Ahead of its 100th anniversary, revisiting the Seattle General Strike and the city’s long legacy of organized laborBreaking News
tags: strikes, Seattle, labor history, anniversary
If you were in a Dr. Who mood and looking for a time-travel destination, Seattle in 1919 would provide plenty of thrills and spills. World War I had turned the city into a boomtown, with thousands of shipyard workers covering shifts round the clock and blowing off steam when they were done. Wages were good — the ships were vital to the war effort. Nightlife was raucous. Rules were negotiable.
The boom created jobs, and with the jobs came unions. So many unions! There were unions for shipyard workers and longshoremen, streetcar motormen and conductors, butchers and laundry women, housemaids and candymakers. There was a union for waitresses and one for the “Hello Girls” phone-company operators. There were three separate unions for barbers — white women belonged to one, white men belonged to another, Japanese barbers to the third — and a newsboys union, representing 500 newsboys. But black workers were left out of this union paradise: Aside from the longshoremen’s union, they could not join any union at all.
This labor-oriented environment fueled the Seattle General Strike, which marks its hundredth anniversary in February. The strike lasted six days, from Feb. 6 to Feb. 11, 1919. For two days, the streets were entirely still, as 60,000 workers from 100 different unions stayed home in solidarity with striking shipworkers. It made celebrities of Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson for his union-busting rhetoric and journalist Anna Louise Strong for her incendiary far-left editorials, but no shots were fired, no arrests were made. Earl George, a longshoreman and one of the few African Americans to participate in the strike, remembered the total quiet that fell over the city: “Nothing moved but the tide.”
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