Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Oakland—A Tale of Two General Strikes

The wide spread use of social media was a new wrinkle for the organizers of the Occupy Oakland General Strike in 2011.  This was just one of several memes used to viraly spread the strike call.

Back in 2011in protest to brutal police attacks on street demonstrators, Occupy Oakland declared a General Strike on this date five years ago.  Many of the most important unions in the Bay Area obliquely 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.  
The unions had to dance around the support because they have been prohibited by law—the Taft-Hartley Act—from engaging in sympathy strikes of all kinds, including General Strikes.  So although most major unions in Oakland and even a state labor body endorsed the “aims of the Occupy Oakland movement and protest” they could not officially call their members out on strike.  They did encourage members who “are able” to participate in the demonstrations.  Plausible deniability was the rule of the day.  The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) made a point of issuing a statement that its members should report to their scheduled shifts—but that they might choose not to cross picket lines.

The president of a Service Employees (SEIU) local festooned in his purple union shirt and standing by an official union table was caught on camera by NBC news urging his members to stay home.  The City of Oakland, desperately trying to make amends for the fiasco police raid on Occupy Oakland that nearly killed an Iraq War vet, gave permission for its employees, many of who are represented by the SEIU, to take off work for the protests.  The local president was at pains to say that the union was not describing the event as a General Strike.

A significant percentage of Teachers Union Members stayed away from the classroom but called in sick or used personal days.  The same was true of a large contingent of Nurses.

How many people, unionized or not, actually walked off the job or who were affected by numerous “voluntary” closures of down town businesses was impossible to gauge.  What we do know is that thousands took the streets for a day and night of marches, picketing, and protests that effectively ground business as usual to a halt.

Veteran activist Angela Davis was a principle speaker at the large morning rally kicking off the action.

Things got underway in the morning with a large rally where the principle speaker according to the press was veteran activist Angela Davis.  By all account she gave a rip-roaring speech that got the crowd fired up.  Of course as a well-documented and public former member of the Communist Party of United States (CPUSA) her prominent role was predictably the big news in right wing attacks on the movement.
After the rally the crowd divided into several smaller marches crisscrossing the city to different targets.
Teachers and parents marched on the School Board issuing them a symbolic eviction notice for failing to protect the interests and education of children against budget cuts.  A Children’s March kept in the vicinity of the Occupy Oakland base at Oscar Grant Plaza carrying chanting “Play nice and share.”
Large groups of marchers headed to the downtown locations of major banks, moving from one to another.  The banks locked their doors and announced that they were closingfor the safety of our customers and staff.  At one location “black clad, maskedindividuals pushed forward and shattered a window.  The vandals may have been the determined anarchist street fighters who seek to make escalate demonstrations to violent confrontations, agent provocateurs, or in all likelihood both. Other protestors intervened to stop the damage as the crowd chantedno violence, no violence.”  There were reported fist fights between the “militants” and other protestors trying to restrain them.  In the end, except for a few isolated incidents during the daytime hours, the marches and pickets were remarkably peaceful.
Oakland police virtually abandoned the streets—just as they did in 1946—see the account of that to follow.  Demonstrators policed themselves with some considerable discipline.  They also directed traffic away from and around areas where they were in the streets and occasionally cleared the way for emergency vehicles.
Despite the fact that a march to close down the Port of Oakland was not scheduled until early evening, ILWU members were refusing to off load ships or handle cargo.  By mid-morning observers said the port was effectively closed.

Thousands joined the march to the port filling this viaduct.

