Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Oakland 1946—Until Today the Last General Strike in America

The '46 General Strike was set off when police protected a convoy of scab trucks to but a picket line of striking retail clerks at downtown department stores.

In protest to brutal police attacks last week, Occupy Oakland has declared a General Strike today in that city.  Many of the most important unions in the Bay Area have endorsed the strike call and urged their members to stay away from work and join in large demonstrations, including a march on the Port of Oakland aimed at shutting down one of the principle container ports on the Pacific Coast. 

Exciting, inspiring stuff.  But not a first for the city.  In 1946 Oakland was the site of the last General Strike in U.S. history.  Chances are you never heard of it, because like so many events during the great wave of strikes and job actions after the end of World War II, it has been virtually officially erased from our collective ministry.

Like its modern counter-part, the ’46 action while connected to larger events, was amazingly spontaneous and managed by self-organization outside the familiar structures of politics or even the trade union movement. 
At the close of the War there was an expected recession.  Companies that had been humming on war production orders were going idle and having difficulty transitioning back to civilian employment.  Women, who had entered the work force in large numbers, were being laid off en-mass, supposedly to make room for returning veterans.  But companies across the country and in many different industries decided to use the stress to attack wage gains and benefits won by labor in the last days of the Depression and by arbitration during the war.

In 1946 there were 4,985 strikes involving 4,600,000 workers resulting in 116 million days of labor lost to business and government as workers fought to retain their hard won gains, and sometimes to extend them. The US strike wave, which began in was one of the great episodes in American working class history.

As things went in those days a strike by 400 or so retail clerks, mostly women, against Oakland’s two premier downtown department stores, Hastings’ and Kahn's, was small potatoes.  The strike had started in early October.  The refusal of Teamsters Union members to cross the picket lines meant that the stores, operating with management and skeleton crews of scabs, could not get new goods to stock their shelves.  

With the Christmas shopping season looming, store owners with the support of the Chamber of Commerce turned to the city for help.  On the morning of December 3 people on the city’s crowded down town streets were stunned to see a convoy of trucks guarded by city police speeding to break the picket lines at the stores.

Spontaneously, truck drivers, cabbies, and bus drivers abandoned their vehicles and rush to support the picketers.  Ordinary folks from every walk of life joined them.  Downtown business emptied.  By mid-day the city was paralyzed, but quiet.

In the absence of much formal union leadership, the strikers were soon remarkably organized.  They declared that all stores except groceries and pharmacies should close and then sent flying squads of volunteers to enforce the closures.  Cafes and Bars were allowed to stay open, but instructed to serve only beer to prevent drunken rowdiness.  In addition they were instructed to “put their juke boxes 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,” according to a contemporary account.  The first night of the strike was one of jubilation.  People were literally dancing in the streets.  It was also virtually crime free due to the good feelings of the strikers and the good organization of marshals and monitors.

By the second day of the strike a large numbers of veterans organized, refreshed their memory with a bit of close order drill on the street, and then marched on the notoriously anti-union Oakland Tribune building.  They set up a permanent picket there and demanded that the paper print the demand of the strikers that the Mayor, the entire city council, and the chief of police should resign for becoming “scab herders.”  

That evening the county 146 usually conservative unions of the AFL Central Labor Council including the Teamsters, voted to officially call a Work Holiday. Despite the endorsement, union leaders, in most cases, did little to organize or support the strike.  That task was left up to ad hoc committees and to decisions reached at mass meetings.

The rival CIO, by reputation both more militant and more radical, refused to endorse the action, despite the overwhelming support for it by their rank and file membership.  The most glaring abstention came from the leaders of the International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU) whose leader Harry Bridges was credited/blamed for the 1934 San Francisco General Strike.  But Bridges had just negotiated a 10 year extension of the war time no strike clause in exchanged for wage boosts and pledges to hire only through union halls.  Throughout the strike the ILWU sent out regular press statements repudiating it and instructing its members officially to honor work commitments.  Unofficially, of course, many ILWU members, long noted for their tough militancy, joined the strike without sanction.

One exception to the general hands-off policy of the unions was the Sailors Union of the Pacific (SUP), an AFL affiliate that included many former members of the IWW’s Marine Transport Workers Union.  SUP Secretary Treasurer Harry Lundeberg, a bitter rival of Bridges in a long term clash for leadership of the West Coast maritime labor movement, openly supported the strikes.  He authorized the crews of three ships docked in the harbor to walk out and join the strikers.  Perhaps even more critically, he mobilized the hundreds of seamen waiting for work at union hiring halls to come out.  If Bridges had done the same with the Longshoremen’s hiring halls hundreds, maybe thousands more tough experienced unionists would have been available to enforce the strike’s shut down orders.

SUP members were issued white buttons with the words “Brotherhood of the Sea” on them.  They formed “flying squads” to force closures and set up pickets as need.  Most notable of these flying squads was one made up of very large Hawaiian seamen who had no trouble dissuading potential scabs.

Yet violence was almost unheard of.  The sheer exuberant numbers of strikers filling the streets was enough to deter attempts to run picket lines.  Police, many of whose rank and file were sympathetic, largely stood aside and let the strikers police themselves.

On the second night of the strike an enormous rally was held at the Oakland Auditorium.  Lundeberg was the principle speaker.  Neither he nor other speakers advanced a “revolutionary” agenda for the movement.  They did not even demand a settlement of the department store strike that had sparked the General Strike.  Although couched in fiery language which stirred the crowd to a near frenzy Lundeberg only demanded the resignation of city officials and a pledge to refuse to aid strike breaking activity in the future.

Business leaders, meanwhile, were frantic.  They tried desperately to get state or federal authorities to intervene with police forces and preferably troops.  But despite concern in Washington that the movement might spread and shut down most Pacific shipping, there was little appetite to stir up what was still an entirely peaceful movement and to replay the scenes of bloody confrontations that had marked the ’34 San Francisco General Strike.

With few options available to them, buiness backed a proposal from the Oakland City Manager to end the strike solely on the pledge of the city to end the use of police to protect strike breakers. Leaders of the AFL Central Labor Council were also concerned that a prolonged strike could threaten their authority and eventually invite a bloody repression.  

Around 11 AM the third day of the strike, 54 hours after its spontaneous start, the AFL sent sound trucks through the streets announcing an end to the strike that they had not called and saying that a settlement had been reached based on the City Manager’s proposal.  That still left the retail clerks without a settlement.  The agreement also called for an informal amnesty for any strike related activity and a provision by the AFL that its unions would continue to respect “legitimate” picket lines like the one around the department stores.  Other union workers were instructed to return to their jobs.

Most strikers disbursed leaving a few hundred hard core in the city center.  By afternoon even they were gone.  A mass rally scheduled that night by the CIO to propose some kind of strike unity was cancelled.

Some historians chalk the Oakland strike up as a victory because of the key promise in the settlement and because return to work was not forced by violent suppression.  Others look on it as a tragically lost opportunity.

In the wake of the strike members of the Teamster Local ousted every one of their local union officials who they felt had insufficiently supported the strike.  The one exception, a local leader who had voiced support and showed up on the streets, was fired by national Teamsters President Dave Beck for being “insurrectionist.”

CIO leaders who had stayed out of it asserted leadership for a supposed follow through movement.  They joined with the AFL to be support a union slate to oust incumbent city council members in the elections of 1948.  The labor slate won four out of the five open seats on the nine member council, but they became a minority who were regularly outvoted by business interests.  In any event the labor councilmen advanced no particularly radical agenda.

The Oakland General Strike may have faded from memory, but its lessons should be studied and learned by those taking to the same streets today.

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