The Seattle General Strike of 1919: Interviews with Those Who Were There

The Interview Process

These interviews were all conducted in 1977 for a master’s thesis I was writing in the sociology department of the University of California at Santa Barbara (as well as a rock opera I was writing, Seattle 1919). I was interested in how experiencing a militant and radical event such as the Seattle General Strike affected the political consciousness of participants and observers.

Locating people who had experienced the Strike firsthand originally appeared to be a difficult task since I was living in Santa Barbara, a thousand miles from Seattle. I began my search by going through the yellow pages of a Seattle telephone directory and writing a general letter to all the retirement and nursing homes listed there, asking to hear from interested potential interviewees. (To have been a politically conscious member of society at the time of the Strike meant a respondent would have had to be 75 or older by the time I wrote.) I received eleven replies, enough to convince me a trip to Seattle would be worthwhile.

Next, both in California and in Washington, once I arrived, I plugged into what might be called the Old Radicals network, the social network of people who had been political radicals for forty or fifty years and who were still in touch with one another. Surviving as a radical isn’t easy, and the bonds of comradeship that had pulled them through the hard times still remained strong in many cases.

Finally, in Seattle I regularly went to meetings of Seniors’ organizations, particularly union retiree clubs. I also tried to reach employers’ clubs and the upper-class historical societies, but met little cooperation there.

Once this process had been set in motion there was a considerable snowball effect. Many respondents directed me to other sources, who sent me to still other sources.
Generally, the actual interviewing turned out be an easier task than locating the respondents. Most people were happy to talk to me. And contrary to conventional wisdom, though they ranged in age from 75 to 100, the great majority were not confused or senile.

Most of the interviews were done in two segments, a month apart, each approximately an hour long. I began my first round of interviews with a pre-determined set of questions, although these were administered in a flexible format to allow respondents great latitude in deciding what they felt was important. In the second round I incorporated new questions that I had developed as a result of things I had been told in the first round, and tried to fill in gaps. All interviews were taped with the interviewees’ consent.

Of course, everything we hear should be taken with a grain of salt. The Strike was almost sixty years in the past, and some interviewees had only tangential experiences anyway. And as we know from many investigations, many factors can interfere with accurate memories. This, in fact, was one of the things I was interested in looking at in my research: who remembers what, and which factors—interest, proximity to the Strike, later experiences, etc.—are linked to accuracy in memory.

Many of my informants remembered very little about the Strike itself. Nonetheless, their comments about a wide variety of topics still may be of interest to those looking at life in Seattle, both in the first quarter of the 20th century and in later periods (since I also asked people about their subsequent lives). But for those who want to hear most about the General Strike and the labor events of the time, I’d recommend: Beck, Becketson, Eastman, Hastings, Jones, Lorenzo, and Traumling; and in a next group: Branwer, Costi, Cutler, Dahl, Gorman, Harrison, Hobbs, Howard, Johnson, Losley, Michelson, Murphy, Redding, and Spaudling.

I’ve preserved the aliases I gave these interviewees in my master’s thesis. The long exception, then and now, is labor leader Dave Beck who declined the offer of anonymity.
Brief summaries of each interview and links to the audio files in mp3 format are on the interviews page. The interviews are also available in QuickTime format.

Rob Rosenthal
Middletown, Connecticut
September, 2007