No issue ignited the partisan divide in postwar America more than the nationwide labor strikes of 1919-1921. The “labor vs. capital” battle pitted industrial workers who demanded higher wages in the postwar inflation economy against the industrialists who rejected unions as the product of foreign-inspired anarchist and Bolshevik (Communist) agitators. The general public, angered by the strike-induced product shortages and frightened by the postwar unrest that fueled the Red Scare, overwhelmingly sided with “capital.” Studying the broad reaction to labor strikes in the early 1920s requires a broad selection of genres—here we consider newspaper coverage of a specific strike, a novelist”s portrayal of a strike”s polarizing effects, and two cartoon animators” humorous takes on “the strike.”
Silent animated cartoons. While presented as entertainment first and foremost, these shorts present opposing scenarios of the strike as a worker”s negotiating tool—one that fails in On Strike and succeeds in Felix Revolts. In both we are led to sympathize with the cartoon stars. What position on the strike is presented in each cartoon? What is implied when a highly charged public issue is addressed in entertainment media, including popular cartoon characters?
See also in this collection: Labor Union and Labor & Capital.
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What did the Seattle union members define as their primary goal for the strike? How did strike opponents reject this argument?What did strike opponents identify as their primary fear about the strike? How did the unions reject this argument?Complete and add entries to the chart below. What patterns do you find? How would you verify the statements” accuracy? (Two response cells are filled in.)
|ANTI-STRIKE STATEMENT||EVIDENCE/ARGUMENT PRESENTED||PRO-STRIKE RESPONSE|
|The strike is unjustifiable and anti-American.|
|Anarchy and lawlessness will result from the strike.||“Thirty-eight thousand shipyard workers have been on strike for two weeks without a single case of violence being reported.”|
|Workers have let themselves be deceived by “radical extremists.”|
|The strike is really a “delirium-born rebellion,” the first phase in a planned Bolshevik takeover of the U.S. government.|
|The strikers will lose.|
|PRO-STRIKE STATEMENT||ANTI-STRIKE RESPONSE|
|The strike is justifiable and true to American democratic ideals.|
|The strike”s goal is to achieve higher wages for the “poorest paid workingmen.”||The strike is called on the “demands of the highest paid workers in the city for YET ADDITIONAL PAY.”|
|The strike is a last resort after the shipping board refused to honor its agreements.|
|The strikers will enforce order and nonviolence.|
|The strikers will win.|
How did the Seattle Union Record urge strikers to maintain order and nonviolence?How did the Record persuade returned war veterans and workers” wives to support the strike?What “plain talk” did the Seattle Star offer to the “common-sense union men of Seattle”? How did the Star provide a middle voice in the divisive war of words, even while calling the strike an “acid test of citizenship”?In the pro-strike poem by “Anise,” what did the Seattle Union Record insist that strike opponents “can”t understand”?In the anti-strike editorial “The Issue,” how did the Post-Intelligencer insist that strikers” justifications were “rubbish”?List the derogatory terms used by each side against the other, such as “labor baiters” and “rabid high-strung union labor friends.” How did namecalling affect the debate? Which pro- and anti-strike proponents avoided namecalling? Why?Analyze the four political cartoons in the collection. How did the pro-strike Seattle Union Record emphasize solidarity against “the bosses”? How did the Post Intelligencer allude to the “Star-Spangled Banner” and American patriotism?According to the unions and their opponents, what were the major positive consequences of the strike for the labor movement?The Seattle Union Record accurately quoted Abraham Lincoln in its political cartoon of February 11, 1919. How would you conduct an Internet search to validate and identify the source of the statement?1
What pro- and anti-union positions appear in the strike chapter of Babbitt and the newspaper coverage of the Seattle General Strike?From studying these fiction and non-fiction works, describe how media differ in communicating information, engaging the reader, asserting opinion, and providing perspective.Choose a dramatic event or moment from the 1919 Seattle Strike that is reported in the labor or city newspapers. Create a fictionalized version of the event to illustrate how fiction “works.”Study Lewis”s use of these literary techniques in the chapter. How are they effective for bringing the chapter alive?
