1946: the oakland general strike
by: a. jefferson melyst
it was sparked by the wave of militancy that swept the nation 51 years ago, when the 10-year-old cio had more than a million striking workers walking picket lines. u.s. labor was on the move - on the offensive, if you will - as seldom before in its history.
in the spring of 1946, strikes by cio unions halted operations by some of the nation's most powerful industrial giants - u.s. steel, general electric, westinghouse and general motors.
it was the first postwar year after workers had sacrificed life and limb on battlefields all over the world and sacrificed wages and working conditions on the home front, while capitalists wallowed in unprecedented wartime profits. it was, in today's parlance, payback time.
working people, small merchants and many politicians supported this first-ever test of the combined power of the cio's three largest unions, thousands of whose members were freshly-minted war veterans, engaged in common struggle against these symbolic - and not so symbolic - representatives of the capitalist system in america.
militancy swept through the ranks of the labor movement in many cities, including retail clerks in oakland, california, who "hit the bricks" in what quickly became a citywide general strike, buttressed by the solidarity of workers in nearby east say communities.
while it lasted but three days and left the demands of the retail clerks unresolved, the strike energized oakland unions and laid the basis for joint participation in the city's election battles.
the strike is remembered to this day as an inspirational demonstration of the united power of workers. the oakland museum of california has helped to ensure this by putting together "we called it a work holiday: the 1946 oakland general strike" - a traveling exhibit that brings the strike to life in pictures and commentary.
the exhibit has now hit the road with the announced purpose of making it possible for people "to gain an understanding of how working people make and influence history" - a timely stimulus for today's activists working in a rejuvenated and revitalized labor movement.
the exhibit's 32 photographs have been on view the past few weeks at the george meany memorial archives in silver spring, maryland. based on research by fred glass, the accompanying storyboards include a brief history of california workers during the turbulent period between 1848 and 1959.
oakland's workers were not the only ones embroiled in militant struggle in 1946. general strikes also shut down rochester, n.y.; hartford and stanford, conn.; camden, n.j. and lancaster, pennsylvania.
but it all began in oakland, with a month-long organizing campaign in the summer by retail clerks local 1265. the mostly female workforce had signed union cards at two downtown stores - hastings, a haberdashery, and kahn's, a department store situated across the street. (the fact that both stores were in the same block would be an important factor in what was to happen later.)
the retail merchants association (rma), representing 28 non-union stores, refused union recognition. with the holiday shopping season nearing, hastings workers went on strike oct. 23. picket lines were set up a week later at kahn's.
the alameda afl labor council issued a call for members of its 142 affiliated locals to honor the lines, as did the national association for the advancement of colored people. most importantly, drivers who were members of teamster local 70 refused to make deliveries.
as could be expected of a newspaper owned by the notoriously reactionary knowland family, the oakland tribune was quick to blame "communists" for causing the strike.
as the stock on store shelves had nearly disappeared by the peak holiday shopping period a month later, the city's power structure decided to take drastic measures to deal with the situation. in an article in labor's heritage, the quarterly publication of the meany archives, glass wrote: "rma leaders, [william] knowland [then republican senate majority leader], the police chief, the county sheriff, the district attorney and the head of the central bank met secretly and decided to use strikebreakers to move a half a million dollars worth of goods into the stores."
in the pre-dawn hours of sunday, dec. 1, six downtown blocks around the stores were roped off by hundreds of oakland policemen. other cops were assigned to escort twelve trucks carrying merchandise through picket lines at the entrances of kahn's and hastings' entrances. the trucks, owned by the veterans trucking co. of los angeles, set up by the rma, had driven 400 miles from los angeles with their hot cargoes.
most of the pickets that saturday night and sunday morning were "solidarity pickets" - the officers and staff of other afl unions. no matter; they were also black and blue from being brutally beaten by billy clubs wielded by 250 of oakland's finest as they were driven from the area while crowds gathered on nearby street corners.
glass gives "unofficial" credit for turning the strike into a general strike to al brown, a trolley operator.
brown, an officer of carmen's local 192, operated the first downtown trolley that morning. he was ordered by police to drive through the area while, at the same time, strikers told him of the morning's events. brown told police he'd never crossed a picket line, nor was he going to that morning. he removed his operating controls, left his train and convinced other trolley drivers to do the same. he also asked the same of all approaching bus drivers.
they did. that is considered the beginning of the general strike, an action the exhibit calls "extraordinary" but "in keeping with the tradition of solidarity."
the police left after the trucks were unloaded. streetcar and bus service resumed. kahn's and hastings' managements were jubilant, even though picket lines were reestablished.
on monday, however, unions all over the city called meetings, climaxed by an emergency meeting of 500 union leaders that evening. the afl labor council issued a call for a "work holiday" in support of the strikers, to protest the police violence and to demand they cease escorting strikebreakers through picket lines.
