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Anna Louise Strong: A Strong Woman Behind the Country's First General Strike

Men and boys getting groceries during the five day strike.
(Photo courtesy of the Seattle Museum of History and Industry)

February 1919

Dear Father,

The strike is over and I have been asked to write about it for the Seattle Union Record. Although the strike lasted only five days, there is so much more to tell than five days worth of events. I am filled with pride that the workers across this great city of Seattle pulled together and accomplished a peaceful strike. We did not intend to shut down the city. Rather, we wanted to show those in charge that we could organize and take care of Seattle's inhabitants. Children received milk and the hospitals had clean laundry. Oh Father, if you could have seen how well everyone worked together, right down to the soup kitchens where anyone could receive a meal. So what happened then? Why did we fail?

I think the biggest question I ask myself now that it is all over is: What were our aims to begin with? Perhaps because we did not state a clear aim, nothing could really come of our struggle. The struggle, it goes back so far that I don't even know where to begin. Was it just two years ago when Idaho and Minnesota passed the first Criminal Syndicalism laws? How many socialists and radicals have been put in jail since then for speaking their minds? It seems to me that the war was really just one more way for the government to get richer and keep the workingman down. Isn't that what happened here in Seattle?

Neda shows off the Museum's shipyard
Neda shows off the Museum's shipyard
Even before America entered World War I, the shipyards in Seattle were booming and expanding. The workers supported the war by building the steel hulled ships that were needed. Yes, it did put a good many men to work. But at what cost? How many people died fighting? And yes, the wages were good, and even increased for the workers here on the west coast, but that didn't last for long. As soon as the war was over, the shipyard employers and government officials brought down wages in order to maintain their profits. And what about all the post-war comforts we should each be enjoying? Unemployment is up and so is the cost of living. It appears as though these were empty promises made during the war, nothing but propaganda, all of it. It's always the same story, isn't it? Once again, the rich get richer and poor just die.


You Can Never Outgrow a Union - We met Stanley

Aren't fair wages and decent working hours reasonable things to ask for? On January 21, the men in the shipyards began to strike when about 35,000 men stopped working in pursuit of such demands. And in response, their employers went on vacation. You can imagine how infuriating this was, that they wouldn't even negotiate! Well, the workers saw it as a clear sign that more needed to happen. This is when the Seattle Central Labor Council decided a general strike was needed to make their voices be heard. If all the unions of Seattle decided to strike together, employers would see how powerful the worker really is! I know the government is fearful of the power of the worker. They know about the Russian Revolution and the workers' abilities to triumph over Capitalism!

Black and White photos from the Labor Temple.
Black and White photos from the Labor Temple.
So what has happened here, Father? Maybe if I lay down an outline of the events that took place, it will help me organize my thoughts so that I can come to a better understanding of these past events.

Thursday, February 6, 1919 10am

The first day of the strike. We wanted it to be peaceful. This was not a Russian Bolshevik uprising, although the government is now calling it that. There was, in fact, very little activity this first day. At ten o'clock, the whistles sounded at the shipyards. This signaled the streetcars to shut down and the schools to let out. All the banks closed their doors; even the restaurants were shut down. Things were very quiet. I think everyone was expecting some kind of unrest, but nothing happened. As I wrote earlier, the workers were very organized and the men of the General Strike Committee, a group of 15 men voted to organize and make decisions, had thought of everything. This was a rather amazing task, since none of them had ever organized a strike before. There were no picket lines to cross, no one to beat up and no arrests. The lack of these events alone made this so very different from the many other strikes I have written about before. Father, you have raised me to be a pacifist. Nevertheless, could it be that this very peaceful strike was just too peaceful?

Friday, Day 2

Mayor Hanson put out a proclamation to end the strike. It was the first time I had heard someone call our strike a Bolshevist Rebellion. I think he saw our power and was afraid that the working class revolts that were happening in Russia may also happen here. Mayor Hanson said he supported us, and even met with the General Strike Committee before all this began. By the second day of our strike though, he had changed his tune. He threatened that if we did not end the strike, he would use soldiers and declare martial law if necessary. He did bring in soldiers, although he didn't need to. Remember, this was a peaceful strike, so for him to do so was a big waste of taxpayer money.

Father, you should have heard some of the rumors that were circulating. Remember, there were no newspapers going out, and no radio either. So, people began to make things up. Some spread the word that Mayor Hanson had been assassinated. Another rumor said that the Central Labor Temple had been blown up. Can you imagine!?!

Saturday, Day 3

After only three days, the General Strike Committee voted to end the strike. The workers were getting restless. The shipyard employers were willing to wait us out. With no picket lines to walk, there didn't seem to be much for the workers to do at all. People had lost their sense of unity and wanted to return to work. Again, I wonder if we were just too organized.

eputies receive their weapons to help control the strike.  But no violence occurred.
(Photo courtesy of the Seattle Museum of History and Industry)
Sunday, Day 4

Many of the unions didn't show up for the morning roll call at the Labor Temple because they went back to work today. Their members had decided to go back on the job.

Monday, Day 5

February 12, 1919. Did you know this is also Lincoln's birthday? The strike ended on this day. There was a vote of the General Strike Committee. 13 to 1, they voted to end the strike, although I suppose it had ended even before today.

Here we were, successful at closing down the capitalist-run businesses in the city and then reopening them under the power of the worker. We really accomplished what we had set out to do. 60,000 workers went off their jobs, but to what end? Some people are saying we didn't go far enough with our fight. But, does violence have to be a necessary part of a strike? I believe this general strike will be an example for labor organizers across the country. It will also be an example to all of Capitalist America that the worker has the power to improve his or her own working conditions.

Jen and Neda explore the Labor Temple in Seattle.
Jen and Neda explore the Labor Temple in Seattle.
Father, I must finish my letter now. The phone just rang and it was Harry from the paper. There is a deputy in the office wanting to arrest us all. We are being charged with sedition under the grounds that we incited a rebellion. Did we? I do not think so. I know we will pay our bail and be free. Though I do wonder if we will be free to write, say and think all of the ideas that we have.

Perhaps I do not belong here in America anymore. Maybe Russia would accept my radical ideas more so than here in America. Yes, perhaps that is where I belong.

Sincerely, Your faithful daughter,

Anna Louise Strong

Anna Louise Strong was an amazing woman. Not only was she an outspoken writer for the labor movement, but she was also a mountain climber and led expeditions through the icy glaciers of Mt. Hood. She eventually did go to Russia and stayed there for almost 29 years.


Please email me at: jennifer@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Daphne - America's long legacy of injustice and intolerance claims two more victims
Neda - Are you a foreigner? Well, go to jail!
Nick - Steel vs. flesh: A battle for worker's rights
Stephen - When the "Company" is on your back it's time for a gunfight!
Making A Difference - The global market place is destroying our globe