This article by Richard Boyden is the most comprehensive account of the 1946 Oakland General Strike. It relies extensively on first-hand sources, such as Boyden's good friend and comrade Stan Weir. Additionally, it shows the continuity between the San Francisco General Strike in 1934—that shut Oakland down completely too—and the sequel 12 years later. Teamster piecard Dave Beck, in trying to kill the strike, put it best: “I say this damn general strike is nothing but a revolution. It isn’t labor tactics. It’s revolutionary tactics.”
A massive general strike erupted in Oakland, California, late in 1946. One hundred thousand members of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) shut down the economy of four local cities for two and a half days. Thousands of strikers took over the streets of downtown Oakland. It was an explosive, spontaneous protest against police intervention against picket lines, and against employers’ refusal to recognize the union of the newly organized retail workers.
Why did these tens of thousands of workers feel so threatened that they would engage in such a protest, and why did their protest take the form it did? Was the general strike a local anomaly, or did it reflect national labor developments?
The Oakland General Strike came at the climax of a national crisis engendered by the reconversion of the economy at the end of World War II. This had produced an enormous nation-wide strike wave and a growing sense of confrontation between labor and employers. Labor was convinced that the corporations wanted to reverse the gains the workers had made during the 1930s and the War. This conviction was aroused and sustained locally by employers’ belligerent resistance to union demands, by the threat of anti-labor legislation, and by the concurrent coal strike crisis in the East, which was broken by court injunction. Oakland workers turned to the general strike weapon partly because of the examples set by several other general strikes in various parts of the country in 1946, which had gained wide publicity, and also because of the local tradition began by the San Francisco General Strike of 1934 – local labor’s Magna Carta, which began the rebuilding of the Bay Area’s labor movement after its near-demise in the open-shop era. The labor movement feared that the open-shop days might return, and as 1946 wore on, labor people felt less and less confidence in the fairness, if not of the system itself, then certainly in the people who wielded government power on all levels.1
But, unlike the 1934 General Strike, the Oakland General Strike of 1946 did not spread to the rest of the Bay Area, or have a radical leadership, or lead to new organizing drives. Both occurred during great turning points for the labor movement. But the Oakland Strike stood on the threshold of the Cold War. Labor had sacrificed its blood and its right to strike in order to win a war that it believed would destroy fascism abroad and bring a new era of prosperity and democracy to American society. Now, as these hopes seemed threatened, the General Strike brought the War to the streets of Oakland. The employers and the police were now viewed as threats to democracy, to civil liberties, and to the standard of living of workers and their families.
But the General Strike, a highly dangerous and unstable weapon, did not achieve its immediate aims. The threats to labor remained. In the aftermath, the unions turned to independent political action. But this initiative was blunted by splits in the labor movement occasioned by the growing issue of Communism, by AFL-CIO rivalry, and by the efforts of conservative labor leadership to preserve their power and privileges. Would the labor movement unite? Or would organizational and ideological antagonisms frustrate the attempt to translate the momentous power displayed in the General Strike into political independence and power?
1946 marked the highpoint of labor strikes in American history. Like the momentous strike year, 1919, 1946 witnessed the releasing of pent-up demands and frustrations from a world war. Drawing on previous experience, American workers feared that employers were preparing a new open-shop offensive, and that the organizing and standard-of-living gains of the 1930s might well be reversed in a wave of post-war reaction. There was even serious talk of a fascist danger in America. If the economy should fall back into a prolonged depression, and, if the resulting class conflict became sufficiently serious, the democratic rights essential to the existence of the labor movement might become imperiled.2
The employers did little to allay these fears. With war contracts gone, with a strong mood of patriotism prevailing in society, and with nostalgic longing for the reaction of the 1920s, corporate America was prepared for a showdown with what it believed to be the overgrown power of labor.
But the great strikes of 1946 resulted in no clear victory for either side. The unions were not smashed or appreciably weakened. And the corporations were able to maintain their threatened prerogatives intact. Instead, there evolved a new set of bases for labor relations as America moved into the Cold War: renewed prosperity founded both on U.S. preeminence in the world and absorption by a permanent arms economy of the “overproduction” (crisis) of the 1920s and 1930s; national legislation designed to severely limit trade union power, and, due to the system’s proven inability t take on the unions frontally, the persecution of Communists and other dissidents in the labor movement – thereby removing an all-important stratum of grassroots leadership who might point the movement in a more radical direction.