—self-contradiction in Babbitt”s statements about the strikers—repetition in the final sentence of each of the five chapter sections—slang and cliché in characters” condemnations of unions and the strike—characters” names to mark them as thoughtful or foolish, self-determined or easily led—physical descriptions of National Guardsmen to underscore their self-importance
How did Lewis lead the reader to share in Babbitt”s ambivalence and growing paranoia?Why did Lewis portray Babbitt as a well-meaning man lacking the courage of his convictions?For each clause of the sentence below that encapsulates Lewis”s theme in chapter 27, describe an event, interchange, or character”s response through which Lewis illustrated the clause. (Two cells are filled in; other examples can be added.) In completing the last two clauses, choose pro- and anti-union positions since Lewis emphasizes that “in either case you were belligerent.”
|SENTENCE in Babbitt, ch. 27||DIALOGUE or EVENT illustrating the sentence clause|
|You were either a courageous friend of Labor,||“Freelance preacher” Beecher Ingram exhorts the striking men to hold on and maintain the strike despite deprivations.|
|or you were a fearless supporter of the Rights of Property;|
|“friend of Labor”||“supporter of theRights of Property”|
|and in either case you were belligerent,||Capt. Drum advocates violenceagainst the “thugs,” the strikers.|
|and ready to disown any friend who did not hate the enemy.|
How might Lewis have “fleshed out” the declaratory sentence in #20 in an opinion essay instead of a novel? What nonfiction devices could he have used for impact and perspective?
Although the cartoons are entertainment first and foremost, what opposing positions on strikes are evident in the cartoons?How does humor influence audience response to the creator”s point of view in each cartoon?What is implied about a highly charged social issue when it is addressed in entertainment media, in this case popular cartoon characters?
Using the resources in this section, create a dialogue, news interview, tweet exchange, etc., between two persons or characters, in which they debate whether the strike is a legitimate tool of labor unions. Select one of the pairs below, or create another pair. Decide how the interchange will end—in agreement, mutual understanding of opposing positions, an impasse, etc.
|A striking shipworker in Seattle||A member of the non-union general public in Seattle|
|A WWI soldier newly returned to Seattle||A U.S. Army officer assigned to Seattle during the strike|
|A woman volunteer providing food to the Seattle strikers during the strike||A woman volunteer providing food to the police|
|George Babbitt (in Lewis”s Babbitt)||Rev. Drew (Presbyterian minister in Babbitt)|
|Felix the Cat||Mutt & Jeff (after their strike fails)|
|Anna Louise Strong, editor, Seattle Union Record||Edwin Selvyn, editor,
|I. Swenson, Seattle Union Record political cartoonist||Paul Fung, Post-Intelligencer political cartoonist|
What factors nurtured or weakened the unprecedented prosperity of the 1920s?How did “prosperity” become a hallmark of national pride? How was the word adapted for political and psychological aspirations of the nation?What role did “workingmen” and labor unions play in the economic panorama of the period?Compare the Twenties” boom-and-bust with similar economic cycles before and after the decade.
1919 Seattle General StrikeBabbitt: the general strikeMutt and Jeff, On StrikeFelix the Cat, Felix RevoltsTOTAL18 pp.5 pp.View online.View online.23 pp.
Seattle General Strike Project (Pacific Northwest Labor and Civil Rights Project, University of Washington)Postwar Labor Tensions, by Steven Mintz (Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History)Mutt and Jeff, On Strike, research by University of Michigan graduate studentsFelix the Cat (personal site of David Gerstein)Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt, full text onlinePrimary sources in History Matters (George Mason University and the City University of New York).- Testimony before the U.S. Senate on the 1919 Steel Strike
1 Abraham Lincoln, Reply to the New York Workingmen”s Democratic Republican Association, accepting its offer of honorary membership, March 21, 1864. Roy P. Basler, ed., Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln: 1809-1865 (Springfield, Illinois: Abraham Lincoln Association, 1953-1955), vol. 7, p. 259.Images:– Page images (details) from the Seattle Union Record, the Seattle Star, and the
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