The American story of Labor:

 

1919 The Seattle General Strike:
The Seattle General Strike of February 1919 was the first city-wide labor action in America to be proclaimed a “general strike.” It led off a tumultuous era of post-World War I labor conflict that saw massive strikes shut down the nation's steel, coal, and meatpacking industries and threaten civil unrest in a dozen cities.  The strike began in shipyards that had expanded rapidly with war production contracts. 35,000 workers expected a post-war pay hike to make up for two years of strict wage controls imposed by the federal government.
When regulators refused, the Metal Trades Council union alliance declared a strike and closed the yards. After an appeal to Seattle’s powerful Central Labor Council for help, most of the city’s 110 local unions voted to join a sympathy walkout. The Seattle General Strike lasted less than a week but the memory of that event has continued to be of interest and importance for more than 80 years.
February 6

On the morning of February 6, 1919, Seattle, a city of 315,000 people, stopped working. 25,000 union members had joined the 35,000 already on strike. Much of the remaining work force was idled as stores closed and streetcars stopped running. The General Strike Committee, composed of delegates from the key striking unions, tried to coordinate vital services and negotiate with city officials, but events moved quickly beyond their control.
Americanism vs. Bolshevism?

Most of the local and national press denounced the strike, while conservatives called for stern measures to suppress what looked to them to be a revolutionary plot. Mayor Ole Hanson, elected the year before with labor support, armed the police and threatened martial law and federal troops. Some of the unions wavered on the strike's third day. Most others had gone back to work by the time the Central Labor Council officially declared an end on February 11. By then police and vigilantes were hard at work rounding up Reds. The IWW hall and Socialist Party headquarters were raided and leaders arrested. Federal agents also closed the Union Record, the labor-owned daily newspaper, and arrested several of its staff. Meanwhile across the country headlines screamed the news that Seattle had been saved, that the revolution had been broken, that, as Mayor Hanson phrased it, “Americanism” had triumphed over “Bolshevism.”

This article explores the history and consequences of the Seattle General Strike of 1919. Here you will find original research reports, oral histories, digitized newspaper articles and other important documents, photographs, and extensive bibliographic materials. Start by watching a 4-minute video about the Seattle General Strike. This excerpt from Witness to Revolution: The Story of Anna Louis Strong contains original film footage from 1919. Produced and directed by Lucy Ostrander and used here with permission, the excerpt is part of an award-winning 27 minute documentary film biography of Anna Louise Strong, Seattle's most famous radical.


Here are several other accounts of the February 1919 events. Start with Roberta Gold’s article from the Encyclopedia of Labor History Worldwide and "An Account of What Happened in Seattle and Especially in the Seattle Labor Movement, During the General Strike, February 6 To 11, 1919" written by Anna Louise Strong and members of the General Strike Committee. The Tacoma Public Library has a compilation of more detailed articles (starting with Edwin Short’s account of the strike in Tacoma, followed by Robert Friedheim’s article on the strike in Seattle, and memoir accounts by Art Shields and Harvey O’Connor). Also take a look at Sinan Demeril’s strike timeline.

Here is an interactive map the shows the location of important events and union headquarters in 1919. Use it to plan a walking tour of downtown Seattle. Here is a selection of fascinating photographs from the strike.
The Labor Archives of Washington State has digitized more than a hundred important documents from the strike, including pamphlets, minutes of strike committee meetings, IWW leaflets, and reports of agents hired to spy on labor activiststs.

In 1977, Professor Rob Rosenthal interviewed 35 men and women who participated in or remembered the 1919 General Strike. Rosenthal has generously agreed to share these oral histories with the Seattle General Strike Project. These audio MP3 files and transcripts comprise a rare and valuable resource. The narrators speak not only about the events of 1919 but about later aspects of Pacific Northwest labor and political history. Dave Beck is the most famous of the men and women interviewed. Later to serve as President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Beck was 24 years old at the time of the General Strike, newly discharged from the Navy and was part of a group of Teamsters who opposed the strike.

The General Strike was headline news around the world. In Seattle, the newspaper coverage was much more intense. Here is a day-by-day record of coverage in the city's four daily newspapers: The Seattle Union Record, Seattle Times, Seattle Star, and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. View the database of more than 180 articles and click the titles to read them online
1919 The Boston Police Officers Strike:
The political climate after World War I was characterized by immense fear, instilled by “government and business propaganda”  about a Communist takeover of the United States. One of the main targets of this propaganda was the Labor Movement, which organized workers in order to collectively bargain for fair wages and hours. The Red Scare was increased as police forces across the nation began to organize in unions. Propaganda made it seem as if the Communists were attempting a take over from within.
Nothing fueled the anti-union, Red Scare propagandists more than the Boston Police Strike of 1919. Police in Boston had a number of reasons why they wanted to join a union. Like any other worker in any other sector, they felt that their wages were too low and their hours were too long. “Their wages were even significantly lower than the earnings of most unskilled factory workers. For this meager pay they were asked to work as many as seventy-two to ninety-eight hours a week.”  The Boston Police force, discouraged by lack of attention paid to their numerous grievances, joined the “Boston Social Club, affiliated with the AFL”  in August of 1919. Police Commissioner Edwin Curtis believed that a police officer could not belong to a union and serve his proper duty at the same time. As a result of his misguided beliefs, Curtis promptly suspended nineteen police officers who were working as union organizers.

In retaliation to the suspension of the nineteen union officers and the Police Commissioner’s refusal to allow the them to join the AFL, the Boston Police went on strike. A few people took advantage of the situation, looting stores and breaking windows. As a result, the State Guard was called in to stop the criminals. Public opinion began to turn against the Police, and national AFL President Samuel Gompers suggested that the officers return to work and to the bargaining table. Commissioner Curtis opted to not allow the striking officers their jobs and to completely replace the force. The Commissioner had the full support of President Woodrow Wilson and then Governor Calvin Coolidge, who had made himself a national hero by quelling the strike.

Public response to the strike was staggering. Few sided with the police, and the strike became damaging to the entire Labor Movement due to the increasing fear of Communist Revolution in the United States. After the strike the LA Times wrote, “...no man's house, no man's wife, no man's children will be safe if the police force in unionized and made subject to the orders of Red Unionite bosses."  Since the strike, public opinion of public sector strikes has been much less sympathetic than toward strikes in the private sector. None of the striking Police Officers ever returned to the force. An entirely new Police Force was hired at “at increased wages and with better working conditions.” 
Years later in 1965 the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association was founded and years later they affiliated with the AFL-CIO. 
1920 The Palmer Raids:
The Palmer Raids were attempts by the United States Department of Justice to arrest and deport radical leftists, especially anarchists, from the United States. The raids and arrests occurred in November 1919 and January 1920 under the leadership of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Though more than 500 foreign citizens were deported, including a number of prominent leftist leaders, Palmer's efforts were largely frustrated by officials at the U.S. Department of Labor who had responsibility for deportations and who objected to Palmer's methods. The Palmer Raids occurred in the larger context of the Red Scare, the term given to fear of and reaction against political radicals in the U.S. in the years immediately following World War I.

