Coming next month is the 100th anniversary of the largest strike in Seattle history. On Feb. 6, 1919, 60,000 workers went out: metalworkers, longshoremen, truck drivers, barbers and waitresses — nearly every union member in Seattle.
Unions used to be fighting organizations. In their heyday, from World War II to the Korean War, more than a third of America’s private-sector workers were in unions, and they went on strike all the time. Nationally, union membership in the private sector shriveled by 2018 to 6½ percent, most of them in old unions that hardly ever go out on strike. Mostly they collect dues.
In the public sector, 33.9 percent of workers are members of unions. They mostly don’t strike, either. They contribute to election campaigns and bend public policy in their favor. Some of them have gotten very skillful at this; in this state, the Service Employees Union International has learned how to write a ballot measure defining a group it wants to organize and have the voters pass it.
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In our time, unions are part of the establishment. Public officials don’t dare call them bad names or try to break their strikes.
How different from a century ago.
Coming next month is the 100th anniversary of the largest strike in Seattle history. On Feb. 6, 1919, 60,000 workers went out: metalworkers, longshoremen, truck drivers, barbers and waitresses — nearly every union member in Seattle. They shut down the city for five days, and when they went back to work, Seattle’s mayor, Ole Hanson, claimed that he had stopped a Communist revolution.
It was called the Seattle General Strike. A general strike, when all the workers go out at once, was a new idea of the political left, and Seattle is where they tried it out.
The strike began in the shipyards. By the war’s end, Seattle had five yards building steel-hulled merchant ships, others building wooden boats, all for the government. Shipyards here employed 35,000 union workers. They were the Boeing of their time.
During the war, shipyard wages had been set by a board in Washington, D.C. In January 1919, with the war over, the unions demanded big increases — 45 percent for skilled metalworkers. When the federal bureaucrat in charge of shipbuilding contracts threatened to shut down any shipyard granting an increase, the Seattle workers went on strike. A few days later they asked the rest of Seattle’s unions to join them — and the members voted to do it. They were under labor contracts, and they broke them. They didn’t care.
It was a heady time. In Russia, the Communists had seized power and proclaimed a workers’ state, and workers’ states were about to be proclaimed in Bavaria and Hungary. Few Seattle workers had read Karl Marx, but they liked the notion of the workers on top. Seattle was also a center of America’s most radical union, the hell-raising Industrial Workers of the World. The “Wobblies” had a weekly newspaper here, and a meeting hall. They lent an air of defiance to events, as did an inflammatory editorial in the mainline labor newspaper by left-wing journalist and former School Board member Anna Louise Strong.
After it was over, the police arrested the Wobblies and busted up their hall. Later in 1919, the Woodrow Wilson administration began wholesale deportations of foreign communists. Anna Louise Strong moved to Russia and started a newspaper there.
The Seattle General Strike was no revolution. It was more of a protest demonstration. In the classic history of the strike, “The Seattle General Strike” (1964), Robert L. Friedheim called it “a revolt against everything and therefore, against nothing.”
After the five days, everyone but the shipyard workers went back to work. “The strike had been a failure, and they all knew it,” Friedheim wrote. “In the days ahead they were to learn it was worse than a failure — it was a disaster.”
The strikers had lost the support of the public, the press and politicians — and not just Ole Hanson. The government canceled the shipbuilding contracts, and Seattle’s shipyards went out of business. A nationwide depression came, and the labor movement went into a swoon.
The most telling verdict on the general strike was that Seattle unions never tried one again. In the waterfront strike of 1934, Seattle longshoremen asked for one and didn’t get it.
Consider the history of strikes since then. In 20th century America, strikes peaked after the two world wars: 3,630 strikes in 1919 and 4,985 in 1946. After that came a gradual decline.
In 1947, America had 270 strikes of a thousand or more workers; in 1987, 46; in 2017, seven. The U.S. Labor Department hasn’t released its count for 2018, but it will be comparable. Most of the big strikes last year were by public-school teachers. The one really large strike in the private sector was at the Marriott Hotels.
The unions still have the right to strike, and having it is still valuable to them. It is notable, though, that they have mostly chosen not to use it.