The 1946 Oakland general strike began with a dispute at two downtown department stores, Hastings’ and Kahn’s, where 425 clerks (mostly women) were on strike for union recognition.
The strike, a landmark event in Northern California labor history, was also a significant, though misunderstood, episode in the strike wave of 1945-1946, the greatest strike wave in numbers in US history at the point.
The Oakland strike was very much in the spirit of the strike wave but it wasn’t a “called strike.” At the time Stan Weir was employed on the assembly line at Chevrolet’s East Oakland plant, a member of UAW local 76. He was riding a streetcar, on his way to work on Monday morning, December 3, the day Oakland was shut down.
“Shortly before 5 am, Monday, December 3, 1946, hundreds of workers passing through downtown Oakland… 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 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 was filled with workers, they milled about the city’s core for several hours and then organized themselves.”
World War II ended in August, 14, 1945. V-J Day marked the end of war abroad and the beginning of rebellion at home. There had been strikes throughout the war years, often wildcat strikes in defiance of the no-strike pledge – policy demanded by the government from above, and supported by not only the unions but also radical organizations including the Communist Party.
So one result was pent-up demands. There were frustrated expectations – plus the widely held conviction that the time for sacrifice – both overseas and at home – was over. There was the belief that there had been sacrifice enough. By the end of September the number of days “lost” (won) to strikes had doubled, by the end of October it had doubled again. 200,000 coal miners struck in September; 44,000 Northwest lumber workers followed; as did 70,000 Midwest truck drivers, 40,000 machinists in San Francisco and Oakland, East Coast longshoremen, and many more – and this despite the statement from Philip Murray, president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), that “no change will be made in the CIO’s no-strike policy…” and the similar pledge by American Federation of Labor (AFL) President William Green: “V-J Day will not mean an automatic ending of the restraint on strikes.”
1945 was just the prelude and US workers were not to be contained. There were more than 5000 major strikes in 1946, it was the largest and most sustained strike wave in US history, surpassing the strike years of 1919 and 1934. These strikes included the autoworkers who closed eighty General Motors plants in 50 cities. The steelworkers struck for 25 days, 750,000 strong, at that point the single largest strike in US history (to be surpassed by Latino May Day strikers in 2006). 400,000 coal miners struck. President Truman threatened to draft striking railroad workers.
At one point, there were 1,600,000 workers on strike. By the end of the year 4.6 million workers had been on strike. 28,500,000 work days had been lost to the employers. It was a magnificent display of working class power – it was “too big,” also too popular, to be defeated.
The trade union leadership was divided at the top – the AFL still competed with the CIO, though not for long, as they soon united to purge the left. Rank-and-file solidarity, however, was widespread. Just as in 1919 and 1934, the strike wave increased workers appetites; in 1919 there was the general strike in Seattle and in 1934 the general strike in Minneapolis.
In 1946 there were general strikes in Rochester, NY; Stamford, CT; Lancaster and Pittsburgh, PA and, of course, Oakland, CA.
“By nightfall /on the 3rd/ 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 million, strangers passed each other on the street and did not have fear, but the opposite.”
The Oakland Strike spread from the bottom up. There was never much evidence of official union leadership in the streets. But there were streetcar operators and bus drivers and truck drivers who refused to honor police cordons demanded an end to “scab” labor and denounced the city administration and the police.
“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-labor 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…
“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.
At last, the unions acted. 142 unions affiliated with the Alameda County AFL declared a “work holiday” and 100,000 workers walked off their jobs. The business of Oakland effectively came to a halt.
“A number of the secondary Oakland and Alameda County union leaders did what they could to create a semblance of straight trade-union organization. The ranks, unused to leading themselves and having no precedent for this sort of strike in their own experience, wanted the well-known labor leaders in the Bay Area to step forward with expertise, aid, and public legitimization.
“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 organized 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 honor 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 strike ended two days later. It was “… 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 Labor 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 trucks 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.”
Historians tend to argue that 1946 strikes were mostly about wages, a “wage offensive” writes one. And this was true to a degree and in this the strikes were often successful, in the short term, in two ways; first in today’s terms, workers average gains were about $2 an hour and, because of the way demands were formulated, low page workers benefited most – hence the idea at the time of a “solidarity wage.” But they were also about lives and beliefs, workers aspirations and they were a rebellion against control from above.
So the 1946 strikes also reflected the legacy of the 1930s, the inheritance of confidence US workers felt along with their capacity to organize and fight, but there would not be another such uprising until the strike wave of the 1970s (1967-1981).
In a sense the Oakland strike was both an end and a beginning. The victories of the 1930s were consolidated but from on high – by the “new men of power” (Mills). There were no women on labor’s first team. These men collaborated with management and government officials to institute a corporate compact, an unwritten agreement, the so-called “The New Deal Formula” of Industrial Relations.” The unions would “deliver the goods” but this and post-war prosperity compromised, and sometimes eliminated rank-and-file participation and undermined shop floor power – wages could be increased, benefits won (for union members) by making deals at the top. McCarthyism drove the rebels to the margins. In addition, wartime patriotism, both as the result of service, but also reflecting war-time no-strike pledges and war productivity drives dampened militancy and deradicalized American workers. At the same time, the Cold War had already begun on the shop floor.
“The Oakland General Strike was related to the 1946 Strike Wave in time and spirit, and revealed an aspect of the temper of the nation's industrial-working-class mood at war's end. Labor 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.”
One last point, overwhelmingly, the strike wave was regional in character. It was a wave of strikes in the Northeast, the Great Lakes Region (including West Virginia) and to a lesser degree California. The rest, the South in particular, remained non-union. The demand that the CIO “organize the /segregated/ south” had been abandoned. These regions, not surprisingly, led the Republicans in recapturing Congress in 1946, in turn to the Taft-Hartley in 1947“the slave labor act” according to the AF of L).
Organizing the unorganized, black workers, women workers, farm workers, would have to wait.
See Stan Weir, Singlejack Solidarity, George Lipsitz, ed., (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2004)
Stan Weir, “The 1946 Oakland General Strike,” libcom library, Nov 22, 2005. Downloaded, October 21. 2011.
Cal Winslow is author of Labor’s Civil War in California (PM 2010) and an editor of Rebel Rank and File (Verso 2010).