During the First World War, the United States witnessed a nationwide campaign against divided loyalties on the part of immigrants and ethnic groups. Particular targets were Germans with sympathies for their homeland and Irish whose countrymen were in revolt against America’s ally Great Britain. In 1916, President Wilson warned against hyphenated Americans who, he charged, had "poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life." "Such creatures of passion, disloyalty and anarchy", Wilson continued "must be crushed out". The Russian Revolution of 1917 added special force to fear of labor agitators and partisans of ideologies like anarchism. The general strike in Seattle in February 1919 represented a new development in labor unrest that the war had suppressed.
Anarchist bombings in April and June 1919 carried out by Galleanists, Italian anarchists and followers of the radical anarchist Luigi Galleani, meant the threat was real. At the end of April, some 30 Galleanist letter bombs had been mailed to a host of individuals, mostly prominent government officials and businessmen, but also law enforcement officials. Only a few reached their targets, and not all exploded when opened, though some people suffered injuries, including a housekeeper in Senator Thomas W. Hardwick's residence, who had her hands blown off. On June 2, 1919, a second wave of bombings occurred, when several much larger package bombs were detonated by Galleanists in eight American cities, including one that damaged the home of Palmer. At least one person was killed in this second attack, night watchman William Boehner. Flyers declaring war on capitalists in the name of anarchist principles accompanied each bomb.
In June 1919, Attorney General Palmer told the House Appropriations Committee that all evidence promised that radicals would "on a certain day…rise up and destroy the government at one fell swoop." He requested an increase in his budget to $2,000,000 from $1,500,000 to support his investigations of radicals, but Congress gave him only an additional $100,000.

An initial raid in July 1919 against an anarchist group in Buffalo, New York, achieved little when a federal judge tossed out Palmer's case. He found that the three arrested radicals, charged under a law dating from the Civil War, had only proposed transforming the government by using their free speech rights and not by violence. That taught Palmer that he needed to exploit the more powerful immigration statutes that authorized the deportation of alien anarchists, violent or not. To do that, he needed to enlist the cooperation of officials at the Department of Labor. Only the Secretary of Labor could issue warrants for the arrest of alien violators of the Immigrations Acts, and only he could sign deportation orders following a hearing by an immigration inspector.

On August 1, 1919, Palmer put 24-year-old J. Edgar Hoover in charge of a new division of the Justice Department's Bureau of Investigation, the General Intelligence Division. It would investigate the programs of radical groups and identify their members. The Boston Police Strike in early September proved the nation had not emerged united from the war. On October 17, the Senate passed a unanimous resolution demanding Palmer explain what actions he had or had not taken against radical aliens and why.

At 9 pm on November 7, 1919, a date chosen because it was the second anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, agents of the Bureau of Investigation, together with local police, executed a series of well-publicized and violent raids against the Russian Workers in 12 cities. Newspaper accounts reported some were "badly beaten" during the arrests. Many later swore they were threatened and beaten during questioning. Government agents cast a wide net, bringing in some American citizens, passers-by who admitted being Russian, some not members of the Russian Workers. Others were teachers conducting night school classes in space shared with the targeted radical group. Arrests far exceeded the number of warrants. Of 650 arrested in New York City, the government managed to have just 43 deported.
Palmer now replied to the Senate's questions of October 17. He reported that his department had amassed 60,000 names with great effort. Required by the statutes to work through the Department of Labor, they had arrested 250 dangerous radicals in the November 7 raids. He proposed a new Anti-Sedition Law to enhance his authority to prosecute anarchists.

As Attorney General Palmer struggled with exhaustion and devoted all his energies to the coal strike, Hoover organized the next raids. He successfully persuaded the Department of Labor to ease its insistence on promptly alerting those arrested of their right to an attorney. Instead Labor issued instructions that its representatives could wait until after the case against the defendant was established, "in order to protect government interests."Less openly, Hoover decided to interpret Labor’s agreement to act against the Communist Party to include a different organization, the Communist Labor Party. Finally, despite the fact that Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson insisted that more than membership in an organization was required for a warrant, Hoover worked with more compliant Labor officials and overwhelmed Labor staff to get the warrants he wanted. Justice Department officials, including Palmer and Hoover, later claimed ignorance of such details.

The Justice Department launched a series of raids on January 2, 1920 with follow up operations over the next few days. Smaller raids extended over the next 6 weeks. At least 3000 were arrested, and many others were held for various lengths of time. The entire enterprise replicated the November action on a larger scale, including arrests and seizures without search warrants, as well as detention in overcrowded and unsanitary holding facilities. Hoover later admitted "clear cases of brutality."The raids covered more than 30 cities and towns in 23 states, but those west of the Mississippi and south of the Ohio were "publicity gestures" designed to make the effort appear nationwide in scope. Because the raids targeted entire organizations, agents arrested everyone found in organization meeting halls, not only arresting non-radical organization members but also visitors who did not belong to a target organization, and sometimes American citizens not eligible for arrest and deportation.

