In early 1919, all the 110 local unions representing workers in Seattle called a general strike. 60,000 men and women (of a total population of 315,000 – that’s 19% of the population) downed tools and took to the streets.
During the first world war, the US had built a lot of ships (which were sold or leased to Europe). After the end of the war in November 1918, those contracts (handed out by the goverment’s Emergency Fleet Corporation) dried up. Shipyard workers unions called for the annual increase in pay for unskilled workers, but the shipyards (of which there were several in Seattle), responded that they would increase the pay only of skilled workers. Charles Piez, who headed the Emergency Fleet Corporation (EFC), feared that an increase in pay would lead to the shipyard owners demanding more money from the EFC, and sent a telegram to shipyard owners, warning them that if they increased workers’ pay, they would lose their government contracts.
Unfortunately for him, the telegraph ended up not being sent to the Metal Trades Association (which represented shipyard owners and bosses), but to the Metal Trades Council, which represented the workers. The unions, which after the Russian revolution were highly radicalized and feeling that the time was right for a similar shift in power to the workers in the US, were outraged and called a general strike.
The strike began on the morning of February 6th 1919. By February 7th, the Washington state attorney general had asked for and received 950 sailors and marines, armed to the teeth (including a heavy machine gun mounted on the back of a truck) stationed around the city. Ole Hanson, Mayor of Seattle (who had won his election with strong labor support) added 3,000 temporary police. Business leaders began a successful propaganda campaign which labeled the strikers as anarchists, and stated (falsely) that the strike was in fact controlled by Russian Bolshevikis. Under this immense pressure, union leaders ended the strike on Frbruary 11th. To the credit of the people of Seattle and Tacoma, the entire week was peaceful. After the end of the strike was called, union offices were raided and looted, 39 workers were arrested as ringleaders, and the only major labor daily newspaper, the Union Record, was shut down. Across the country, the mainstream press announced that “Seattle had been saved” and that “Americanism has triumphed over Bolsevism”.