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William Gorman

News and Views from the Labor Front

Reviews the Oakland Strike

(7 December 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 50, 16 December 1946, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

OAKLAND, Dec. 7 – The general strike, the fifth in American history, ended just two days ago. Every worker should be aware of the facts and lessons of this event.

Five months ago, the Department Store Clerks, Local 1265, AFL, struck against the Kahn and Hastings department Stores. The employers refused to bargain with the union.

The six week clerks’ strike was largely uneventful. The strikers were spirited, though frequently roughed up by department store goons. Competing department stores paid for large ads asking that Kahn and Hastings be patronized because they were struck.

Sunday morning, December 1, the city government took over the job of strike-breaking for the stores. All pickets, bystanders and vehicles were cleared away within a four square block area of the stores. Fully half of Oakland’s police force came upon the strike scene armed with tear gas, billy clubs and sawed-off shotguns in order to escort a load of “hot cargo” brought up by a scab trucking outfit from Los Angeles.

It was later revealed that Chief of Police Robert Tracy had been the camouflage artist for the scabs. He had originally promised the Teamsters Union they would be informed in advance of the arrival of scab truckers. Not only did he renege on this promise, but the scab drivers had been in nearby Berkeley for over a week waiting for the chance to run through the “hot cargo” with police protection! Thus was this strike-breaking trick carried out by a prominent “public servant,” Chief of Police Tracy.

The scab truckers, who went under the name “Veterans Trucking, Inc.,” were sponsored by the Merchants and Manufacturers Association of Southern California, one of the most vicious union-busting groups in the country.

Hundreds of teamsters from Local 70 immediately came upon the strike scene. Motormen and street car operators walked off the job spontaneously. The Alameda Central Trades Council went into a huddle. Sympathy was expressed by the Alameda CIO Council. Five o’clock. Tuesday morning an area containing a million inhabitants was in the grip of the general strike.

The Bureaucrats Fumble

The AFL leaders, accustomed to doing little besides collecting dues and salaries, then fumbled the ball. The AFL members were not informed of the nature of the strike or its causes. The strike declaration was made only at the last moment. No plan for mobilizing or organizing the workers’ action was made public.

But from the very first moments the Oakland general strike was a magnificent tribute to the power of Oakland’s working class. Not a bus or street car moved. Except for the few CIO or unorganized shops, not a factory wheel turned. No ships sailed from Oakland harbor. More than ten thousand workers gathered for mass picketing in front of Hasting’ and Kahn’s on the first and second days of the strike. The police, in full force a few days previous, now were scarce and inconspicuous.

Especially singled out by the workers’ wrath were the two venomously anti-labor sheets: Hearst’s Post Enquirer and Knowland’s Tribune.

The press retaliated. The Tribune’s radio station monotonously described every stubbed toe at the mass picketing. Hearst’s Frisco Call-Bulletin featured a large scare headline, Fighting on Streets.

Packed Strike Meetings

The strike mass meeting held in the Civic Auditorium was packed by over 15,000 workers despite the absence of any public transportation and a strong rain. The AFL leaders were stunned when facing this huge, aroused rank and file. So conditioned to talking to each other or to the bosses, they could only express their amazement at the presence of so many workers. Only the representatives of the teamsters and sailors were exceptions. The workers roared their approval when Harry Lundberg described the police actions as “fascist tactics.” Those speakers who characterized the struggle as a showdown fight, which had to be fought through no matter what the cost, received the loudest ovations.

The Bay Area Branch of the Workers Party gave out a leaflet at the meeting which declared its full solidarity with the general strike. (The leaflet is reprinted in an adjacent column.) All available copies of LABOR ACTION were quickly sold.

The union representatives had been closeted with the city manager and the employers from the very first day of the strike. At the mass meeting, they announced the rejection of the employers’ plan that the issues be left in the hands of a nine-man committee while the general strike be immediately ended. The reason for the rejection was the employers’ insistent refusal to bargain with the clerks at Kahn’s and Hastings’. Thus the general strike was to go into its second day to win a real victory for the striking clerks.

The CIO mass meeting was planned for Thursday night, to announce its joining of the walkout, which would stop all public services still in operation – gas, electricity and telephone – and would pull out auto, longshore and rubber workers. Rumors were flying that the powerful San Francisco AFL would join the walkout and thus completely tie up both sides of the Bay. But some AFL leaders became nervous and jittery and on Wednesday afternoon, Dave Beck, vice-president of the Teamsters Union, ordered Teamsters Local 70 to return to work regardless of the outcome of labor’s negotiations.

Feeling against this strike-breaking statement ran high. The press gloated over it while the teamsters were forced to maintain a frustrated silence.

The Alameda Central Trades Council gave out a general back-to-work order when the new city manager, John Hassler, had given them assurances that the police would not be used as scab herders. The union leaders immediately hailed this as the attainment of the strike’s objectives and declared the general strike to be a success, though no promise was received by Kahn’s and Hastings’ to negotiate with the Clerks Union.

However, two days after the strike’s conclusion, it has become clear that the settlement is little besides an uneasy truce. Yesterday, the police provided a cordon for the scabs leaving the store. Hassler denied making any statement other than that he “would avoid violence and uphold the law.”

Whatever the final outcome, the strike has achieved certain limited objectives. The provocative scab actions by the city and government were ended. Those bosses who would consider such actions now know that they will face a united powerful labor movement. The response of the workers an this situation will help prevent its repetition. But most important, it has been an inspiring, unforgettable demonstration of the strength of the 130,000 workers.

The general strike, which lasted for less than three days, is filled with vital lessons for the workers of this area and of the entire country. To the degree that these lessons are learned, future struggles will be assured of success.

Extent of Workers’ Power

The workers, as a result of this experience, were confronted most obviously with the extent of their class strength and power. In contrast with strike actions against particular bosses, this was a united action by tens of thousands of Oakland’s workers against the handful of Oakland’s big business men. The workers, for so long divided and split up by the ossified craft unions, joined their union brothers in militant solidarity. With great expectancy they awaited the actions of their union brothers in the CIO and across the bay in San Francisco.

By failing to join the walkout at the very beginning, the CIO missed the greatest opportunity offered in this area for cementing a powerful rank-and-file unity, which could have had repercussions elsewhere. The full explanation of the behavior of the Stalinist CIO leaders is not yet clear, but they apparently wanted a general strike on their hands as little as did their AFL counterparts.

To many thousands of the strikers it has become clear that the Oakland cop with his billy and the federal judge in his flowing judicial robes are not neutral in the strike struggles. They are merely part of the whole army of stooges and hirelings of the American capitalist class, trained to beat down union men and protect scabbing employees.

The AFL rank and file had a good look at their high-paid labor careerists who occupy the executive positions in their unions. The bungling, the confusion, the lack of planning, the indecision of these leaders did not completely escape many of the rank and file.

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