In memory of Jeremy Prickett, lifelong socialist, machinist, and comrade whose research was the foundation for this article.
“Women pickets have been bruised and battered by company goons … Scab herding power groups have insulted the sacred emblem of the G.I. by putting it on strike breakers … This is the start of a national program to break labor.” – Local 1265 President John Philpot
Last December was the 75th anniversary of the 1946 Oakland General Strike. It was centered around women retail clerks, who were on strike for union wages, and a closed shop at two department stores that straddled Latham Square in Downtown Oakland: Kahn’s and Hastings. Joining them on the picket line during their off time were local Teamsters, who also refused to cross picket lines to deliver merchandise.
Heavily armed Oakland Police Department (OPD) officers were sent in to beat up women picketers and their supporters, tow away their cars, and escort professional scabs from Los Angeles across picket lines to deliver 12 loads of merchandise.
Within days, over 100,000 workers walked out and shut down Oakland for two and a half days.
Pent-Up Anger Explodes
World War II ended in September of the year prior. The ruling class had taken up a policy of “labor stabilization” in order to guarantee sufficient production of arms and supplies during the war. Women entered the workforce in large numbers, in relatively well-paying union shipyard jobs and war industries. Employers were forced to accept unions, and in exchange the bosses got labor peace and near-guaranteed profits from federal government contracts. AFL and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) leaders, in return, signed no-strike pledges in the interest of “wartime unity,” hamstringing workers’ ability to fight for better working conditions. The overwhelming message was “we’re all in this together.”
However, wages didn’t keep up with the cost of living, and there wasn’t much to spend money on with war rationing in effect and industry retooled to support the war effort. Demand was also pent up from the Great Depression where workers had no money to spend, and from the war, where there was nothing to spend it on.
A generation of workers had sacrificed years of their youth, and in many cases, gave their lives to fight fascism. They came home to a ruling class which was making record profits while organizing to reverse the gains that labor had made in the 1930s. Inflation spiked up to 18% as veterans returned from the war, unemployment rose, and there was a shortage of housing in Oakland, further squeezing workers. For those who had been at home, and those who were sent abroad during the war, “we’re all in this together” started to ring hollow.
The brutality of the OPD no doubt reminded workers of Bloody Thursday in 1934 where two strikers were shot dead by San Francisco cops. This provoked the San Francisco General Strike, marking a huge turning point for labor, and Bay Area workers were not about to go back to the open-shop era they fought hard to end. The time for sacrifice needed to be over.
The largest strike wave in U.S. history broke out in 1946, the year of the Oakland General Strike. 4.5 million workers went on strike that year as part of over 5,000 strikes, and at one point, 1.6 million US workers were on strike at the same time. In the Bay Area, 25,000 shipyard machinists went on a 5-month strike starting in late 1945. The ILWU and Sailor’s Union Bay Area locals joined the Great Maritime Strike of 1946, which ended a week before the Oakland General Strike.
Employer-Dominated Work Culture & the ‘Ready Room’
Reconversion to the peacetime economy meant that women were being forced out of well-paid union jobs in the shipyards and had to find work – often in low-paid retail. Early in 1946, Department Store Employees Local 1265 won victories unionizing at Kress Co. department store and Oakland’s shoe stores. On the other hand, workers at Kahn’s department store, who didn’t yet have a union, were forced to accept what was called a “Ready Room.” Workers showed up in the morning to wait around in a room in the basement for work that wasn’t guaranteed. If the bosses didn’t need them, they were sent home in the afternoon without pay. It was demoralizing, and bosses could threaten to throw workers who were “causing trouble” into the Ready Room if they didn’t shape up.
That summer, Kahn’s workers, along with workers at the Hastings department store across the street, caught wind that workers at the union shops down the street were making at least 10 dollars more a week than them. They walked over to the Local 1265 office and asked – why didn’t you organize us? Three-quarters of Kahn’s 850 employees, and nearly all 100 at nearby Hastings voted to inform their bosses they were joining the union, and demanded union wages and an end to the Ready Room. On October 23rd, workers at Hastings walked out on strike. They were joined the next week by Kahn’s workers, who walked out after one of the women organizing the clerks was fired. The newly-organized women’s militancy was infectious to the Teamsters and other workers who joined them on the picket lines during their off time.
