Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.
The Post-War Economy
When millions of Americans returned from France at the end of World War I, they found a very different economy than the one they had left. For starters, they found that their wives, sisters, and mothers were engaged in work. Soon, these women would be campaigning for the right to vote. However, more pressingly for those who were now eager to get on with their lives, they found that inflation had caused many prices to increase dramatically, yet wages were still the same. All the while, the rich kept getting richer, showing off their wealth in the conspicuous consumerism of what would become known as the Roaring Twenties.
But those who had vast wealth were terrified. The events of 1917 and 1918 in Russia, where a new political philosophy known as Communism had swept the country, meant that the masses could no longer be ignored. In the eyes of the rich, Communism meant that their wealth would be redistributed to the poor and in Russia, few wealthy people had escaped with their lives. For their way of life to continue, the rich felt that the masses of labor would have to be defeated. Soon, they would get their chances to do so. In 1919, three major strikes affected the American workplace, with almost 20% of Americans walking off their jobs at some point or another during the year.
Seattle General Strike
During this period, Seattle was a labor stronghold. The city had many unions, and all were particularly powerful. In fact, the unions had established the Seattle Central Labor Council to bring even more power to their declarations. That said, the unions ignored everyone but white men, which means that they had already weakened their hold.
In 1919, the Seattle Central Labor Council ordered a strike across the city. This was known as the Seattle General Strike. Sixty-five thousand people walked off the job. However, business owners responded with allegations that this strike was a result of Communist agitators. Seattle was the first site of the Red Scare, which was the use of a fear of Communism to defeat labor's agenda. The Red Scare worked and the strike was defeated. However, that did not mean that it would be the last one.
Boston Police Strike
While the Seattle General Strike may have shut down the city for a time, the Boston Police Strike of 1919 proved to be much more sensational. Police officers were having increasing demands placed upon them and wanted to form a union to argue for fewer hours and higher pay. These efforts were defeated, so the police decided to strike. Newspaper reports from the time talk of massive amounts of vandalism and petty crime, and the situation was bad enough that Governor Calvin Coolidge, a future President, ordered the National Guard into Boston.
Politicians and newspapers denounced the police as Communist agitators, while the police themselves asked what was so wrong with them asking for a fair wage. While the strike was defeated and the officers replaced, the new hires of the police department did receive the right to organize, as well as higher wages. However, as a part of the agreement, strikes were banned.
Inflation was not the only enemy of workers during the years following World War I. Sometimes, technology meant that many were simply replaced by more efficient processes. That's what happened in the Steel Strike of 1919-1920, which was perhaps the worst strike of the period. The strike started in Pittsburgh, but soon spread to other steel-producing centers.
Here, hundreds of skilled iron and steel workers suddenly found themselves at risk of being replaced by much cheaper, unskilled labor. Needless to say, this caused significant outrage. Divisions between those who felt that unskilled labor should be allowed to work and therefore unionize, and those who felt that the jobs and wages of the skilled workers should be preserved caused significant division between the forces of labor during the strike.
Meanwhile, many of the individual members simply decided that union arguments were not worth giving up a paycheck. At the same time, state law enforcement and company-hired guards worked to undermine support, often throwing striking workers in jail. Ultimately, the Army was called in to keep the peace, as clashes between state officials and strikes reached a fever pitch.
As if that weren't enough, the same Red Scare tactics that had been used in earlier strikes found a place in defeating these strikes. Also increasing tensions was the fact that racial minorities were hired to do the work that the unions had walked out on. At the end, the weakened union of the skilled workers had lost practically all of its power.
Faced with increases in technology and inflation, the jobs and well-being of many returning workers was cause for serious concern in 1919, ultimately leading to a number of strikes. Meanwhile, the events in Russia in the previous two years had demonstrated the danger of labor run amok. The Seattle General Strike, Boston Police Strike, and Steel Strike may have taken place at various different parts of the country, but all were linked by the themes of rapid and severe treatment of the striking workers, victory for management, and the use of scare tactics like the Red Scare to keep public opinion against labor.
The goal of this lesson is to enhance your ability to do these things:
- Describe the American economy after World War I
- Explain the effects of the Red Scare
- Name and discuss the three major labor strikes that took place in response to the post-World War I economic conditions
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