The last Oakland general strike

December 12, 2011

Alessandro Tinonga tells the story of the last general strike to take place in the U.S.

THE OCCUPY movement's call for a general strike in Oakland, Calif., on November 2--and now the plans for pickets to shut down ports up and down the West Coast on December 12--were important steps in the struggle.

The November 2 general strike call was made by an Occupy Oakland General Assembly in an overwhelming vote after activists reclaimed Oscar Grant Plaza in front of City Hall less than 24 hours after the savage October 25 police attack that nearly killed Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen.

On the day itself, the streets of Oakland were filled with workers, students and community members. Public schools were points of origin for marches of students, teachers and parents that led to the Oakland Board of Education, several banks and City Hall. A feeder march of 700 people from Laney Community College shut down a Wells Fargo bank. Hundreds of city workers from Service Employees Union (SEIU) Local 1021 participated in the protests.

At its height, some 15,000 people joined a march and mass picket line that closed the Port of Oakland--the fifth-busiest in the U.S.

Oakland workers during the general strike of 1946
Oakland workers during the general strike of 1946

While the general strike call did not shut down the entire city, thousands of workers took the day off to participate, and rank-and-file activists everywhere gained new confidence to act. In that sense, November 2 revived the traditions of the general strike in the U.S.

So it's fitting that Oakland was the home of the last general strike to take place in the U.S.--the "workers' holiday" of 1946.

THE END of the Second World War in August 1945 was followed by a massive strike wave, the biggest by far in U.S. history in terms of days lost to strikes.

During the war, the government put heavy pressure on labor to abstain from strikes and struggle, and union leaders, even those with a radical reputation, went along. A wartime no-strike pledge was supported by the country's two labor federations, then still separate, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and even the Communist Party--all in the name of loyalty to the war effort.

As Paul D'Amato wrote for Socialist Worker:

A readiness to fight had been bred by accumulated bitterness over declining wages and working conditions during the war. While workers had raised their output per man-hour 26 percent during the war years, their average hourly wages had risen only six-tenths of 1 percent. Moreover, even before the war's end, a million men and women were tossed on the scrap heap. Two million more workers were laid off after V-J Day.

In addition to the pent-up frustrations from the war years, workers' expectations were raised that they would be rewarded with increasing living standards. By September 1945, the number of days lost to strikes doubled--then doubled again by October. As historian Cal Winslow wrote:

200,000 coal miners struck in September; 44,000 Northwest lumber workers followed; as did 70,000 Midwest truck drivers, 40,000 machinists in San Francisco and Oakland, East Coast longshoremen, and many more--and this despite the statement from Philip Murray, president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, that "no change will be made in the CIO's no-strike policy..." and the similar pledge by American Federation of Labor President William Green: "V-J Day will not mean an automatic ending of the restraint on strikes."

The struggles that broke out at the end of 1945 continued into 1946, with over 5,000 major strikes that year. By the end of the year, 4.6 million workers had been on strike, and millions of days had been lost to the employers. There were general strikes in five cities--the last one came in Oakland.

The spark for the general strike was a struggle for union recognition at two downtown department stores, Hastings' and Kahn's, where 425 clerks, most of them women, had been on strike for a month.

By the beginning of December, the stores' management and city elite had decided they'd had enough of the workers' campaign. Early in the morning of December 3, as strikers gathered outside the city's two main stores, police attacked. As journalist Dick Meister, who would later become city editor of the Oakland Tribune, described:

[S]ome 200 Oakland and Berkeley police, many in riot gear, swept down the street. They roughly pushed aside pickets and pedestrians alike as they cleared that block and the surrounding eight square blocks. They set up machine guns across from the stores, while tow trucks moved in to snatch away any cars parked in the area.

As the crackdown took place, an armed convoy protected key figures of Oakland's elite as they admired their handiwork. Oakland's police chief, a representative of Hastings', members of the city council and Joseph R. Knowland, owner of the anti-labor Oakland Tribune, all stood by to watch.

Joe Chadet, then the editor of the East Bay Labor Journal, commented that the convoy looked like a parade. He said that those in the lead car were "bowing to the populace. They were going to put the labor movement in its place. The only thing missing was top hats and a brass band."

Behind the frontal police assault were dozens of trucks carrying merchandise that had been blocked from being delivered by the strikers. Teamster truck drivers refused to cross the picket line, so the companies brought in nonunion strikebreakers to transport the merchandise, in time for the holiday rush.

However, hundreds of workers, on their way to their own jobs in the morning, witnessed the attempt to break the strike. They were outraged and fought back. Truck drivers, bus and streetcar operators, and their passengers exited the vehicles to join the growing ranks of the demonstrators. Over the next hours, the city center filled with workers, who began to organize themselves.