The labor movement had been bureaucratized during the late New Deal period and even more so during the War. This development continued apace. Labor would largely abandon its ideas of social change and accept the role of interest group assigned to it by pluralist ideologues. While the immediate results of the 1946 strike upsurge had been a stalemate, the long-run consequences were a defeat for labor. Organization of the South remained a dead letter. As countless union activists were hounded, blacklisted and silenced, a pall of fear and suspicion settled over the factories and union halls throughout the country. Labor’s shock troops, the coal miners, having been forced to end their strike, were impoverished and debilitated by technological and resource-use change. The millennium, which millions longed for in the ‘30s and ‘40s, moved to the suburbs, while a permanently underemployed underclass was left to rot in urban centers.
But the most dramatic and visible difference between the previous history of labor and that of the 1950s was the near-absence of picket line violence. There were two basic causes for this. First, the unions were house-broken and brought into a lopsided consensus in which the narrow economic interests of groups of highly organized workers were advanced at the cost of making the unions agencies for disciplining the workforce and providing the corporation with the means of long-range planning through the device of long-term contracts. Second, and perhaps more important, this consensus and avoidance of confrontation grew out of the immediate post-war experience: each time the employers attempted to break picket lines in 1946, they were met with furious resistance from the workers. General Motors settled down that year to starve out its striking employees. No attempt was made to crash picket lines. This strategy, bolstered by de facto government strike insurance, worked. In the electrical industry, however, there were numerous violent confrontations reminiscent of the ‘30s. Perhaps most telling, however, were six local general strikes in 1946 in small cities around the country, the spectacular being Oakland’s. It achieved a kind of quasi-insurrectionary dimension. It was this kind of response, coming from a variety of labor groups, and showing an unprecedented determination to defend and consolidate past gains that tilted employers towards the GM-type, pacific strategy for the ensuing period. Labor had used revolutionary means in the 1930s to achieve the most limited reforms. Now labor made it clear to all that it was willing to continue that tradition. Labor was not to be broken by direct means, but by reinforcing the bureaucratism and conservatism already apparent within it.
The Oakland General Strike can be seen as a kind of laboratory for the development of these trends: a local establishment determined to thwart unionization among department store employees, a local labor movement equally determined to stand behind the store workers, massive intervention by the police to break picket lines in the ensuing store strike, and the massive response that followed. The general strike had highly ambiguous results. As a dramatic show of labor power, it gave local trade unionists and their sympathizers a renewed sense of their own strength, while it effectively put an end to the use of police in labor disputes. The employers were badly frightened by the result of their use of police power. But frightened, too, were the labor leaders who had helped to summon up the demon of insurrection. They would attempt to continue the fight in the political arena. But, as the dust settled, the labor movement split, scapegoats were found and persecuted, and the disillusionment born of the fact that both economic and political action failed to win justice for the store employees turned to bitterness and quiescence.
Everything happening to the labor movement in 1946 contributed to growing alarm over the future. In late 1945, a 113-day strike began at GM. The UAW sought to combat the threat of rampant post-war inflation by demanding that the corporation grant a 30% wage increase with no increases in the price of the product to the consumers. This was much more than a public relations ploy to win support. The UAW believed that inflation was more than a problem of rising prices. It also directly involved the distribution of income in the society as a whole. If the employers could simply pass on wage increases in the form of higher prices, as they had always done, reconversion to a peacetime economy would be accomplished by keeping profits high at the cost of a lower standard of living for the workers.3
In January 1946, the GM workers were joined by massive strikes in many of the nation’s basic industries – steel, rubber, electrical, packinghouse – until nearly two million people were on strike. But the other unions did not take up the UAW’s novel and radical anti-inflation demand, and eventually settled for wage increases that lagged far behind increases in the cost of living that had already occurred, leaving the GM workers to continue their strike alone.
Finally, the GM strikers were forced back to work through exhaustion. Their fight had been undercut by the more conventional bargaining strategies of the other CIO unions. In such a contest with the corporations, where private property prerogatives were being challenged, the UAW could not win on its own.
During the strike, Walter Reuther warned the workers that the employers were preparing to mount an open-shop drive similar to that of the 1920s: “Should we lose [the strike]”, he said, “it would be 1919 and the twenties all over again.”4 This warning was heard again and again throughout the labor movement in 1945 and 1946. Its validity was reinforced in May when Truman threatened to draft striking railway workers into the armed forces. The rail unions capitulated before this threat, but the labor movement was deeply angered and frightened. Truman’s political strength among trade unionists sank to zero. In the coal mines, too, there were repeated strikes, growing out of those during the War. Here again, preemptive nationalization played a role, but had the added dimension of being part of union strategy. Lewis counted on getting from the government what the coal operators would not grant. The miners were too strong to yield to the threat of the military draft – they had already braved that storm during the War. The UMW-Truman confrontation came to a head at exactly the same time the Oakland General Strike occurred in December. The miners were forced to bow to the pressure of an injunction – the first time such a device had been used since the Norris-La Guardia Act of 1932.
