1919 Seattle general strike

From Anarchy In Action
Seattle General Strike.jpg

In February 1919, some 100,000 workers went on a general strike for five days, halting the city's operations except for those organized by the strikers themselves and coordinated by a General Strike Committee consisting of three delegates from each striking local. The Committee authorized firefighters to keep working, and striking workers prepared and served thirty thousand meals across the city each day. Strikers set up a Labor War Veteran's Guard, which sent unarmed volunteers to patrol the streets and keep the peace. A blackboard at the Guard's headquarters read, "The purpose of this organization is to preserve law and order without the use of force. No volunteer will have any police power or be allowed to carry weapons of any sort, but to use persuasion only."[1] During the strike, crime decreased in Seattle; "[t]he commander of U.S. army detachment sent into the area told the striker's committee that in forty years of military experience he hadn't seen so quiet and orderly a city."[2] The federal government sent almost a thousand soldiers and sailors into Seattle. Workers ended their strike after five days due to pressure from unions' international officers and the difficulties of living in a shutdown city.[3]

From Anarchy Works:

During the February 1919 general strike in Seattle, workers took over the city. Commercially, Seattle was shut down, but the workers did not allow it to fall into disarray. On the contrary, they kept all vital services running, but organized by the workers without the management of the bosses. The workers were the ones running the city every other day of the year, anyway, and during the strike they proved that they knew how to conduct their work without managerial interference. They coordinated citywide organization through the General Strike Committee, made up of rank and file workers from every local union; the structure was similar to, and perhaps inspired by, the Paris Commune. Union locals and specific groups of workers retained autonomy over their jobs without management or interference from the Committee or any other body. Workers were free to take initiative at the local level. Milk wagon drivers, for example, set up a neighborhood milk distribution system the bosses, restricted by profit motives, would never have allowed.

The striking workers collected the garbage, set up public cafeterias, distributed free food, and maintained fire department services. They also provided protection against anti-social behavior — robberies, assaults, murders, rapes: the crime wave authoritarians always forecast. A city guard comprised of unarmed military veterans walked the streets to keep watch and respond to calls for help, though they were authorized to use warnings and persuasion only. Aided by the feelings of solidarity that created a stronger social fabric during the strike, the volunteer guard were able to maintain a peaceful environment, accomplishing what the state itself could not.

This context of solidarity, free food, and empowerment of the common person played a role in drying up crime at its source. Marginalized people gained opportunities for community involvement, decision-making, and social inclusion that were denied to them by the capitalist regime. The absence of the police, whose presence emphasizes class tensions and creates a hostile environment, may have actually decreased lower-class crime. Even the authorities remarked on how organized the city was: Major General John F. Morrison, stationed in Seattle, claimed that he had never seen “a city so quiet and so orderly.” The strike was ultimately shut down by the invasion of thousands of troops and police deputies, coupled with pressure from the union leadership.[4]

  1. Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, 1492-Present (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), 377-379.
  2. Zinn, ibid, 378.
  3. Zinn, ibid, 379.
  4. Wikipedia “Seattle General Strike of 1919,” [[24][en.wikipedia.org]] [viewed 21 June 2007]. Print sources cited in this article include Jeremy Brecher, Strike! Revised Edition. South End Press, 1997; and Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, Perrenial Classics Edition, 1999.