Faded Signs

Amid Calls for a General Strike, Seattle Shows the Way (Again)

Protesters gathered in the thousands at Sea-Tac airport on Saturday, Jan. 28 to oppose the Trump administration's travel ban. Photo by Bruce Clayton Tom

Spectators watching Washington State subvert the Trump Administration these last few weeks should know that the nation’s 42nd state has been a petri dish of protest for the last 100 years.

On Feb. 5, 2017, The Washington Post declared that Washington was “the epicenter of resistance to Trump’s agenda,” with its elected officials, protestors and everyday citizens forming a crescendo of discontent. Yesterday, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s efforts to torpedo Trump’s unconstitutional travel ban culminated in a federal appeals court’s freeze on the measure; and Solidarity Strike Seattle has spearheaded a movement for a general strike, which was endorsed by The Guardian. With these actions celebrated by leftist stalwarts like Jacobin Magazine, it would seem that the rest of the country has caught up to where Washington has been for a century.

It was early 1919 when the city’s shipyard workers—ticked that their employers did not provide a promised post-World War I raise—resolved to strike. Represented by the Metal Trades Union, workers took their grievance to Seattle’s Central Labor Council on Jan. 22, 1919, in hopes of attaining buy-in from the city’s heavily unionized labor force. More than 100 of the city’s unions—everyone from organized electricians to barbers, launderers to maids and teachers—agreed to join the shipyard workers in what scholar Robert Friedheim called a “sympathy walkout” in his 1964 opus The Seattle General Strike.

Accounts from that day’s meeting reveal that this was not a dull errand that downtrodden workers dragged themselves to; on the contrary, it was a packed gallery of workers who came to see a speech-giving, beer-drinking, song-singing spectacle of social justice. When the Seattle Metropolitans became the first American Hockey franchise to win the Stanley Cup in 1917, a newspaper reported that celebratory Seattle fans sounded like “a howling mass of humanity.” As the city’s workers gathered two years after that extravaganza on ice, Labor Council secretary Charles Doyles banged his gavel haplessly—and ultimately failed to contain the raucous crowd. Somewhere in the midst of the madness, a strike date of Feb. 6, 1919, was set.

If the decision to strike was conceived in noise, then the realization of the protest was defined by silence. In a city of only 315,000 people, an astonishing 65,000 workers stayed home, refusing to provide paid labor to their employers from Feb. 6 until Feb. 11. With shoppers depleting markets the night before the strike began, there were no bustling stores; smokestacks were smokeless and factories fell fallow; at noon, the sound of energetic children on school recess did not swirl in the air, and there were no teachers to discipline them. The tommy guns and billy clubs of the Seattle Police Department failed to find a target. The small army of federal troops—brought in to bully the “Bolshevik” surge that started the strike—stalked mostly empty streets. Occasionally a pedestrian walked to one of the 35 “milk depots” that strikers established to provide for infants. Perhaps they’d cross paths with unionized nurses or doctors who were granted exemptions by the Labor Council.

Strike sympathizer and journalist Anna Louise Strong wrote that “no one [knew] where” the Seattle General Strike would lead. Yet Seattle was used to this level of worker-driven coordination. When a series of dramatic regrade projects drastically altered Seattle’s topography by shaving the city’s hills into Puget Sound and Lake Washington in the years spanning 1897 to 1931, Seattle’s publicly owned utilities—light, water, waste disposal—rarely allowed themselves to be disrupted. Centrist authors have attempted twisting this triumph of organized labor into a celebration of the city’s “early entrepreneurs.” Such petty bourgeois appropriations miss the crucial point that both the General Strike—and the regrade projects it took place in the middle of—were proto-socialist performances that displayed the strength and sensitivity of labor’s antipathy to capitalism.

Workers were not anarchists dedicated to aimless upheaval; indeed, the Seattle shipyard workers who started the general strike provided the country with 25 percent of the ships produced during World War I. The fact that the workforce behind the war effort was able to turn around and deny capitalists profit while simultaneously keeping the city accessible to the most vulnerable was a tremendous display of force that has resonated across generations.

Solidarity Strike Seattle is a local organization that has echoed F17Strike’s call for a General Strike on Feb. 17, 2017. In so doing, they’re partaking in a tradition of general strikes in the United States that started with the Seattle action of 1919 and continued with several other similar actions in Minneapolis, Memphis and Los Angeles. A recent historical review of general strikes in Jacobin Magazine somehow fails to even mention Seattle; but with the great Northwest taking the lead in the county’s fight against Donald Trump, it is time to write the city back into the history—and the future—of resistance.

In the Feb. 5, 2017, Washington Post editorial that called Washington state the “epicenter” of revolt, Amy Wang wrote that “the combination of a left-leaning populace, outspoken Democratic lawmakers, [a] resolute attorney general and several Seattle-area tech companies” are the reason that Washington is a thorn in Trump’s side. It stands to reason that, during a full-frontal attack on the legislative victories and institutions of a liberal society, the most patently progressive states will be the first to object. The animosity between liberalism and authoritarianism goes both ways, as the Trump administration has made it known that the target of Jeff Sessions’ impending repeal of voting rights across the country will be blue states that had the audacity to not award their electoral votes to Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

Perhaps Washington State has a history of being on the forefront of progressive movements because we’re familiar with the failures of unchecked power. Outspoken indigenous artists and activists have survived and thrived here in the throes of genocide, while Seattle still somehow maintains an African-American population despite numerous attempts to diminish it with segregation and institutional inequity. Meanwhile, the History Committee of the Seattle Labor Council reported that Japanese Americans were among the most enthusiastic participants in the General Strike of 1919; they were rewarded for their civic efforts decades later by being ceremoniously incarcerated when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. That was a Trumpian act of executive overreach, authored three years before Trump was born. Washington is better equipped to fight injustice than most states because it knows it when it sees it.

And we fight on—perpetually imperfect, and impassioned by that imperfection. Students of American politics are familiar with a concept known as the Overton Window: the idea that acceptable political ideas exist on a malleable spectrum, and that the spoils of electoral victory go to the protestors and policymakers who widen that spectrum in a way that favors general acceptance of their ideas. Progressive spectacles like the airport protests, the Womxn’s March and the impending General Strike are valuable because they include the vantage point of the most vulnerable. For the next hundred years, hopefully the state in the upper left will continue doing what it has done for the last hundred: politely, if persistently, push the acceptable range of political discourse away from the right.