a “WORK HOLIDAY”
1946: The Oakland General Strike
by Stan Weir / Nov 22 2005
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 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. 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.
The Oakland (California) General Strike was an extension of the national strike wave. It was not a ‘called’ strike. Shortly before 5 a.m., Monday, December 3, 1946, the hundreds of workers passing through downtown Oakland on their way to work became witness to the police herding a fleet of scab trucks through the downtown area. The trucks contained commodities to fill the shelves of two major department stores whose clerks (mostly women) had long been on strike. The witnesses, that is, truck drivers, bus and streetcar operators and passengers, got off their vehicles and did not return. The city filled with workers, they milled about in the city’s core for several hours and then organised themselves.
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 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. 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 mil lion, strangers passed each other on the street and did not have fear, but the opposite.
Before the second day of the strike was half over a large group of war veterans among the strikers formed their own squads and went through close-order drills. They then marched on the Tribune Tower, offices of the anti-labour OAKLAND TRIBUNE, and from there marched on City Hall demanding the resignation of the mayor and city council. Sailor’s Union of the Pacific (SUP) crews walked off the three ships at the Oakland Army base loaded with military supplies for troops in Japan. By that night the strikers closed some grocery stores in order to conserve dwindling food supplies. In all general strikes the participants are very soon forced by the very nature of events to themselves run the society they have just stopped. The process in the Oakland experiment was beginning to deepen. There was as yet little evidence of official union leadership in the streets. The top local Teamster officials, except one, were not to be found; the exception would be fired five months later for his strike activity. 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. (OAKLAND TRIBUNE, December 5, 1946)
A number of the secondary Oakland and Alameda County union leaders did what they could to create a semblance of straight trade-union organisation. The ranks, unused to leading themselves and having no precedent for this sort of strike in their own experience, wanted the well-known labour leaders in the Bay Area to step forward with expertise, aid, and public legitimisation. The man who was always billed as leader of the 1934 San Francisco General Strike, ILWU President Harry Bridges, who was then also State CIO President, refused to become involved,, ,just as he did 18 years later during the Berkeley Free Speech Movement struggles. The rank-and-file longshoremen and warehouse- men who had been drawn to the street strike were out there on their own. No organised contingents from the hundreds available in the warehouse and longshore hiring halls were sent to help, No CIO shops were given the nod to walk out or ‘sick-out’. Only through CIO participation could significant numbers of blacks have been drawn into this mainly white strike. The ILWU and other CIO unions would honour picket lines like those around the Tribune Tower or at the Oakland Army Base, but otherwise they minded their own business. Bridges had recently committed himself to a nine-year extension of the wartime no-strike pledge.
The one major leader of the San Francisco General Strike who would come to Oakland was the SUP’s Secretary Treasurer, Harry Lundeberg. On the second night of the strike he was the principal speaker at the mass meeting in the overflowing Oakland Auditorium. He had been alerted when the strike was less than three hours old via a call from an old-time member at a pay phone on an Oakland street. By noon there were contingents composed mainly of Hawaiians acting as ‘flying squads’, patrolling to find any evidence of strike-breaking activity. They enlarged Upon their number by issuing large white buttons to all seamen or persons on the Street that they knew. The buttons contained the words ‘ Brotherhood of the Sea’, They represented the first officially-organised activity on the street, They did not attempt to run the entire strike or take over. It takes a time for seamen to get over the idea that they are somehow outsiders, The feeling is all the stronger among Hawaiian seamen ashore or residing in the States. They limited their activity to trouble-shooting. They won gratitude and respect. When Lundeberg spoke at the meeting, he had no program of action beyond that of the Oakland AFL leaders. But he got a wild response. He did not approach the microphone reluctantly. His demeanour reflected no hesitancy. Unlike the other speakers, he bellowed with outrage against the city council on behalf of the strikers. In a heavy Norwegian accent he accused: ‘These finky gazoonies who call themselves city fathers have been taking les sons from Hitler and Stalin. They don’t believe in the kind of unions that are free to strike.’ All true, but whether he knew it or not, by focusing on the City Council and no more, he was contributing to the undercutting of the strike, Instead of dealing with the anti-labour employers and city officials through the medium of the strike, plans were already being formulated to deal with the crisis in the post-strike period by attacking the City Council through use of the ballot box. The top Alameda County CIO officials were making hourly statements for the record that they could later use to cover up their disloyalty, The AFL officials couldn’t get them to come near the strike, but they could be expected to participate in post-strike electoral action.
The strike ended 54 hours old at 11 a.m. on December 5. The people on the street learned of the decision from a sound truck put on the Street by the AFL Central Labour Council. It was the officials’ first really decisive act of leadership. They had consulted among themselves and decided to end the strike on the basis of the Oakland City Manager’s promise that police would not again be used to bring in scabs. No concessions were gained for the women retail clerks at Kahn’s and Hastings Department Stores whose strikes had triggered the General Strike; they were left free to negotiate any settlement they could get on their own. Those women and many other strikers heard the sound truck’s message with the form of anger that was close to heartbreak, Numbers of truckers and other workers continued to picket with the women, yelling protests at the truck and appealing to all who could hear that they should stay out. But all strikers other than the clerks had been ordered back to work and no longer had any protection against the disciplinary actions that might be brought against them for strike-caused absences, By noon only a few score of workers were left, wandering disconsolately around the now-barren city, The CIO mass meeting that had been called for that night to discuss strike ‘unity’ was never held.
In the strike’s aftermath every incumbent official in the major Oakland Teamsters Local 70 was voted out of office. A United AFL-CIO Political Action Committee was formed to run candidates in the race for the five open seats on the nine-person City Council. Four of them won, the ballot listed the names of the first four labour challengers on top of each of the incumbents, but reversed the order for the fifth open office, It was felt that the loss was due to this trick and anti-Semitism. The fifth labour candidate’s name was Ben Goldfarb. Labour’s city councilmen were regularly outvoted by the five incumbents; however, the four winners were by no means outspoken champions of labour. They did not utilise their offices as a tribune for a progressive labour-civic program. They served out their time routinely, and the strike faded to become the nation’s major unknown general strike.
