Préface de Root & Branch à la réédition en 1972 de la brochure sur la grève générale de Seattle de 1919.
From February 6 to February 11, 1919, nearly 100,000 Seattle workers participated in a general strike. This pamphlet is a history of the strike, written by the History Committee of the General Strike Committee shortly after the end of the strike. It was compiled by Anna Louise Strong, then a "progressive" reporter for the union-owned Seattle daily, The Union Record. Before being published in final form, everything was submitted first to the history committee and then published in The Union Record, where workers comments were invited.
We are reprinting it for several reasons. First, it provides a concrete account of one of the few general strikes in this country’s history. Although conditions have changed considerably, it still gives a good idea of what happens during a general strike and what problems arise. Second, the Seattle general strike was the general strike in the USA that went farthest towards workers’ management, both in concept and in practice. It was seen, by both participants and opponents, as part of a process through which workers were preparing themselves to run industry and society. Final authority in running the strike rested with a General Strike Committee, three members from each striking local, elected by the rank-and-file. The 300 members of the committee were mostly rank-and-filers with little previous leadership experience. During the strike, this committee or its Executive Committee of 15 virtually ran Seattle. The strike was not a simple shutdown of the city. Instead, workers in different trades organized themselves to provide essential services, such as doing hospital laundry, getting milk to babies, collecting wet garbage, and many other things.
Third, the idea of strikers providing partial services presented here can be useful not only in general but in more limited strikes. Such tactics can help to keep non-striking workers (i.e. workers outside the striking plant, industry, or service) on the side of the strikers and at the same time hit the capitalists more directly. For example, in the 1970 postal strike, letter carriers promised to deliver welfare checks even while on strike. In Cleveland, in 1944, streetcar workers threatened to refuse to collect fares in order to win a pay increase; the City Council gave in before they actually used the tactic. Another possible example would be if garbage workers picked up garbage everywhere but the wealthy and business sections. This type of action would in most cases have to be taken outside the union, since few union bureaucracies would use such a clearly class-directed tactic, and thus of necessity the workers would have to organize this themselves.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF THE STRIKE
The Seattle strike took place in a time of upheaval and crisis throughout the world. There had been a revolution in Russia, followed by revolts in Germany, Hungary, and several other European countries. it was widely believed that workers in these countries were overthrowing capitalism and taking over management of production for themselves. The Russian Revolution was supported by large numbers of workers in the U.S. as elsewhere. Late in 1919, longshoremen in both Seattle and San Francisco refused to load arms and munitions destined for Admiral Kolchak, leader of the counterrevolution in Siberia, and in Seattle they beat up the scabs who tried to load them onto the government-chartered ship. To many workers, the Russian revolution, as they conceived it (not realizing to what extent the Bolsheviks had already destroyed the power of the workers’ own factory committees and soviets and instituted authoritarian rule), was something to be followed here. [Root & Branch note: As the leaflet "Russia Did It", circulated during the Seattle General Strike (referred to in the text but never quoted), put it: "The Russians have shown you the way out. What are you going to do about it? You are doomed to wage slavery till you die unless you wake up, realize that you and the boss have nothing in common, that the employing class must be overthrown, and that you, the workers, must take over the control of your jobs, and through them, the control over your lives instead of offering yourself up to the masters as a sacrifice six days a week, so that they may coin profits out of your sweat and toil."]
In this country also there was widespread labor turmoil. Vastly expanded production for World War I and the cut-off of immigration made labor scarce, and placed workers in a powerful position. To ensure steady production, under the changed conditions, business and government made a deal with the conservative American Federation of Labor. Government and management would give up union-breaking and allow the A.F.L. to organize; in return, the unions would prevent strikes. (This wartime experience of government-guaranteed unionization later became the model for containing workers’ movements in the 1930′s.) However, despite the appeals to patriotism, the promises of a "new era" after the war, and the opposition of government, business, and the A.F.L., strikes mushroomed during the war: the war years 1916-1918 averaged 2.4 times as many workers on strike as 1915.
Two factors were largely responsible for this. First, there was an enormous inflation associated with the war: the cost of living practically doubled from August 1915 to the end of 1919. Thus while real wages increased, they lagged far behind workers’ expectations; meanwhile, the work week was greatly lengthened. Second, as one wartime labor mediator wrote, "the urgent need for production … gave the workers a realization of strength which before they had neither realized nor possessed."
Big strikes practically stopped spruce lumber production and closed down the most important copper areas early in the war. In Bridgeport, Conn., the most important munitions center in the U.S., workers repeatedly stopped production in defiance of the orders of both the National War Labor Board and their own national union leaders.