STAN WEIR, a member of the United Auto Workers Local 76, working at a Chevrolet plant in East Oakland, described the scene:

By nightfall, the strikers had instructed all stores except pharmacies and food markets to shut down. Bars were allowed to stay open, but they could serve only beer and had to put their jukeboxes out on the sidewalk to play at full volume and no charge. "Pistol Packin' Mama, Lay That Pistol Down," the number one hit, echoed off all the buildings.

That first 24-hour period of the 54-hour strike had a carnival spirit. A mass of couples danced in the streets. The participants were making history, knew it and were having fun. By Tuesday morning, they had cordoned off the central city and were directing traffic. Anyone could leave, but only those with passports (union cards) could get in.

The comment made by a prominent national network newscaster, that "Oakland is a ghost town tonight," was a contribution to ignorance. Never before or since had Oakland been so alive and happy for the majority of the population. It was a town of law and order. In that city of over a quarter million, strangers passed each other on the street and did not have fear, but the opposite.

The strike was run by the rank-and-file and was a lesson in grassroots democracy. Workers took action on their own initiative. To prepare to defend the strike from police attacks, groups of veterans from the Second World War trained strikers. As Weir describes, at the Oakland Army base, crews organized by the Sailors Union of the Pacific walked off three ships loaded with military supplies for troops in Japan.

Strikers also organized to shut down anti-labor newspapers. Many people recalled the San Francisco General Strike of 1934, where the media spread lies and disinformation. Picket lines were organized against the Oakland Tribune and Post Enquirer, the Times Star in Alameda and the Daily Gazette in Berkeley. As labor historian Gifford Hartman explained:

[The strikers] just said that no media except the ones created by the strikers would be allowed on the streets, and that included the solidarity of Teamsters who refused to bring the San Francisco daily papers across the bridge into Oakland. And it was a way to say, "We won't allow the media to demonize and undermine our strike."

By the second day of the strike, Alameda County AFL, representing some 142 unions and 130,000 workers, declared a "work holiday." All businesses in Oakland were effectively shut down.

But the strike came to an official end the next day, again by the declaration of the Alameda AFL.

The fighting spirit and initiative of rank-and-file union members frightened labor leaders, who generally took no part in the strike. According to Weir, "International Teamster President Dave Beck wired orders 'to break the strike' because it was a revolutionary attempt 'to overthrow the government.' He ordered all Teamsters who had left their jobs to return to work."

Harry Bridges, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, with his famous reputation as leader of the San Francisco General strike, refused to get involved. As Weir points out, Bridges had recently committed himself to a nine-year extension of the wartime no-strike pledge.

One consequence of the abstention of CIO leaders like Bridges is that Black workers were not brought into the struggle in large numbers--since African Americans were more likely to be members of CIO unions, rather than the craft-oriented AFL. While CIO unions honored pickets lines at some essential sites during the strike, they did not jump into the fight--though some observers at the time reported that the CIO was preparing for a mass meeting to discuss unity with the work holiday as the strike came to an end.

Though the strike was called off when it could have gathered more steam, the city of Oakland was forced to promise to stop police attacks. City Manager John Hassler agreed that Oakland would "not in the future use the police department to escort or guard professional strike breakers."

The strikers at Hastings' and Kahn's had to struggle for another five months until they won their union rights.

THE OAKLAND general strike was part of a wave of workers' struggles that pointed back to the high point of labor's upsurge in the 1930s, interrupted by the years of unions' adherence to the no-strike pledge.

But Oakland came at the end of the postwar strike wave, and that marked the era of business unionism, when labor leaders successfully kept militants in check and gained a tighter grip on unions, while establishing friendly relations with management. During the long postwar economic boom, unions were able to deliver for members, but the dynamism was drained out of the labor movement--setting the stage for a steady decline that became a more rapid decline in the last two decades of the century.

Obviously, the conditions that brought about the Oakland general strike have changed. But it's still instructive to look at the lessons of the last general strike in Oakland. The police are still, 65 years later, a force for injustice and repression. The media are slanted to favor the viewpoints and interests of the rich. And most importantly, when organized, the working class has the ability to shut down big business and put the rich and powerful on the defensive.

The mass mobilization and port shutdown on November 2 has raised the potential of future general strikes, and now the Occupy movement is planning for protests at ports up and down the West Coast on December 12. With the Occupy movement hoping its demonstrations shut down the ports, we couldn't ask for a better way to observe the 65th anniversary of the Oakland General Strike.

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