Throughout history there have been various different examples of General Strikes that have benefitted the working class. One of the most famous of these strikes not taught in schools is the Seattle General Strike of 1919. This was happening at a time when Eugene Debs & the Socialist Party of America and the International Workers of the World were gaining a lot more traction. America had seen the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia as a threat to the Freedoms bestowed upon by Jesus in Eagle form.
But even within the Unions themselves there was a lot of differences of opinion. The American Federation of Labor was a lot more conservative and almost exclusively white and male. They were sausage fest of Unions that always yelled “No Homo” at the end of their meetings. The International Workers of the World were building a more diverse coalition of workers. They were like the Avengers of the Labor Movement, assembling to take down the ultimate grand threat to the working class, Capitalism!
The Seattle General Strike begins with World War 1.Younger folks had flocked to places like Seattle to help build ships and armaments. The Federal Government had frozen wages to help the war effort. But they promised these workers that they would get raises after the war. When those raises didn’t show up, the Union wanted to negotiate and the managers ignored them, 35,000 Shipyard workers immediately went on strike. The rest of the city immediately joined the strike in Solidarity.
While the Unions & members of the IWW were organizing this General Strike, the city’s newspapers, which had ties to rich, printed stories about how the General Strikes are UnAmerican! But the Socialists had their own paper and Anna Louise Strong penned an op-ed that kinda set the world on fire!
The organizers had set the Strike to ensure that no-one would show up to work in February of 1919. Democratic Mayor Ole Hanson grew more and more paranoid and fearful and decided to deputize citizens and college kids! If you needed any proof of the rich & powerful using the working class as cannon fodder it’s in the constant use of children as a deputized police force to stop the advancement of human rights. He called in the National Guard and set up machine guns and had Army Trucks all around the city. The Strike hadn’t even started yet. If this was happening today, they’d probably say the army trucks were driven by AntiFa and the anarchists that had co-opted the trucks to incite violence.
Not one striker was violent. When the day came, 65,000 workers just didn’t show up to work. The city was silent. Rumors started spreading around that Ole Hanson had been murdered. My guess is that Ole Hanson started this rumor to incite violence and blame it on the strikers. Once people started to get restless, the organizers tapped into their ranks and had unarmed Vets maintain order.
The organizers set up kitchens in various parts of town to feed the families. They delivered milk to homes, oil to hospitals, collected the trash and for the 5 days this strike went on the Guardsmen that were stationed in Seattle said they had never seen a city run with more order & peace. Almost like if you give the people their basic needs and actually take care of them, there won’t be any reasons for citizens to steal and hurt each other. In 5 days in one city we were able to go from Capitalist primates slinging poo at each other for more cash to a more evolved species that was doing our parts to make our community vibrant and more meaningful.
When Ole Hanson couldn’t get the strikers to be violent he started arresting organizers and ensuring the workers wouldn’t get the resources they need. He started threatening martial law on the people. The strike ended. Seattle General Strike of 1919 provided mixed results. Shipping industry never came back to it’s glory. But it scared employers and created a different sense of what was possible. Ole Hanson became a hero because American loves its paranoid strong men who use fear as morality.
The bosses feared what the Seattle General Strike had proven. As Dana Frank, a labor history professor at University of California in Santa Cruz points out “It didn’t just show union power to the employers, but it showed that working people could run the city themselves.” It asks the question of why do we need Congress or politicians or legislators if we the people can provide what we need ourselves! Working people had power in indirect ways.
Following this strike, Seattle’s most wealthy and largest employers founded the Associated Industries of Seattle, which was a conglomerate of bosses from the Waterfront, Metalwork, Trades and building companies. Their main goal was ensure Unions were squashed. It’s the anti-Union…Union. They’re like the Thanos of labor. They want to wipe out half the life and profit off the other half.
They claimed they were protecting themselves against “Working class tyranny”. [Cover] And we really need to stop oppressing rich! We’re out there marchin’ and saying things “We want human rights!” But have we stopped and thought about that rich person’s super yatch? Where will they pop champagne on the asses of the hos? On a regular yatch? How are they going to get a private helicopter with a personal prostitute if they have to pay a living a wage!?
The Associated Industries also employed spies to try to bring the Unions down from the inside. There were personal papers that were release from 2 major employers that hired these spies to disrupt Union action. This would involve having the cops called on IWW headquarters and break up any demonstrations. Basically America’s James Bond was the Uncle Tom of the Labor Movement trying to keep poor people poorer and suckling at the teets of power.
They also hired the Pinkertons and other Detective agencies to follow members around. Then they created their own Unions and used that as a way to prohibit immigrants from being hired and demonize unions even further. These are the rich billionaires we fawn over in our society. Racist, Xenophobes that want you to suffer for their wealth.
As a major American city was attacking it’s working class with spies, thugs and the military, Canada was in the midst of its own General Strike. In 1919 Canada was suffering through a post War recession just like most of the world. Pay was down, but cost of living was going up, you know how a logical economy is supposed to work. Canadian workers were having problems with Union recognition so they were talking about a “One Big Union” like the International Workers of the World.
When managers wouldn’t negotiate with Metal & Trade unions they called for a strike. In May of 1919, 30,000 workers from police, the fire department, garment workers, utilities and more walked off the job to strike in solidarity with their working class brothers and sisters. A Citizen Committee of 1000 people formed to stop the strike. So that was a 1000 nays to 30,000 yays. The fact the government ignores so many voices is proof that Democracy isn’t real.
The Citizen Committee used as much xenophobia, racism and fear as they could. They got the papers to print that the strikers were alien scum. And the government sided the vocal minority and threatened to fire the federal employees and deport British Immigrants. They used the classic defense abusive partners use. “You want to see crazy?! Oh I can show you crazy!” And they eat the head of a bat. And you’re like where’d you get a bat from? Did you just have a bat on you this whole time?! What is happening? That was the Canadian government.
On June 17th, 10 strike leaders were arrested. On June 21st the rank & file organized a peaceful march which was met with police brutality by the Mounted Police, which is just a fancy way of saying Horse Cops. Now it does sound like the cops are going to joust the protesters but it was much worse. The cops fired shots, the crowd turned violent, overturned a streetcar, 2 strikers were killed and 30 were injured. The incident is now famously known as Bloody Saturday. The Canadian government set up a memorial for the streetcar instead of the people.
7 out of the 10 strike leaders were charged with conspiracy to topple the government and the other 3 that were released called to end the strike. They didn’t want to see any more bloodshed. These strike leaders in the late 1920s wound up in the Canadian government and eventually it led to Canadian workers receiving collective bargaining rights, 30 years after the General Strike.
Back in the states, 1934 was another big year for General Strikes. 65,000 textile workers walked off the job starting in North Carolina.
1934 saw Taxi Strikes, Trucking Strikes, Warehouse strikes all across the country. In Toledo, workers from the Auto plants led a strike. Radical socialists were voted into leadership of the Unions because the people wanted to see radical change instead of platitudes from rich people. Under the leadership of one of these radicals, the strike took in the unemployed of Toledo that would normally be hired as scabs to replace workers. They did this with the help of the rank & file working to feed, protect and house the unemployed with their mutual aid!
Now that the Auto companies had lost their way to replace employees, the National Guard was sent in and strike leaders were arrested. So, much like Winnipeg, the rank & file organized a march. The guardsmen threatened the Strikers, who refused to budge, so they opened fire on the strikers. The strikers fought back and at the end when the bosses and the government saw that workers won’t back down, they recognized the Unions, increased wages and rehired the workers.
San Francisco became a war-zone as Longshoreman went on strike and garnered the support of every Union in the city. Because of the state of the economy, the longshoreman didn’t have steady work. They’d all go down to the docks and wait to be picked by the foreman. This led to bribery and was described as a slave market. All of a sudden all the white people were like “Holy shit is this what we’ve been doing to black and brown folks?!”
Once the strike began, 100,000 workers had walked off the job and it was peaceful. So to instigate the National Guard was sent into protect law & order, by blowing up a piece of the city. New Deal advocate Hugh Johnson and even Union Leaders were condemning the General Strike, but the rank & file wouldn’t budge. By the end of the strike, the longshoreman didn’t get what they wanted because the military force had unfortunately won.
Minneapolis was a different story. In 1934 the Minneapolis Teamsters led a strike of Truck Drivers and delivery men. They got very organized and used military tactics to push against the government agitators.
And because they were able to take care of each other, the cops attacked every last one them. The first fatality was a man named Henry Ness. His funeral had 40,000 people in attendance and public opinion of was FOR the teamsters and their demands. So instead of listening to the public, the National Guard gets called in and labor leaders are arrested and put into camps. Once that happened, I think everyone realized “Oh this is a bad look. I feel like these camps are going get bad wrap one day!” The teamsters won their demands of better pay and work conditions.
I’d like to point that this is the use of military force in American streets over the right to protest and strike against inequality. It’s been done before and it was validated by Democrats and Republicans alike. This is another point of proof that the removal of Trump is basically meaningless without the removal of a corrupt, war-mongering duopoly that’s ready to murder it’s own citizens asking for human rights! Authoritarianism has been in America long before 2016.
After all the Strikes of 1934, the Wagner Act was signed in 1935 that legislatively gave collective bargaining rights to workers! After World War 2, there was fear that organized labor would grow even stronger so Senator Taft of Ohio & Senator Hartley of New Jersey put forth a piece of legislation to undo the Wagner Act. Proving without a doubt that nothing good has come out of New Jersey!
The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act ensured that unions would lose their powers. They limited strikes and unions couldn’t donate to political campaigns, but corporations can. If a strike was determined to be a health risk then the strike is illegal and unions would be criminally fined! Unions can only be put into place when a majority is struck in the workplace. This gave corporations an opportunity to push anti-Union propaganda, a practice still in place today!
In 1959 the bill was refined to include that unions would be voted for and the votes of strikebreakers would have to be counted. Bills like these depowered, defunded and demoralized Unions. It took an entire generation of workers and made them believe that giving their rights over their bosses would make them richer in the end. We have yet to see this play out that way. The Republicans used these bills to effectively canceled Unions, which makes Republicans the originators of cancel culture!
This isn’t to say we can’t win. We’ve won before and we can do it again. We can use the power of labor yet again to regain a more equal workplace. We repeat the steps of the General Strike and keep an eye out for the propaganda. We have shown time and time again that we the people can be more organized than the government itself. So let’s get more organized!
Republican President Abraham Lincoln is quoted to say “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed.” In every instance both the bosses and the government claim Capital is far more valuable the labor produced by worker. In every instance there is more people who see it for what it is. If we want a better society, then the next step is a General Strike.
Krish Mohan is a socially conscious, Indian standup comedian and writer who regularly tours the country. He performs at small theaters, bars, comedy clubs, colleges, DIY and house venues. With his quirky attitude, charming personality, and intelligent humor, Krish captivates and engages audiences of all backgrounds, tackling hot button topics like race, religion, war, immigration, while adding an optimistic, philosophical & sociological twist!