100 Years Ago Today: Strikers Replaced by Soldiers

Herald Democrat, February 11, 1919

Today, thousands of Denver Public Schools teachers went on strike to demand higher wages and a more predictable pay schedule. It is the first teacher strike in the district in 25 years. However, if you rewind 100 years, strikes were all the rage in the labor movement.

In Seattle, the first general strike or (sympathetic strike) in America took place over six days in February, 1919. Over one hundred unions represented by 25,000 workers across the city joined the ongoing shipyard workers’ strike of 35,000 workers. This essentially shut down Seattle as most shops closed and the union-run streetcars stopped running.

Seattle shipyards: the strike begins
Shipyard workers on strike in Seattle, 1919

The strike ended in a kind of loss for unions, for workers returned to their jobs without significant changes in pay. But the strike was entirely peaceful, unlike almost every major strike in the past, and ushered in a new wave of union-led protests across the country. The Denver streetcar strike of 1920 was not so peaceful, however, as seven people were killed and 50 seriously injured.

I.W.W. pamphlet supporting shipyard workers’ strike of 1919

Meanwhile at schools in Denver, stationary engineers — who maintained Denver Public Schools’ boilers and furnaces as well as performed janitorial duties — no doubt inspired by events in Seattle, went on strike for higher pay, which shut down 25 of the 65 existing schools in the district.

At that time, janitors were not often hired by the school system. If stationary engineers couldn’t keep the school clean while also maintaining the boilers and furnaces, then they either enlisted their wives and kids to help clean, or they hired extra staff out of their own pay. Stationary engineers were regularly working 12-16 hours per day to keep up. Yes, they did receive an apartment, but not mentioned in the article: it was in the grimy basement of the school. Wages had been frozen for years due to WWI, while inflation drove down the value of the dollar. No wonder they wanted $40 more per month.

North High School in Denver circa 1919

Engineers at Denver Public Schools were supposed to be replaced
quickly by unemployed soldiers with boiler repair skills they learned during the war, but after three days only West High School was re-opened, and deputy sheriffs were guarding the boiler rooms. However, anti-union, anti-strike sentiment was strong with DPS management and they did quickly evict the former employees from their basement homes.

Block image
Herald Democrat, February 14, 1919

Today there are 162 schools in the DPS district, and early childhood schools were the only schools that have closed due to the teachers’ strike, with substitutes covering the classes. In today’s teachers’ strike, there is no talk of the teachers being permanently replaced by substitutes over the strike.

Some attitudes toward unions and strikers have changed since 1919, but many have not. 100 years ago, most Colorado newspapers equated strikers with Bolsheviks, Socialists, Anarchists, anti-Americans, Radicals, and any number of synonyms for “lazy people.” Newspapers were overwhelmingly against the union/labor side, and regularly supported management in most strikes.

So far in today’s teachers’ strike, there is less anti-striker sentiment, and teachers certainly aren’t being called anti-American, but if the strike continues and schools are shut down in a few days, sentiments could change quickly.

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