How We Got Here: Revolution Comes to Seattle

On February 4, 1919 the Seattle Union Record, a union publication printed by Harry Ault, issued an explosive call to Seattle’s workers. After months of agitation and tensions, it summoned the city’s workers to perform something virtually unknown in the United States: a general strike.

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!

This call to revolution heralded from Anna Louise Strong, activist, poet, sometimes educator (she had, until recently, served on Seattle’s school board), reborn as a unionist agitator. For five days, Strong, Ault and their allies paralyzed one of America’s largest cities, in a remarkable display of union strength. Unfortunately, their maneuver backfired, not only failing in their immediate goals but triggering a backlash of unprecedented intensity.

We do not need hysteria.

We need the iron march of labor.

LABOR WILL FEED THE PEOPLE.

When 1919 dawned, the United States of America seemed unshakable. The country made a belated, though decisive contribution to the First World War, with John Pershing’s Doughboys first helping to repulse Germany’s Spring Offensive, then spearheading the decisive Meuse-Argonne campaign. Woodrow Wilson traveled to Paris, hoping to negotiate an equitable peace settlement and establish a multinational League of Nations. Now the world’s leading economic and political powerhouse, Americans anticipated a satisfying peace.

Victory Parade
Victory parade in Allentown, PA

But the euphoria of victory waned, replaced by economic recession, a deadly flu pandemic and fear of social forces unleashed by war. Wilson’s repressive actions mocked his claims to make the world “safe for democracy.” Signing the Alien and Espionage Acts into law, Wilson authorized arrests and condoned harassment of German-Americans, pacifists, socialists, “slackers,” labor leaders, blacks and other “subversives” on charges as specious as teaching a parrot to speak German. The Armistice didn’t end repression; if anything it intensified, with Russia aflame with revolution and Americans fearing, or hoping, its embers would catch fire in their country.

The Pacific Northwest seemed a likely tinderbox. Long home to organized labor and socialist-progressive movements, Washington, in particular, witnessed recent labor unrest, including full-blown strikes in 1913 and 1917; authorities considered the state’s woodworkers so suspect that during the war, military forces took over logging camps. Seattle dockworkers were further inflamed to learn that the military used its port to ship arms and supplies to American troops fighting Bolsheviks in Siberia. No one was more inflamed than the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.), the radical labor union whose reputation loomed over the era’s labor issues.

Ault Strong Duncan
Strike leaders: Harry Ault, Anna Louise Strong, James A. Duncan

Historian Robert L. Tyler comments that “the I.W.W. appeared, almost providentially…as scapegoats” for political and business leaders. The Wobblies occasionally engaged in violence, though usually defensive or acts of sabotage which avoided personalized, targeted attacks. Big Bill Haywood, once wrongfully charged with the assassination of Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg, denounced violence as counterproductive. But their anarcho-syndicalist ideology, advocating One Big Union and the destruction of capitalism, remained terrifying enough to mainstream America. Their opposition to the First World War provided cover for massive government repression: Wobblies faced gun battles in Washington, deportations in Arizona, lynchings in Montana and mass trials in Chicago.

Seattle’s unions affiliated with the American Federal of Labor (AFL), which claimed 110 separate chapters among different trades. By standards of the day, these chapters were extremely cosmopolitan, with many extending membership both to women and black men (something the AFL, in the age of Jim Crow, left to the discretion of local chapters). The one exception was Asian immigrants: despite a large population of Chinese, Filipino and Japanese-Americans, Seattle still felt the lingering effects of the previous century’s legal discriminationanti-Asian riots and the Knights of Labor‘s campaigns shunting them into poor housing, low-paying jobs and segregated unions. Organizer Harry O’Connor recalled the consensus that “Asiatic labor commandeered by corporations to break down American standards must be excluded.”

sEATTLE WOMEN
Women riveters, black and white, on break at the docks

Seattle’s unofficial union leader, a fiery Scottish Calvinist named James A. Duncan, spurned the AFL’s national leadership as conservative, proclaiming thatif there is any reform in the labor movement they [sic] will come from the West.” Accordingly, Duncan and his allies organized an independent committee known as the Central Labor Council which staked out positions to the Left of the national organization, inviting socialists and even Wobblies into their ranks. Historian Robert L. Friedheim notes that “the Seattle labor movement…stood for everything [AFL President] Samuel Gompers rejected—labor in politics, industrial unionism, and nationalization of key industries.” 

But Seattle also housed conservative groups like the Loyal League, a powerful business organization, the newly-formed American Legion, and the Minutemen, an offshoot of the wartime American Protective League. The Minutemen continued the APL’s mission by infiltrating labor unions and radical groups with informants. Seattle’s press barons were largely hostile to labor: Edwin Selvin of the Post-Intelligencer screamed that labor leaders should be “hanged on the nearest telephone pole” and unionized workers replaced with returning soldiers. In Mayor Ole Hanson, the forces of reaction found their unlikely champion.

Hanson
Mayor Hanson

The son of Norwegian immigrants from Racine, Wisconsin, Hanson enjoyed a checkered career as a lawyer, businessman and mercurial politician. After serving as a Progressive in the Washington State Legislature (and a failed Senate campaign), he won the Mayoralty of Seattle on a wartime platform of “Americanism.” Hanson posed as a friend to the working man, arguing it was “not only good morals, but good business to give men what they are entitled to.” In August 1918 he even joined longshoreman on the shipyards for a day, albeit dressed in a pea coat and cloth cap marking him as a swell playing at blue collar work.

Despite this, Hanson showed no sympathy for labor unions. He complained that a “considerable number” of longshoremen worked “simply to agitate against the Government and bring about chaos in our country.” Under his aegis, Wobbly stenographer Louise Olivereau and AFL members Hulet Wells and Sam Sadler were prosecuted under the Espionage Act for criticizing President Wilson’s war policies. Afterwards, Seattle conservatives and business leaders who’d denounced the Mayor as “Oily Ole” felt they could rely on his firm response to labor activism. A long-simmering dispute gave Hanson the chance to prove them right.

In 1917 Emergency Fleet Corporation (EFC), who oversaw the Seattle shipyards, instituted a minimal raise for longshoremen to $5.25 per day – “twenty-two cents per day below the level of wages granted in other work in the same city,” one worker complained. The Metal Trades Council reluctantly assented during wartime; within weeks of Armistice Day, they presented EFC’s president, Charles Piez, with a demand to raise wages to $5.50 per diem ($8.00 for skilled laborers). Piez not only rebuffed their requests, he threatened to withhold contracts from any local companies who instituted wages themselves. In January 1919, the Metal Trades Council voted to strike.

Seattle

This coincided with another clash, spurred by backlash against American intervention in Russia. On January 12th, several Wobbly and socialist leaders held an open air rally in a vacant lot; one speaker “urged a general strike to tie up all the industries and shipping engaged in the manufacture of supplies for…the American army and its allies in Siberia.” After singing Communist ballads, the crowd paraded down Fourth Avenue; there, a swarm of police, tipped off by Minutemen informants, attacked the crowd with billy clubs, injuring and arresting dozens. A second rally four days later (with Mayor Hanson, allegedly, attending incognito) was similarly broken up by mounted police.

On January 21st, 35,000 longshoremen walked off their jobs, paralyzing Seattle’s shipping industry. Members of the Central Labor Council met soon afterwards to discuss a sympathy strike. Though a common tactic by the international Left (a month-long strike paralyzed Winnipeg, Canada later that year), general strikes were virtually unknown in America, with only two abortive attempts in St. Louis and New Orleans the previous century. And the auguries appeared inauspicious: soldiers returning from France on the 23rd drew a huge crowd of patriotic Seattleites; the national AFL refused even to consider a general strike; local businesses denied store credit to strikers. The Seattle Times warned that “not 15% of Seattle laborites would consider such a proposition.”

Despite internal resistance from moderate union leaders (one of whom, Frank Turco, became so angry that he punched a pro-strike delegate during a Council meeting), Duncan soon realized that most rank-and-file workers supported a sympathy strike. By February 2nd a decision was reached to strike on February 6th, and a General Strike Committee formed; Henry Ault authorized Anna Louise Strong to publish her editorial the following day. Strong’s euphoric tone and apocalyptic press responses (“STOP BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE,” warned the Star) panicked middle class Seattleites, who stockpiled food, weapons and other supplies, or fled the city anticipating violence.

Seattle Soup Kitchens
Striker’s soup kitchen

At 10 am on February 6th, the General Strike commenced. Twenty five thousand laborers (among them segregated Asians, whom Duncan invited to participate) walked off the job, rendering Seattle helpless. “Streetcar gongs ceased their clamor,” recalled Mayor Hanson in his memoirs, “newsboys cast their unsold papers into the doorstops…school children with fear in their hearts hurried home. The life stream of a great city stopped.” Earl George, one of the strikers, offered a similarly poetic summation: “Nothing moved but the tide.”

The General Strike Committee worked to keep order. Frank A. Rust organized a band of 300 men dubbed the War Veterans Guard to act as a police force, ensuring the strikers did not engage in violence (“people want to obey the law if you put it to them reasonably,” one of them explained). Women established soup kitchens for striking workers; others delivered mail and medicines, oversaw power, water and sanitation, assisted destitute Seattleites and authorized limited shipments of goods to the city. Through their efforts, and the cooperation of the I.W.W. (who, aside from individual troublemakers passing out inflammatory literature, abstained from provocations) the strike unfolded without a single act of violence. 

Mayor Hanson initially responded with canny, double-dealing shrewdness. Publicly, he urged the mobilization of police and Federal troops while quietly negotiating with Duncan and other strike leaders. When the Mayor asked Duncan whether his followers included Communist agitators, the hotheaded boss snapped in response, “if you want to see the streets of Seattle run with blood to satisfy your curiosity…we don’t.” Hanson considered this sufficient rebuff to moderation: he reinvented himself as an American Admiral Kolchak, determined to strangle Bolshevism in its cradle. 

Hanson Train
Mayor Hanson, playing counterrevolution

Hanson played the part with a flamboyance that made him an overnight celebrity. He issued uncompromising press statements, insisting that “the time has come for every person in Seattle to show his Americanism…The anarchists in this community shall not rule its affairs.” He met the first troops arriving in the city on a train bedecked with twin American flags (ensuring the presence of photographers), deputized hundreds of emergency policemen, and ordered summary executions of any striker who threatened city utilities. Hanson earned acclaim not only in Seattle but nationwide, with one columnist awarding him “a backbone that would serve as a girder in a railroad bridge.” Not everyone was impressed: Clarence Darrow ridiculed Hanson as “a cheap vaudeville performer” while others dubbed him “the Seattle Clown.”

Neither Hanson, nor the soldiers and Marines who converged on the city, unraveled the strike so much as internal dissensions and drift. “No individual or group existed for making strategic decisions,” Robert Friedheim writes, with the General Strike Committee exercising little control over its followers. “As soon as any worker was made a leader he wanted to end that strike,” Anna Louise Strong commented. “Workers in the ranks felt the thrill of massed power…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.”

Despite its initially orderliness, the strike steadily crumbled. The General Committee voted to end the strike on February 8th, only to be overruled by its members. This solidarity didn’t last; local Teamsters and typesetters returned to work first, pressured by their respective national unions. Then went the city’s street car conductors, depriving the strikers of their greatest trump card. Finally, on February 11, James Duncan reluctantly convened a Committee meeting which agreed to end the strike, this time without objection. Soon most of the strikers returned to work, leaving the longshoremen to resist alone.

Seattle Strikes
Boys and men delivering groceries to strikers

Americans weren’t relieved by Duncan’s capitulation; politicians, reporters and business leaders outdid themselves in breathless expressions of terror. “It is only a middling step from Petrograd to Seattle,” warned the Chicago Tribune, while the Cleveland Plain Dealer announced that “the [Bolshevik] beast comes into the open.” Senator William H. King of Utah and Washington Congressman Albert Johnson urged deportation of the strike leaders, whom they branded “Bolsheviki.” President Wilson, otherwise embroiled in peacemaking, received a warning from Joseph Tumulty that Seattle marked “the first appearance of the Soviet in this country.”

Having delivered Seattle from Bolshevism, Hanson resigned as Mayor. He embarked on a nationwide lecturing tour, turning a handsome profit while warning about the perils of Revolution. Towards agitators, aliens and others, Hanson brooked no compromise. “The American people want no further trifling with these men. If there are not sufficient laws quickly and inexpensively to deport these people, Congress should enact them, and any president who would veto such necessary and just measures would and should be impeached…Let them either become Americans or go home.” His stature became further enhanced in April, when Hanson received a mail bomb which failed to detonate.

This arose from a terrorist campaign, likely orchestrated by Galleanist anarchists rather than Bolsheviks (the distinction too obscure for most Americans to appreciate), which resulted in bombs targeting political and business leaders throughout spring of 1919. One assassin detonated themselves on the doorstep of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, scattering the neighborhood with body parts and burnt pamphlets. His own experience steeled by public clamor (““I was shouted at from every editorial sanctum in America from sea to sea,” he reflected; “I was preached upon from every pulpit; I was urged to do something and do it now“), Palmer prepared to battle Bolshevism.

Palmer Wilson
Reactionary progressives: Woodrow Wilson and A. Mitchell Palmer

The year saw a variety of strikes, from a massive steel strike which began in Pittsburgh and spread through the Midwest to a walkout by the Boston Police Department which generated riots, and whose suppression thrust Governor Calvin Coolidge into the national spotlight. A series of deadly race riots erupted from Chicago to Elaine, Arkansas, claiming over 200 lives, mostly black. And in Washington, tensions between the I.W.W. and the American Legion resulted in the Centralia Massacre, an Armistice Day shootout which left five men dead. Convinced that “the blaze of revolution was sweeping over every institution of law and order,” Palmer prepared a massive crackdown.

In a series of raids from November 1919 through January 1920, forces of the Justice Department (coordinated by Palmer’s young assistant, J. Edgar Hoover) rounded up thousands of suspects, mostly immigrants, across the country. They were imprisoned without trial or formal charges; many were beaten or otherwise mistreated; hundreds were deported. Some were genuine radicals, including anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman; most were guilty only of membership in unions or immigrant societies. Nonetheless, William J. Flynn of the Bureau of Investigation crowed that “the backbone of the radical movement in America is broken.”

The public soon soured on Palmer’s excesses, consigning the First Red Scare to oblivion. With it went Ole Hanson, who continued his lectures and published a book, Americanism vs. Bolshevism, which exposed Red-baiting as his entire platform. After failing to seize the Republican presidential nomination in 1920, Hanson retired to California, abandoning politics for real estate: his most lasting achievement was the creation of San Clemente. He died in July 1940, mostly forgotten except by business partners, obituary writers and aged Seattleites.

Palmer raids
Palmer’s victims

Hanson’s opponents faded into similar obscurity. Harry Ault drifted into mainstream politics, joining the Democratic Party and serving as Tacoma’s Deputy Sheriff. James A. Duncan failed to unseat Samuel Gompers as AFL president, dying in 1928. Anna Louise Strong, in contrast, moved farther left; she traveled to the Soviet Union, becoming a willing mouthpiece for Stalin’s regime until criticisms of the Great Purge resulted in her exile. While serving as a war correspondent in China, she became enamored of Mao Zedong, becoming his “unofficial spokesperson to the English speaking world,” encouraging rapprochement with America and defending his Cultural Revolution. She died in Beijing in 1970, two years before Richard Nixon’s visit to that country.

In the short term, the Strike damaged Seattle’s labor movement. The longshoreman’s strike ended without achieving its goals; authorities indicted thirty-nine men, mostly Wobblies, on nebulous charges. This, and denunciation from the national AFL, compelled Duncan to purge the Central Labor Council of radicals he’d previously welcomed as allies; this led both to bad blood and weakened union power in the city. Bert Swain, a local AFL leader, lamented that “it was fully twenty years before labor recovered from the unfortunate effects of the strike … and labor has been paying a pretty stiff price ever since.”

Despite these failings, Seattle renewed itself as a hub of union activism. In 1934 saw another longshoreman’s strike, lasting 83 days despite violent clashes with police and National Guardsmen which left three dead. The following year, a lumberman’s strike led to the creation of the International Woodworkers of America. In 1999, unions organized a massive protest against the World Trade Organization, the “Battle of Seattle,” with protest leaders invoking their predecessors from eight decades prior. Harry Ault, James Duncan and Anna Louise Strong can rest assured that their legacy, however contentious, lives on.

WTO

Sources and Further Reading

The two most useful resources for this article were Robert L. Friedheim’s The Seattle General Strike (2018 edition; originally published 1964) and the University of Washington’s special online exhibit on the Strike, an invaluable collection of press accounts, oral histories, photographs and secondary essays.

See also Jeremy Brecher, Strike! (2012 edition; originally published 1972); Philip S. Foner, The History of the American Labor Movement, Vol. 8: Postwar Struggles, 1918-1920 (1988); Terje I. Leiren, “Ole and the Reds: The Americanism of Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson” (Norwegian American Historical Association 1985, Vol. 30; online here); Robert K. Murray, Red Scare, 1919-1920: A Study in National Hysteria (1955); Harvey O’Connor, Revolution in Seattle: A Memoir (1964); and Robert L. Tyler, Rebels in the Woods: The I.W.W. in the Pacific Northwest (1967; online here).