Seattle's not-so-radical history will reassert itself

Guest Opinion: What our past may tell us about the current push for new policies.
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Guest Opinion: What our past may tell us about the current push for new policies.

"There are the 47 states and the Soviet of Washington." Roosevelt Administration Postmaster General James Farley may or may not have uttered this famous quote, but it is plausible, considering Seattle's radical reputation in the 1930s (when there were just 48 states). And with the latest string of ideas that put Seattle and Washington state at the head of the progressive agenda — legalized weed, $15 minimum wage — that radical reputation is reasserting itself.

But what Farley observed from outside missed the point. Seattle is not as far to the left as it gives itself credit for: Pragmatism lies just underneath the veneer of radicalism. Truly radical approaches require a level of risk and discomfort that does not wear well here.

The labor movement, which has been the source of most radical action in America, was originally based most heavily in manufacturing and transportation operations, where terrible working conditions demanded action. At the same time, industrialists put up strong, and often violent resistance, setting up bloody conflicts that further radicalized workers.

But Seattle was not really an industrial city until the shipbuilding industry took off during World War I. While manufacturing was booming in the central and eastern parts of the country in the second half of the 19th century and the labor movement was slowly gaining traction, Seattle was mostly a commercial city. By the time the docks and shipyards generated a large union presence, industries had figured out how to make a tentative peace.

Seattle's most famous labor action, the general strike of 1919, turned out to be a pretty tepid event, lasting just a few days, during which the streets were quiet and most workers were anxious to get back to the jobs that supported their fine Seattle lifestyles. Few wanted a revolution, and what started out as a highly radical event, petered out for lack of an agenda.

Labor strengthened in the city, but under the leadership of Dave Beck, at the Teamsters, it took a very practical approach. Author Murray Morgan, writing during the peak of the Beck era in the 1950s, described him as "the dominant personality in present-day Seattle ... a plump and efficient businessman." Beck avoided conflict and mostly just sought to maximize labor's slice of the pie. And, importantly, he was very interested in growing that pie.

By the 1950s, as in much of the country, labor and business settled into a relatively comfortable relationship that, like Beck's worldview, centered on sharing the fruits of a growing economy. There was not much room for radicalism, and the city was run by a center-right government led by such moderates mayors as Gordon Clinton and Dorm Bramen.

In the 1960s, again like much of the country, the old center-right, business leadership got forced aside by the sweep of events. A new leadership cohort, best described as the "progressive-cosmopolitans," came to power and, until recently, have kept a firm grip on the city. In 1969 Seattle swapped a center-right perspective for a center-left one. The city's radicals of the 1960s gradually became part of the establishment. When Latino activist Roberto Maestas was crowned King Neptune of Seafair, it was clear that radicalism had faded.

So what to make of the events of the past four or five years? A mayor from far outside the center-left establishment spends four years disrupting the normal flow of business, and an unapologetic socialist springs out of the Occupy movement to oust a council member who, as much as anyone, embodied the prevailing political ethos of the past 40 years. Is Farley's assertion back in play?

Unlikely, for the simple reason that those holding the torch for a radical agenda have very few resources with which to carry it out. Unlike state and national governments, city governments rely heavily on the resources of businesses and institutions to get things done. Cities are, above all, economic entities, and they do not work very well without the cooperation of business, education and community institutions. Successful local leaders, however radical they may start out, learn this and sooner or later embrace the old establishment.

The city's founders deliberately set out to create a bourgeois city, and it has remained one ever since. Radicalism takes root among those who have little to lose, and in Seattle there has always been something to lose. The shipyard workers who fomented the general strike had been paid well and had comfortable lives that they wanted to maintain. More recently, younger Boeing workers accepted unappealing contract provisions because they knew what a career in a Boeing factory could do for them.

Seattle is doing well economically and can afford to push the policy envelope a bit. But after an experiment or two, leaders will revert to type and get the city back to the business of the past 163 years: making money and enjoying the scenery.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Michael Luis

Michael Luis

Michael Luis is a public affairs consultant with a focus on housing, growth and economic development issues and served as mayor and councilmember in Medina. He is author of Century 21 City: Seattle’s Fifty Year Journey from World’s Fair to World Stage. He can be reached at