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Winslow’s Radical Seattle tells an important story of workers’ militancy in the US very well, but questions of political strategy also need to be addressed, argues John Westmoreland

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Cal Winslow, Radical Seattle: The General Strike of 1919 (Monthly Review Press 2020), 280pp.

On Thursday February 6, 1919, at 10:00 am, Seattle’s workers struck. The Seattle general strike is the only general strike in US history. It lasted for five days during which nothing in Seattle moved. Hotel guests were politely informed that room service and restaurant facilities would resume after the strike. Telephone operators, women’s barbers, Japanese service workers, lumbermen, shingle weavers, longshoremen, and just about everybody else, came out on strike in support of Seattle’s shipyard workers.

The strike of the shipyard workers included all trades: welders, pressers, machinists, carpenters, electricians, riveters, welders and track men. This was a first. During World War One, Seattle boomed. In order to maintain productivity and prevent strikes, the federal government had imposed terms for pay and conditions, and government control was still evident in 1919. The end of the war saw thousands of de-mobbed soldiers and sailors returning. The unions feared the employers would insist on open-shop working, and use the surplus labour to undermine the unions and workers’ rights. The strike was to negotiate peacetime pay and conditions and, as a consequence, was against both the employers and the government.

The Seattle general strike showed that when the working class take over life gets better. In one of the largest and most important industrial cities in America, workers’ power brought order and safety. It meant that those most in need had their needs met. Babies got their milk. The hospitals and ambulance service were prioritised. Unarmed workers’ police squads prevented disorder and crime all but disappeared. Union restaurants fed everyone: the strikers, the tramps and the newsmen who usually ate at the restaurants that were now all closed in solidarity.

The American working class has the power to transform the world, and Cal Winslow’s book is timely. It shows how the role of socialists is vital in organising the working class, and how young workers, rescued from the hardships of seasonal, migrant labour, embraced the movement and the union, and became their most fearless and tireless advocates.

Cal Winslow studied under E.P. Thompson at Warwick University. Just as Thompson worked through myriad primary sources to reveal the revolutionary traditions of the English working class, Winslow has also rescued the Seattle general strike from the ‘obscurity and condescension’ of bourgeois historians. However, this is both a strength and a weakness. Winslow is brilliant at conveying the history of Seattle and why it became so important in US labour history. Winslow is from the Seattle working class himself, and tales of 1919 were passed down to him by his parents.

Seattle’s industrial revolution

Seattle had two massive attractions for US capital. Firstly, it has a natural harbour that was to produce the most modern waterfront in the USA, and in turn it became the most important port on the western seaboard. Secondly, Washington State abounded in natural resources. Salmon canning was to be one important money spinner. However, the major resource that would shape Seattle was timber. Spruce, cedar and pine were needed in construction, and huge lumber camps and mills invaded the forests.

Life for the workers who went to Seattle seeking work was grim. This was literally ‘Wild West’ capitalism. Work in the forests meant life in a camp in the summer followed by unemployment in winter. Workers who tried to form unions were brutalised with clubs, bullets and exile. Seattle was a city with two faces. It had its Skid Road of flop houses, cheap saloons and brothels, as well as the stately mansions of the timber barons perched on the sculpted hills above the city.

Seattle was also a beacon for socialists. Cal Winslow brings to life the many socialist activists who went there to organise labour and take on the bosses. Characters such as Eugene Debs, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Anna Louise Strong and Kate Sadler all get their due. And what a heroic fight they put up!

When two ships of IWW (International Workers of the World) activists sailed to Everett in support of striking shingle weavers they were ambushed by gun-toting Pinkertons and mercenaries. The ‘Everett massacre’ became part of IWW folklore. Undeterred by murder, arrests and beatings, these young diehards carried on with their cause: to create one big union of all workers.

The Wobblies and strategy

Of course, the left today should celebrate the heroism of the Wobblies, as the IWW were known. However, the downside of the book is that Cal Winslow celebrates the heroism without drawing the lessons from it that activists need today. The IWW borrowed ideas from Marxism. They understood the antagonisms of capital and labour, and they were on the right side. However, they believed that organisation was far more important than theory. They fought for industrial unionism as opposed to craft-trade unionism. If workers were to get together in one big union however, the working class would be able to triumph over capital. The revolution for the Wobblies was the general strike where the workers would become conscious of their power as a class, and be able to dictate terms thereafter.

This is the politics of syndicalism. The dialectical relationship between Marxists and the labouring classes, that in Russia conquered state power, is missing in the syndicalist approach. The question of how to take power as a class will magically appear once the workers are all on strike. Radical Seattle would be a much better book if this crucial issue were addressed. The IWW who had long fought to bring about a general strike in Seattle were, it has to be said, unable to take the struggle forward when one came along. As the author admits:

‘The strike, after all, was not a conspiracy, and its roots were deep. It was planned, but its outcome could not have been predicted. Few, for example, expected the utter intransigence of the shipyard owners and the government. The strike was then a radical departure for US labour: planned, but open-ended, the future not known. How could it have been anything else?’ (p.202).

To plan a general strike without thinking about how it can at least lead to political power, is short-sighted to say the least.

Although the author is very good at establishing the links that Seattle’s workers were making with strikers in Britain, and revolutionaries in Russia and Germany, the IWW were not interested in the politics of the revolutionaries. The year 1919 was going to be so important in giving workers across the world an insight into how the capitalist state would either be conquered or fight back, but this essential theoretical approach was not to be seen in Seattle.

And this is why the strike only lasted five days, and why at its end no one was really sure what had been achieved. Of course, the author is right to say, ‘Seattle’s working people exposed capitalism, exploitation and war. They imagined the working class in control. They too believed in the inexorable march of history …’ (p.218). Yet, after three days of an absolutely solid strike where picketing was unnecessary, the strike began to fracture because no leadership existed to take it forward. The employers waited fearfully for the strike to end before resuming control.

Nonetheless, Radical Seattle is well worth a read. It is a reminder of the fighting capacity of American workers in a city about to be hit by recession and government indifference. Seattle’s largest manufacturing employer is Boeing with 160,000 workers. Amazon is also based in Seattle and employs 50,000 workers. The next general strike in Seattle might avoid the isolation of the first one, and in this digital age some Marxist theory might be put to use.

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John Westmoreland

John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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