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6. Labor Strike

No issue ignited the partisan divide in postwar America more than the nationwide labor strikes of 1919-1921. The "labor vs. capital" battle pitted industrial workers who demanded higher wages in the postwar inflation economy against the industrialists who rejected unions as the product of foreign-inspired anarchist and Bolshevik (Communist) agitators. The general public, angered by the strike-induced product shortages and frightened by the postwar unrest that fueled the Red Scare, overwhelmingly sided with "capital." Studying the broad reaction to labor strikes in the early 1920s requires a broad selection of genres—here we consider newspaper coverage of a specific strike, a novelist's portrayal of a strike's polarizing effects, and two cartoon animators' humorous takes on "the strike."

    The 1919 Seattle General Strike PDF file
  • The 1919 Seattle General Strike. For six days in February 1919, the first "general strike" in American history paralyzed the port city of Seattle, Washington. Two weeks earlier, the shipyard workers had gone out on strike for higher wages to accommodate rising postwar prices. In an act of solidarity, thousands of Seattle workers joined the strike on February 6 as the labor press urged unity and orderly protest. City newspapers predicted chaos and condemned the strike as a Communist ("Red") threat to American freedoms—a potent and immediate anxiety fueled by the 1917 Communist revolution in Russia. (Coverage of the strike often shared page-one headlines with news of Communist military activity in Europe.) On February 11, the unions voted to end the sympathy strike; union cohesion was weakening, and the American Federation of Labor had urged the General Strike Committee to end the strike before the labor cause was seriously harmed. Yet the Committee claimed victory in maintaining order and modeling a new form of labor protest. The newspaper coverage in this collection highlights pro- and anti-strike positions that would be repeated through numerous strikes in the decade; it is compiled in single-page items to facilitate classroom distribution and discussion. The resources represent a small sample of primary materials in the Pacific Northwest Labor and Civil Rights Project of the University of Washington; for further study, see the online collection STRIKE: Seattle General Strike Project (18 pp.)

  • Babbitt, the general strike PDF file
  • Babbitt, 1922: the general strike. During the suspicious and divisive period of the Red Scare, those who defended labor unions risked ostracism as unpatriotic "radicals." This is what happens to George Babbitt, the midwestern middle-class businessman in Sinclair Lewis's classic novel Babbitt, when a labor strike turns his city "into two belligerent camps." Struggling to identify his own political stance, Babbitt finds himself caught between his newly adopted liberal views and his business colleagues' unequivocal condemnation of the strikers. In this chapter, Lewis captured the us-vs.-them mentality that led many "to disown any friend who did not hate the enemy." (5 pp.)

  • Silent animated cartoons. While presented as entertainment first and foremost, these shorts present opposing scenarios of the strike as a worker's negotiating tool—one that fails in On Strike and succeeds in Felix Revolts. In both we are led to sympathize with the cartoon stars. What position on the strike is presented in each cartoon? What is implied when a highly charged public issue is addressed in entertainment media, including popular cartoon characters?

See also in this collection: Labor Union and Labor & Capital.

