Pettus, Terry (1904-1984)

  • By Ross Rieder
  • Posted 9/27/2000
  • Essay 2682
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Terry Pettus was a progressive-minded newspaper reporter who became Washington state’s first member of the American Newspaper Guild. He was a key organizer of the Seattle chapter of the Guild, which in 1936 organized the first strike to force a Hearst paper (the Seattle Post-Intelligencer) to recognize the union. When the United States entered World War II, Pettus tried to enlist, but was rejected because he was at the time editor of the Washington New Dealer and as such considered essential to the war effort. (Later, in the Cold War era, he was imprisoned for being editor of this very paper.) From 1938 to 1958, his social activism -- for unions, against racial discrimination, for better housing and the rights of poor and working people -- found a home in the Communist Party. When he left the Party in 1958, he and his wife Berta went to live in a houseboat on Lake Union and became involved in the effort to clean up the lake. On March 7, 1982, Seattle Mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939) declared a Terry Pettus day.

A Social Conscience

Pettus was born in August 1904, in Terre Haute, Indiana. He was raised in a home where a social conscience and a willingness to act on behalf of our species were considered the measure of personal worth. He described his father as a Christian Socialist.

After brief stints as a reporter in Minneapolis and in Grand Forks, North Dakota, Pettus moved to Seattle with his wife Berta in 1927. They first lodged with artist Kenneth Callahan, and the young reporter went to work on the Seattle Star. In summer of 1935, Pettus, working on the Tacoma Ledger, was the first reporter in Washington state to join the young American Newspaper Guild. He became immersed in newspaper union activity. The Guild chartered a Tacoma chapter in November 1935. Subsequently, Tacoma became the first city to have a citywide contract for newspaper editorial employees.

The weaknesses of American society made apparent by the Great Depression alarmed Pettus. He noted that local charity efforts were a “drop in the bucket” compared to the needs of American’s unemployed. He saw that the unemployed living in Seattle’s Hooverville, a shantytown located just south of Pioneer Square, created the most self-governed, best organized, and most peaceful society he’d ever seen. In a few years, Pettus would become one of the Northwest's most famous radicals of the Left, but in the early 1930s he was seen as a hardworking, capable newsie whose disillusionment with the economic system was no different from that of many others. He was convinced that the country's news workers needed a union.

Seattle's American Newspaper Guild

The American Newspaper Guild leadership urged him to organize a Seattle chapter. In late February 1936, he set up his first meeting with four prospects from three Seattle dailies. With the help of David Selvin, then of the Pacific Coast Labor Bureau, Pettus convened the first Seattle organizing meeting in Selvin's apartment at Terry and Spring streets. (Later Selvin served as long-time editor for the California Federation of Labor, and wrote biographies of Samuel Gompers and John L. Lewis, plus a history of California labor.)

Pettus was inspired by other organizing going on at the time. The Woodworkers in Tacoma were attempting to get union recognition and a 50 cent a week raise. While covering this story, Pettus frequently found himself on the wrong side of the teargas tossers. He later recalled, “I always got tear gassed about 6-7 times a day.”

The 1936 Strike

The American Newspaper Guild granted a charter to the Seattle group, and within a few months the small group of about 35 writers struck the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) for, among other things, union recognition. When picket lines were set up around the P-I building in downtown Seattle, Pettus figured the strikers were “doomed to defeat,” but he and others didn’t realize that “all of labor was just itching to take a crack at William Randolf Hearst” for his vicious political attacks on the Roosevelt government. The initial 22 American Newspaper Guild pickets were joined first by the “longshore army” and then by the teamsters and by unionized teachers from the University of Washington. It was a “living mass of humanity around the P-I.”

The 1936 strike ended successfully in autumn 1936. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer was the first Hearst paper anywhere to recognize the union. When Pettus went to attend the American Newspaper Guild convention, he was greeted as a hero. And upon his return, he learned that the Tacoma Ledger was discontinuing publication.

Soulmates in the CP

He found a job in South Bend as editor of the Willapa Harbor Pilot. While there, he and Berta helped an organizing drive for public power and became active in the Washington Commonwealth Federation, a progressive, left-wing coalition that formed in the mid-1930s. Terry and Berta helped establish a Pacific County chapter of Washington Commonwealth Federation (WFC). The more deeply he became involved in politics the more he found his political soulmates were in the Communist Party. He “felt it was something I should belong to” and he joined in 1938.

The Washington Commonwealth Federation believed it could use the Democratic Party to promote its positions. In 1936, WCF organized for the Democratic state convention and "in one fell swoop," according to Pettus, took over the party platform. For that moment the Washington Democratic Party stood for production for use, not profit; expanded relief; and nationalization of banks, energy, and transportation. Pettus became editor of the WCF New Dealer. The publication had a wide audience. Through it, Pettus believed "we got people active in public affairs … the public business is the business of the public … we made active citizens of passive people."