The bosses had their own group, the Retail Merchants’ Association (RMA), which represented downtown retail stores, including Kahn’s and Hastings. Kress Co. and the shoe stores that were unionized earlier that year had been expelled from the RMA for allowing a union, and the retail bosses didn’t want to lose another two stores and risk a domino effect. They refused to negotiate with Kahn’s and Hastings workers, and demanded majorities in all 28 stores across Oakland and Berkeley before they’d recognize the union. The bosses also had city government on their side, where conservative machine politics dominated, and Joseph Knowland, owner of the Oakland Tribune, more or less ran the show. The RMA, the city, the police department and the press were determined to put a stop to the strike.
The plan they came up with wasn’t very original, but had worked for them for decades: break the strike by brute force. On December 1st, one month into the strike, the city and RMA ordered over 250 Oakland PD officers with shotguns and teargas to Latham Square to clear out picketers in front of the two stores, starting at 6 AM. They set up machine guns, beat the mostly women picketers with billy clubs, and towed away their cars. The day before, OPD had assured the Central Labor Council that they could safely park their cars around the stores and that pickets would be allowed to inspect the scab trucks for weapons. The union leaders had a working relationship with the police and took them at their word. Scabs from GI-Veteran’s Trucking Company of Los Angeles were escorted by police through the picket lines in front of the two stores while they delivered 12 truckloads of merchandise that had been covertly stored in a department store warehouse in Berkeley.
Anger at the Cops Explodes
Around 7 AM, a union streetcar driver on his route rolled up to the scene, stopped his car, and rendered it inoperable when he realized what was going on – viewing continuing his route as tantamount to crossing a picket line.
The moment that was thought to have sparked the outrage that fueled the General Strike was when Newton Selvidge, a Key System public transit employee who tried to stop the strikebreakers, was run over by a 3-wheeled OPD motorcycle. Word spread fast, as Latham Square was a major hub for public transit, and crowds started to grow. On top of interfering with their perceived right as workers to form a union, the bosses were colluding with their city government to use their tax dollars to pay police to break their strike. Workers were angry and ready to fight. The Teamsters, who had a tradition of militancy and knew the power they had in their ability to stop deliveries, were especially angry and played a key role in growing the demonstrations. By the next day, everyone in town heard about what was happening at Latham Square, and more and more workers began to join the crowds.
With demonstrations escalating on the ground, the AFL Alameda County Central Labor Council knew they needed to take action. Union officials voted to order all AFL members in Alameda county to “take a holiday” the following day to protest the use of police to break a strike, and scheduled a mass membership meeting for the following night. The General Strike officially started the following morning at 5 AM, when 100,000 AFL workers across the county walked off their jobs. More than 5,000 pickets and sympathizers (some reports of up to 20,000 in the surrounding area) gathered in front of the entrances to Kahn’s and Hastings, shouting down the police, and stopping those few shoppers attempting to cross picket lines.
Workers Run Oakland
Oakland was virtually crimeless during the strike. Downtown was already decorated with December tinsel, and the demonstrations took on a celebratory, holiday mood. Strikers allowed downtown bars to stay open as long as they rolled their jukeboxes outside and played them for free, and agreed not to sell hard liquor.
All public transit was stopped, causing bumper-to-bumper traffic across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Only essential services like pharmacies, milk deliveries, hospital, and sanitation were allowed to remain open. Restaurants opened early in the morning, but were shut down by the unions by around 8AM. Teamsters had also indiscriminately closed down some of the smaller mom and pop food markets. Because the unions had not set up their own eateries to feed strikers, some establishments had to be reopened ad hoc later in the day.
The unions also shut down the press. The Central Labor Council ordered pickets at four Alameda County newspapers, including the Oakland Tribune, and Teamsters refused to deliver papers from San Francisco.
Mass Meeting Demands to Widen Strike
That night, 10,000 union members packed the Oakland Auditorium for a mass membership meeting, with at least 5,000 more listening through loudspeakers outside in the rain. Sailors’ Union of the Pacific leader, Harry Lundeberg, was the principal speaker that night. He didn’t have anything to add to a plan of action, but riled up the crowd by calling the strikebreakers finks and the city government the biggest finks of all, whom he accused of taking lessons from Hitler and Stalin. The conviction of the workers was that the strike must spread. Robert Ash of the Alameda County Labor Council called on all workers “on holiday” to report for picket duty outside of Kahn’s and Hastings the following morning at 8 AM.
The following day, crowds surged to around 35,000 workers downtown. The Sailor’s Union of the Pacific crews walked off of three ships holding military supplies for troops still in Japan and joined the strike downtown. Groups of war veterans among the strikers organized themselves into squads and marched to the Oakland Tribune tower and City Hall.
The strike almost spread across the bay to San Francisco. Twenty miles south, San Mateo Labor Council voted for a sympathy strike if similar action was taken in San Francisco. Although the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the other union federation, pledged that it wouldn’t cross picket lines, it didn’t organize any walkouts. Many CIO machinists informally observed the “work holiday”. Harry Bridges, leader of the San Francisco General Strike and a supporter of the Stalinized Communist Party, who had recently committed to an indefinite extension of the wartime no-strike pledge, refused to get involved. The San Francisco Labor Council also refused to get involved, arguing that their locals had “no problems with their employers!”
Meanwhile, the city was working with the bosses to try to put an end to the strike. The mayor threatened to call a state of emergency, calling the strike “an attempt to substitute the physical force of mobs for that of government.” He made an emergency appointment of a new city manager, John Hassler, who was called on to organize a meeting between the Retail Merchants’ Association and labor officials to seek a “peace formula.” In negotiations with labor leaders, Hassler agreed that the police would no longer be used to protect strikebreakers, that police would equally protect workers’ civil rights and employers’ property rights, and that the strikebreakers would be sent back to Los Angeles.
Bosses and Labor Leaders Begin to Regain Control
Local Teamster leader Charles Real played a two-faced role. He disclaimed responsibility for the strike, claiming he was traveling to Washington at the time the strike was called. On the one hand, he assured workers that the “decision to return to work would have to come from the membership.” On the other hand, he told newspapers he’d “do everything possible to have the strike called off and settled peaceably.” Most of the Teamsters’ Local 70 leadership had already been covertly against the strike, despite its membership being some of its most militant defenders.
Dave Beck, vice-president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, really wanted to put the nail in the coffin of the strike. He wired orders to call it off and send the Teamsters back to work. He was quoted in the newspapers proclaiming: “this damn general strike is nothing but a revolution. It ain’t labor tactics, it’s revolutionary tactics”.
So the following morning, business agents from the 142 AFL unions voted to end the strike shortly before 11 AM, just over two days in, on recommendation from the strike steering committee who argued that “…our civil liberties have been restored by the appointment of a responsible executive head to our city government. We have the assurance from Mr. Hassler that the causes of the general walkout have been removed”. It was announced over loudspeaker to the objection and protest by a heartbroken and angry crowd. A CIO mass meeting was planned that night to discuss “strike unity”, but was never held. None of the Khan’s and Hastings workers’ original demands were met, and their strike continued, with pickets dwindling down into the several hundreds, and it would take many more months before they were to win a union.
The City Manager’s promise to not use police to break strikes was broken as quickly as it was made. Soon after the General Strike ended, he stated, “I expect the stores to remain open and I expect to give protection to the stores.” It also came out that he was at the planning meetings for the police strikebreaking operation on December 1st!
As the retail clerks’ strike continued, building trades union members helped reinforce the picket lines, and a ban was instituted on all RMA construction projects. The Labor Council launched a boycott of all RMA affiliated stores, and a campaign for customers to cancel their credit accounts.
Bosses Use the Courts and Legislation Against the Unions
The Retail Merchants obtained a court injunction limiting pickets to 5 per store entrance. The same day that the Oakland General Strike was called off, a Federal injunction was used to break a 400,000-strong national walkout of UMW coal miners nationally, causing UMW Leader John Lewis to declare, “if actions of this kind can be successfully persisted in, the government will be overthrown, and the government that would take its place would be a dictatorship.”
In addition, hundreds of bills were being lined up in Congress to try to weaken and break labor unions, including the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. With the government and courts continuing an offensive against the Retail Clerks’ and unions more broadly, and fighting for a return to the open shop, local labor leaders felt pressure to take action. The AFL and CIO, who were split at the time, had labor unity to fight the anti-labor offensive as a national priority. The AFL had tended to take a lobbying approach, while the Communist Party in the CIO was pushing hard for joint labor electoral action – which had unfortunately meant campaigning for “New Deal” Democrats.
In March of 1947, the AFL Central Labor Council and the CIO formed the “Joint Labor Committee to Combat Anti-Labor Legislation.” At a mass rally of 10,000 union members at Oakland Auditorium in April, the main message of the committee was that workers’ unions, jobs, and democratic rights were at stake. The Joint Labor Committee endorsed five city council “labor” candidates to be run by the “Oakland Voters’ League,” a new organization established to help attract middle class support.
Oakland Labor Runs City Council Candidates
The Joint Labor Committee’s platform had some positive planks, starting with fighting against the use of police in labor relations, and including campaigning:
- To reverse the decay of public transportation and take it completely into public ownership
- For rent control
- For public housing
- For more money for existing schools and construction of new schools
- For investigation of police brutality against black residents
- To stop stalling on public works projects approved by voters in 1945
- Against newly introduced parking meters – viewed by labor as a regressive tax
The candidates themselves weren’t really from the labor movement, besides one worker who wasn’t really active in his union. The Joint Labor Committee and Oakland Voters’ League also weren’t set up as participatory organizations with democratic structures. There were no regular public meetings and little activity from the AFL rank and file. The campaign was run in a top-down fashion, and relied heavily on middle-class volunteers as precinct workers. Despite all the weaknesses of this approach, there was tremendous enthusiasm for the campaign’s platform and anger at the city council’s use of police brutality against unions. The five candidates won majorities in the April primaries.
This spurred an all out anti-communist smear campaign against the candidates, led by the Oakland Tribune, which asserted that Oakland had been “picked as a testing ground in an effort to secure Communist control.” The Oakland Voters’ League (OVL) launched a large-scale neighborhood canvassing campaign, distributing an “Oakland Voters’ Herald” news sheet to counter the coverage in the Tribune. A parade was held on the eve of the election, where a mass torchlight procession marched downtown. A United Negro Labor Committee float depicted AFL and CIO pallbearers lowering a casket named “The Machine” into the ground, and two gloved fists, one black and one white, smashing the Oakland Tribune tower, with the text “Take the power out of the Tower.”
The May city council election turned out 65% of Oakland voters, and four out of the five labor-backed Oakland Voters’ League candidates won seats on the nine-member city council. The majority of their support came from the diverse, working-class neighborhoods of West and East Oakland. This wasn’t a majority, but it was a sharp rejection of Oakland’s conservative political machine, police strike-breaking, the anti-labor city, state, and national government, and rampant red-baiting. The Kahn’s-Hastings strike ended the day after the election, after a six month war of attrition, with a less-than-spectacular compromise (a modified agency shop), but a union nonetheless.
The four labor representatives remained isolated and did not, however, use their positions to mobilize the labor movement to fight for their progressive platform planks. Instead, they were slowly integrated into the old machine and took up the strategy of backroom deals. In 1949, the four OVL city councilors drafted a request for 3,000 units of federal public housing, and knew they would need one defector from the other side to pass the measure. They traded support for the mayoral candidacy of one of the Knowland-backed councilors in exchange for the vote they needed. The bosses’ electoral “Machine” adapted.
