Coalition-making in The Fuse’s Seattle 1919

Yongho Kim
Labor’s Story through Music
February 25, 2004

Coalition-making in The Fuse’s Seattle 1919: Class Solidarity and Divisiveness, and Incorporation of the Other in post-World War I Unionism.

Seattle 1919 addresses issues of class solidarity frequently present in the newly emerging U.S. unionism and attempts to unite workers from different race, gender, and skill groups under a common struggle against the capitalist classes. Babson defines solidarity as that which “defined an injury to any one worker as an injury to all workers” (Babson, 9). In practice, this amounted to workers striking in sympathy for a strike held by workers from another industry brought together by geographical links (such as the different unions in the Seattle 1919 strike) or by relationships in their modes of production (such as the Pullman 1894 strike, in which railroad workers joined train operators’ strike). Indeed, the Seattle 1919 strike appears to have been a major show of class solidarity in the inter wars period; was this the reason that it was picked as the title for The Fuse’s rock opera – because the songs focused in class solidarity and Seattle 1919 was its symbol?

A major point of contention between workers (particularly the skilled) and the factory owner class in early 20th century was scientific management and the scrip system (Zinn, 9). Scientific management, a system of production introduced by Taylor in which workers were to perform minimum tasks on pieces carried on a line (Babson, 27), involved a decrease at the cost of production and the de-skilling of workers, which threatened to end with the relative autonomy enjoyed by skilled craftsmen. (Babson, 29)

Class solidarity was a problematic concept in early U.S. unionism, especially when applied over marginalized minorities among the working class. White workers would often not accept African-American authorities, although they would appeal to class solidarity in times of hardship. (Arnesen, 80)

In “Street Speech”, a rhetoric that seems to have been transplanted from that of freedom for slaves is used to advocate the right for workers to be free from the scrip system. The singer says, “brick by brick / nail by nail / we built the mansions / and we built the jails”, pointing out that the power to bring about both opulence of the upper class and oppression on the worker class lies within the worker class. At the same time, it is suggested that the struggle of the working class is akin to that of the African-American peoples because both are directed against a group that owns the means of production. The song goes on: “We don’t want them / we don’t need them / these parasites who live off someone else!”. Thus “Street Speech” is a coalitional effort to incorporate African-Americans to the organizing effort, while at the same time it is meant to rouse feelings of class solidarity from white union workers towards African-Americans who, driven by poverty, often acted as strikebreakers (Babson, 48), triggering racial lynching from union members.

Unskilled workers were also often excluded in the support from skilled workers’ unions such as the American Federation of Labor (AFL). During World War I, unskilled workers’ unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were prosecuted by the government under the implicit consent of the AFL (Babson, 37). In Seattle’s 1919 strike, even though local AFL affiliates cooperated with each other on a radical path more on IWW’s lane, national AFL representatives dissented. (Brecher, 105) It is to note that the price of such non-cooperation only came back to the worker. In “Caught in the middle”, the singer laments: “I joined IWW for a principle / and the AF of L for a job / now I’m caught in the middle / don’t know which way to go”.

The uneasiness between the AFL and IWW is also closely bound by the tensions around the newly introduced scientific management. Scientific management, introduced by Taylor, was encouraged to union workers to work in small, mechanical tasks that didn’t require a specific skill. This meant that whenever a strike broke among skilled craftsmen, managers could easily replace them with dozens of unskilled workers from the streets. (Babson, 28) This was the chief reason why AFL would not offer membership to industrial workers. (Babson, 32)

Seattle 1919 uses strategies of incorporation by appealing to shared experiences as described above. It also points out a common struggle against the capitalist class as a reason to unite forces. The scarcity of solidarity among different minority groups is sometimes compensated by recognizing a common opposing force.

One form of such approach is by weighing the capitalist’s power against powers traditionally held as authoritative. The singer expresses this in “One Step Further”, in which he sings “I don’t care about the government / I think Rockefeller owns the president”. The capitalist class is portrayed as am powerful force that flies above any controlling mechanism. The weariness of an opposing force that go beyond law is a compelling reason to join a struggle against it.

A definitive split between AFL and IWW, and the eventual demise of the IWW while AFL grew under government protection, took place during World War I. On the one hand the demand for industrial output increased, while available labor was held steady because immigration routes were blocked. The government, worried that a general strike may disrupt the highly profitable war machinery exportations situation, created the National War Labor Board (NWLB) that mediated negotiations between corporations and unions in order to prevent strikes from erupting. AFL was highly cooperative in the process, alienating the draft-resisting IWW in the process. (Babson, 39) Seattle 1919 is critical of this relationship. “The Push” goes like this: “You say it’s for the war but I think it’s for the money”, which may be referring to the NWLB that is pleading for no strikes because it would damage the country but also to the AFL that claims to show its patriotic stance while receiving compensations in the form of organizing support. I think the song lines up with the IWW, which is evident in the anti-war stance of the lines “In the bloody trenches / where is law and order? / Dying for your country”

Seattle 1919 is a call to class solidarity across skill and racial lines, because there is a common struggle against a common opposing force. Unfortunately, the brief one-month general strike in Seattle, which most closely resembled such close knit solidarity among the working class in the city, fell down because of fissures with external AFL pressuring and the government threat of turning the peaceful manifestation into a violent one.