As the 1930s drew to a close, the search for justice became more difficult. Germany, Italy, and Japan were arming their fascist troops. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States was drawn into the war and "all of a sudden Boeing was hiring blind people," according to Pettus. "If you could hear thunder, see lightning and eat mush" you could get a job. The Great Depression disappeared.

The War Years

Pettus marched down to the Draft Board to bitterly protest his draft deferment status. But the Draft Board deemed his work as editor of the WCF New Dealer essential to the war effort, and declined to draft him.

In 1943, the New Dealer became the New World. As the voice of the Washington Commonwealth Federation, the paper promoted mass transit and equal pay for women and opposed racial discrimination and anti-semitism. Hugh DeLacy, a young machinist in Local 79, Seattle, was elected to Congress, along with scores of other winners in other political subdivisions of four states. At war’s end, as life returned to normal, members of the Federation had high hopes of better times for humankind. In spring, 1945, they abolished the WCF, believing they had accomplished their goals. It was the calm before the storm. Franklin D. Roosevelt was dead. Harry Truman was a much more conservative leader.

McCarthyism and the Cold War

The 1946 election routed most progressives, including DeLacy. The Washington State Legislature established the Canwell Committee (named for a Spokane legislator) to look into unAmerican activities. The committee set out to attack the University of Washington and for a year operated a witchhunt. It submitted a report to the state Legislature, which that body never adopted. The Canwell Committee represented the opening gun for the period of McCarthyist political repression based on fears of communist expansion.

The Washington Commonwealth Federation became its special target. Many former members disavowed their activities in the WCF, but Terry Pettus felt "we had nothing to be ashamed of.” Then, in 1950, the United States went to war in Korea. The trials and tribulations of leading American Communist Party members were just beginning. In Seattle, a town very dependent on military spending, it was not healthy to be any kind of progressive or radical. In this atmosphere, Pettus became an editor of The People's World, published by the Communist Party. The People’s World worked against racial discrimination and supported fair housing and trade union principles.

In 1952, as McCarthyism spread over the land, the great bass-baritone Paul Robeson asked Pettus to arrange a concert for him in Seattle. Conservative labor leaders fiercely opposed the project. After a lawsuit and despite a press blackout, Robeson performed in Seattle on May 20, 1952 – his last visit to Seattle.

In the summer of 1952, FBI agents began arresting selected citizens and charging them with conspiracy to advocate the violent overthrow of government. Pettus was one of those arrested because of his role as an editor. He noted that “ironically, the printed constitution of the Communist Party declared that a person could be expelled from the party for advocating violent overthrow of government." Pettus spent 60 days of the six-month trial period in jail. After five years, he won an appeal of his conviction. In 1958, he left the Communist Party.

Still a Writer, Still an Activist

He moved with Berta to a houseboat on Lake Union and made a meager living writing detective stories. He again became an activist when he helped form the Lake Union Houseboat Owners Association. Working with the City Council, he also helped organize the clean up of Lake Union. There were no sewer lines for the houseboats, which were blamed for the lake's pollution. But it then came out that the City of Seattle had 13 sewer outflows directly into Lake Union. His activities in the Floating Homes community included struggles for rent control and against the incursion of condominiums and freeways. He led his group to understand that it is "hard to concern ourselves with only our issue" and that "it is the entire lake and ultimately with all shorelands that needed to be saved."

On March 7, 1982, Seattle Mayor Charles Royer declared Terry Pettus Day. A city whose leaders 40 years before would just as soon see Pettus thrown into Lake Washington, realized what an honor it was to have him as a citizen of their city. Mr. Floating Homes had received a just reward for a life at times carried and at times battered by the vagaries of public opinion. He summed up his hopes by saying that all he ever wanted was to help create a sharing society, to eliminate all privilege, and for people to have control over their own lives. He had worked for “the dreams of the old Debs socialists" and a society that would “give Democracy a chance.”

Terry Pettus died in 1984, a month after turning 80.


William E. Ames and Roger A. Simpson, Unionism or Hearst: the Seattle Post-Intelligencer Strike of 1936 (Seattle: Pacific Northwest Labor History Association, 1978); Richard C. Berner, Seattle, 1992 (Seattle: Charles Press, 1992); John DeGraf, Subversive: A video documentary, KCTS-TV, 1983. See also: Terry Pettus Papers, 1927-1984, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, Washington ( papersrecords/PettusTerry0139_0463.xml).

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