By Hannah Hopkins and Lexi Owens

When people went away to the battlefields of World War I, people who couldn’t—or wouldn’t—fight, as well as those who stayed behind, like most women, Black men, immigrants, and other people of color, filled their vacancies in the workforce. For instance, in the Puget Sound, white and Black women worked together in the shipyards, building ships for the war. But what happened when the soldiers returned?

Illustration of a worker, a soldier, and a sailor from the Seattle WSSC’s newspaper The Forge, May 1919. Courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries Microforms and Newspapers.

Once the war was over, soldiers and sailors streamed back into Seattle and the greater US, and they wanted their jobs back. In anticipation of their return, and in the first months following the war, there was a lot of anxiety amongst the labor community about ‘what they would do with the soldiers.’ This phenomenon wasn’t new in the US: the same happened following the Civil War and it would happen again following World War II and the more recent armed conflicts in the Middle East. For many years, the US labor movement has tried and often failed to integrate veterans into the movement. Since it does not seem likely that the US government will stop warmongering anytime soon, it is useful to analyze how labor organizers have tried to integrate and organize veterans following wartime conflict. By studying the example of the Workers’, Soldiers’, & Sailors’ Council at the end of World War I, we can examine possible solutions to the problem that exists whenever soldiers return from war: what can and should be done with groups of disaffected and unemployed people who encounter an unwelcoming civilian labor market controlled by merciless business owners and multinational corporations.

World War I ended in November 1918 and for Seattle workers, working conditions were poor. Wage freezes in the shipyards, enacted because of wartime exigencies, continued even though the federal government promised they would end. Thousands of now unemployed soldiers returned to the city and surrounding region. Further, Seattle continued to suffer growing pains from a population boom that saw the population rise from 3,553 in 1880 to 237,194 in 1910. Additionally, the predominant industries of Seattle were shifting from extractive industries like lumberwork, sawmills, and mining, to industrial production like shipbuilding and manufacturing.

Wobbly shipyard workers joined the General Strike. Courtesy of the Labor Archives of Washington.

In the midst of these changes, the workers decided to attempt to change their abhorrent working conditions and wages. In January 1919, the shipyard workers of Seattle declared a strike. Strikes were by no means rare occurrences. What made the 1919 shipyard strike different was that the shipyard workers successfully enticed many of the other labor unions around the city to join with them in solidarity. When the 35,000 shipyard workers went on strike, they were joined by more than 30,000 other workers, who walked out in a general strike from February 6 to February 11. The General Strike was significantly bolstered by the immense task of organizing the various labor unions and thousands of soldiers and sailors together not just in their industries, but as members of the working class in a mass revolt against the prevailing economic conditions.

The Metal Trades Council of Seattle, an amalgamated union representing shipyard workers and which was affiliated with the Seattle Central Labor Council, took the initiative to hold a mass meeting with the express purpose of forming a Workers’, Soldiers’, and Sailors’ Council (WSSC). Modeled after the workers’, soldiers’, and peasants’ councils, or “soviets,” of the Russian Revolution, the Metal Trades Council envisioned Seattle’s WSSC to be an organizing body that would fix their “soldier” problem through labor organizing. The mass meeting invitation urges soldiers and sailors to not only see themselves as workers, but as sharing a common interest against the exploitative capitalist class:

“In connection with the present pressing problem of finding employment for the returning soldiers and sailors and discharged war workers, it must be self-evident to you all that charity, or merely discharging other workers in order to provide employment to men from the military service, is no solution, when the workers discharged are not provided the means of making an honest living. We must find the remedy. The exploiters will not.”

The mass meeting happened sometime in December 1918 or January 1919, and the WSSC set to work recruiting more members and defining the council’s mission and goals. While the Metal Trades and mainstream Seattle Labor envisioned the WSSC as another sort of labor union that would be in-line with the values of the American Federation of Labor, the WSSC councilmembers had something else in mind. An initial leaflet by the WSSC, most likely published in January 1919, mimics the language of the Metal Trades mass meeting invitation, urging soldiers to see themselves first as workers, to take matters into their own hands, and ultimately organize themselves. After January and likely because of the Seattle General Strike, the WSSC became much more radical in its aims and tactics.

Outlining their constitution and plans in the May 1919 issue of The Forge, the WSSC notes that the council consists of delegates from various parts of Seattle Labor (both radical and conservative) including AF of L unions, the IWW, the Socialist Party, the Socialist Labor Party, various cooperatively run businesses, and farmers’ granges. The paper also notes that the WSSC admired the Russian Revolution and the “efforts of our class all over the world to free themselves from economic slavery.” Their preamble, reminiscent of the IWW’s preamble, called “upon all those who toil, regardless of race, creed, color or sex, to rally to the standard of real democracy to bring about the dictatorship of the only useful class in society—the working class,” possibly suggesting that the Wobblies or their allies were heavily involved in the creation and organization of the WSSC. Finally, the WSSC strays far from the white supremacist ideals of the AF of L by advocating for the inclusion of people of color in the council and in the larger labor movement. One article in The Forge argues against the racist exclusion of Japanese workers from the labor movement, and elsewhere in the paper the WSSC boasts that they have had Filipino, Hawaiian, and Black members in the council since its founding.

