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Seattle 1919: When the Working Class Ruled for Six Days

by John Spritzler

March 12, 2015

[Note: all of the information in this article is from http://flag.blackened.net/revolt/hist_texts/seattle1919.html which has much more material about the Seattle General Strike that is well-worth reading]

From February 6 to February 11, 1919 three hundred delegates from unions with a combined membership of nearly 100,000 rank-and-file workers constituted what was called the General Strike Committee, and it--not the official city government--ruled Seattle. The General Strike Committee directed the general strike by Seattle's workers, which was a "sympathy strike" in solidarity with 35,000 shipyard workers who had earlier gone on strike January 21.

The day before the commencement of the General Strike, the Union Record, the official daily organ of the Central Labor Council, published the following editorial:

Editorial from the Union Record*

On Thursday at 10 A.M.

There will be many cheering, and there will be some who fear.

Both these emotions are useful, but not too much of either.

We are undertaking the most tremendous move ever made by LABOR in this country, a move which will lead--NO ONE KNOWS WHERE!

We do not need hysteria.

We need the iron march of labor.

*****

LABOR WILL FEED THE PEOPLE. Twelve great kitchens have been offered, and from them food will be distributed by the provision trades at low cost to all.

LABOR WILL CARE FOR THE BABIES AND THE SICK. The milk-wagon drivers and the laundry drivers are arranging plans for supplying milk to babies, invalids, and hospitals, and taking care of the cleaning of linen for hospitals.

LABOR WILL PRESERVE ORDER. The strike committee is arranging for guards, and it is expected that the stopping of the cars will keep people at home.

A few hot-headed enthusiasts have complained that strikers only should be fed, and the general public left to endure severe discomfort. Aside from the inhumanitarian character of such suggestions, let them get this straight:

NOT THE WITHDRAWAL OF LABOR POWER, BUT THE POWER OF THE STRIKERS TO MANAGE WILL WIN THIS STRIKE. What does Mr. Piez of the Shipping Board care about the closing down of Seattle's shipyards, or even of all the industries of the northwest? Will it not merely strengthen the yards at Hog Island, in which he is more interested?

When the shipyard owners of Seattle were on the point of agreeing with the workers, it was Mr. Piez who wired them that, if they so agreed he would not let them have steel.

Whether this is camouflage we have no means of knowing. But we do know that the great eastern combinations of capitalists could afford to offer privately to Mr. Skinner, Mr. Ames, and Mr. Duthie a few millions apiece in eastern shipyard stock, RATHER THAN LET THE WORKERS WIN.

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.

UNDER ITS OWN MANAGEMENT.

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

Some weeks after the strike, the Union Record printed an editorial that contained the following:

We look about us today and see a world of industrial unrest, of owners set against workers, of strikes and lockouts, of mutual suspicions. We see a world of strife and insecurity, of unemployment, and hungry children. It is not a pleasant world to look upon. Surely no one desires that it should continue in this most painful unrest.

We see but one way out. In place of two classes competing for the fruits of industry, there must be, eventually ONLY ONE CLASS sharing fairly the good things of the world. And this can only be done by the workers learning to manage.

When we saw in our General Strike: The Milk Wagon Drivers consulting late into the night over the task of supplying milk for the city's babies; The Provision Trades working twenty-four hours out of the twenty-four on the question of feeding 30,000 workers; The Barbers planning a chain of co-operative barber shops; The steamfitters opening a profitless grocery store; The Labor Guards facing, under severe provocation, the task of maintaining order by a new and kinder method; When we saw union after union submitting its cherished desires to the will of the General Strike Committee: then we rejoiced. For we knew it was worth the four or five days pay apiece to get this education in the problems of management. Whatever strength we found in ourselves, and whatever weakness, we knew we were learning the thing which it is necessary for us to know.

Someday, when the workers have learned to manage, they will begin managing. And we, the workers of Seattle, have seen, in the midst of our General Strike, vaguely and across the storm, a glimpse of what the fellowship of that new day shall be.

The three hundred delegates in the General Strike Committee appointed an Executive Committee of Fifteen to make pressing decisions that the General Strike Committee could veto (but in practice never wished to do so.) To give a sense of the power weilded by the workers in Seattle during their General Strike, here are excerpts from a history of the General Strike that was written by participants of the strike shortly after it ended:

Even while the first meeting of the General Strike Committee was going on, the newly appointed Executive Committee of Fifteen met and prepared for business. Brother Nauman, of the Hoisting Engineers, was elected chairman, and Brother Egan, of the Barbers, secretary. Three subcommittees were appointed to consider exemptions from the general strike order, under three main heads: Construction, Transportation, and Provisions.

Committees on miscellaneous exemptions, on grievances and on general welfare were also appointed.