The Oakland General Strike was related to the 1946 Strike Wave in time and spirit, and revealed an aspect of the tem per of the nation’s industrial-working-class mood at war’s end. Labour historians of the immediate post-war period have failed to examine the Oakland Strike, and thus have failed to consider a major event of the period and what it reveals about the mood of that time. In developing their analyses they have focused almost entirely on the economic demands made by the unions that participated in the Strike Wave. These demands were not unimportant. But economic oppression was not the primary wound that had been experienced daily during the war years.
The ‘spontaneous’ Oakland General Strike was a massive event in a major urban area with a population similar to that of all major World War II defence-industry centres, Thousands had come to the Bay Area from all corners of the nation-rural and urban-in the early war years, and had stayed. Every theatre of war was represented among armed-forces veterans returning to or settling in this largest of Northern California’s central city cores. The Oakland General Strike revealed fundamental characteristics of a national and not simply a regional mood. Its events combined to make a statement of working-class awareness that World War II had not been fought for democracy. Or, more pointedly, it was a retaliation for the absence of democracy that the people in industry and the armed forces had experienced while ‘fighting to save democracy in a war to end all wars’. The focus of people’s lives was still on the war. They hadn’t fought what they believed to be ‘a war against fascism’ to return home and have their strikes broken and unions housebroken.
Emotionally, their war experiences were still very real, and yet they were just far enough away from those experiences to begin playbacks of memory tapes. The post-war period had not yet achieved an experiential identity. The Oakland Key System bus drivers, streetcar conductors, and motormen who played a leading role in the strike wore their Eisenhower jackets as work uniforms, but the overseas bars were still on their sleeves. Like most, they had lost four years of their youth; and while they would never complain about that loss in those terms, there were other related grievances over which resentment could be expressed.
the SEATTLE GENERAL STRIKE of 1919
The Seattle General Strike of 1919, and its Aftermath
Although Seattle’s industries had profited in 1917-1918 from the boom in wartime production, the workers in those industries had not seen any related increase in their wages. As a result, in January 1919, the Metal Trades Council of Seattle went on strike, and shortly thereafter, the Central Labor Council of Seattle led many other local unions in calling a city-wide general strike, which lasted from the 6th to the 11th of February. The scale of the strike—tens of thousands of workers participated—panicked local and state officials, who mobilized police and military personnel despite the strike’s non-violent character. Ultimately the workers ended the strike without having won any concessions from the targeted businesses: in the months that followed, politicians and businessmen blamed the strike on “Bolshevik” union leaders, while the Seattle labor movement attempted to understand why the strike had failed and what steps should now be taken to work for change.
The University of Washington’s digital collections contain a small sampling of photographs and documents from the Seattle General Strike itself and the days immediately before and after the strike. Included are minutes from meetings of the Central Labor Council of Seattle, which organized the strike, as well as a photograph of workers on the city’s streets during the strike itself. The Central Labor Council of Seattle remained powerful and influential in the wake of the strike: the U.W.’s digital collections contain a wide range of correspondence, minutes, reports, ephemera, and news clippings that give some account of the work of the Seattle C.L.C. in the late 1910s and early 1920s. Included among the documents are minutes of Council meetings (along with labor spy reports giving different accounts of those same meetings), as well as selected letters from the correspondence of Anna Louise Strong, a prominent member of the Seattle labor movement.
The Central Labor Council’s official newspaper, the Seattle Union Record, played a prominent role in the build-up to the general strike, and became the subject of tense internal arguments in the city’s labor movement in the early 1920s. The U.W.’s digital collections include a wide range of documents relating to the Union Record, including clippings from the newspaper, a history of the paper up to 1923, as well as references to the paper appearing correspondence and reports from that era. Our digital collections also include documents relating to the life and work of Harry Ault — Ault was editor of the Union Record from 1912 to its demise in 1928, and his work was both credited for the paper’s widespread influence and denounced as “capitalist” and traitorous to the labor movement’s ideals. The documents include reminiscences composed by Ault about Equality Colony, the socialist commune he grew up in, as well as correspondence and reports that refer to his work as editor.
Anna Louise Strong was a progressive reformer whose work in Seattle initially addressed living conditions for impoverished children, but her writings about the Everett Massacre trial influenced her to become an outspoken activist on behalf of workers. Strong wrote extensively for the Seattle Union Record, and her editorial regarding the 1919 General Strike, entitled “No One Knows Where”, was perhaps the most widely distributed statement of the workers’ aims. The U.W.’s digital collections include correspondence, manuscripts, ephemera, and photographs which illuminate Strong’s career in connection with the labor movement in Seattle, and the Seattle general strike in particular.
Pat McAuley: What I meant to ask was: a lot of these short, wildcat-type strikes, like the sit-down strike that you led, did these contribute to the General Strike that occurred in 1946 or 1947 in Oakland?
Stan Weir: Well, the General Strike was part of the ’46 strike wave. You can’t extract one from the other. There was a great deal of dammed up militancy. People who worked throughout the War had been taking all this crap from employers in the name of the War effort, that kind of phony patriotism, instead of real patriotism. It was time to catch up after the War, so there were wildcat strikes going on apace. As a matter of fact, there were more people out on strike in 1946 in the ’46 strike wave than any time before or since. It is the largest strike wave that ever occurred in the United States. That occurred as a last gasp of a labor force that was coming back, of a labor force that was still in place. That is, the G.I.’s were not all back yet, and the people who had spent this last four years together were still pretty much together, or they hadn’t been swamped by new workers coming in or guys returning from the Armed Forces. A lot of new technology and new mechanization had not yet been introduced.