a strike steering committee was formed, with subcommittees for communication, food distribution and deciding what essential services should continue functioning, such as schools, hospitals and fire department.
on tuesday, 130,000 union members went "on holiday." one of the exhibit's storyboards describes the situation: "streetcars and buses stood empty in their depots, the bay bridge was jammed with traffic, most business places were closed or operating with a skeleton staff, strikers were directing traffic."
the atmosphere throughout the city was joyous. an auto worker described it as "a carnival in the streets," with music and labor songs everywhere while "vacationers" danced to "pistol-packin' mama, lay that pistol down," the current country hit, blaring from sidewalk jukeboxes.
the leadership of the oakland strike added a new gun to their arsenal when local 70 drivers refused to deliver oakland's three daily newspapers, thus closing off the most important avenue of the ruling circles to undermine strike support.
harry lundeberg, seaman's international union president, dispatched "flying squads" to patrol against strike breaking, along with local teamster members. an overflow mass meeting on dec. 3 that left 5,000 standing outside in the rain, cheered lundeberg's denunciation of the use of police to escort scabs. "the ordinary finks were the strike breaking finks. the super finks were in the city hall," he said.
years later, robert asher, secretary of the oakland central labor council during the strike, said that if the meeting had decided to march on city hall "i think they'd have taken it apart, brick by brick."
negotiations were scheduled for wednesday (dec. 4) between labor leaders and a "citizens' committee" composed of rma and other business groups, but, meanwhile, other developments were at play.
teamsters union west coast vice pres. dave beck, joined by teamster general pres. daniel j. tobin in washington,. blasted the strike as "a lot of foolishness" and ordered teamsters back to work.
this was countered by the announcement by the alameda county cio council that its 30,000 members would join the strike by dec. 6, thereby cutting off the city's gas, telephones, electricity and water.
neither the cio's solidarity nor beck's threat was tested. at the wednesday meeting, the oakland city manager pledged that in the future police would not escort strikebreakers and would be impartial in bargaining disputes. the labor council and strike committee leaders then issued a cease general strike order for thursday morning at 11 a.m.
thus, the general strike ended without addressing the issues in the retail store strike. the kahn's and hastings' strikes continued, with police once again escorting strikebreakers. although they expressed anger, local afl leaders chose not to resume the general strike. eventually hastings signed a union contract, and was expelled from rma for doing so. rma later recognized retail clerks local 1265 as the exclusive bargaining agent for its 27 other affiliates and agreed not to interfere with union organizing campaigns among their employees.
glass wrote that the growth of "grassroots political mobilization" was the most important long-term result of the general strike. "the afl and cio unions finally recognized the necessity of united action," and formed the oakland voters league (ovl), which "inspired the formation of the united negro labor committee," he said.
in 1947, the two councils campaigned jointly in behalf of a broad labor, people and civil rights program in five of nine city council races. they won in four and narrowly missed a victory in another. but, as glass says, "the formerly invincible knowland machine had been dealt a severe blow and workers' voices could no longer be ignored in the halls of government."
rma's recognition of the union at its 27 shops came a week after the election results.
glass said "sectarian infighting, red-baiting and racism extracted their tolls" on the coalition, and the ovl dissolved after "a desultory and unsuccessful 1949 city council campaign."
in glass' opinion, the 1946 strike "posted early warning signs" of what was to come in 1958 when the state cio and afl councils merged and defeated a knowland bid to become governor by backing a "right to work" (for less) initiative.
it took another 20 years before the 1947 election slogan, "let's finish the job. take the power out of the tower" - a reference to the knowland tower building, the symbol of the right-wing domination of oakland politics - came to fruition. the exhibit quotes historian marilynn johnson, who credited the strike and ovl with building a bridge "between the class-based movements of the 1950s and the cultural- or community-based movements that emerged since the 1960s."
the knowland-dominated machine was finally toppled in 1977 when lionel wilson was elected mayor and the knowland family sold the tribune.
as in 1946, labor militancy is being created today as the capitalist system produces the world's widest gap between rich and poor, while tearing asunder the social safety net established by labor and people's struggles since the years of the great depression.
over a century ago, frederick engels, co-author with karl marx of the communist manifesto, remarked that the class struggles that "tore european society to pieces" were considered by many as not "possible in the american republic."
engels observed, however, that when the working class demand for an eight hour day swept the nation, "no one could then foresee that in such a short time the movement would burst out with such irresistible force, would spread with the rapidity of prairie-fire, would shake american society to its foundation."
such a "prairie-fire" was lighted when, in the 1930s, the cio organized millions of unorganized industrial workers. last september's convention of the afl-cio could very well be the spark that will light another such advance by america's working class.
from the people's weekly world, a publication of the communist party u.s.a.
the world : north america : united states : california : oakland