When Solidarity Mattered: the Seattle General Strike

Radical Seattle: the General Strike of 1919.
By Cal Winslow,
New York: Monthly Review Press, 2020.
242pp, $19.00 pbk

This is a special book, bearing an almost sacred topic for all those interested in the history of the American labor and the Left. The vibrant, pre-1920 Socialist Party, waxing strong and confident until struck down for its resistance to the US entry into the First World War, stood for a larger and more diverse radicalism. including Wobblies, quasi-wobblies. labor and cultural radicals of no certain description and of several generations. They had in common the sense that dramatic change in society was possible, perhaps inevitable. Despite the repression that grew rapidly with war mobilization—unionization also spread with the shortage of labor— the sensibility flourished and the general strike in Seattle was arguably its strongest point. Now that piquant moment has found its historian.

Radical Seattle could also be described as a Second Take.  I was lucky enough to know Harvey O’Connor, author of Revolution in Seattle, a book that appeared when the strike was only a half century gone. A young veteran labor activist and radical newspaperman at the time of the events, Harvey lived through them, and lived on to become a staffer on the Labor Federated Press service, also author of muckraking histories of the big money families, like Mellon’s Millions—mainly how they cheated and swindled their way to the top. Harvey recalled to me the radical world of the 1920s aftermath as a time of action but also of tears…veteran socialists meeting in banquets, singing the old songs and crying at what was now irrevocably gone. In a very piquant way, Cal Winslow brings back the world of Harvey O’Connor and takes off, in generational and scholarly senses, from where O’Connor ended.

Winslow himself came of age intellectually, he tells us, surrounded in the UK by the great British scholarship of E.P. Thompson and others, studying the social life and habits of the British working class over centuries’ time. He also vividly recounts his own family history, a union family with the inevitable troubles and high points, himself walking a picket line at a young age and picking up lore along the way. His previous work, Labor’s Civil War in California, about the Hospital Workers Union, depicted the uphill struggles of a grassroots organization to overcome the money power of larger, vastly less democratic union bodies. (His most recent volume, E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left, brought Winslow home to his own intellectual roots.)

Back to Seattle! Winslow carefully analyzes the economic and social circumstances of the working class in the northwest, heavily involved  in natural resources extraction, above all timber, and drawn to the Industrial Workers of the World. The capitalists of the region were ruthlessly anti-union and that prompted a still more radical version of socialist ideas merged with what might be called workers’ control, of which the Industrial Workers of the World was part but only part. Nominally conservative AFL unions of craft workers could be just as radical or revolutionary, no matter the leadership of national unions.

His treatment of the atmosphere in Seattle, in the years and months before the General Strike is richer, fuller, than any other, and defies easy summarization. Suffice it to say that a titanic struggle had been shaping up for years. The demand for workers and often very skilled workers to meet production quotas, in this case mainly ship-building, was vast, almost more vast than the greed and ruthlessness of Seattle’s capitalist class. The willingness and sometimes eagerness of craft workers to risk their status as “aristocrats of labor,” pointed to an explosion ahead. The Seattle Union Record, published by the crafts, itself educated the ordinary worker to the idea of a better life.

Only The Daily Call was more extraordinary. Issued for a few crucial months, poorly printed and laid out, it had a staff of a very few including O’Connor himself and Anne Louise Strong, already a veteran of the Union Record and one of the most remarkable characters in all radical history. Daughter of a radical Washington preacher, PhD and Sunday School teacher in Seattle, Strong was poet and polemicist for the strikers. She left for Russia, later on, and China still later, a radical journalist until the end. (When she was 84, Anna Louise wrote me a note about herself—and her swim in the Yangtse River, to prove she was as tough as Chairman Mao, who had earlier taken the same plunge himself—and sending me a $20 bill for my young magazine, Radical America,asking me to donate half of it to the Black Panthers.)

The Strike, conducted for better conditions and wages rather than any more visionary goal, gained something close to total support of union members and the blue collar community at large. It earned the bombastic hatred of the rich, who had no trouble directing the police to brutal actions whenever possible. Against repeated capitalist challenges, the strikers held strong….for six days. They dispersed, by all accounts, pretty happy that they had achieved many of their goals by their own hands.

Here legend meets fact. During the strike, committees elected by the strikers themselves made sure that all city services operated better than before, that streets were patrolled by an unarmed labor guard, and so on, food supplies for children and the poor more effectively distributed than ever before. Proof positive, in other words, that working people properly organized could run their own city, top to bottom.

And here, on the closing of the strike, Winslow repudiates the standard academic claims that the demoralized strikers returned to work and to capitalistic reality. Actually, they had shown their strength, and for the moment, that was enough. Too soon, repression came across the US and most especially to Centralia, Washington, where a rightwing mob broke up the IWW hall, castrated and lynched Wesley Everest, a war veteran and Wobbly. Many of the IWW leaders nationally, meanwhile, faced long prison sentences. Retribution was cruel, as cruel as it is likely to be in any situation of intense class struggle. But the Seattle General Strike had shown something important, nevertheless. Solidarity mattered.

Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.