Profile picture
Erik Loomis @ErikLoomis
, 43 tweets, 7 min read Read on Twitter
This Day in Labor History: December 3, 1946. Workers in Oakland are on strike in part of the Oakland General Strike, one of the most underrated moments in American history. Let's talk about how workers' direct action helped create the middle class and why it matters today.
How important do I think this strike was? The Oakland General Strike is the core of Chapter 7 of my new book. Yes, I think it goes that far to explain the postwar era of worker power. Now as to why.…
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.
4.5 million strikers! And what's notable is that this was not some sort of revolutionary movement. People wanted money and they wanted political power. 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 we usually associate the CIO with 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.
Here's another good picture from 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.
Now, the strike wasn't particularly successful in the end. But it's still tremendously meaningful. So bear with me here a bit.
A majority of workers wanted to continue striking and CIO unions considered joining in support, but the strike fell apart because of a single labor leader: the Teamsters' leader Dave Beck, who was politically conservative and found this strike highly distasteful.
The Teamsters were the most powerful union in Oakland. Beck forced a compromise when he pulled his union off the lines and endorsed a moderate settlement that accomplished almost nothing and quite literally did not address the department store workers concerns.
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.
See, the general strike was also about political power. The unions wanted to go after the Knowland family, which not only controlled Oakland but the scion of which was a U.S. senator. Part of this was mobilizing workers to turn Oakland into a union city.
Female retail clerks remained on strike an additional five months, finally giving up and returning to work without winning most of their demands.
Women started this massive action and yet men took it over immediately, relegating women workers to the sidelines, just as they did in the labor movement and the shop floor every day.
The Oakland General Strike clearly demonstrates the significant change in the types of demands workers made after World War II. The strike had specific political goals: overturning a hated city political machine, making Oakland a union-friendly city, and ensuring better wages.
These popular objectives had the potential to transform the American power structure. The power of workers on display in Oakland was a sea change of difference from the desperation workers felt a mere decade earlier.
The strike also shows us how divisions within organized labor place sharp limits on how much power unions can exercise. Even in a strike without an explicitly radical platform, rank and file power threatened a leader like Dave Beck, who could take his powerful union off the lines
The American labor movement’s diversity continued to lead to discord, not only between the AFL and CIO, but between conservative and left-leaning unions and between local union activists and their national bosses.
Many of labor’s most powerful figures had great personal ambition but also distrusted their own members. Many were politically conservative and often supported Republican candidates, such as the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, whose leadership voted for Republicans until 1964.
Even if most rank and file Oakland workers wanted the Knowland machine gone and pro-union politicians to replace it, the opposition of powerful national union leaders made that proposition very difficult and doomed the strike.
Labor leaders sought to control their members, not encourage their activism, most notoriously when International Longshoremen’s Association president Joseph “King” Ryan used physical violence and redbaiting to destroy dissident strikers in his own union
So the Oakland General Strike says much for us today. First, it shows the power of worker activism. To shut down a city in a coordinated action is an amazing moment. Let's not romanticize strikes, but this was built out of real organizing for years beforehand.
A general strike doesn't come out of nowhere. It comes out of organizing for a long time. If you think we should have a general strike today, the answer is to start organizing your family and your coworkers and your friends, not to romanticize the act.
Second, it shows how even a quite unradical agenda can both lead to radical actions and seriously threaten power. That this was a rank-and-file action also threatened established union leadership.
Third, the demands of the Oakland workers around money and Democratic politics really reflect how unions will operate in the postwar period. We rightfully bemoan the redbaiting that drove the communists out of the unions. But communists did not make up the labor movement.
Even without communists, the labor movement could still be very robust and flexing some serious political muscles.
Fourth, even a relatively not radical agenda that could lead to a major backlash among conservative Americans. Oakland contributed significantly to Taft-Hartley and other anti-union legislation. This scared people. And not just the rich.
Unions were starkly unpopular in much of the country. When LBJ ran for the Senate in 1948, he accused his opponent of being pro-union. It was a lie. LBJ was more pro-union. But he knew what would win with Texas voters. He was right.
So the Oakland General Strike thus demonstrates both the great power and great limitations of unions at the peak of their strength.
Finally, it demonstrates how women both are critical to the labor movement and how they get tossed aside. Women started this strike. Then male union leaders took power from them for their own agendas and the women were left holding the bag.
Sexism and misogyny are central to the entire experience of both American work and American unionism and that's a legacy we still often don't face, assuming in the media that the single-family income ideal is a man supporting a wife and family. Ignores reality, then and now.
So for me, this the emblematic strike of the era when unions were at their most powerful. One can argue for others--the steel strikes of 52 and 59 for instance.
Anyway, back tomorrow to talk about Theodore Roosevelt, unionbuster.
Missing some Tweet in this thread?
You can try to force a refresh.

Like this thread? Get email updates or save it to PDF!

Subscribe to Erik Loomis
Profile picture

Get real-time email alerts when new unrolls are available from this author!

This content may be removed anytime!

Twitter may remove this content at anytime, convert it as a PDF, save and print for later use!

Try unrolling a thread yourself!

how to unroll video

1) Follow Thread Reader App on Twitter so you can easily mention us!

2) Go to a Twitter thread (series of Tweets by the same owner) and mention us with a keyword "unroll" @threadreaderapp unroll

You can practice here first or read more on our help page!

Did Thread Reader help you today?

Support us! We are indie developers!

This site is made by just three indie developers on a laptop doing marketing, support and development! Read more about the story.

Become a Premium Member and get exclusive features!

Premium member ($30.00/year)

Too expensive? Make a small donation by buying us coffee ($5) or help with server cost ($10)

Donate via Paypal Become our Patreon

Thank you for your support!