This triggered a backlash from the anti-housing Knowland forces and the Committee for Home Protection, a newly-formed coalition of private landlords who saw any public housing as a downward pressure on their ability to keep rents high. The landlords whipped up racism and anti-communism in the context of a growing economy and passed an anti-public housing referendum. They went on to launch a recall campaign against three of the OVL representatives, ousting one of them in a special election. Two others were voted out in a low-turnout election the following year.
The four labor representatives were not accountable to a democratic, working-class organization, which could have had their backs in mobilizing the labor movement to fight for further expansion of public housing, rent control, new schools, fighting police brutality, and more. Besides the housing issue, they had backpedaled on nearly everything else on their platform. Telling of the relationship (or lack thereof) between the four labor representatives in office, the CIO, and the wider working class, the CIO’s Labor Herald explained that the defeat “was a tragic lesson in the cost of disunity and political opportunism.”
Lessons of the Oakland General Strike
The working class in 1946 Oakland, led by the courageous women retail clerks, showed they were willing to take on a militant fight for improvements in working conditions, against police oppression and to demand political power. The workers were hamstrung by labor leaders who viewed organized labor as a reforming influence on the capitalist class, rather than as a powerful force to win broader gains for the whole working class and part of building an independent movement of the working class as resulting in building for a socialist transformation of society. By framing the world this way, the AFL and CIO leaders saw the General Strike as something spiraling out of control that could lead both to the demise of their own careers and a breakdown of their relationship with the ‘progressive’ bosses and the Democratic Party.
Just as the pandemic lockdowns exposed how it is workers who are essential to keeping society going, so too did the Oakland General strike point towards the possibility of a worker-run world. When the working class shuts down capitalist society, the onus is put on the working class to run essential services in its stead. An example of this is the strong central foresight of a militant, class conscious leadership that was seen in the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934, whose strike also grew into a general strike which called into question who really runs society. Minneapolis Trotskyists leaders of Teamsters Local 574 rented a building to serve as a headquarters and use as a commissary to feed hungry strikers, and friendly grocers were solicited to supply food.
Like Minneapolis Teamsters Local 574 experienced in 1934, strikers in Oakland knew that the press would be used to try to break the strike and turn public opinion against it with red scare and anti-union propaganda. Bay Area workers had experienced similar tactics during the San Francisco General Strike of 1934, and taking lessons from that last big wave of labor struggle, shut down the bosses’ propaganda arm from the get-go.
The end of the war was a huge opportunity for American labor. The workers stepped up across the country to fight with 116 million days lost in strikes in 1946. In Britain the workers elected a Labour Government establishing National Healthcare and bringing steel, coal and the railroads into public ownership. The biggest force on the left in the labor movement, the mass Communist Party, had destroyed their own credibility during the war by militantly enforcing the no-strike policy. The CIO and communists had hitched their wagons to New Deal Democrats, weakening the possibility of a US Labor Party. Walter Reuther, former socialist and a CIO leader, broke the back of the movement for universal healthcare by championing union-employer health insurance.
In this wider context, the Oakland General strike mirrored the general selling-out of the union membership, and the wider working class nationally, by its own leaders. Bosses and union leaders alike were terrified by the very effective mass picketing that challenged the power of the status quo. Calling off the strike before substantial gains were made and while the movement was still growing was a mistake. Moving forward to run labor candidates pointed in the right direction, but failing to organize an independent multi-racial party of Labor with neighborhood and citywide democratic structures was a huge setback, and a factor in the decades of radical inequality that has shaped Oakland ever since.
Today’s current upsurge in anger at the bosses and American institutions is also accompanied by a huge increase in interest in unions and unionization. The General Strike was called a “work holiday” by union officials in part, no doubt, to please the labor lawyers. For workers more widely, the Holiday expressed the desire for a break from war austerity, from long hours, and from the stress of work life. Today workers are seeking a real Holiday; a break from accepting their often shit reality of low pay and unsafe work. The experience of young people today is not dissimilar to the young women who initiated the General Strike; the Ready Room culture is not so far from the gig economy, app-based workforce. As Starbucks workers now begin to join the wave towards unionization, the 1946 Oakland General Strike captures the inspiration of struggle, but also the pitfalls of misleadership.