The Department of Justice at one point claimed to have taken possession of several bombs, but after a few iron balls were displayed to the press they were never mentioned again. All the raids netted a total of just four ordinary pistols.[17]
While most press coverage continued to be positive, with criticism only from liberal publications like The Nation and The New Republic, one attorney raised the first noteworthy protest. Francis Fisher Kane, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, resigned in protest. In his letter of resignation to the President and the Attorney General he wrote: "It seems to me that the policy of raids against large numbers of individuals is generally unwise and very apt to result in injustice. People not really guilty are likely to be arrested and railroaded through their hearings....We appear to be attempting to repress a political party....By such methods we drive underground and make dangerous what was not dangerous before." Palmer replied that he could not use individual arrests to treat an "epidemic" and asserted his own fidelity to constitutional principles. He added: "The Government should encourage free political thinking and political action, but it certainly has the right for its own preservation to discourage and prevent the use of force and violence to accomplish that which ought to be accomplished, if at all, by parliamentary or political methods."The Washington Post endorsed Palmer's claim for urgency over legal process: "There is no time to waste on hairsplitting over infringement of liberties."
In a few weeks, after changes in personnel at the Department of Labor, Palmer faced a new and very independent-minded Acting Secretary of Labor in Assistant Secretary of Labor Louis Freeland Post, who canceled more than 2,000 warrants as being illegal. Of the 10,000 arrested, 3,500 were held by authorities in detention; 556 resident aliens were eventually deported under the Immigration Act of 1918.

At a Cabinet meeting in April 1920, Palmer called on Secretary of Labor Wilson to fire Post and Wilson defended him. The President listened to his feuding department heads and offered no comment about Post, but he ended the meeting by telling Palmer that he should "not let this country see red." Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, who made notes of the conversation, thought the Attorney General had merited the President's "admonition," because Palmer "was seeing red behind every bush and every demand for an increase in wages."
Palmer's supporters in Congress responded with an attempt to impeach Louis Post or, failing that, to censure him. The drive against Post began to lose energy when Attorney General Palmer’s forecast of an attempted radical uprising on May Day 1920 failed to occur. Then, in testimony before the House Rules Committee on May 7-8, Post proved "a convincing speaker with a caustic tongue" and defended himself so successfully that Congressman Edward W. Pou, a Democrat presumed to be an enthusiastic supporter of Palmer, congratulated him: "I feel that you have followed your sense of duty absolutely."

On May 28, 1920, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published a Report of the Illegal Practices of the United States Department of Justice which carefully documented the Justice Department's unlawful activities in arresting suspected radicals, illegal entrapment by agents provocateurs, and unlawful incommunicado detention. Such prominent lawyers and law professors as Felix Frankfurter, Roscoe Pound and Ernst Freund signed it. Harvard Professor Zechariah Chafee critiqued the raids and attempts at deportations and the lack of legal process in his 1920 volume Freedom of Speech. He wrote: "That a Quaker should employ prison and exile to counteract evil-thinking is one of the saddest ironies of our time." The Rules Committee gave Palmer a hearing in June, where he attacked Post and other critics whose "tender solicitude for social revolution and perverted sympathy for the criminal anarchists...set at large among the people the very public enemies whom it was the desire and intention of the Congress to be rid of." The press saw the dispute as evidence of the Wilson administration's ineffectiveness and division as it approached its final months.
In June 1920, a decision by Massachusetts District Court Judge George Anderson ordered the discharge of 17 arrested aliens and denounced Department of Justice's actions. He wrote that "a mob is a mob, whether made up of Government officials acting under instructions from the Department of Justice, or of criminals and loafers and the vicious classes." His decision effectively prevented any renewal of the raids.
Palmer, once seen as a likely presidential candidate, lost his bid to win the Democratic nomination for president later in the year. The violent anarchist bombing campaign continued intermittently for another twelve years.
1921- The American Plan:
During World War I, the United States Steel Corporation branded union organizers in its Chicago mills as “German propagandists” and demanded that steelworkers sign a vow against striking called a “Pledge of Patriotism.” In the postwar period, other vehemently antiunion employers continued to attack unions as un-American, charging that they subverted individualism and were adversarial and inefficient. In 1921 a convention of Midwestern employers meeting in Chicago formally designated the nonunion or “open shop” the “American Plan.”
Implying a linkage between unionism and the Bolshevism of the Red Scare, these American Plan employers pledged that they would neither recognize nor negotiate with union representatives. The most committed refused to purchase materials from unionized vendors or to sell supplies to strikers. A few firms adorned their products with patriotic symbols to indicate that they were made with nonunion labor. After New Deal legislation compelled employers to bargain with unions, the activism of the American Plan subsided.
1926- The Railway Labor act:
After the Great Railroad Strike of 1877
, which was put down only with the intervention of federal troops, Congress passed the Arbitration Act of 1888, which authorized the creation of arbitration panels with the power to investigate the causes of labor disputes and to issue non-binding arbitration awards. The Act was a complete failure: only one panel was ever convened under the Act, and that one, in the case of the 1894 Pullman Strike, issued its report only after the strike had been crushed by a federal court injunction backed by federal troops.
Congress attempted to correct these shortcomings in the Erdman Act, passed in 1898. The Act likewise provided for voluntary arbitration, but made any award issued by the panel binding and enforceable in federal court. It also outlawed discrimination against employees for union activities, prohibited "yellow dog contracts" (in which an employee agrees not to join a union while employed), and required both sides to maintain the status quo during any arbitration proceedings and for three months after an award was issued. The arbitration procedures were rarely used. A successor statute, the Newlands Act of 1913, which created the Board of Mediation, proved to be more effective, but was largely superseded when the federal government nationalized the railroads in 1917.

The Adamson Act, passed in 1916, provided workers with an eight hour day, at the same daily wage they had received previously for a ten hour day, and required time and a half pay for overtime work. Another law passed in the same year gave President Woodrow Wilson the power to "take possession of and assume control of any system of transportation" for transportation of troops and war material.
Wilson exercised that authority on December 26, 1917. While Congress considered nationalizing the railroads on a permanent basis after World War I, the Wilson administration announced that it was returning the railroad system to its owners. Congress tried to preserve, on the other hand, the most successful features of the federal wartime administration, the adjustment boards, by creating a Railroad Labor Board (RLB) with the power to issue non-binding proposals for the resolution of labor disputes, as part of the Esch–Cummins Act (Transportation Act of 1920).
The RLB soon destroyed whatever moral authority its decisions might have had in a series of decisions. In 1921 it ordered a twelve percent reduction in employees' wages, which the railroads were quick to implement. The following year, when shop employees of the railroads launched a national strike, the RLB issued a declaration that purported to outlaw the strike; the Department of Justice then obtained an injunction that carried out that declaration. From that point forward railway unions refused to have anything to do with the RLB.
1927- The Columbine Mine Massacre
The company town of Serene, Colorado, nestled on a rolling hillside, was the home of the Columbine mine. The strike was five weeks old and strikers had been conducting morning rallies at Serene for two weeks, for the Columbine was one of the few coal mines in the state to remain in operation. On November 21, 1927, five hundred miners, some accompanied by their wives and children, arrived at the north gate just before dawn. They carried three US flags. At the direction of Josephine Roche, daughter of the recently deceased owner of Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, the picketers had been served coffee and doughnuts on previous mornings.
That morning the recently disbanded state police, also known as the Colorado Rangers, were recalled to duty and would meet them and bar their path. The miners were surprised to see men dressed in civilian clothes but armed with automatic pistols, rifles, riot guns and tear gas grenades. The Rangers were backed up by rifle-toting mine guards stationed on the mine dump. Head of the Rangers, Louis Scherf shouted to the strikers, "Who are your leaders?" "We're all leaders!" came the reply. Scherf announced the strikers would not be allowed into the town, and for a few moments they hesitated outside the fence. There was discussion, with many of the strikers asserting their right to proceed. Serene had a public post office, they argued, and some of their children were enrolled in the school in Serene. One of the Rangers was reported to have taunted, "If you want to come in here, come ahead, but we'll carry you out."

