Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Seattle General Strike by Robert L. Friedheim.

North America’s first general strike was notable for its’ peaceful character and orderliness. For five days in 1919, despite shutting down all of Seattle, “not a single striker or antistrike partisan was arrested on any charge related to the strike. In fact, the usual police docket of about one hundred cases a day fell to about thirty during the strike.” (Friedheim, p. 125). In addition, strike organizers were careful to maintain essential services in the city. “No one starved or lacked heat; no children had to do without milk; no sick or injured were denied hospital care.” (Friedheim, p. 126).

Friedheim’s The Seattle General Strike is a thorough study of this remarkable event. The author makes sure his readers understand the zeitgeist of that time period, the structure of the Seattle American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the issues of the strike. While the reading may be at times ponderous, one will obtain an in-depth understanding acquired through toil over the details.

Surprisingly, in spite of meticulous illustration of the facts, Friedheim ignores the important and glaring issue of racism within the Seattle unions. He mentions racial issues regarding lynching (Friedheim, p. 7) and voting (Friedheim, p. 168). He even discusses participation of Japanese unions (Friedheim, p. 124). These inclusions make his omission more perplexing. The relationship of African American workers to Seattle labor was complex. As noted by Jon Wright, “many African American workers…were barred from entering unions” managed by Seattle’s AFL. Conversely, the International Workers of the World (IWW), who actively participated in the strike, “did not discriminate on the basis of race.” During the strike, 300 self-organized African Americans from the longshoremen’s union participated, while others hoped that the strike would lead to an open (non-union) shop in the shipyards that would permit African American employment.**

Friedheim, while clearly liberal, is not starry-eyed. He criticizes the Seattle AFL’s “unqualified support of the Bolshevik Revolution” as equal to their reactionary “opponents in depth of feeling and lack of objectivity.” (Friedheim, p. 16). National AFL vociferously opposed revolution. Above all, Friedheim is a pragmatist. Statements and actions which he sees as counter-productive to labor’s goals are disapproved. “Leaflets urging workers to confiscate the means of production,” generated independently of the Strike Committee, are represented as frightening the public.  (Friedheim, p. 101). “Radicals,” who generate such literature, are juxtaposed against “Progressives,” presented as the primary organizers who must logistically counter such propaganda.

In his conclusions, Professor Friedheim lists the successes and failures of the strike. While presenting the image of an effective striking organization maintaining peace and order in the city, he patiently delineates their failures in terms of obtaining the $6.00 wage demanded by shipyard workers and losing the propaganda war with the established Seattle business and political machinery. After the strike, 39 workers are rounded-up on sedition charges that do not stick in court. But what does stick is the perception that “the strike was an unsuccessful Bolshevist revolution…Northwest lore that has persisted.” (Friedheim, p. 147). He even claims that “the Seattle general strike helped condition the American people to accept extreme measures against aliens, dissenters and left-wingers, in what would become a year-long Red Scare.” (Friedheim, p. 169).  Here the author fails to put the strike in historical perspective: The US public had begun fearing Bolshevik revolution with the victory of the Russian Red Army in 1917. There is a trajectory from that event to the first Red Scare, which was a direct result of coordinated leftist bombings through the mail on June 2, 1919. The general strike may have minimally reinforced citizen’s fears of Bolshevism. But the Russian Revolution and the 1919 bombings were perceived by the public as far more tangible threats.  It was in this atmosphere that the peacefulness of the first general strike in US history was painted-over as a Bolshevik revolution. Even today, the memory of its positive attributes is resurrected only in the minds of intrepid readers of obscure, dusty books.

Friedheim, Robert L. The Seattle General Strike. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1964.

** Wright, Jon. "Seattle General Strike: Seattle’s African American Community." Seattle General Strike Project. 1999. Web. 14 Nov. 2015. <>.