The Cooks Union reported at this time that their arrangements for feeding the strikers and the public were well under way.

The executive committee decided upon daily meetings. As a matter of fact, so many and so important were the matters brought before them that they found themselves compelled to meet more than once a day.

First Exemption Granted.

On the following day, Monday, the Committee of Fifteen met again. Before them came a delegation from the Firemen's Local 27, whom they had requested to appear. After some discussion the committee requested the firemen to stay on the job. This was the first exemption granted in the strike. It was followed by many more.

The transportation subcommittee was instructed to arrange for the necessary forms of permit and signs to designate the autos and trucks used by organized labor in carrying on the necessary activities of the strike. Here again the necessity of exemption was recognized.

C. R. Case, head of the department of streets of the city of Seattle, was the first department head to appear before the committee to state city needs. He pointed out the fact that the water supply of Queen Anne Hill and West Seattle depended on electrical help from the City Light and Power. He also stated that large quantities of food in cold storage would spoil if the power system did not run, and that without the street lights the city would be a prey to lawlessness and disorder and thuggery. He mentioned the needs of gas in hospitals and laboratories, and the need of transportation for the various city institutions.

The Committee of Fifteen realized what they were facing, if a strike were carried through without exemptions. They appointed a special hour on the following day at which they requested heads of city departments to appear and state their needs, and they ex pressed as the sense of the committee that they cooperate with these heads in every way possible.

Organization of Laundry Workers

One of the neatest little bits of team work between four different organizations came up for approval at this first meeting of the executive committee of 15. The Laundry Drivers' Union had at first voted not to strike, but later changed their vote. They had a great deal to lose in any strike, as they had built up laundry routes with much patience and the effort of many years. They were working under an agreement with the Laundrymen's Club, the organization of laundry owners.

There was also in Seattle a Mutual Laundry, owned by organized labor, and the question of its operation came to the fore. After consultation between the laundry drivers and inside laundry workers, it was proposed that hospital laundry only should be handled; that a certain number of wagons should be exempted and furnished with signs and permits to serve the hospitals; that one laundry should be agreed on as the one best qualified to handle hospital laundry and should be allowed to operate under a permit, with a sign, "Hospital Laundry Only, by Order of General Strike Committee." This laundry should not be the Mutual Laundry, which did not care to handle hospital work.

The laundry workers served notice to their employers to take no more laundry, as it could not be finished, and then requested the Committee of Fifteen to allow them to work a few hours past the time of the calling of the strike, in order that the clothes already in the plants should not mildew from dampness.

A note from the Laundry Owners Club, accepting the Washington Laundry as the one to be exempted, was also submitted, together with the rest of the requests from the laundry drivers and laundry workers. It was a well-thought out program, indicating complete agreement with the entire laundry industry, and it was accepted by the Committee of Fifteen.

The Problem of the Butchers

The meat cutters presented an entirely different problem from that of the laundries. Instead of a complete organization of the industry, they had a small and struggling union, organized in a few shops, but unable to gain an entrance into some of the big markets which were controlled by the representatives of the packers.

If they should strike, and withdraw their men from the little shops, which had dealt fairly with the union, were they not penalizing their friends and strengthening their enemies whose non-union shops would be running full blast?

The somewhat original and interesting solution proposed by the Committee of Fifteen was that that the meat cutters should strike with the rest of labor, and should then contribute their time without charge to supply the public with meat through certain specified union shops, demanding only that the saving of their wages be deducted from the cost of meat. In the end, the strike of the meat cutters was incomplete, due to the handicap they labored under.

Law and Order Committee

By Tuesday noon, still two days before the strike, the need of a law and order committee was felt to be pressing, and the Committee of Fifteen appointed a committee of three to handle this matter. An advertisement was placed in the Union Record asking that labor union men who had seen service in the United States army or navy come to a meeting to discuss important strike work. This was the beginning of the famous Labor's War Veteran Guards, who did such splendid service in preserving order during the strike.

Demands for Exemptions

Demands for exemptions came in thick and fast on Tuesday, now that the strike was actually looming near. The proposed meeting with heads of city departments never came off, but requests from several public officials came in formally for exemptions. These were referred to their appropriate committees, considered, returned with recommendations, and either granted or rejected. In some cases a conditional grant led the Committee of Fifteen into the position of actually prescribing the conduct of certain lines of activity.

Here are a few selections from Tuesday's minutes:

"King County commissioners ask for exemption of janitors to care for City-County building. Not granted."

"F.A. Rust asks for janitors for Labor Temple. Not granted." (The committee was playing no favorites: it is worth noting, however, that a few days later, when the Co-operative Market asked for additional janitor help because of the large amounts of food handles for the strikers' kitchens, their request was allowed.)

"Teamsters' Union asks permission to carry oil for Swedish hospital during strike. Referred to transportation committee. Approved."