The Oakland General Strike was, I think, in December. Mary got in my jeep and drove down with some of her girlfriends from campus to travel around the streets and look at it. We in the CIO were not a part of it officially. That is, the State of California CIO was run by Percy Peers. They were for having the General Strike after the War – having a no-strike pledge almost permanently for nine years after the War. When the General Strike broke out, the three ships at the Oakland Army Base, the gangs all walked off ‘em and went out in the streets and went on strike. Bridges immediately sent gangs of politicals back to those ships and kept working. In order to participate in that general strike, we had to stay out of work, be on absenteeism.
McAuley: The Maritime workers were a big part of this, weren’t they?
Weir: Well, they were, partly because I found them. That is, I was still a member of the Sailors’ Union. I am downtown, in Oakland. I got off the streetcar. The strike had started. There was no bus to take me the rest of the way to East Oakland to my job. I didn’t see any official leadership. There was not an official leader anywhere to be found. They’re all hiding. This is strictly rank and file. Downtown alone went on strike alone. So, I (and it might not have been the best thing to do) phoned up the Sailors’ Union, got Lundeberg, and said, “Hey, there’s a strike over here and there’s no organization. We need a way of developing a network. Whatever you can do.” What he did was he sent about thirty Hawaiians with a bunch of SIU-SUP Brotherhood of the Sea buttons and (they) began distributing those as some kind of strike police badge. At the Oakland General Strike meeting downtown in the Oakland Auditorium, Lundeberg was the only one to know what to say. It was all demagogy – “the Oakland City Council had tried to break the strike.” Going on that “the General Strike had taken lessons from Hitler and Stalin, and they were finks.” Anyway, he was the only one who talked radical like that, ‘cause he knew from the past, the recent past, although he had already sold out. I hadn’t yet absorbed that sellout, and that’s why I would call the union, get him, and tell him to get some forces over there.
McAuley: Did the strike die because of lack of strong leadership?
Weir: Yes. The leadership of the retail clerks’ and that of the Teamsters was very different. That is, finally the retail clerks’ leadership did show up. But they had all this strength. Remember, the General Strike was called in support of the workers at Kahn’s and Hastings department stores. Here, they had the town shut down. That leadership did not come up with an agreement that would protect the jobs of those people and settle their grievances. They went back to work with no protection and with no gains.
McAuley: But a lot of other workers were so ready to strike.
McAuley: That they walked out in support of these retail clerks.
Weir: Yes. Absolutely. That accidental strike, the so-called accidental strike, without any leadership, with no one calling it, turned out to be an opportunity for people to vent their feelings about what had happened to them on the job during the War. The leaders, the real leaders of that strike, were the Key system bus drivers, who were just back from after the War. They were still wearing the Eisenhower jackets, but now they had converted them to bus driver jackets. A lot of them still had their gold hatch marks, overseas marks, on their jackets. I remember, and I’ve told this a number of times, an Army recruiting truck came down the street during the General Strike. Some young lieutenant in back of the truck says into the microphone over the loud P.A. system: “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves striking. You ought to be out fighting for your country.” It was so recently after the War, maybe he thought he could get away with that. Some big guy said, “Where do you think we got these?” and pointed to his overseas marks. He said, “Fall in!” and about 50 to 75 guys fell in, in close order, and he started them in a close order drill, and more guys, and more guys. Pretty soon, we had a company, not a platoon but a company. Pretty soon, he had more than a company. I mean he had hundreds, in close order drill. What are you going to do with them now? Marched on City Hall. Demanded to see the head of the City Council. No one would come out to talk to them. But they went to the seat of power in the city, the ones who had called on scab trucks from L.A. to come and be herded into those stores by Oakland police.
Pat McAuley: It is now December 5th (1990). I am in Stan Weir’s office of Singlejack Books, (in San Pedro), overlooking the harbor in Los Angeles. Stan, when we last talked, we were talking about the General Strike in Oakland. Is there anything else about that General Strike that comes to your mind?
Stan Weir: The General Strike confirmed for me ideas that I had been having for some time. It seemed to me that wherever I looked, the membership of unions, and of political parties I belonged to, a political grouping I belonged to, the membership was ahead of the leadership. But I’m going to talk about unions now. It seemed to me not only were the members of the unions I had been in, and was in, ahead of the official line on how to fight the employer and willingness to fight the employer, way ahead. They were way ahead when it came to the invention of democratic methods for furthering that fight. Those methods developed a societal set of attitudes on the part of these people. The officialdom you mentioned, when I said that you couldn’t find a union official in downtown Oakland, and you asked me before we started here today, “Do you think that shocked the officials?” Well, it had to have shocked them half out of their senses. At that time, it was close after the War. I, for example, at Cedar and San Pablo, got a bus to Ashby, got a trolley in downtown Oakland, then got a bus to East Oakland, where I was working in the East Oakland Chevrolet plant. When we got to downtown Oakland that morning, we rolled in somewhere between 6 and 7:30. A man came running over to our streetcar and talked briefly, just briefly, and fast, and hard, to our conductor and motorman on the streetcar. They got off and began to walk away. We yelled at them, “Hey! What’s this?!” He explained that Los Angeles scab-driven trucks with merchandise for the two department stores that were on strike, Kahn’s and Hastings department stores, that these trucks were being herded through the city, right now, by the Oakland police, and that’s why. And they disappeared. So, we were all there downtown. We couldn’t get to work. Immediately, a carnival kind of attitude hit us.
