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Radical Seattle: The General Strike of 1919


On a grey winter morning in Seattle, in February 1919, 110 local unions shut down the entire city. Shut it down and took it over, rendering the authorities helpless. For five days, workers from all trades and sectors—streetcar drivers, telephone operators, musicians, miners, loggers, shipyard workers—fed the people, ensured that babies had milk, that the sick were cared for. They did this without police – and they kept the peace themselves. This had never happened before in the United States and has not happened since. Those five days became known as the General Strike of Seattle. In Radical Seattle, Cal Winslow explains why.

Winslow describes how Seattle’s General Strike was actually the high point in a long process of early twentieth-century socialist and working-class organization, when everyday people built a viable political infrastructure that seemed, to governments and corporate bosses, radical—even “Bolshevik.” Drawing from original research, Winslow depicts a process that, in struggle, fused the celebrated itinerants of the West with the workers of a modern industrial city. But this book is not only an account of the heady days of February 1919; it is also about the making of a class capable of launching one of America’s most gripping strikes—what E. P. Thompson once referred to as “the long tenacious revolutionary tradition of the common people.”

Combine: 1) the historian’s passion for first-hand, primary sources, 2) the homeboy’s loyalty to his Seattle roots and its magnificent forests and waters, 3) a clear-eyed, non-apathetic sense of justice, and 4) a broad-minded, international background of working-class solidarity. Mix with a writing style of vigor and virility into the tale of lumberjacks, salmon canners, “telephone girls,” wheat harvesters, stevedores, halibut fishers, hotel maids, shingle weavers, hard-rock miners, Japanese barbers, along with their brothers and sisters among the out-of-work bindlestiffs of Skid Road who, having suffered massacre, lynching, and war, nevertheless went on a general strike in February 1919 supporting higher wages for the ship workers. Anna Louise Strong called them to it, laying out the goals for all to see: to preserve the peace, to feed the people, to deliver milk to babies, to get the sick to hospital with fresh linens. For five days this really happened, and without the bosses. “Where will it lead?” she asked. And answered, “No one knows where!” This is part of the experience of our class, both bold and free, that we need now.

—Peter Linebaugh, author, Red Round Globe Hot Burning

In the tradition of E.P. Thompson, Cal Winslow rescues from obscurity and condescension a critical moment in working-class history. This is a tale packed with the unexpected—a profusion of workers who belonged to both the Industrial Workers of the World and AFL craft unions, a central labor council that rejected the AFL’s insistence that Asians had no place in the U.S. labor movement, the disappearance of street crime, as police stood down and workers formed safety patrols, the elaborate plans strikers implemented to feed the city and even get fresh milk to babies for the duration of the strike…. This was class consciousness that, as Radical Seattle demonstrates, had been years in the making and, despite the wave of repression that followed, would never be entirely wiped out. We owe Cal Winslow —and Monthly Review Press—a debt of gratitude for bringing this enduringly relevant history so vividly to life.

—Priscilla Murolo, co-author, From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend: A Short, Illustrated History of Labor in the United States

Cal Winslow’s brilliant book takes the reader to Seattle a century ago, long before Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, to a time when the city and region was widely seen as a workers paradise. A heady mix of utopian anarchist and socialist movements and worker militancy in the timber camps, in the factories and along the waterfront culminated in the General Strike of 1919, arguably the high point of working-class organization. Radical Seattle tells the story of the making of a class-conscious movement in a fashion befitting his mentor, Edward Thompson, exposing a decade-long struggle to build an infrastructure of radical politics. Winslow offers us a tour de force of working-class history, not simply a magisterial recovery of the heady days of February 1919 but a working manual of political insight for the current political moment.

—Michael Watts, University of California, Berkeley

A meticulously researched and detailed study, Radical Seattle is impressively informative, expertly written, and unreservedly recommended for community and academic library 20th Century American Labor History collections and supplemental curriculum studies lists.

—Midwest Book Review

Cal Winslow, a labor activist and educator, is Director of the Mendocino Institute and a retired fellow in environmental history at UC Berkeley. Among his books are Labor’s Civil War in California and Rebel Rank and File. He edited E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left.

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Publication Date: January 2020

Paperback ISBN: 978-1-58367-852-7

Cloth ISBN: 978-1-58367-853-4

eBook ISBN: 978-1-58367-854-1

Number of Pages: 280