Strike leader Adam Bell stepped forward and asked that the gate be unlocked. As he put his hand on the gate one of the Rangers struck him with a club. A sixteen-year-old boy stood nearby holding one of the flags. The banner was snatched from him, and in the tug-of-war that followed the flagpole broke over the fence. The miners rushed toward the gate, and suddenly the air was filled with tear gas launched by the police. A tear gas grenade hit Mrs. Kubic in the back as she tried to get away. Some of the miners threw the tear gas grenades back.
The miners in the front of the group scaled the gate, led by Adam Bell's call of "Come on!" Bell was pulled down by three policemen. Viciously clubbed on the head, he fell unconscious to the ground. A battle raged over his prostrate form, the miners shielding him from the Rangers. Mrs. Elizabeth Beranek, mother of 16 children and one of the flag-bearers, tried to protect him by thrusting her flag in front of his attackers. The police turned on her, bruising her severely. Rangers reportedly seized Mrs. Beranek's flag too.

Police admitted to using clubs in the skirmish. In Scherf's words, "We knocked them down as fast as they came over the gate." Miners would later say that the clubs were lengths of gas pipe. A striker belted one Ranger in the face, breaking his nose. A pocket-knife-wielding miner cut another on the hand while other strikers pelted the Rangers with rocks. Blood gushed from a cut above one Ranger's eye when a rock found its mark. The police retreated.
Emboldened, the strikers forced their way through the wooden gate. Jerry Davis grabbed one of the fallen flags as hundreds of angry miners surged through the entrance. Others scaled the fence east of the gate.
The police retreated, forming two lines at the water tank 120 yards inside the fence. Louis Scherf fired two .45 caliber rounds over the heads of the strikers. His men responded with deadly fire directly into the crowd. In the early dawn light the miners scattered under a hail of lead. Twelve remained on the ground, some writhing in agony while others lay still.

At least two, and possibly three machine guns were available at the mine and miners later claimed their ranks were decimated by a withering crossfire from the mine tipple – a structure where coal was loaded onto railroad cars – and from a gun on a truck near the water tank. John Eastenes, 34, of Lafayette, married and father of six children, died instantly. Nick Spanudakhis, 34, Lafayette, lived only a few minutes. Frank Kovich of Erie, Rene Jacques, 26, of Louisville and 21 year old Jerry Davis died hours later in the hospital. The US flag Davis carried was riddled with seventeen bullet holes and stained with blood. Mike Vidovich of Erie, 35, died a week later of his injuries.

The state police later testified that they had not used machine guns in the fight. The miners and some witnesses testified that machine guns were used. Some witnesses identified a mine guard who had climbed the tipple and may have operated the machine gun mounted there, providing one possible explanation for the discrepancy in testimony. However, the machine gun near the watertank was reportedly manned by one of Scherf's men.
There continued to be violent confrontations during the strike. For example, two strike supporters were killed in Walsenburg.
Amelia Milka Sablich, 19, received national media attention during the strike. She wore a bright red dress and led the marches of strikers in the southern coal field after her older sister, Santa Benash, had been arrested for doing the same. Amelia came to be called Flaming Milka.

After Colorado Fuel and Iron (CF&I) went bankrupt in 1990, and business records were donated to the Steelworks Museum of Industry and Culture, it became apparent that the company had systematically spied upon, disrupted, and sought to discredit the union during the 1927 strike.