McAuley: Did they think the trolley-
Weir: Right here. And the trucks the men were driving, they just left them right at that spot. They didn’t even pull them to the curb. Of course, they did it with a method. It had its own method. It’s another way of protesting. Well, the first thing that hit us in this whole thing was we got a good excuse. We can’t get to work. And we’re here. So, it was kind of a carnival. It wasn’t half an hour before we were going into bars and saying, “No hard liquor. Serve beer and wine, if you must, but mainly beer,” and “You can stay open only if you bring your jukebox out in front and turn it on loud.” And we were dancing at 7 o’clock in the morning. Men and women. And joking, and so on. (Laughing) Feeling like, you know, God, freedom. It was marvelous. When you’re a factory hand, you get to sit down three minutes in a day, more than your lunchtime. You figure, like, it’s a great day if you beat ‘em out of three minutes! You know?
Weir: When the line would break down, it would be like I would go into laughter almost immediately, and stay there. I’d laugh at anybody’s joke – and so would everybody else – if the line, the assembly line broke down at Chevrolet.
McAuley: The CIO wasn’t supporting this General Strike then.
McAuley: Did the workers stay out?
Weir: Well, those who couldn’t get to work didn’t go to work. Yeah. But the CIO was led by the Communist Party at the time. And the Communist Party supported us. I think I’ve said that here on this tape. It was me at the State CIO Convention that year that got up and challenged Dick, the Chair of the Convention. He was from the Local 6 warehouse, IOWU. His dad owned a warehouse, and he struck against his father. That’s how he got started in unionism. (I’ve forgotten his last name.) But I said, “Where was the CIO in the Oakland General Strike? We had to stay away from work in order to participate. What is this? Where is the solidarity?” Paul Schlitt, the Secretary-Treasurer of the CIO, got up and said, “It wasn’t a general strike. We weren’t in it.” Well, that kind of double-think, using Orwell’s term, it was a transplantation of that kind of thinking into the situation in Oakland. But here we were, and without any leadership. By noon that day, the carnival was kind of over. We think we can’t go on like this forever. They’ll come and get us. (Laughing) Somebody will come and get us, you know, and it won’t be good. So, I had made a phone call to the Sailors’ Union to see what kind of help I could get from the seamen who were ashore and not working. And I talked to Lundeberg. Lundeberg spoke the next night, I believe it was, at the Oakland Auditorium in the General Strike meeting. He demagogically was militant and he gave people what they wanted to hear. He denounced the City fathers and the police as people who had been reading the writings of Stalin and Hitler. He knew that it was time to get mad. He wasn’t afraid, like the rest of the officials who were afraid to get up there and even sound off. Without any leadership, we cordoned the town off. You could get out without a union card. You couldn’t get in without a union card. There was a guy going down the street, a great big guy with a typewriter. People said, “Hey, where are you goin’ with the typewriter?,” and he began to run. They ran and they arrested him, in effect, until he explained that he wasn’t stealing the typewriter, that he didn’t believe in the strike and he was taking his work home ‘cause he might not be able to get to work the next day. They said, “Go. Get in your car and go.”
McAuley: So, was it the residents on these blocks?
Weir: No, this was downtown.
McAuley: Alright. Well, I meant the residents of the offices that form these informal authorities for these groups.
Weir: No, it was the people who got off the buses and the streetcars. It was the truck drivers. It was the people in their cars going to work. It wasn’t the residents so much. Although in West Oakland, which is close by, the blacks involved in this strike, some of them had just walked up from there, where they lived. But people in the offices, many were non-union. Now, the OPEIU, the office workers and the union, and the retail clerks did participate in the strike, because it was for Kahn’s and Hastings department store workers. But, that I know of, there was no general outpour of office workers – just, boom, like that – who were non-union and suddenly got the word. We did have experiences like this. Non-union people would come out and they’d be going to go home and they didn’t know for how long. They were impressed at the order, the neatness. That is, we kept the streets clean. There was no littering. Like I say, there were people who had cordoned, we had cordoned the city off, all the streets leading out of downtown Oakland. We had downtown, 10 square blocks. Maybe it was more than that. Maybe it was more like twenty blocks. But there was a desire to really do the right thing by everybody, everybody who was on your side. There was no rousting anybody, or anybody stealing gas from other people’s cars, or breaking in. So far as we could tell, those fifty-four hours were crimeless downtown. It’s like, in Albert Rhys Williams’ book, Through the Russian Revolution, He was a journalist and he went to Russia, because of the Russian Revolution, in February. He came back and wrote a book about what he saw. He was a good journalist. He is walking up and down the streets of Leningrad. He sees people walking by shoe stores, for example, with broken panes, and no one is reaching inside and grabbing those shoes and running away with them. Already there was a sense of collective property. “That’s not ours just to steal. We will take care of it. We will divie that up, so to speak.” Then, of course, I had read about Antonov Gouzenko in that book, the same book. There was open warfare between the Whites and the Reds. The Whites had captured the telephone building. I’ve forgotten whether it was Moscow or St. Petersburg, Leningrad. The Whites had captured Antonov Gouzenko, the head of the workers’ Red militia, and he’s imprisoned in the telephone building. People are shooting at one another and killing one another in this situation. The Reds are ringing and the cordon is all the way around the building. The Whites send out a Red Cross truck that they have captured, ostensibly with wounded. The Reds let the truck go through the line, the Red Cross truck, and get out around the corner, out of sight of the Whites. They grabbed the truck, and there were no wounded in it. The people inside confessed immediately that they were going for munitions. The Reds turned into a Trojan horse. They stuck highly armed people into that Red Cross truck and they went back in through a half an hour later. Zap! That was the end of that. The whites immediately surrendered. “Where is Antonov Gouzenko? This is your neck unless you produce him.” They release him and Antonov Gouzenko is just standing there. The rest of the Reds move to kill or harm bodily all the Whites standing there who had imprisoned him. He grabbed a gun away from someone and said, “The first one who puts a hand on any of these Whites that we’ve been fighting right now, I will shoot him.” They said, “What? You’re going to shoot us? We’re on your side.” He says, “I know. But you will damn the revolution by doing wrong. These people deserve a trial, like prisoners of war. You don’t represent the new (society) if you just (shoot them) because you said that they’d do it to us. Of course, they’d do it to us. But we don’t do it to them. We represent the new society.” He had been on the streets the whole time as head of the workers’ militia. Albert Rhys Williams says that the people caught on immediately. Simply, Gouzenko was the first to become objective in this situation. Then, the Reds led the Whites through the town, from the telephone building to the jail. Many of them were attacked and beat up by townspeople who were saying, “You got Whites?! Well, let’s get ‘em now! Let’s do ‘em in!” And the same Reds who would want to do ‘em in half an hour earlier. They said, “No, we’re taking him. We’re going to try him.” Of course, a lot of Whites got out of jail real quick just by promising. The Reds were very lenient at that time. But there was this morality, the feeling that ends and means have to always stick together. This is the working class itself, at the very bottom, insisting upon that, without any kind of long rationalizations about, “well, this is a special situation,” and all that malarkey. (They) just hung to it and stayed with it until the revolution itself had been starved out.
McAuley: So, in Oakland?
Weir: You could see that in Oakland. You could see the potential for that, right there in the streets.
McAuley: Mm hm. The spontaneous morality.
McAuley: Do you think that the fact that people had just gone through the World War II experience, did that contribute in any way to this – this natural, but not always spontaneous, morality, but incredible order that took place?
Weir: I don’t know. I mean there’s no way of knowing the answer to that. I can only tell you what my feeling was. I think that there were people there who hadn’t really thought about a number of these things, that the General Strike posed for them in their minds. They approached the problem in their minds and they came up with these kinds of answers. Because the kinds of lives they lead doesn’t lead them to start moaning on the terrible people workers are; they’re lazy; they’re this or that and the other thing; or they don’t pay their rent on time; and all that. The people have nothing to gain by that. These people came up with brilliant ideas. Some of them had thought it through beforehand, in all probability. Trotsky speaks of this in The History of the Russian Revolution, that suddenly people’s minds are liberated. It staggers them. Suddenly they are free. Some of those who had been the most servile, the day before October or February, became the most bold. Zap! No one knows the exact process of the thinking of a crowd in that way.
McAuley: You saw this happen in Oakland?
Weir: In my experience, crowds of this kind, rather than being surly, lynch-mob types, or very close to that, just on the other side of the fence. No. My experience is that it is in the crowd that there is the most genius. At the Chevrolet plant, when we had the sit-down strike, the same thing occurred. That is, I stopped people from walking out. When we all gathered together again on the loading docks of the East Oakland plant, I said, “If any of us clock out—“, but I didn’t finish my sentence. Someone said, “A lot of us will never get back in.” Someone else said, “But if we hang tough here, available for work, the moment they begin to live up (to) the contract and the grievance we’ve just won, then we’ll see.” No one even said, “We’ll survive.” I mean the sentence was never totally finished. Everybody understood immediately. And that’s what we did. We stayed right there, visible, and available to work the moment that they quit reneging on the supply of gloves, which we wore out at three pair a week. It’s that same brilliance of people who have been released from the necessity to hide their feelings. Who knows what anybody really believes when they’re working on the job for an employer? You ask them a million questions, they are always going to answer the same way. Whatever strengthens their position on the job. They are not going to weaken there. That is, if you’re an interviewer from somewhere. If you come as a psychologist or an academic and you come interviewing people on the job, even if you’re (saying), “Harry Bridges sent me down here to the waterfront, fellas, and he said it was o.k. that I talk to you fellas,” you think they’re going to tell them, “This guy’s really the score”? Never.
McAuley: Yeah, yeah. Well, Stan, I want to get back to your party, WP [Workers’ Party], and they asked you to get inside of, you know, to get into the auto (industry) in order to support the Reuther caucus. What was so important about the (Walter) Reuther caucus? Who did they oppose?
Weir: Well, this fight shaped up with the Reuther caucus opposed to the R.G. Thomas and George Addes caucus. That was a coalition caucus, a coalition between the Phillip Murry-ites, the middle-of-the-road, conservative, CIO top leadership, which R.J. Thomas followed, and the supporters of the Communist Party point of view, their labor beliefs. They had had the leadership of the union all the way through the War, and they had misled it terribly all the way through the War, giving up conditions that were hard-won in the strikes of the thirties. They were for going back to peace work. They were for National Labor conscription. They were for a no-strike pledge during and after the War. And so on. Reuther, at least in the beginning, opposed them from the Left. Now, Reuther had taken over the rank and file caucus, which was built primarily by left-wing politicals during the War. That means mainly by Trotskyists, except it did not include the orthodox and largest group of the Trotskyists, the Socialist Workers’ Party people. They were in the R.J. Thomas and George Addes caucus 90% of the time. I think there was one brief interlude where they jumped over to Reuther for a moment, or at least differed with the Addes-Thomas people. People who were opposed to the CP from the Left as rank and filers or as politicals made up the rank and file caucus. Reuther wouldn’t touch it. It meant job action during the War, and he didn’t want that connected with his own history, his own reputation. But the minute the War was over, or in Europe, he began making innuendo and then directly. He did take over the leadership for the rank and file caucus, and it became the Reuther caucus. Now, he needed these Leftists and these militants. They made him president of the union. They didn’t give him a majority on the executive board. At the next convention, he got a majority on the executive board. Who did he need to get to get all that crowd? He needed the Catholics, for example, the ACTU, the Association of Catholic Trade Unions. They were the ones who were really red-baiting the hell out of the other side. And you can begin to see Reuther moving over into a red-baiting position in order to get a clean sweep.
Cops block the street to keep strikers out. From the Oakland Museum of California
In the first few days of December 1946, retail workers at Hastings’ and Kahn’s department stores, across the street from each other where Broadway meets Telegraph, had been on strike for more than a month. Most of the workers were women. Their pay was shitty, less than $16 a week, and worse, they were subjected to an absurd procedure where they had to show up to work first thing in the morning, and then wait in the basement (unpaid), until they were called to the floor to work. A clerk could easily be stuck in the basement all morning, or even all day. The Teamsters local had supported the retail workers strike from the beginning. They refused to deliver anything to the struck stores. (When I was at the Labor Archives, I even saw minutes from the Teamsters Local 70 meeting showing a member being expelled for trying to deliver to Kahn’s in November.) The local NAACP and National Negro Congress publicly supported the striking workers. And union laborers had stopped painting and construction of a new elevator at Kahn’s in solidarity. On the business side, the Oakland Tribune, then run by republican powerhouse Joe Knowland, advocated a citywide ban of pickets. According to Albert Lannon’s Fight or Be Slaves, right-wing city council members were publicly objecting to the use of the word ‘scab’. Most detrimentally, the city agreed to send out the police force to escort delivery trucks to the stores, so they could keep stock for the Christmas shopping season.
OPD escorting delivery trucks from the notoriously anti-union company G.I. Trucking. From the Oakland Museum of California.
That move was too much for the local labor council. The night of December 1st, a Saturday, Teamsters patrolled every roadway into Oakland to keep the delivery trucks away, and the labor council organized members to use their cars to block the parking spaces surrounding the effected stores. Several hundred picketers came out in the middle of the night to keep the scabs out.
At 4 in the morning the cops started towing the strikers cars and blocking off sections of Broadway, Telegraph, and San Pablo. When they waved the streetcars through their police line at 6:30 Sunday morning, a driver told the cops that he’d never crossed a picket line, got out of the car and removed its control box, causing an immovable backup along the streetcar line. The general strike was on, although it was another day before the whole city was out.
At a long and fevered meeting of various local AFL union leaders Sunday afternoon (the clerks were affiliated with the AFL), Teamsters pledged that because of the strikebreaking deliveries, they would shut down work in the East Bay starting Monday. Every other union but the milk truck drivers’ agreed, and the milk truck drivers only insisted on working in order to get milk to local hospitals. Labor leaders went on the radio to declare Monday a ‘work holiday’ and to call everyone downtown, to the center of the strike, to show their support.
At the peak, as many as 30,000 people were packed into the rainy downtown streets. The mood was excited to say the least. Bars were allowed to stay open, but they were only allowed to serve beer, and were told to turn their jukeboxes out to face the street, where people were literally dancing. All AFL building trades were shut down. All East Bay newspapers were shut down. Buses, streetcars, greyhounds, taxis, and trucking were stopped. Gas stations were closed too. Hotels, movie theaters, and larger restaurants and grocery stores were shut.
I’ve read conflicting stories on this, but from what I understand, the CIO, the second-largest umbrella union organization in Oakland, had offered their support the night before the strike. They were patently turned down. AFL leaders didn’t want to be associated with the CIO whose on-the-ground organizers were largely communist. Robert Ash, the head of the labor council was quite progressive, but balked at working together, imagining headlines in the paper saying “Reds cause Anarchy Downtown” and so forth. Besides the communist associations, the AFL and CIO were rivals not comrades. Working directly with the CIO would have brought about ugly repercussions from national AFL leadership. The CIO honored picket lines anyway, and finally, on the third day of the strike, called for a general meeting to vote on whether to walk out themselves. A CIO walkout would have cut off gas and electricity to most of the city. At this suggestion, Oakland’s city manager was ready to settle. But the unions had lost the upper hand. The national vice president of the Teamsters, Dave Beck, told the local to withdraw from the general strike. He didn’t support revolution, and apparently, the strike was developing that flavor. Rumors circulated that Governor Earl Warren was going to send in the National Guard, and the mayor had declared a state of emergency.
Instead of holding their ground, the union negotiated with Oakland’s city manager only for an agreement that police would not be used to break strikes. There was no settlement for the department store clerks (who stayed on strike for eight more months, and then had to settle for a weak contract before they finally negotiated a better deal and a closed union shop in May of ’47). There was certainly no attempt to make structural change in the city. Robert Ash from the Labor Council admitted later, in retrospect, that had they held out, they could have had more. Maybe they could have gotten the whole right-wing city leadership to resign. But even that laudable goal suffers from a failure of imagination. Workers owned the city for those three days. They could have done anything. On the other hand, what can you do when you suddenly control your own world? When you have the power to rearrange everything, if only you can agree with tens of thousands of others who share that power? Who knew what to do with complete worker control of a city?
A year later that kind of question hardly mattered anyway. In 1947, congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act outlawing secondary boycotts (boycotts of union companies that do business with a struck company), removing government protection for wildcat (unofficial) strikers, and allowing the president to force workers back to their jobs if he feels that their strike “imperils the national health”. The phenomenon of the General Strike came to an abrupt end.
In the aftermath, the Teamsters local withdrew from the central labor council (and not long after, the national Teamsters withdrew from the AFL). Voters elected a labor slate of candidates for the City Council in ’47, but not enough to get a majority, and the winners didn’t work very well as a team, and were voted out a few years later. Oakland changed dramatically after the war, demographics changed, the beginnings of civil right struggles emerged, but worker control was not on the agenda.
If you’re interested in the Oakland general strike, I’d recommend Chris Rhomberg’s No There There. Online you can listen to a nice KPFA documentary on the strike that features interviews with participants and more on the historical context that led to the strike. Also, check out longshoreman and publisher Stan Weir‘s account of the strike at the very cool libcom.org or Dick Meister’s summery on ZNet.
WHAT’S a GENERAL STRIKE?
Ralph Chaplin on the General Strike
This post is an excerpt from a pamphlet written by Ralph Chaplin, the author of the famous anthem “Solidarity Forever” and an organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World.
There has been a great deal of confusion as to just what was meant by the term, General Strike. In the past any strike of considerable proportions has usually been referred to as a “General Strike.” But many times this definition was not really applicable. Much of the misconception results from an erroneous or limited conception as to what a General Strike is and what it is supposed to do. The General Strike, as its name implies, must be a revolutionary or class strike instead of a strike for amelioration of conditions. It must be designed to abolish private ownership of the means of life and to supplant it with social ownership. It must be a strike, not of a few local, industrial or national groupings of workers but of the industrial workers of the world as an entity. If we keep in mind that there are four phases of the General Strike it will help to understand clearly what we mean by using the term:
* A General Strike in a community.
* A General Strike in an Industry.
* A national General Strike.
* A revolutionary or class strike– THE General Strike.
It will be seen from the above that, while the first three are General Strikes in the limited and commonly accpeted meaning of the term, only the last, or revolutionary class strike, is a General Strike in the full meaning of the term. The first three have been attempted at times with varying degrees of success, but the last has yet to be organized and made effective. Thus, for instance, the display of industrial power by the workers of Finland and Russia in 1905 or that in connection with the upheaval in Moscow which resulted in the overthrow of the Kerensky government in 1917, or the strike of the French Railroad workers in 1909, the great strike in Sweden in 1909, or the strike in Germany when the administration of Von Kapp was embarrassed in the same manner. There were also important General Strikes in Belgium in 1913, in Buenos Aries in 1920 and again in Great Britain in 1926. All these have been referred to as “General Strikes.” And they are General Strikes in the limited sense defined above.
Outstanding “General Strikes”
The so-called General Strike in Denmark which was called by the Socialists to block the forming of an unpopular cabinet by the King is an example in point, as is the now famous attempt of the Italian workers to take over the industries in 1920. The I.W.W. strikes of 100,000 lumber jacks or 40,000 copper miners in 1917 are fair examples of the industrial General Strike, while those affecting Seattle and Winnipeg are examples of the community General Strike. Volumes might be written about each of the instances cited. But in the end it would be plain that in each case the strikes did not cover sufficient area and were not supported by a sufficient number of workers in the various industries. Nor was the abolition of wage-slavery the objective of these strikes. In other words they were merely the foreshadowing of what Labor could do for itself under greater provocation, inspired by a greater sense of solidarity and with a more perfected organization at its disposal.
The conditions necessary for the successful operation of any of the four kinds of General Strike enumerated above have never existed. But, because it has not as yet been possible to use the economic power of Labor to full advantage, is no sign that such conditions will never exist. It has often been said, quite truthfully that, “one swallow does not make the spring.” It is equally true that swallows never visit us in the dead of winter. The fact that Labor has succeeded to a limited extent indicates that it can use its economic power to a much greater extent. The General Strike, once clearly defined and understood, offers Labor a weapon in the use of which Labor has shown great aptitude and willingness– a weapon with which all other weapons in the class war are puny in comparison. Just as gunpowder replaced the bow and arrow, so economic action will displace Labor’s cruder and less potent weapons in the final struggle for emancipation from wage slavery.
The One Big Strike on the Job
It may be argued however that the General Strike might prove to be as difficult to control and, due to the possible paralysis of transport, equally productive of privation as civil war. If State power were not captured by the workers would not the armed forces of the master class crush the strike with military power? Would not the result in the long run be the same as far as mass starvation and disorganization are concerned? The answer is that, as the I.W.W. conceives of the General Strike, it would be so perfectly organized by workers and technicians and effectually used that the feeding, supplying and transportation of armed mercenaries would be practically impossible. The strikes at Seattle and Winnipeg gave some indication of the ability of strikers to organize, picket and police their strike and, at the same time arrange for the adequate distribution of food stuffs to the population. As for machine guns, tanks, airplanes and bombs of asphyxiating or incendiary character, it is well to remember that such things are only available when they are manufactured and transported by labor and would be more difficult to use against workers stationed in and about the nation’s widely spread industries than against mobs massed together in the labor ghettoes of the great cities.
According to the modern idea of the General Strike it would not be at all necessary, during a well organized class movement of this sort for the employed workers to leave their assigned places in industry at all. On the contrary, the effort would be made to get workers into the industries instead of out of them in order to keep the wheels of production going. The General Strike, in other words would be a means of feeding rather than of starving the people. This is in keeping with the I.W.W. program of STRIKING ON THE JOB. The only difference would be that the factory doors, under the direction of the technical managerial staff of the productive forces, would be thrown wide open to absorb the millions of unemployed. The wheels of industry would operate in their customary manner only for the purpose of supplying human needs instead of the enrichment of a profit-greedy Kept Class. The General Strike therefore would simply mean that the army of production under competent technical and managerial direction, would continue to man and remain in the industries, producing and transporting goods for consumption but refusing any longer to yeild up surplus value to the parasite class. The General Strike would be a General Lockout against these idle drones who now hold as their `private property’ the machinery upon which the human race depends for life.
Mass Opposition to Exploitation
The General Strike is conditioned upon the WILL of the workers to make it effective and their stubborn determination to put an end to exploitation by producing goods for USE instead of PROFIT. Unlike the small strike the General Strike does not necessarily depend on the complete withdrawal of productive effort from machinery, but rather their ability to withdraw or withhold only such effort as will put a complete stop to the profits of the parasitic ‘owners’. The ultimate aim of the General Strike as regards wages is to give each producer the full product of his labor. The demand for better wages becomes revolutionary only when it is coupled with the demand that the exploitation of labor must cease. Labor is exploited at the point of production, and it is at the point of production alone that Labor can stop the idle, absentee drones from receiving any more than they produce. Only the complete disallowal of any share whatever to nonproducers will guarantee economic justice to the working class. Working conditions under capitalism have occasioned many bitter controversies but even the most necessary demands for their betterment could hardly be called revolutionary. Even under Industrial Democracy such things will be matters of expediency and consistently sustained improvement, in keeping with recognized needs.