Discussion Questions

The Seattle General Strike of 1919___
  1. What did the Seattle union members define as their primary goal for the strike? How did strike opponents reject this argument?
  2. What did strike opponents identify as their primary fear about the strike? How did the unions reject this argument?
  3. Complete and add entries to the chart below. What patterns do you find? How would you verify the statements' accuracy? (Two response cells are filled in.)
    The strike is unjustifiable and anti-American.      
    Anarchy and lawlessness will result from the strike.    "Thirty-eight thousand shipyard workers have been on strike for two weeks without a single case of violence being reported."
    Workers have let themselves be deceived by "radical extremists."      
    The strike is really a "delirium-born rebellion," the first phase in a planned Bolshevik takeover of the U.S. government.      
    The strikers will lose.      
    The strike is justifiable and true to American democratic ideals.      
    The strike's goal is to achieve higher wages for the "poorest paid workingmen."    The strike is called on the "demands of the highest paid workers in the city for YET ADDITIONAL PAY."
    The strike is a last resort after the shipping board refused to honor its agreements.      
    The strikers will enforce order and nonviolence.      
    The strikers will win.      
  4. How did the Seattle Union Record urge strikers to maintain order and nonviolence?
  5. How did the Record persuade returned war veterans and workers' wives to support the strike?
  6. What "plain talk" did the Seattle Star offer to the "common-sense union men of Seattle"? How did the Star provide a middle voice in the divisive war of words, even while calling the strike an "acid test of citizenship"?
  7. In the pro-strike poem by "Anise," what did the Seattle Union Record insist that strike opponents "can't understand"?
  8. In the anti-strike editorial "The Issue," how did the Post-Intelligencer insist that strikers' justifications were "rubbish"?
  9. List the derogatory terms used by each side against the other, such as "labor baiters" and "rabid high-strung union labor friends." How did namecalling affect the debate? Which pro- and anti-strike proponents avoided namecalling? Why?
  10. Analyze the four political cartoons in the collection. How did the pro-strike Seattle Union Record emphasize solidarity against "the bosses"? How did the Post Intelligencer allude to the "Star-Spangled Banner" and American patriotism?
  11. According to the unions and their opponents, what were the major positive consequences of the strike for the labor movement?
  12. The Seattle Union Record accurately quoted Abraham Lincoln in its political cartoon of February 11, 1919. How would you conduct an Internet search to validate and identify the source of the statement?1
  13. Generate several questions about the strike to research in the Seattle General Strike Project of the University of Washington. From your research, create one-page entries to add to the collection in this section.
Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt: the strike___
  1. What pro- and anti-union positions appear in the strike chapter of Babbitt and the newspaper coverage of the Seattle General Strike?
  2. From studying these fiction and non-fiction works, describe how media differ in communicating information, engaging the reader, asserting opinion, and providing perspective.
  3. Choose a dramatic event or moment from the 1919 Seattle Strike that is reported in the labor or city newspapers. Create a fictionalized version of the event to illustrate how fiction "works."
  4. Study Lewis's use of these literary techniques in the chapter. How are they effective for bringing the chapter alive?
    —self-contradiction in Babbitt's statements about the strikers
    —repetition in the final sentence of each of the five chapter sections
    —slang and cliché in characters' condemnations of unions and the strike
    —characters' names to mark them as thoughtful or foolish, self-determined or easily led
    —physical descriptions of National Guardsmen to underscore their self-importance
  5. How did Lewis lead the reader to share in Babbitt's ambivalence and growing paranoia?
  6. Why did Lewis portray Babbitt as a well-meaning man lacking the courage of his convictions?
  7. For each clause of the sentence below that encapsulates Lewis's theme in chapter 27, describe an event, interchange, or character's response through which Lewis illustrated the clause. (Two cells are filled in; other examples can be added.) In completing the last two clauses, choose pro- and anti-union positions since Lewis emphasizes that "in either case you were belligerent."
    SENTENCE in Babbitt, ch. 27 DIALOGUE or EVENT illustrating the sentence clause
    You were either a courageous friend of Labor, "Freelance preacher" Beecher Ingram exhorts the striking men to hold on and maintain the strike despite deprivations.
    or you were a fearless supporter of the Rights of Property;   
       "friend of Labor" "supporter of the
    Rights of Property"
    and in either case you were belligerent,    Capt. Drum advocates violence
    against the "thugs," the strikers.
    and ready to disown any friend who did not hate the enemy.      
  8. How might Lewis have "fleshed out" the declaratory sentence in #20 in an opinion essay instead of a novel? What nonfiction devices could he have used for impact and perspective?
Animated cartoons: On Strike (1920) and Felix Revolts (1923)___
  1. Although the cartoons are entertainment first and foremost, what opposing positions on strikes are evident in the cartoons?
  2. How does humor influence audience response to the creator's point of view in each cartoon?
  3. What is implied about a highly charged social issue when it is addressed in entertainment media, in this case popular cartoon characters?
  1. Using the resources in this section, create a dialogue, news interview, tweet exchange, etc., between two persons or characters, in which they debate whether the strike is a legitimate tool of labor unions. Select one of the pairs below, or create another pair. Decide how the interchange will end—in agreement, mutual understanding of opposing positions, an impasse, etc.
    Pro-strike Anti-strike
    A striking shipworker in Seattle A member of the non-union general public in Seattle
    A WWI soldier newly returned to Seattle A U.S. Army officer assigned to Seattle during the strike
    A woman volunteer providing food to the Seattle strikers during the strike A woman volunteer providing food to the police
    George Babbitt (in Lewis's Babbitt) Rev. Drew (Presbyterian minister in Babbitt)
    Felix the Cat Mutt & Jeff (after their strike fails)
    Anna Louise Strong, editor, Seattle Union Record Edwin Selvyn, editor, [Seattle] Business Chronicle
    I. Swenson, Seattle Union Record political cartoonist Paul Fung, Post-Intelligencer political cartoonist
  2. Using resources in this section and in Labor & Capital, write a two-scene drama with two to four characters that captures the core elements of the labor-capital divide in the 1920s.

Framing Questions

  • What factors nurtured or weakened the unprecedented prosperity of the 1920s?
  • How did "prosperity" become a hallmark of national pride? How was the word adapted for political and psychological aspirations of the nation?
  • What role did "workingmen" and labor unions play in the economic panorama of the period?
  • Compare the Twenties' boom-and-bust with similar economic cycles before and after the decade.


1919 Seattle General Strike
Babbitt: the general strike
Mutt and Jeff, On Strike
Felix the Cat, Felix Revolts
18 pp.
  5 pp.
    View online.
    View online.
23 pp.

Supplemental Sites

Seattle General Strike Project (Pacific Northwest Labor and Civil Rights Project, University of Washington)
Postwar Labor Tensions, by Steven Mintz (Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History)

Mutt and Jeff, On Strike, research by University of Michigan graduate students
Felix the Cat (personal site of David Gerstein)

Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt, full text online
Primary sources in History Matters (George Mason University and the City University of New York).

1 Abraham Lincoln, Reply to the New York Workingmen's Democratic Republican Association, accepting its offer of honorary membership, March 21, 1864. Roy P. Basler, ed., Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln: 1809-1865 (Springfield, Illinois: Abraham Lincoln Association, 1953-1955), vol. 7, p. 259.

– Page images (details) from the Seattle Union Record, the Seattle Star, and the [Seattle] Post-Intelligencer. University of Washington, Special Collections Library. Reproduced by permission.
– Stills from Mutt & Jeff animated cartoon, On Strike! 1920; courtesy of the National Film Preservation Foundation.
– Stills from Felix the Cat animated cartoon, Felix Revolts, 1923; courtesy of Internet Moving Image Archive.

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