"Port of Seattle asks to be allowed men to load a governmental vessel, pointing out that no private profit is involved and that an emergency exists. Granted." (Note: This was on a later date.)

"Garbage Wagon Drivers ask for instructions. Referred to public welfare committee, which recommends that such garbage as tends to create an epidemic of disease be collected, but no ashes or papers. Garbage wagons were seen on the streets after this with the sign, 'Exempt by Strike Committee.'"

Drug Stores--Prescriptions Only

"The retail drug clerks sent in statement of the health needs of the city. Referred to public welfare committee, which recommends that prescription counters only be left open, and that in front of every drug store which is thus allowed to open a sign be placed with the words, 'No goods sold during general strike, Orders for prescriptions only will be filled. Signed by general strike committee.'"

"Communication from House of Good Sheperd. Permission granted by transportation committee to haul food and provisions only."

This is by no means all the business that came before the Committee of Fifteen in a single afternoon. An appointment of a committee of relief to look after destitute homes, the creation of a publicity bureau, an order that watchmen stay on the job until further notice, and many other matters were dealt with. And after this eventful afternoon there followed a night meeting at 10 p.m.

Take Over Printing Plant

On Wednesday the same grist of requests for exemptions and for directions came before the Committee of Fifteen. The Trade Printery asked for exemption on the ground that it was printed material needed by the various unions. The request was denied, and the Trade Printery was asked instead to turn over its plant to the strike committee, to be run by printers giving their services. To this the Trade Printery agreed.

The day before this offer was made the Equity Printing Co. offered to put its plant at the disposal of the strike committee, volunteering free labor. This offer was favorably considered by a sub-committee, but rejected by the Committee of Fifteen.

The auto drivers were given permission to carry "mail only" on the Des Moines road. They were also allowed to answer emergency calls for hospitals and funerals, provided those calls came through the Auto Drivers' Union.

Ministers Appeal

The Ministerial Federation sent representatives to see the Committee of Fifteen on this day. After submitting the resolutions which they had already sent to Mr. Piez and Woodrow Wilson as evidence of their sympathy with labor's cause, they formally requested postponement of the general strike for one week to give a chance for peaceful settlement. They were given a rising vote of thanks for their interest, but their request was not granted.

The telephone girls were requested to stay on the job temporarily.

The school janitors' request to remain on the job was refused, and they were referred to the Engineers' Union, which on the following Saturday allowed them to return.

Bake ovens at Davidson's bakery were allowed to operate, all wages to go into the general strike fund. This was the usual policy adopted when union men were allowed to work for private employers in a matter of public emergency.

THE QUESTION OF CITY LIGHT

The eventful Thursday drew near. One most important matter was still unsettled--the question of City Light. At the request of the Committee of Fifteen, Mayor Hanson came to the Labor Temple to a night meeting for conference on the subject. The meeting convened shortly before midnight, and the mayor arrived after midnight, remaining until 3:30 in the morning of Thursday.

The electrical workers had voted to strike without exemptions. On the day before the strike an interview purporting to be from Leon Green, their business agent, appeared in the morning paper, announcing that not a single light would burn in Seattle, and that the telephone system, the newspapers and every enterprise depending on "juice" would cease to run.

"No Exemptions"

To the question, "How about hospitals, where people may die for want of light," Green was stated to have replied, "No exemptions." The same answer was made to the question of the automatic fire alarm system. More than any other one event during the entire strike, this front page report of Green's intentions aroused both fear and resentment, not only among outsiders, but within the ranks of organized labor as well.

The mayor, who had previously taken no sides, announced that City Light should run, even if he had to bring in soldiers to run it. Appeals were made to the public for volunteers to run the City Light plant. And meanwhile the general public, uncertain of the outcome, laid in supplies of oil lamps and candles.

The electricians took the ground that a complete tie-up would shorten the duration of the strike. In answer to this the city authorities stated that the shutting down of city power would shut off the water supply in West Seattle and on Queen Anne Hill; would mean the spoiling of large quantities of food in the cold storage warehouses, while the darkening of the streets would inevitably lead to disorder, and the shutting off of lights from the hospitals might mean many deaths.

All committees Much Concerned

The various committees dealing with the strike were all deeply concerned. The Committee of Fifteen requested the electricians to allow enough electricity to operate the fire alarm system; they also appointed a committee of three to formulate a solution of the electrical supply problem, and called for a late night meeting to make final decision.

At the same time the conference committee of the Metal Trades, charged with the conduct of the original strike of the shipyard workers, called into conference the three men who been appointed by the electrical workers to handle their part in the strike. At first the committee of electrical workers stood firm for a complete shut-down, but when it was evident that the representatives of the Metal Trades were much opposed, they finally consented to allow exemptions if a committee on exemptions could be installed in the City Light plant, with authority to state what parts of the system should be allowed to run.

First Conference With Mayor

At this point A. E. Miller, chairman of the conference committee, called up Mayor Hanson on the telephone and asked him to join the conference. The mayor came over at once to the Collins building and announced that City Light and city water should not be interfered with. He refused to recognize any committee on exemptions, but finally, after a long discussion, consented to meet with such a committee and take up with them, section by section, the various parts of the lighting system, in an effort to prove to them that no part of the system should be shut down. A committee of three went over to the mayor's office, but a deadlock occurred at once on the question of street lighting, which the committee of three refused to allow.

Upon this the Engineer's Union announced to the mayor that if the electricians left they would operate enough of the plant to supply hospitals and other public needs.

Midnight Meeting With Mayor

All the various pieces of consultation and planning on the subject of City Light, which had started spontaneously in different quarters as soon as the Green interview appeared in the paper, came to a head in the midnight session of the Committee of Fifteen, called the night before the strike at the Labor Temple. The subject under consideration had been recognized all day as the most serious problem which had yet arisen, involving questions of relations with the city government, as well as the relations between individual unions and the general strike committee. In addition to the Committee of Fifteen, representatives of the electrical workers, the engineers and the conference committee of the Metal Trades were present.

The mayor, invited at a late hour by telephone, appeared shortly after midnight, and reiterated his statement that city water and City Light must run. He said that he would prefer to run them with the union men, but that he would run them with soldiers from Camp Lewis or Bremerton if necessary. He added that he did not care about the other public utilities. The car line was not essential; in fact, he might even have the men given a lay-off so that they would not lose their civil service rating. But light and water, he stated, were needed for public health and public peace.

The mayor finally left at 3:30, and the Committee of Fifteen voted, after his withdrawal, to order the electricians back to run the City Light plant, with the exception of the commercial service. A committee was appointed to announce this decision to the mayor, who, when called on the telephone, said he would be in his office at 8:30 in the morning.

In the end the City Light plant ran without interruption, as far as was apparent to the citizens of Seattle. A month after the strike a member of the strike committee of the electrical workers, when asked how this happened, made the following statement: "The matter of City Light was a bluff between Green and Hanson. We had the operators in the sub-station only partially organized and could not have called them off if we had wanted to. We could and did call out the line men and meter men, who responded. But their absence made little immediate difference, and they went back before the strike was called off.

"The engineers were in a better position than we to close down City Light, but this they declined to do, and only called off their men after it was sure that the City Light could run anyway."

It was perhaps a rather inglorious explanation of a matter which caused so vital a stir. But, however much bluffing entered into it, a few facts stand out as interesting. First, that the executive committee of the strike, believing that it had the power to shut down City Light, ordered that all city lights should run except the commercial power. This is important because it shows the temper of mind in the executive committee. Second, that up to the time when the strike was actually in full swing, Mayor Hanson was not the "revolution quelling strong man" that he has been announced as since, but a worried and busy mayor, not sufficiently familiar with the details of his light plant to call Green's bluff and endeavoring for many hours in midnight session to argue the strike committee into saving City Light from serious inconvenience. It is perhaps not so thrilling a picture, but it is a more human one.

ON THURSDAY AT 10 A.M.

The strike had been called for Thursday at 10 a.m. At that hour the street cars began to pull for the barns, the workers all over the town left their tasks, and the strike was on. Some crafts had stopped before the hour set. The cooks had been on strike all the morning, and were working hard preparing food for the strikers' kitchens.

According to the business press of the city, Seattle was "prostrate. According to an admission in the morning paper, "not a wheel turned in any of the industries employing organized labor or in many others which did not employ organized labor."

The initial purpose of the General Strike was to support the ship yard workers in their strike for better wages. The aim of the ship yard workers for better wages reflected their aim to make the world more equal, instead of being one in which capitalists enjoyed the lion's share of the social wealth produced by working people. The sympathy strike was motivated by the same aim--to make the world more equal. The conduct of the General Strike reflected the working class value of mutual aid, which is why the workers did so much to help each other and attend to the needs of the entire Seattle population while waging the strike against the employers.

These six days in Seattle, 1919, illustrate what it could be like if ordinary working class people were really calling the shots instead of the wealthy ruling elite. Egalitarianism is about making this happen, not just for six days but forever. The principles of egalitarianism discussed at PDRBoston.org are intended to ensure that ordinary people can remain in control of society for the long term.

The capitalist class used military violence to defeat the workers of Seattle. This is why we need an egalitarian revolution to remove the rich from power. To do this we'll need something like what the workers had in Seattle, but on a much larger scale, even internationally, so that the rich will not be able to find enough people anywhere to obey orders to violently attack the working class and succeed in defeating it, as they did in Seattle in 1919.

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