YOU meaning ‘WORKERS’
Occupy Oakland makes plans for citywide general strike
by Scott Johnson and Angela Woodall / 10/27/2011
Occupy Oakland protesters debated Thursday evening the practical difficulties of organizing a citywide general strike with the aim of shutting down the city of Oakland on Nov. 2. Speakers urged teachers, students, union members and workers of all stripes to participate in whatever way they could, and said the entire world was watching Oakland. “Oakland is the vanguard and epicenter of the Occupy movement,” said Clarence Thomas, a member of the powerful International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union who urged the hundreds of assembled people to support the strike. Protesters said the aim of the strike was to involve Oakland more aggressively in the global Occupy movement, and to help mobilize millions of Americans to protest against what they see as the excesses of Wall Street, unfair banking regulations and disparities in the nation’s health care system.
The call for a strike originated Wednesday evening during a General Assembly which drew at least a thousand people from all walks of life to Oakland’s Frank Ogawa Plaza, which protesters had turned into a de-facto camp site before police kicked them out last week. Many people said they felt mobilized to participate after seeing videos and pictures from Tuesday night’s violence, when at least 200 riot police from around the Bay Area clashed with protesters, lobbing tear gas, flash-bang grenades and so-called “nonlethal” projectiles to attempt to corral and contain them.
Scott Olsen, a U.S.Marine corporal and Iraqi war veteran remained in intensive care at Highland Hospital after suffering critical wounds to the head from an unidentified police projectile. His condition was improving but as of Thursday evening he remained unable to talk. Spurred on by Olsen’s injury, the actions of the police and the relative absence of Mayor Jean Quan from the debate, the calls for a general strike gained momentum as the week progressed. Oakland last had a general strike over half a century ago, in 1946, when unions shut the city down for 56 hours. Bars were allowed to remain open, but could only serve beer. Jukeboxes were left to play, but had to be placed on public sidewalks so the maximum number of people could enjoy the music. A commonly heard song was “Pistol Packin’ Mama, Lay that Pistol Down,” a national hit at the time.
Today’s protesters say the next step is to involve as many local and national unions, community organizations, churches and student movements in the shortest time possible. “We’re going to have to do a lot of work, but we understand the importance of it,” said Josie Camacho, executive secretary and treasurer of the Alameda Labor Council, which has 120 affiliated unions and claims over 100,000 Bay Area members. “This movement has its own momentum,” Camacho said, adding that she and others were urging the AFL-CIO to join their ranks.
Some who support the movement have nevertheless expressed concern about the implications of a major strike. “There are a lot of people in this city who are struggling to hold on to their jobs,” said Noweli Alexander, an East Oakland resident and comptroller at a local design company. “I support this strike, but there needs to be more discussion about the economic consequences.”
Pastor George Cummings with Imani Community Church in Oakland and a leader with the Oakland Community Organizations, or OCO, a federation of congregations, schools, and allied community organizations, representing more than 40,000 families in Oakland, said the organization had not yet taken a stand on the proposed strike. However, Cummings continued, “As a leader of OCO, to the extent that the sentiments of the movement attempt to hold the financial institutions accountable, then we would support that,” Cummings said.
So far, both a nurses association and an Oakland teachers union have come out strongly in support of the Oakland protest’s goals, but have fallen short of giving their full endorsement for a general strike. Some teachers have expressed support for the strike, but said they would not bring students along for reasons of “legal liability.” “However energetic we are about the cause, we also are law-abiding organizations that are very cautious,” said Matthew Goldstein, president of the Peralta Federation of Teachers, which represents faculty at the four East Bay schools in the Peralta Community College District. The union planned to discuss the strike with its members and with its parent organization, the California Federation of Teachers, before deciding whether to participate.
“A general strike on the order of the 1946 general strike in Oakland is an ambitious goal, especially in just a few days,” Goldstein said. “It requires groundwork to be laid. There is still much to be determined.” “I’ll definitely be here,” said Max Bell Alper, a member of United Here 2850, a hotel and hospitality workers union, headquartered near Frank Ogawa Plaza. Alper said his family was hit hard by the recession and housing crisis. Occupy Oakland, he said, was an inspiration. “It looks like we’re on course to be the next 1946.”
OAKLAND POLICEMAN CHARGED with ATTEMPTED MURDER
by SawOnPoint 1 day ago
“Former Marine with special operations training in riot control.
Before gas goes into a crowd shield bearers have to be making no progress moving a crowd or crowd must be assaulting the line. Not with sticks and stones but a no bullshit assault. 3 warnings must be given to the crowd in a manner they can hear that force is about to be used. Shield bearers take a knee and CS gas is released in grenade form first to fog out your lines because you have gas masks. You then kick the canisters along in front of your lines. Projectile gas is not used except for longer ranged engagement or trying to steer the crowd ( by steering a crowd I mean firing gas to block a street off ). You also have shotguns with beanbags and various less than lethal rounds for your launchers. These are the rules for a WARZONE!!
How did a cop who is supposed to have training on his weapon system accidentally SHOOT someone in the head with a 40mm gas canister? Simple. He was aiming at him.
I’ll be the first to admit a 40mm round is tricky to aim if you are inexperienced but anyone can tell the difference between aiming at head level and going for range.
The person that pulled that trigger has no business being a cop. He sent that round out with the intention of doing some serious damage to the protestors. I don’t care what the protestors were doing. I never broke my rules of engagement in Iraq or Afghanistan. So I can’t imagine what a protestor in the states did to deserve a headshot with a 40mm. He’s damn lucky to be alive and that cop knows he was using lethal force against a protestor he is supposed to be protecting.”