Today we celebrate the 65th anniversary of the Oakland General Strike.
The Oakland general strike came out of the massive changes to the Bay Area during World War II. Hundreds of thousands of Americans moved to San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond, and other cities to work in wartime industries. During World War II, the AFL and CIO turned their energies toward defeating the fascist menace of Germany and Japan. The administration of Franklin Roosevelt, wanting to avoid strikes that would undermine wartime production, brought both the AFL and CIO into wartime planning. But while consumer prices rose during the war, wages did not. The motivated and radicalized workers wanted to strike, but their leaders and the federal government urged them to work through it.
When the war ended however, the country was overtaken by a wave of strikes. In 1946, 4.5 million workers went on strike throughout the United States, the greatest number of strikers in one year in American history. Wages did not keep up with rapidly rising prices and higher wages were the core demand of almost all the strikers.
The situation in Oakland was especially volatile because of the city’s Retail Merchants Association, a powerful and deeply anti-union business organization. These department stores owners employed mostly women, who they believed would accept low wages. The Department and Specialty Store Employees Union Local 1265 organized workers at these downtown stores. Early in 1946, they won victories at smaller stores and decided to take on the biggest retailers, Kahn’s and Hastings. A month-long strike ensued in the late fall of 1946. This turned into one of the biggest challenges to corporate America in the postwar years. In October, 400 workers at Kahn’s and Hastings went on strike. In early December, the strike escalated when the store owners conspired with the police and Oakland’s conservative leadership to use police force to clear away the strikers and allow for truck deliveries.
Although the CIO had the more radical agenda, it was actually the AFL who decided to call for a general strike on December 2, 1946 in support of the striking department store workers. AFL workers from 142 unions around Oakland walked off their jobs—bus drivers, teamsters, sailors, machinists, cannery workers, railroad porters, waiters, waitresses, cooks. For over two days, Oakland shut down. Over 100,000 workers participated in the strike.
The strikers controlled Oakland. All businesses except for pharmacies and food markets shut down. Bars could stay open but could only serve beer and had to put their juke boxes outside and allow for their free use. Couples literally danced in the streets. Recently returned war veterans created squadrons to prepare for battle. Union leadership took a back seat to rank and file actions.
Although it is often spun in Oakland legend that the general strike was a successful action, it really wasn’t. A majority of workers wanted to continue striking and CIO unions considered joining in support, but the strike fell apart because of a single corrupt labor leader. Dave Beck, the head of the Teamsters and Jimmy Hoffa’s mentor, forced a compromise when he pulled his powerful union off the lines and endorsed a moderate settlement that accomplished almost nothing and quite literally did not address the department store workers concerns at all. Beck said the strike threatened revolution and redbaited it out of existence. While the still agitated workers managed to elect several labor representatives to the city council, the entire apparatus of the city used the general strike to attack all labor. The police, the city government, and the Oakland Tribune combined to resist not only the unionization of the department stores, but all labor in Oakland.
This story overturns some of the standard narrative of mid-20th century American labor. That narrative suggest a conservative AFL, radical CIO, solidarity of the left, throwing out of the radicals in the 50s, etc. But in Oakland it was complicated. First, the CIO stayed out of the strike. Somewhat embarrassingly, Harry Bridges, the great leftist head of the Longshoremen, kept his distance. Bridges, the leader of the 1934 San Francisco General Strike and head of the California CIO had committed to a nine-year extension of the World War II no-strike pledge. Many looked to Bridges for leadership but he completely dropped the ball. The AFL international was not so comfortable with this strike, but like many AFL actions, there was a big difference between the international and the locals. We think of the AFL as conservative and in its leadership it was, but the rank and file were often quite radical. When thinking about labor, it’s important to avoid these generalizations when thinking about how labor actually operated. At the same time, the corrupt leadership of the AFL with Beck, part of the standard narrative of this period, was in full effect and the powerful Teamsters undermined the action.
While Oakland remained a strong union city after this, the strikes of 1946 around the nation and especially the Oakland General Strike led to the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which undermined the nation’s labor movement and continues to do so today.