Increasing militance was accompanied by a growing spirit of solidarity. For example, shipyard workers on the Pacific Coast tied up the yards for several months in sympathy with the lumber strikers in the Northwest, refusing to handle "ten-hour lumber" in order to aid the lumberers struggle for the eight hour day. General strikes developed in Springfield, Ill., Kansas City, Mo., Waco, Texas, and Billings, Montana, all to support particular groups of striking workers.
When the war ended, the conflict increased. Now that the great war-time industrial expansion was over, capitalists widely felt it necessary to reduce wages relative to prices if profits were to be maintained. Thus the government simultaneously ended war-time price controls and allowed corporations to resume their traditional union-breaking policies. Between June 1919 and June 1920 the cost of living index (taking 1913 as 100) rose from 177 to 216. Unemployment increased considerably right after the end of the war. At the same time, workers were eager to receive the benefits that war propaganda had promised them. The "new era" they had been promised turned out to mean declining real incomes, growing unemployment, and the undermining of what little defense against arbitrary management authority they had won.
As a consequence, more workers participated in strikes in 1919 than in any other year in American history except 1946. There were large strikes in the New England and New Jersey textile districts, involving 120,000 workers, largely opposed by the unions.
Three hundred fifty thousand steel workers walked out, crippling most of the industry. They were met with a reign of terror in the large steel districts in Western Pennsylvania, "red raids" and deportations from the federal government, and lukewarm support (and at times treachery) from the trade union movement. Since the A.F.L. unions had traditionally been all white, the employers had no trouble recruiting 30 to 40 thousand black workers as strikebreakers. The strikers held out for more than two months, but finally succumbed to the overwhelming power of the steel industry and the government.
There were several other large strikes, many of them "outlaw" or wildcat, heartily and openly opposed by the unions. The most important of these was the strike of the railroad workers, which spread across the country. It was eventually ended by the combined pressure of repression and some concessions. Most protracted was the mass upheaval in the coalfields, with sporadic strikes, national strikes, and armed battles running from 1919 into 1922. In the course of these struggles, the idea of workers’ management of production often came to the fore. For example, in the course of a wildcat strike of Illinois miners, a mass-meeting of 2,000 from the Nigger Hollow Mines adopted a resolution which read:
In view of the fact that the present-day system of Society, known as the capitalist system, has completely broken down, and is no longer able to supply the material and spiritual-needs of the workers of the land, and in further view of the fact that the apologists for and the beneficiaries of that system now try to placate the suffering masses by promises of reforms such as a shorter workday and increases in wages, and in further view of the futility of such reforms in the face of the world crisis that is facing the capitalist system; therefore be it … Resolved, that the next National Convention of the U.M.W.A. issue a call to the workers of all industries to elect delegates to an industrial congress, there to demand of the capitalist class that all instruments of industries be turned over to the working-class to guarantee that necessities, comforts, and luxuries be produced for the use of humanity instead of a parasitical class of stockholders and bondholders, and that the congress be called upon to pass an amendment to the Constitution of the United States legalizing all such action in the aforementioned Congress."
Similar forces were at work in Seattle. Radical sentiment had simmered there even during the war. When a socialist and former president of the Seattle A.F.L., Hulet Wells, was convicted for opposing the draft and then tortured in prison, the Seattle labor movement erupted with giant street rallies. Seattle union membership had increased from 15,000 in 1915 to 60,000 by the end of 1918. Most of the unions were affiliated with the A.F.L. but their ideas and action differed greatly from A.F.L. policy; as Harry Ault, editor of The Union Record, and a moderate in the local labor movement, put it:
"I believe that 95 per cent of us agree that the workers should control the industries. Nearly all of us agree on that but very strenuously disagree on the method. Some of us think we can get control through the Cooperative movement, some of us think through Political action, and others think through industrial action …."
Right after the end of the war, the I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World) and the A.F.L. Metal Trades Council cooperated in sponsoring a Soldiers’, Sailors’, and Workingmen’s Council, taking the Soviets of the Russian revolution as their model.