Around 5 PM the major march to the Port took off with thousands of participants.  Crowd estimates varied widely, but images from helicopter news cameras clearly show thousands completely filling a long bridge to the port.  Demonstrators arrived in time to put up mass pickets to “dissuadesecond shift workers from entering the port.  ILWU members asked folks from Occupy Oakland to extend their picket for a full 24 hours and a request went out for more volunteers to return to the port at shift change in the morning.
It was a reportedly jubilant crowd.  After most left the Port many went home, including a lot of exhausted Occupy Oakland regulars who returned to their tents in Oscar Gant Plaza for rest.  Several smaller groups continued to march in the city center.
Around 9 o’clock a group stormed and occupied a vacant building hanging a banner from a lit second story window.  The building was the former location of the Travelers’ Aid which ran programs for the homeless until budget cuts ended their funding and they lost the building to foreclosure.  Ranks of heavily armed and armored police made their first appearance of the day and ordered the building vacated.  Most demonstrators removed themselves from the immediate area while a couple of hundred “militants” rallied “to the defense of the building.”  Violence erupted.  Police once again used teargas, pepper spray, flash bombs and those “non-lethal” projectile weapons that caused such injury the previous Monday.  TV news crews made much of scenes of a make-shift barricade in the street and footage of dumpsters raging with fire.  Windows in surrounding buildings were broken.  A sign by one such window proclaimed that the violence was not condoned by the Occupy Oakland Steering Committee.
There was at least one other clash between police and protestors at another intersection before things quieted down.  Many reports of these clashes from reliable participants indicate a wide spread belief that they were caused by police infiltrators.  Indeed police infiltrators had been photographed and identified earlier.
But the violence was not over for the night.  After midnight phalanxes of police surrounded Oscar Gant Plaza where most residents were asleep in their tents.  Loudspeakers announced that the Plaza would be cleared.  Warnings of the use of “chemical weapons” were issued.  Gas was thrown and flash bombs, but most residents refused to leave.  Several times they were given “five minutes” to disburse and police advanced menacingly to the edge of the encampment.  But they never entered the Plaza.  At the end of the confrontation, protestors held their ground.
There were several reported arrests in these night time confrontations and several injuries.  Early in the evening a man and a woman were injured when an elderly man drove his Mercedes into a crowd blocking a street.  Both were taken away in ambulances.  Rumors swept the streets, later shown to be unfounded, than one of them had died.  Demonstrators surrounded the car before police arrived and rescued the driver who was allowed to leave with no charges being filed on the scene.
The actions, whether or not they represented a true General Strike in the most technical use of the term, were as a great success for the Occupy Movement—likely its national peak.  The objectives of the day were achieved—shutting down business as usual in the city and in the Port of Oakland in particular.  A general commitment to militant non-violence was maintained through most of the day. 
Many thought that Occupy Oakland General Strike might become a template for actions in other cities.  But subsequently police moved against Occupy camps and protests across the country, with the secret aid and cooperation of the Justice Department and/or Homeland Security.   Within a few months the vigorous spontaneous explosion of the national Occupy movement was put down as an active protest, although the spirit lingered on. 
The national press played scant attention to the push by authorities except to defend it.  Everything was done to quickly erase the whole uprising from public memory.

The massive Oakland General Strike of 1946 when city police tried to break break the picket lines of a largely female Retail Clerk strike at downtown depatment stores by escorting convoys of scab trucks loaded with merchandise to stock the shelves for the Christmas shopping season.

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 memory.
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 production.  Women, who had entered the work force in large numbers, were being laid off en masse, 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 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.

Thousands spontaneously took to the streets to block the scab convoys from breaking the Retail Clerks' picket line.  By evening a virtual General Strike euphemistically called a Work Holiday was organized and spread over the city.
Spontaneously, truck drivers, cabbies, and bus drivers abandoned their vehicles and rushed 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 becomingscab herders.” 

That evening the county’s 146 usually conservative unions in 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 maritime unions was the Sailors Union of the Pacific (SUP), an AFL affiliate that included many former members and dual member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) 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 needed.  Most notable of these flying squads was one made up of very large Hawaiian seamen who had no trouble dissuading potential scabs.

Despite the opposition of ILWU leader Harry Bridges, many rank and file longshoremen joined the strike which was also marked by unusual, for the era, racial egalitarianism.
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 members 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.
Harry Lundeberg, President of the Seamen's Union of the Pacific and a rival of Harry Bridges for leadership of the West Coast maritime labor movement, lent his support to the General Strike and organized crews from the harbor and men from the hiring halls into flying squads to enforce shut down.  Seen here on parade with union members.

With few options available to them, business 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 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 not only faded from public memory, but everything was actively done to erase it from history.  Few of the Occupy strikers 65 years later were even aware that it ever happened.


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