Seattle General Strike Remembered

Posted by Daniel on Feb 11, 2010 - 5 comments









Today marks the anniversary (the 91st) of the end of the 1919 General Strike in Seattle, Vancouver's sister city on the Pacific. It was the first general strike in US history and in some ways was the model for the bitter dispute in Winnipeg that would follow three months later.

The strike began with the shipyard workers, 35,000 of whom walked off the job on January 21, 1919. Seattle had become a major shipbuilding centre during WWI and workers were concerned to maintain their wage levels. The strikers gained the support of other unions and one by one they voted in favour of a general sympathy strike, which began on Feb. 6.

The strike occurred in the context of widespread paranoia, in Canada as well as the US, about the spread of "Bolshevism" in the labour movement. Employers, government officials and the press immediately decided that the strike was a Red revolution. This view was encouraged by Seattle mayor, Ole Hanson, a silver-haired, silver-tongued demagogue who recognized a political opportunity when he saw one. According to Hanson, the strike was a "sympathetic revolution" led by "traitors and anarchists". He threatened to "shoot on sight anyone causing disorder" and he called in the troops.

Several thousand federal soldiers deployed throughout the city, which had basically ground to a halt. In the face of such a display of force, and Hanson's red-baiting, the unions backed down and called off the strike, officially at noon on Feb. 11.

Hanson was a local hero and he decided to ride the anti-Red wave as far as it would take him. He resigned the mayoralty and, posing as the leader who stopped Bolshevism in its tracks, he embarked on a cross-country speaking tour to fan the flames of the Red Scare. For a while he even dreamed of winning the Republican Party nomination for president in 1920. But before long the air went out of his campaign and he retired in obscurity to California.

Meanwhile, back in Seattle, 27 people had been charged with sedition. When the first to go to trial was acquitted, charges against the others were dropped. There had been no violence during the strike (unless you count the violence of Hanson's rhetoric) and no evidence that the strikers wished to establish a Seattle Soviet.

The Seattle General Strike kicked off a tumultuous period in American history. Before long there were parcel bombs exploding in the mail, fears of imminent Red revolution and unprecedented government repression of left-wing political opinion. Events in the US fanned the flames of our own Red Scare north of the border which built to a climax at the Winnipeg General Strike in May-June.

By the way, I'm writing a book about the Canadian Red Scare, 1918-19. It's called Seeing Reds. Look for it at your favourite bookseller this autumn.