If the Seattle General Strike was an aspect of the stormy conflicts throughout the U.S. and the world in 1919, it also grew out of the specific historical conditions in Seattle. Partially because of its geographic isolation, the Seattle labor movement had developed a unique structure. Whereas most unions emphasize the relation of workers to others in their own industry or trade, the most important identification of Seattle workers was with the workers of Seattle as a whole. (In Seattle, an attack on one group of workers was felt as an attack on all.) This was reflected in and partially caused by the fact that most collective bargaining was coordinated through the Central Labor Council, in which all A.F.L. unions were represented. Such city-wide labor councils have been centers of radical activity in other countries, but in 20th century America they have been extremely weak. The very newness of most of the Seattle labor movement meant that there had been little time for !
a local union leadership with its own interests to separate itself off from the rank-and-file. Although the union leaders in Seattle certainly had their doubts about the general strike, they did not actively try to smash it–in marked contrast to union leaders’ behavior in other general strikes, notably in San Francisco in 1934. Thus while the workers of Seattle had to create a new organ, the General Strike Committee, they did not come into direct conflict with the existing union structure–precisely because of the factors which made that structure unique.
LIMITATIONS OF THE STRIKE AND OF THE HISTORY
There were many limitations both in the thought and actions of the participants in the Seattle General Strike and in this account of the Strike, which leaves many important questions open. Perhaps most striking in the pamphlet is the strong emphasis on the non-violence of the strike, its peaceful intent, its maintenance of "law and order." To some extent, this stress can be explained by the fact that the History was written in part to serve as a defense for many radicals and other participants who were arrested after the strike was over. Also, it should be remembered that the author, who was one of those arrested, was a "progressive" newspaper writer and not a striking worker. However, it is true that the strike was entirely peaceful, that from the beginning it was conceived in a peaceful framework, and that this perspective shaped the development of the strike. Given the situation in Seattle, this made sense. The strike was almost completely effective and thus did not require mass picketing (which could lead to violence) to shut things down. There was no possibility of successful revolutionary action, which would have involved armed struggle, in as small and isolated a place as Seattle, whose workers were more radical than those in most other parts of the country–it would have been bloodily crushed by the much stronger forces of reaction. What is objectionable in the Strike History is the emphasis on peacefulness, its elevation to a principle rather than a tactic. To what extent this was shared by the participants we do not know.
Also strange is the attitude towards the Japanese workers expressed here. The Japanese workers had also gone on strike and were invited to send delegates to the General Strike Committee, but with no vote. It is unclear what the context of this decision was, but this might have been a serious and potentially destructive limitation in the class-consciousness of those who made the decision.
The pamphlet fails to give much information on what the Wobblies (the Industrial Workers of the World) and other radicals did during the strike, what role they played, or what had been the effect of their years of activity and propaganda (some of it about "The General Strike") on the participants. The Wobblies were especially active in the shipyards. But the general strike was by no means a Wobbly creation, as some people have portrayed it.
Because of its early date, the pamphlet does not tell much about what happened after the strike. The account Anna Louise Strong gives in her autobiography is discouraging, although apparently accurate. She notes that the economic crisis of 1920-21 came to Seattle a year before it came to other cities. The Seattle shipyards closed a year earlier than the yards of Hog Island and San Francisco which also worked on government orders; perhaps by accident, perhaps because of "shrewd men in the East who decided that ‘red Seattle’ must be tamed." She continues,
"…our shipyard workers drifted to other cities to look for work. The young, the daring, the best fighters went … The life died out of a dozen ‘workers’ enterprises’ which were part of our ‘inevitable road to socialism.’ Overexpanded cooperatives went bankrupt in a storm of recriminations…. Workers fought each other for jobs and not the capitalists for power."
Would it have made any difference if the strike had gone farther, had lasted longer, managed more enterprises, been willing to resort to violence? Probably not. Of more significance is the question: to what extent was the decline of the workers movement in Seattle (and in other places throughout the country) a direct result of the economic crisis, as Strong suggests, and to what extent were other factors involved?
One of the major problems of the workers in the strike was their leaders. This is recognized in the pamphlet and a fair amount of information is given concerning it, mostly about the attempts of the national unions to force their Seattle locals to break the strike. There is much that can be added from other sources as well. Seattle’s union leadership was notoriously radical. Yet the decision to strike was made while most of the "labor leaders" were at a special conference in Chicago to organize a national general strike to free Tom Mooney. [Root & Branch note: According to one of them, Strong, the general strike would probably not have occurred if they had been in town. "They were terrified when they heard that a general strike had been voted.... It might easily smash something--us, perhaps, our well-organized labor movement." They went along with the General Strike because it was happening and in the hopes of controlling where it went and bringing it to a speedy conclusion. The established union leaders never did manage to gain control of the strike, but they had more and more influence as the strike went on. Strong also pointed out that:
"... as soon as any worker was made a leader he wanted to end that strike. A score of times in those 5 days I saw it happen. Workers in the ranks felt the thrill of massed power which they trusted their leaders to carry to victory. 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.' The strike could produce no leaders willing to keep it going. All of us were red in the ranks and yellow as leaders."
