-breaking policies. Between June 1919 and June 1920 the cost of living index (taking 1913 as 100) rose from 177 to 216. Unemployment increased considerably right after the end of the war. At the same time, workers were eager to receive the benefits that war propaganda had promised them. The "new era" they had been promised turned out to mean declining real incomes, growing unemployment, and the undermining of what little defense against arbitrary management authority they had won.

As a consequence, more workers participated in strikes in 1919 than in any other year in American history except 1946. There were large strikes in the New England and New Jersey textile districts, involving 120,000 workers, largely opposed by the unions.

Three hundred fifty thousand steel workers walked out, crippling most of the industry. They were met with a reign of terror in the large steel districts in Western Pennsylvania, "red raids" and deportations from the federal government, and lukewarm support (and at times treachery) from the trade union movement. Since the A.F.L. unions had traditionally been all white, the employers had no trouble recruiting 30 to 40 thousand black workers as strikebreakers. The strikers held out for more than two months, but finally succumbed to the overwhelming power of the steel industry and the government.

There were several other large strikes, many of them "outlaw" or wildcat, heartily and openly opposed by the unions. The most important of these was the strike of the railroad workers, which spread across the country. It was eventually ended by the combined pressure of repression and some concessions. Most protracted was the mass upheaval in the coalfields, with sporadic strikes, national strikes, and armed battles running from 1919 into 1922. In the course of these struggles, the idea of workers' management of production often came to the fore. For example, in the course of a wildcat strike of Illinois miners, a mass-meeting of 2,000 from the Nigger Hollow Mines adopted a resolution which read:

In view of the fact that the present-day system of Society, known as the capitalist system, has completely broken down, and is no longer able to supply the material and spiritual-needs of the workers of the land, and in further view of the fact that the apologists for and the beneficiaries of that system now try to placate the suffering masses by promises of reforms such as a shorter workday and increases in wages, and in further view of the futility of such reforms in the face of the world crisis that is facing the capitalist system; therefore be it ... Resolved, that the next National Convention of the U.M.W.A. issue a call to the workers of all industries to elect delegates to an industrial congress, there to demand of the capitalist class that all instruments of industries be turned over to the working-class to guarantee that necessities, comforts, and luxuries be produced for the use of humanity instead of a parasitical class of stockholders and bondholders, and that the congress be called upon to pass an amendment to the Constitution of the United States legalizing all such action in the aforementioned Congress."

Similar forces were at work in Seattle. Radical sentiment had simmered there even during the war. When a socialist and former president of the Seattle A.F.L., Hulet Wells, was convicted for opposing the draft and then tortured in prison, the Seattle labor movement erupted with giant street rallies. Seattle union membership had increased from 15,000 in 1915 to 60,000 by the end of 1918. Most of the unions were affiliated with the A.F.L. but their ideas and action differed greatly from A.F.L. policy; as Harry Ault, editor of The Union Record, and a moderate in the local labor movement, put it:

"I believe that 95 per cent 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 ...."

Right after the end of the war, the I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World) and the A.F.L. Metal Trades Council cooperated in sponsoring a Soldiers', Sailors', and Workingmen's Council, taking the Soviets of the Russian revolution as their model.

If the Seattle General Strike was an aspect of the stormy conflicts throughout the U.S. and the world in 1919, it also grew out of the specific historical conditions in Seattle. Partially because of its geographic isolation, the Seattle labor movement had developed a unique structure. Whereas most unions emphasize the relation of workers to others in their own industry or trade, the most important identification of Seattle workers was with the workers of Seattle as a whole. (In Seattle, an attack on one group of workers was felt as an attack on all.) This was reflected in and partially caused by the fact that most collective bargaining was coordinated through the Central Labor Council, in which all A.F.L. unions were represented. Such city-wide labor councils have been centers of radical activity in other countries, but in 20th century America they have been extremely weak. The very newness of most of the Seattle labor movement meant that there had been little time for !

a local union leadership with its own interests to separate itself off from the rank-and-file. Although the union leaders in Seattle certainly had their doubts about the general strike, they did not actively try to smash it--in marked contrast to union leaders' behavior in other general strikes, notably in San Francisco in 1934. Thus while the workers of Seattle had to create a new organ, the General Strike Committee, they did not come into direct conflict with the existing union structure--precisely because of the factors which made that structure unique.


There were many limitations both in the thought and actions of the participants in the Seattle General Strike and in this account of the Strike, which leaves many important questions open. Perhaps most striking in the pamphlet is the strong emphasis on the non-violence of the strike, its peaceful intent, its maintenance of "law and order." To some extent, this stress can be explained by the fact that the History was written in part to serve as a defense for many radicals and other participants who were arrested after the strike was over. Also, it should be remembered that the author, who was one of those arrested, was a "progressive" newspaper writer and not a striking worker. However, it is true that the strike was entirely peaceful, that from the beginning it was conceived in a peaceful framework, and that this perspective shaped the development of the strike. Given the situation in Seattle, this made sense. The strike was almost completely effective and thus did not require mass picketing (which could lead to violence) to shut things down. There was no possibility of successful revolutionary action, which would have involved armed struggle, in as small and isolated a place as Seattle, whose workers were more radical than those in most other parts of the country--it would have been bloodily crushed by the much stronger forces of reaction. What is objectionable in the Strike History is the emphasis on peacefulness, its elevation to a principle rather than a tactic. To what extent this was shared by the participants we do not know.

Also strange is the attitude towards the Japanese workers expressed here. The Japanese workers had also gone on strike and were invited to send delegates to the General Strike Committee, but with no vote. It is unclear what the context of this decision was, but this might have been a serious and potentially destructive limitation in the class-consciousness of those who made the decision.

The pamphlet fails to give much information on what the Wobblies (the Industrial Workers of the World) and other radicals did during the strike, what role they played, or what had been the effect of their years of activity and propaganda (some of it about "The General Strike") on the participants. The Wobblies were especially active in the shipyards. But the general strike was by no means a Wobbly creation, as some people have portrayed it.

Because of its early date, the pamphlet does not tell much about what happened after the strike. The account Anna Louise Strong gives in her autobiography is discouraging, although apparently accurate. She notes that the economic crisis of 1920-21 came to Seattle a year before it came to other cities. The Seattle shipyards closed a year earlier than the yards of Hog Island and San Francisco which also worked on government orders; perhaps by accident, perhaps because of "shrewd men in the East who decided that 'red Seattle' must be tamed." She continues,

"...our shipyard workers drifted to other cities to look for work. The young, the daring, the best fighters went ... The life died out of a dozen 'workers' enterprises' which were part of our 'inevitable road to socialism.' Overexpanded cooperatives went bankrupt in a storm of recriminations.... Workers fought each other for jobs and not the capitalists for power."

Would it have made any difference if the strike had gone farther, had lasted longer, managed more enterprises, been willing to resort to violence? Probably not. Of more significance is the question: to what extent was the decline of the workers movement in Seattle (and in other places throughout the country) a direct result of the economic crisis, as Strong suggests, and to what extent were other factors involved?

One of the major problems of the workers in the strike was their leaders. This is recognized in the pamphlet and a fair amount of information is given concerning it, mostly about the attempts of the national unions to force their Seattle locals to break the strike. There is much that can be added from other sources as well. Seattle's union leadership was notoriously radical. Yet the decision to strike was made while most of the "labor leaders" were at a special conference in Chicago to organize a national general strike to free Tom Mooney. [Root & Branch note: According to one of them, Strong, the general strike would probably not have occurred if they had been in town. "They were terrified when they heard that a general strike had been voted.... It might easily smash something--us, perhaps, our well-organized labor movement." They went along with the General Strike because it was happening and in the hopes of controlling where it went and bringing it to a speedy conclusion. The established union leaders never did manage to gain control of the strike, but they had more and more influence as the strike went on. Strong also pointed out that:

"... as soon as any worker was made a leader he wanted to end that strike. A score of times in those 5 days I saw it happen. Workers in the ranks felt the thrill of massed power which they trusted their leaders to carry to victory. But as soon as one of these workers was put on a responsible committee, he also wished to stop 'before there is riot and blood.' The strike could produce no leaders willing to keep it going. All of us were red in the ranks and yellow as leaders."

This situation was dramatized when the Executive Committee voted 13 to 1 on Saturday (the third day of the strike) to recommend ending the strike that night. The 300 members of the General Strike Committee were almost persuaded until they took a supper break and talked with members of their own rank-and-file; they returned to the meeting and voted overwhelmingly to continue the strike. All of this suggests that the problem was not one of "bad" or "yellow" leaders, but was inherent in the division between "leaders" and "led". The strikers could continue only insofar as they kept decisions in their own hands.

For us, one of the most important questions in any strike is to what extent do the participating men and women take over direction of their activities themselves, and to what extent are they simply following the directives of an alternative elite. A strike committee, for example, can be only a means by which different groups of workers coordinate their activity; on the other hand, it can be a new directing authority. Many questions about decision-making in the Seattle strike are not answered by the Official History.

Who was on the General Strike Committee of 300 and the Executive Committee of 15? Were they rank-and-filers or leaders? If the former (as turned out to be the case) what was their position and level of activity in the A.F.L. unions? Did the rank-and-file ever meet during the strike? When did the delegates on the General Strike Committee consult them?

From other books, we have gathered that there were union meetings during the strike and that these union meetings, unlike most today or even most A.F.L. union meetings outside Seattle at that time, did allow some kind of democracy and communication--the rank-and-file really could control what happened to a fair degree.

Also it is probably true that the 30,000 rank-and-file workers a day who participated in the mass meals that had been arranged discussed the strike with each other at these meals. This was most likely the major way in which mass pressure was put on the Strike Committee members, many of whom came to these meals. (Most of these questions are not answered in any other accounts of the strike either.)

Exactly who ran those services that were run by "workers" during the strike? Were they the local union leaders? Were they workers elected from the rank-and-file? Were the decisions about how to run things made at mass meetings? If done by delegates, to what extent did they contact the rest of the workers about doing these things?

These are important questions to ask, about what for us was perhaps the most important aspect of the General Strike. Workers' management is the basis of the socialist society we hope to see created and to help create. But workers' management does not mean appointing leaders to make all the decisions, even if these leaders are workers. It means that workers make those decisions that affect them (in the area of production, these decisions would be: what is produced, how is it produced, by whom, and how is it distributed). These decisions should be made directly when possible, by rotated and immediately recallable delegates when not, and then only after full discussion of the crucial issues by those to whom the delegate is responsible. (For one view of this see Root & Branch Pamphlet #1, Workers Councils by Anton Pannekoek.)

It will also mean a drastic change in peoples' daily lives and relationships.

This brings us to another set of questions left unanswered by the pamphlet. What did the participants do with their time? To what extent did they just sit at home (except for the mass meals, which maybe half of them came to) or have a vacation, as some of the strike bulletins told them to do? How were their daily lives and relationships with friends, family, coworkers affected?


Finally, while it is useful for us today to study what happened during the Seattle General Strike, what problems the workers faced and how they tried to solve them, it is important also to point out the respects in which the situation and thus the problems are different today (and were different, in most places outside Seattle, in 1919 as well). As we have already pointed out, the Seattle union movement was uniquely democratic even for its own time. A general strike today would probably have to be wildcat, in opposition to, fought by, and out of the control of the union bureaucracy. This is because most unions are bureaucratic, hierarchical structures which allow little meaningful participation of rank-and-file members. Their function is to act as middlemen in the labor market: insuring employers a quiet and docile labor force between contracts, and at contract time making sure that both the demands and the methods used to win them, whether "collective bargaining" or strikes, do not threaten the system. These features seem to be inherent in the nature of modern trade unions.

A second difference is that the U.S. government would most likely play a more active and repressive role in fighting a general strike today. In fact it was very unusual for 1919 that there was not more repression and violence on the part of the employers and the government.

Third, a general strike now would probably require much more mass participation both in decision-making and in physical activity. The former because a general strike would be done in conflict with the union structures and workers would have to build new organizations to run the strike (which at the outset, at a minimum, would probably mean mass participation). The latter because most cities or areas now are not as isolated as Seattle was, and it would be necessary, even if the strike was totally effective within the city or area, to have mass picketing and related activities in order to stop shipments coming into the city or area from the outside and to prevent the use of troops as strikebreakers.

These are the ideas that have occurred to us in connection with the pamphlet. Other people approaching it from different perspectives and experiences would naturally have other questions and thoughts.

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