Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Book Review: Revolution In Seattle by Harvey O'Connor
“A toast, to the 47 states of the Union, and to the Soviet of Washington,” Postmaster General James A. Farley (1936).
Drummer Bill Reiflin, who is probably best known for his work with Ministry, spent many years in Seattle. He once called it: “A small island, surrounded by rednecks.” I have lived in the Northwest all of my life, and would tend to agree with Reiflin’s assessment. After reading Harvey O’Connor’s memoirs Revolution In Seattle though, I realized that things were once very, very different around here.
Revolution In Seattle was originally published in 1964. It concerns the only General Strike ever held in the United States, which occurred in Seattle in 1919. It is kind of a strange that the reprint is out 45 years after the original, which was published 45 years after the Strike.
Could anyone imagine pulling off a general strike in 2009? The very idea seems absolutely ludicrous. But 90 years ago in Seattle, it happened. The strike itself lasted for five days, and was pretty uneventful. People mainly stayed home to wait it out, while high level meetings were held to get the city back to work.
Far more interesting are the events that led up to the strike. O’Connor was there, and was able to talk to many who were still alive from the era as well. What emerges is a picture of capitalism run amok in the backwater region of the United States. Loggers in particular were doing extremely dangerous work 10-12 hours per day, with meager rations, for very little pay.
The I.W.W. and AFL found great success in an area full of frustrated workers and indifferent, if not openly hostile, management. Tensions had been building since the 1890s. There were ongoing labor battles, resistance to the Draft and WWI, and the rise of Bolshevism among many other factors that led up to the strike.
O’Connor is sympathetic to the strike, which was nonviolent, and basically shut down all nonessential activities in the city. Power stayed on, and select food stores stayed open, but that was it for five days. The strike was called in support of the shipyard workers, who were being especially mistreated at the time.
The aftermath of the strike was a bloody one in the (truly) redneck town of Centralia. There members of the I.W.W. or Wobblies as they were called, were lynched. One man was even castrated before being hanged. The pro-management forces such as the newspapers and court systems were clearly against the union man. Some things never change.
According to O’Connor, much of what the left were trying to achieve for labor came about with Roosevelt’s New Deal. Rules were made that even the most antagonistic employers had to follow, like it or not. O’Connor briefly brings the history of radicalism up to date (1964), focusing mainly on the McCarthy hearings of the early 1950s.
Revolution In Seattle is a fascinating story. It was such a different world 90 years ago in so many ways. The naked brutality of those days is gone for good. It most certainly remains in covert ways, but at least you won‘t get your face bashed in. The power of labor remains a force, but a dormant one. The scandals of Hoffa and others have de-fanged this once fearless group.
It is incredible to read how things were back then. Going on strike could literally get you killed. And there would be no prosecution. Just organizing the workers could get you killed even. There are many stories like these in Revolution In Seattle.
After reading this book, the WTO riots of 2000 start to make a lot more sense. If they were to happen anywhere, they needed to happen where the General Strike once did. Revolution In Seattle is full of men and women so committed that some gave their lives in support of better working conditions.
What a contrast to today’s Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan-obsessed world. Our current national mood is infantile in comparison to the one described in this book. Revolution In Seattle is well worth putting the clicker down for, and actually reading.