This situation was dramatized when the Executive Committee voted 13 to 1 on Saturday (the third day of the strike) to recommend ending the strike that night. The 300 members of the General Strike Committee were almost persuaded until they took a supper break and talked with members of their own rank-and-file; they returned to the meeting and voted overwhelmingly to continue the strike. All of this suggests that the problem was not one of "bad" or "yellow" leaders, but was inherent in the division between "leaders" and "led". The strikers could continue only insofar as they kept decisions in their own hands.
For us, one of the most important questions in any strike is to what extent do the participating men and women take over direction of their activities themselves, and to what extent are they simply following the directives of an alternative elite. A strike committee, for example, can be only a means by which different groups of workers coordinate their activity; on the other hand, it can be a new directing authority. Many questions about decision-making in the Seattle strike are not answered by the Official History.
Who was on the General Strike Committee of 300 and the Executive Committee of 15? Were they rank-and-filers or leaders? If the former (as turned out to be the case) what was their position and level of activity in the A.F.L. unions? Did the rank-and-file ever meet during the strike? When did the delegates on the General Strike Committee consult them?
From other books, we have gathered that there were union meetings during the strike and that these union meetings, unlike most today or even most A.F.L. union meetings outside Seattle at that time, did allow some kind of democracy and communication--the rank-and-file really could control what happened to a fair degree.
Also it is probably true that the 30,000 rank-and-file workers a day who participated in the mass meals that had been arranged discussed the strike with each other at these meals. This was most likely the major way in which mass pressure was put on the Strike Committee members, many of whom came to these meals. (Most of these questions are not answered in any other accounts of the strike either.)
Exactly who ran those services that were run by "workers" during the strike? Were they the local union leaders? Were they workers elected from the rank-and-file? Were the decisions about how to run things made at mass meetings? If done by delegates, to what extent did they contact the rest of the workers about doing these things?
These are important questions to ask, about what for us was perhaps the most important aspect of the General Strike. Workers' management is the basis of the socialist society we hope to see created and to help create. But workers' management does not mean appointing leaders to make all the decisions, even if these leaders are workers. It means that workers make those decisions that affect them (in the area of production, these decisions would be: what is produced, how is it produced, by whom, and how is it distributed). These decisions should be made directly when possible, by rotated and immediately recallable delegates when not, and then only after full discussion of the crucial issues by those to whom the delegate is responsible. (For one view of this see Root & Branch Pamphlet #1, Workers Councils by Anton Pannekoek.)
It will also mean a drastic change in peoples' daily lives and relationships.
This brings us to another set of questions left unanswered by the pamphlet. What did the participants do with their time? To what extent did they just sit at home (except for the mass meals, which maybe half of them came to) or have a vacation, as some of the strike bulletins told them to do? How were their daily lives and relationships with friends, family, coworkers affected?
GENERAL STRIKES TODAY
Finally, while it is useful for us today to study what happened during the Seattle General Strike, what problems the workers faced and how they tried to solve them, it is important also to point out the respects in which the situation and thus the problems are different today (and were different, in most places outside Seattle, in 1919 as well). As we have already pointed out, the Seattle union movement was uniquely democratic even for its own time. A general strike today would probably have to be wildcat, in opposition to, fought by, and out of the control of the union bureaucracy. This is because most unions are bureaucratic, hierarchical structures which allow little meaningful participation of rank-and-file members. Their function is to act as middlemen in the labor market: insuring employers a quiet and docile labor force between contracts, and at contract time making sure that both the demands and the methods used to win them, whether "collective bargaining" or strikes, do not threaten the system. These features seem to be inherent in the nature of modern trade unions.
A second difference is that the U.S. government would most likely play a more active and repressive role in fighting a general strike today. In fact it was very unusual for 1919 that there was not more repression and violence on the part of the employers and the government.
Third, a general strike now would probably require much more mass participation both in decision-making and in physical activity. The former because a general strike would be done in conflict with the union structures and workers would have to build new organizations to run the strike (which at the outset, at a minimum, would probably mean mass participation). The latter because most cities or areas now are not as isolated as Seattle was, and it would be necessary, even if the strike was totally effective within the city or area, to have mass picketing and related activities in order to stop shipments coming into the city or area from the outside and to prevent the use of troops as strikebreakers.
These are the ideas that have occurred to us in connection with the pamphlet. Other people approaching it from different perspectives and experiences would naturally have other questions and thoughts.
Voir aussi/ See also: