By Stan Weir
(Originally as a section of the article “American Labor on the Defensive: A 1940’s Odyssey” in Radical America vol. 9, nos. 4-5, pp. 178-185)
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.