OPINION: 1919 Seattle General Strike Exemplified Solidarity

by Teresa Mosqueda and April Sims

This week marks the 100-year anniversary of the Seattle General Strike, a five-day solidarity work stoppage by more than 60,000 workers or approximately 20 percent of Seattle’s population. Union workers across industries and across political parties came out to show support for shipyard workers striking to protect their right to fair wages and to bargain collectively and directly with their employers. The elected Strike Committee organized to ensure peace in the streets despite the mayor’s threats of martial law, and to ensure that essential services continued.

The Seattle General Strike of 1919 exemplified strong solidarity from workers demanding change. For many, that strike and other notable labor events across the state – from the Spokane Free Speech Fight of 1909 to the Centralia Tragedy of 1919 to the Battle in Seattle WTO demonstrations – evoke a sense of pride in the change that unions have led. Recent union victories in the City of Seattle and the state continue to lead the way for worker protections across the country in the arenas of wage increases, hotel worker anti-harassment policies, paid family medical leave, and paid sick and safe time.

You may have joined Seattle’s teachers on strike lines in 2015 as they fought for race equity programs and higher pay. You might have written to your legislator about the need for paid family and medical leave. Or, you may walk into a restaurant and see our labor standards posters, full of the protections unions, faith groups, and community organizations have fought for and won. There’s nothing new about workers coming together, being joined by community members, standing together across political lines, to make change. In fact, there’s something very Seattle about it.

While we celebrate Seattle’s strong labor history, we also recognize the ways in which an intersectional lens is now being applied to the movement and our city’s policies. During the General Strike, many black and brown workers weren’t allowed to join labor unions or weren’t allowed full participation in unions.  Very few workers of color joined the strike lines and the gains they sought were to be distributed amongst a largely white population. Shortly after that, Filipino cannery workers formed a union — the first ever Filipino led union — despite strong opposition, making advances for workers of color in the city.

The labor movement and our labor policies now specifically acknowledge the need to have a race equity lens — whether through a Racial Equity Toolkit or the Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) or some other strategy — to truly center the workers most vulnerable and most impacted in decision-making.  We’re seeing this movement within our elected leadership and within organized labor. Just last fall, the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO convened a Race & Labor Summit to have a deep-dive conversation about racial justice and equity within the labor movement.

There’s work to be done, but we have much to celebrate, so let’s not forget the Spirit of Seattle — solidarity, activism, and equity.

Teresa Mosqueda is an at-large Seattle City Councilmember. April Sims is the Secretary Treasurer for the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO.

Featured Image: Historical photo of workers during Seattle’s General Strike (Photo courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives.