THE DAY SEATTLE STOOD STILL
By Dick Meister
It was 82 years ago this month. It was in Seattle: "Street car gongs
their clamor. Newsboys cast their unsold papers into the streets. From the
doors of mill and factory, store and workshop, streamed 65,000 working
School children with fear in their hearts hurried homeward. The
of a great city stopped."
Many people throughout the country believed that the scene described by
Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson marked the beginning of a Bolshevik revolution
that which had overthrown the Russian government two years earlier.
Some of the men who left their jobs on that sixth day of February, 1919,
indeed intend it to be just that - particularly a band of about 3,500
members of the Industrial Workers of the World, whose own bolshevism
engendered great public fear far out of proportion to their numbers and
But most of the men, as most of their supporters, were intent on nothing
more than strengthening the U.S. labor movement, guaranteeing their right
to collective bargaining and improving their pay and working conditions in
the face of increasingly fierce hostility from employers and government alike.
It was, in any case, the beginning of one of the very few general strikes
in American history.
It was one of the most dramatic and disruptive of some 3,600 strikes that
broke out in that post-World War I year of extraordinary labor militancy.
Steelworkers, coal miners, workers of all kinds - even policemen - walked
off the job in response to drastic reductions in the wages that the heavy
demand for labor during the war had brought them, the miserable working
conditions now imposed on them, the widespread attempts to destroy their
The American Federation of Labor's local council called the Seattle strike
in support of 35,000 striking shipyard workers. They had been out for 2
weeks, only to be ordered back to work on pain of losing their jobs if
continued to demand the right to bargain for better pay and conditions.
AFL leaders reasoned that if the shipyard owners' arbitrary actions went
unchallenged, employers everywhere would be emboldened to act similarly.
Soon after the strike broke out, Mayor Hanson climbed into his flag-draped
automobile and led 950 federal troops into the city. Hanson, insisting
strikers would resort to violence, also swore in 3,000 special policemen
He needn't have bothered. Strikers did bring the city to a halt, closing
schools and virtually all businesses and stopping public transportation.
But they did so without a single reported incidence of violence, not even
single arrest for strike-related offenses.
They made sure, furthermore, that essential services continued. Hospital
and laundry workers remained on the job, for instance, as did firemen and
garbagemen. Unionized truck drivers delivered milk from local farms to 36
stations around the city and brought 30,000 cooked meals a day to 21 other
After six days, it ended. Responding to growing public hostility which
threatened to seriously harm the labor movement nationwide, the AFL's
conservative national leaders denounced use of the general strike as a
tactic. The AFL affiliates in Seattle had little choice but to call off
The shipyard workers were left to continue their strike alone for nine
weeks. In the end, they won nothing.
Despite its brevity and lack of success, the general strike played a major
role in the social and political turmoil - the so-called Red Scare - that
erupted after World War I. Union-busting employers, vote-chasing
politicians, sensation-seeking newspapers - all painted the strike as the
first in what surely would be a nationwide series of efforts by radicals
who, as Mayor Hanson charged, wanted "to take possession of our American
government." One U.S. senator declared that if the strike wasn't stopped,
"the nation will see a Soviet government set up within two years."
What followed was one of the most disturbing periods in U.S. history.
Thousands of aliens were arbitrarily arrested and summarily deported and
thousands of citizens jailed for allegedly subversive activities or even
simply holding allegedly subversive views. Government agents raided the
headquarters of unions and radical organizations to search for alleged
terrorists. Mobs attacked their members.
Few, if any, revolutionary plots were uncovered. For the "subversives"
almost invariably sought only to better the economic and political
of working people - just as government, employers and the press sought to
thwart their efforts by labeling them as Bolsheviks and Communists.
By 1921, the national hysteria that began two years earlier when "65,000
working men" left their jobs in Seattle was over. The ferocity of the
attacks on those struggling to upset the status quo had depleted their
It would not be until the coming of President Franklin Roosevelt's New
administration a dozen years later that working people finally would win
heightened status they had so long wanted and had so long needed.
Dick Meister, a freelance columnist in San Francisco, has covered
issues for four decades as a newspaper and broadcast reporter, editor and
commentator. Copyright c 2001 Dick Meister.