A Brief Workers’ History of Washington State

Washington state, from its beginnings, has been a hotbed of labor activity. In the early 1900s, the timber industry brought wealth to the Northwest, and timber workers began to band together to form unions and go after benefits the better economy could provide. Many joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical labor organization whose aim was to “put the supervision of industry in the hands of those that do the work.” People called members of the IWW “Wobblies,” and the Wobblies were strong advocates of a tactic called the “strike,” where workers walked off the job when their requests were denied.

The influence of the Wobblies reached its peak in 1919. World War I had ended, and Seattle shipyard workers were expecting a pay raise to make up for years of strict governmental wage controls. They did not get their raise. So in February 1919, shipyard workers made international headlines when they led the Seattle General Strike. To show solidarity with the shipyard workers, most of the city’s 110 local unions took part. In all, more than 65,000 people participated—almost a quarter of the workforce. The strike lasted three days and garnered worldwide headlines. The issues centered on workplace rights and the importance of maintaining the unions. Though it was unsuccessful in getting the raise, the Seattle General Strike is  recognized as one of the most radical labor actions in American history.

Other unions flourished in the decades following as the importance of trade increased in the region. The workers who first drove teams of horses, then trucks, to deliver goods organized as the Teamsters. The longshoremen and dock workers organized as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the ILWU. World War II further expanded Washington’s economy with shipbuilding and airplane construction.

But with all the union building, there was also segregation. Throughout Washington’s history, people of color have faced many barriers in the workplace. Labor unions excluded them, and employers gave them the most disagreeable jobs. Many workers of color formed their own unions: Filipinos in Alaskan canneries, Black tradespeople on construction sites of Seattle, and Latinos in western Washington vineyards. Those civil rights victories set national precedents and served as models for unions in other parts of the United States.

Women also experienced discrimination at work, and they fought back. In 1936, Elsie Parrish, an underpaid female employee in Wenatchee, won a Supreme Court case that established minimum wage laws for women. Later, efforts in the Northwest were at the forefront of the movement for pay equity in the 1970s and 1980s.

With changes to the Northwest’s economy, working people and union members have continued to take the lead in promoting equality and well-being. In 1999, the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, led the labor movement protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in opposing trade policies that benefited multinational corporations at the expense of workers and the environment. That event amplified the global call for fair trade policies and made international headlines, just like the 1919 General Strike. Shortly after the WTO protest, Boeing engineers participated in the largest white-collar strike in United States history.

Labor unions continue to be an important part of Washington life. There are unions in the building trades and the service industry, in education and in the public sector. Washington, at 15% union density, has one of the largest union workforces in the country. No wonder—union roots run deep here.

 

Andrew Hedden, Program Coordinator

Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies, University of Washington

 

Deborah Fant, Deputy Director

Northwest Folklife