general strikes in washington

map of washington

1919, february 6 - 11 - 100,000 workers walk off the job in seattle
the war was hardly over, it was february 1919, the iww leadership was in jail, but the iww idea of the general strike became reality for five days in seattle, washington, when a walkout of 100,000 working people brought the city to a halt. it began with 35,000 shipyard workers striking for a wage increase. they appealed for support to the seattle central labor council, which recommended a city-wide strike, and in two weeks 110 locals -- mostly american federation of labor, only a few iww -- voted to strike. the rank and file of each striking local elected three members to a general strike committee, and on february 6, 1919, at 10:00 a.m., the strike began.

unity was not easy to achieve. the iww locals were in tension with the afl locals. japanese locals were admitted to the general strike committee but were not given a vote. still, sixty thousand union members were out, and forty thousand other workers joined in sympathy. seattle workers had a radical tradition. the city now stopped functioning, except for activities organized by the strikers to provide essential needs. firemen agreed to stay on the job. laundry workers handled only hospital laundry. vehicles authorized to move carried signs ``exempted by the general strike committee.'' thirty-five neighborhood milk stations were set up. every day thirty thousand meals were prepared in large kitchens, then transported to halls all over the city and served cafeteria style, with strikers paying twenty-five cents a meal, the general public thirty-five cents. people were allowed to eat as much as they wanted of the beef stew, spaghetti, bread, and coffee.

a labor war veteran's guard was organized to keep the peace. on the blackboard at one of its headquarters was written: ``the purpose of this organization is to preserve law and order without the use of force. no volunteer will have any police power or be allowed to carry weapons of any sort, but to use persuasion only.'' during the strike, crime in the city decreased. the commander of the u.s. army detachment sent into the area told the strikers' committee that in forty years of military experience he hadn't seen so quiet and orderly a city.

the mayor swore in 2,400 special deputies, many of them students at the university of washington. almost a thousand sailors and marines were brought into the city by the u.s. government. the general strike ended after five days, according to the general strike committee because of pressure from the international officers of the various unions, as well as the difficulties of living in a shut-down city. the strike had been peaceful. but when it was over, there were raids and arrests: on the socialist party headquarters, on a printing plant. thirty-nine members of the iww were jailed as ``ring-leaders of anarchy.''

from a people's history of the united states by howard zinn

more information is available from the unsettling events page on the tacoma public library web site

the world : north america : united states : washington