By May of 1919, the WSSC decided that its mission was to unite workers across the various factions in the Seattle labor movement, so they attempted to do so through print propaganda, community defense, and organization of joint meetings with various labor groups. The council had become less about organizing soldiers and sailors and more about uniting the working class in its entirety. Displaying more class consciousness than many other labor groups, the WSSC imagined itself as a unifying force and part of the whole of labor, a group that could bring together many groups not under the banner of any single organization, but under the banner of working-class liberation itself.

The AFL’s Samuel Gompers withholds the general strike from drowning workers. The Forge, January 1920. Courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries Microforms and Newspapers.

The ephemeral nature of print materials at this time leave us with little evidence about how and why the WSSC came to an end. Likely caught up in the governmental repression faced by many leftists—including the IWW—during the First Red Scare, The Forge stopped print production after April 1920 and evidence of the activities of the WSSC fades away. However, we can think about how their tactics did and did not work and how such tactics may be applied to present day struggles.

The first major takeaway is that the WSSC consciously worked to bridge the gaps between the various factions of the labor movement. Though they took strong stances against many internal AF of L policies (such as racial segregation), the WSSC also saw the value in bringing together radicals and conservatives with the aim of building a pluralistic but united labor movement that could genuinely threaten the capitalist stranglehold on the economy.

Can the IWW employ a tactic similar to this? The IWW’s stated mission is the destruction of capitalism and the abolition of the wage system, which is incongruous with the mission of current AFL-CIO affiliates and other business unions, which puts the IWW in a similar position as the WSSC. But where the WSSC attempted to foster connections between unions, the IWW should remain separate from the current business unions which are mouthpieces for the Democratic Party and which routinely sell out their workers. Instead, the members of the IWW can take inspiration from the WSSC and work to build class consciousness through action and organization. Dual-carding campaigns—where members of the IWW are also members of another union—offer insights into how members of the IWW can work to improve their livelihoods and the livelihoods of their non-IWW coworkers by employing the methods and tactics of our union to improve the functioning of another union. The ultimate goal can be building militant and solidarity-based organizations that spread class consciousness within the workers themselves, who can then either rebel against their bourgeois union leadership or significantly alter their existing union structures. Even if the workers of another union don’t organize under the IWW banner, they can still take the steps necessary to improve their lives, and IWW members can help get them to that point. This is true working-class solidarity that cuts across factional lines of trade, craft, class, race, gender, ideology, etc.

However, we can’t continue to be a marginal organization on the fringes of the labor movement, which ultimately the WSSC was and which led to the WSSC’s dissolution after only two years of activity. The workers, soldiers, and sailors that made up the WSSC didn’t disappear, but their organization did. The council itself could not withstand the inevitable state repression, labor discord, and economic turmoil of the age. The material conditions that precipitated the need for a council of workers, soldiers, and sailors prevailed, while the council did not.

Similarly, the modern IWW represents a miniscule fraction of the total unionized laborers in North America. Many IWW branches across the country are stagnant. Most IWW branches fold within three years of their formation. In Washington State, there are 584,000 unionized workers, whereas there are 3,700 members of IWW on the entire continent. This has to change. Until the IWW makes serious inroads with regards to building the union, spreading class consciousness, and organizing workplaces, we will continue to be a fringe radical group. That is why we should draw some inspiration from the Workers’, Soldiers’, and Sailors’ Council, who saw the working class as a whole, something that needed to be organized according to liberation and not according to union affiliation.

If we are to succeed and survive, then we must break free from the leftist scene of activists, and act like a labor union. We should bring together workers, not just radicals. We should organize in the labor force, not the labor community. And we should stop seeing the working class as an idealized abstract, an inchoate mass ready to be convinced of its revolutionary potential. It’s already revolutionary. We only need to understand our own limitations and what prevents our union from actually uniting workers and bringing about serious changes in the economic landscape.

The WSSC was a small, short-lived experiment in working-class solidarity. It collapsed, but the IWW survived. We can extract valuable lessons from the WSSC because not only did it help orchestrate one of the most significant labor events in American history, but it also vanished almost as quickly as it formed. We can avoid the WSSC’s critical mistake—its inability to move from the fringes into the leadership of the labor movement—only if we understand our role as organizers of workers, not of radicals.

Soldiers, Sailors and Workmen, Attention! Metal Trades Council of Seattle, December 1918-January 1919. Industrial Workers of the World Seattle Joint Branches records. Labor Archives of Washington, University of Washington Libraries Special Collections.
Soldiers and Sailors of the United States pamphlet, 1919. Industrial Workers of the World Seattle Joint Branches records. Labor Archives of Washington, University of Washington Libraries Special Collections.

[This post was published in the February 2019 issue of the Seattle Worker]

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