The General Strike didn’t end the shipyard strike, yet most workers saw it as an inspiring example of worker power. For the rest of 1919, unions grew as Seattle workers organized new locals, and the Seattle labor council launched consumer and political campaigns. These included union-owned businesses and worker cooperatives including grocery stores, a coal and fuel yard, tailors, jewelry makers, grocery stalls in the public market, a slaughterhouse, a sausage making plant, bakeries, restaurants, a dairy distribution system, a milk condensery, and a reading room. Unions founded companies and worker investment enterprises, including a café, a stevedoring cooperative, a film company, and a savings and loan bank. On the political front, the labor council backed candidates for local and state elections, creating the King County Labor Party. Labor council Secretary James Duncan ran for mayor in 1920, winning the primary but losing the election.
Despite these gains, other factors would slow labor’s power nationwide and locally. Seattle’s shipyard contracts dwindled with the end of WWI, and hundreds of shipyard workers, union members who made up the ranks of the shipyard unions that struck in 1919, were laid off in 1920. In that year, an economic depression began that undermined the power of unions, as workers were laid off from closing or contracting businesses.
On the political front, assaults were launched against radicals and progressives. Washington, like various other US states, passed a law outlawing “criminal syndicalism.” The law made it illegal to advocate crime, sabotage, and violence as a means of accomplishing political or industrial reform. The law essentially made it illegal to belong to the IWW. Similar federal laws against sedition targeted anarchists, syndicalists, anti-war activists, and other radical organizers. In 1917, FBI agents, in conjunction with local law enforcement, raided every IWW office in the US, confiscating tons of material from the national headquarters of the IWW, 48 local offices, and the homes of leading Wobblies. US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer launched a nationwide crackdown on IWW members, communists, pacifists, and others in 1919 and 1920. Many progressive leaders were either imprisoned or deported. This suppression of leftists and dissenters became part of what is called the “First Red Scare,” leaving the ranks of the American Left in disarray. In a parallel assault, businesses nationwide used patriotism, nationalism, and fear of radicals to undermine the power of unions, attacking the closed shop under the auspices of the “American Plan” and equating organized labor with radicalism and anti-Americanism. In Seattle, the Associated Industries led its own local open-shop campaign to attack unions.
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In the aftermath of the strike, organized business groups nationwide mounted an assault on the “closed shop” which required all workers in a particular business to be represented by a union. In Seattle, the Associated Industries led an open-shop campaign where union membership was not a condition of employment. This would continue for most of the 1920s until desperate economic conditions, worker organizing, and legislation inspired a new wave of union organizing during the Great Depression.
This newsletter reports on the wave of cooperative organizing in the Pacific Northwest seven months after the Seattle General Strike.
During the lead-up to World War I, the federal government tried and convicted IWW members with conspiracy to obstruct the war. Cases were brought against IWW members in Chicago, IL, Wichita, KS and Sacramento, CA. The convicted members were sent to a prison in Leavenworth, Kansas.
The IWW faced more than vandalism and broken windows during the First Red Scare. In 1919, the state legislature passed a law against “criminal syndicalism.” making IWW membership a felony until 1936, forcing organizing activities underground. This coincided with federal laws against sedition targeting anarchists, syndicalists, anti-war activists, and other radical organizers.