The Next Conversation: “Mass Action?”

Event Date: Tuesday, April 16, from 7:00 to 9:00 pm. Admission is free. Tell your friends.

Location: Vermillion, an art gallery, bar, and neighborhood gathering place at 1508 11th Ave, Seattle

The Summary

This time, we’ll be looking at mass action, that time-honored urge to get people into the streets, to get tremendous numbers of people engaged. Read on below for details. 

The Guests

You’re the guests for this one.

The Story

Mass Action. The topic may seem a little abstract, but it has a huge relevance to where we’re going and is also deeply entwined with Seattle’s history. Here’s the pitch:

Mass collective action has a long history as one of the most common tools for political and social change. It is one of the initial, go-to options in the face of war, environmental disaster, or political repression. Something really bad happens on a political level, and the first reaction is to get people into the streets as a show of collective force. Or collective action might entail a withdrawal of services, from the widespread teacher walkouts that spread across the United States in the past year, to any industrial labor action, to more absurdly, the sex strike to end a war in the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata. More often than not, mass action serves to protest something, from the millions of people in the streets of London a few weeks ago protesting Brexit to Seattle’s landmark WTO protests in 1999.

But how effective is mass action, especially in its most common form, getting people into the streets? What use does it have toward building long-term social and political change? In Serbia, concerted mass action played a large role in the overthrow of the dictator Slobodan Milošević in 2000. But the Arab Spring demonstrations in 2010 were followed by a consolidation of repressive power, as were the huge Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

If the WTO protests represent a relatively recent memory of mass action in Seattle, the ultimate Seattle mass action happened in February 1919, the Seattle General Strike. 25,000 Seattle workers from all fields walked off the job in support of 35,000 already striking shipyard workers, in a city of 315,000 people. It was huge.

This past February marked the century anniversary of that strike. The anniversary went pretty much unnoticed, except for a few lectures and panels for people who think about that sort of thing. But 100 years before, the strike shut down the whole city for about a week; it was unavoidable. And it engendered an ad hoc pop-up culture, with big neighborhood canteens feeding many thousands of people, the emergence of the city’s first food cooperatives, and emergency laundries, so that hospitals would have linens and babies would have clean diapers. There was maybe a bit of a Burning Man feel in the streets of Seattle in 1919.

Was the strike successful? That’s definitely arguable. It did not achieve its goals around helping the shipyard workers, and historians have suggested that it sparked an anti-worker backlash that lasted for decades. HistoryLink calls it a “glorious folly.” Some writers have suggested that if it didn’t achieve specific goals, it was still a success, because the strikers went back to work energized, confident that they, together, had done something amazing. In any case, by its very existence, the strike was a pivotal point in Seattle history and became a landmark in North American labor history. (See below for more background on the strike.)

Where does that leave us in the 21st century? Does mass action represent a viable option for engendering political and social change? Are there new ways to do mass action? When I was in college, the large shared house where I lived would have no-electricity Mondays, and the eight of us who lived there would forego electric lights, appliances, stereos, television, and radio for one day each week. A friend of mine wondered the other other day if something similar might be done on a city-wide scale, a massive voluntary one-day blackout. Or a one-day general strike, a shut-down of everything. What might these achieve? And what happens when mass action becomes political theater, art in the streets?

Come and talk about it.

More on the Seattle General Strike

If you want to learn more about the Seattle General Strike, there’s a guide to several resources, with an intro page from the Seattle General Strike Project at the University of Washington: http://depts.washington.edu/labhist/strike/

The history of the strike written by its participants, including one of Seattle’s greatest progressive voices, Anna Louise Strong, is at: https://web.archive.org/web/20000829074114/http://flag.blackened.net/revolt/hist_texts/seattle1919_p2.html

Source material on the strike, including photos, pamphlets, and newspaper clippings, is at: http://americainclass.org/sources/becomingmodern/prosperity/text6/seattlestrike.pdf

HistoryLink’s take on the strike is at: http://www.historylink.org/File/861

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