With the exception of the rail strike, the Bay Area was only indirectly touched by these events. Its economy was not based in heavy industry, and the big industrial unions of the CIO played only a minor role in the local labor movement. But there was a tremendous strike activity here nonetheless. Bay Area shipyards had been the backbone of the region’s wartime economy. Now, with war work at an end, employer resistance to workers’ demands stiffened. In late October 1945, 25,000 machinists in the shipyards and machine industry began a bitter five-month strike. The machinists did not win their economic demands, but did defeat serious management proposals to modify the union shop. The strike ended badly. While the machinists did, on the whole, manage to keep their organizations intact, there had been serious defections, as when thirty-one machine shops reopened in January under a contract negotiated by IAM District 115, which accepted management’s union security formula. And there were other divisions – with regional CIO and AFL leaders putting heavy pressure on local leaders to settle the strike on any terms. For the shipyard workers, the reconversion problem meant unemployment and weakened unions.5
Also directly affecting the Bay Area was the great maritime strike of 1946. As with the machinists, both AFL and CIO unions were involved. Unprecedented unity won the maritime workers a big victory nationwide against the opposition of Truman and the ship owners (including threats to employ the military to break the strike). But, on the West Coast, the strike was prolonged for six weeks by a bitter jurisdictional dispute between the AFL Sailors’ Union of the Pacific, led by Harry Lundeberg, and the CIO International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, led by Harry Bridges. In the Spring, the CIO unions had accepted a wage offer $10 per week less than that later won by the AFL unions, which, paradoxically, in light of their conservative, job-conscious politics, played the leading and militant role in the strike compared with the softer policy pursued by Bridges and Joseph Curran, leader of the CIO East and Gulf Coast seamen. The strike had been marked by recriminations and red-baiting, but also by calls for nation-wide general strike action should Truman make good on his threat to break the strike with the military. The strike had greatly enhanced sentiment for labor unity among the rank and file, but the jurisdictional warfare reinforced the bitter enmity between the leaderships of the rival maritime unions. The strike on the West Coast did not come to an end until late November, just a week before the Oakland General Strike.6
The Retail Clerks
Despite the upsurge in union membership during the middle to late ‘30s, and, despite the consolidation of these gains by many unions during the War, the Oakland Retail Clerks’ union’s efforts to organize department store employees had met successful employer resistance. The storeowners were well organized and ably led by Paul St. Sure, a key figure in the Joseph Kowland-Earl Warren Republican machine that dominated local and state politics. The union’s organizing efforts revived after the War, and the retail workers responded favorably. St. Sure’s Retail Merchants’ Association, which included all the big department stores in Oakland and Berkeley, forbade its members from dealing with the union on an individual basis. Early in 1946, riding the national wave of labor protest, Department Store Employees Local 1265 won a series of unionizing victories at the Kress Company and at Oakland’s shoe stores. All these concerns were obliged to withdraw from the Merchants’ Association as a result.7
This initial success had two effects. First, it gave a big boost to union morale, and encouraged many workers at other stores to organize. But it also threatened to break the anti-union solidarity of the storeowners, who now intensified their resistance to the union.
Matching the newly awakened seriousness and competency of Local 1265 and the responsiveness of the retail workers was the growth of labor unity and support in the campaign. The capitulation of the anti-union, low-age Darling Shop in the fall of ’46 was, in large part, the result of mass picket lines established by Local 1265 and the refusal of Teamsters’ Local 70 to cross them. (The Darling Shop was also forced to withdraw fro the Merchants’ Association.) The union drive among department store workers was most successful at Kahn’s, the largest store in Oakland, with over eight hundred employees, and at Hastings, a men’s store, where the union claimed a 100% sign-up. The stores’ owners flatly refused to recognize the union, however, deferring to Association policy. Either the union would have to show a majority at all 27 RMA stores, which it was unable to do, or no store would recognize the workers’ right to obtain union recognition by majority vote. The union continued to rely on its strategy of building on what victories were possible, given the strength it had already developed, thereby hoping to demonstrate its potency to the mass of unorganized workers who were still timid and ambivalent in their feelings towards the union.8
The employers claimed publicly that they were not trying to prevent unionization, but were merely insisting on maintaining uniform conditions in all stores and on the right of their employees to choose on an individual basis whether they would join the union. The RMA offered to recognize the union association wide on an open-shop basis, as the San Francisco retail employers had done in the 1930s. But this insistence on all-or-nothing association bargaining was, in fact, opposition to all meaningful unionization, and Local 1265 refused the open-shop offer. The labor movement was understandably angered and disillusioned when the regional NLRB made known its support for the employers’ position, effectively denying the Hastings and Kahn’s workers the right to a representation election.9 Paul St. Sure, Oral History. Corinne Gibb, interviewer, 1970. Institute of Industrial Relations Library file, University of California Berkeley. (St. Sure admits here that the employers wanted to prevent unionization; this interpretation of the NLRB’s stance is based on the Montauk interview. It is impossible to document, since NLRB files have been destroyed.)
At this point, the Alameda County Central Labor Council intervened in support of Local 1265. They took the RMA position as a signal that East Bay employers would generally be taking a hard line in negotiations with many unions due to begin early the following year. Now the clerks’ campaign became the common cause of East Bay labor. Labor’s stand was spurred by the conduct of Kahn’s management towards union members in the store. Workers were forbidden to wear their union buttons even in “non-public” areas of the store. Unionists were harassed, intimidated, some dismissed from their jobs. Kahn’s was preparing for a strike – it brought in cots and bedding and began stockpiling supplies of food. At this point, a Labor Council committee took over negotiations with the RMA in mid-October. The RMA was adamant in its position. So were the union representatives. St. Sure was insulting and abusive in this and later discussions, frequently turning off his hearing aid while the union side presented its case. He ended a late October meeting by shouting at them that the best place to settle their differences was in the street. The Labor Council immediately placed Hastings on the “We Do Not Patronize” List – a potent measure in that day. On October 21, the Hastings workers walked out on strike.10
By October 31, they were followed by the Kahn’s workers. The people were well organized. The strike votes had been overwhelmingly favorable. Heavily attended meetings of strikers were held each morning prior to the day’s picketing. The stores were blockaded by mass picket lines. The unions made aggressive and successful attempts to reach the buying public with radio broadcasts, 50,000 leaflets explaining the dispute, and a campaign to persuade Kahn’s credit customers to cancel their charge accounts.
There was strong sympathy for the strikers, most of whom were women. Not only did they receive crucial support from the Teamsters who honored the picket lines, but from the other unions, many of whose members volunteered their free time to join the strikers at the store entrances. Even before the general strike, therefore, activists—both rank-and-filers and officials – of a broad cross section of the labor movement were meeting each other on the strike scene. This contributed to a growing sense of common purpose and struggle and sentiment, as the strike dragged on, for a general strike.
The strikers and the labor movement viewed the dispute as a test of strength. All felt threatened by what they regarded as the Merchants’ Association policy of denying them basic representation and collective bargaining rights. Labor viewed this policy as an opening wedge in an open-shop drive:
The gauntlet has been thrown down … The labor movement … must accept the challenge of Kahn’s and fight it through to the finish. … Indiscriminate firing of employees, coercion and intimidation and preparations for industrial warfare we thought were almost outdated in our country, but we find we are wrong. Telling employees what they can and cannot say is decidedly un-American and speaks more like conditions under the Nazi heel and totalitarian regimes than it does of the beautiful city of Oakland.
Blood was shed at Anzio, Iwo Jima, Tarawa, and all over the world, by sons and daughters of members of organized labor and other American families to drive forever from the face of the earth dictators and their ilk. To revert again to suppression of free speech and other Nazi methods would make the lives lost and blood spent a mockery …
If Kahn’s management is successful, you and your unions may be next. …
The strikers – particularly the women – were the most militant group of people many observers had ever seen. They were newly organized. And they included many women who had worked in the shipyards during the War and were used to high wages and union membership. With “reconversion” – the closing of the yards and the mass layoffs – many of these women were forced to take low-paid retail jobs, especially at Kahn’s, which was one of the largest employers of women in the area. Here they returned to work settings where the (old) traditional hierarchy had not changed, where they had fewer rights and were allowed less dignity than their wartime experience as skilled workers had accustomed them to. Retail employment is normally stressful because clerks must deal with “the public”, with customers who were not always patient or sympathetic. But this occupational hazard was greatly intensified by post-war shortages and inflation. The workers joined the union hoping to alleviate all these conditions.12
The women’s militancy infected other unionists who joined the picket lines, especially the Teamsters whose presence and support were so vital. The Retail Clerk’s union had always relied on Teamster support in strikes because retail workers are relatively unskilled and easily replaced. The stopping of deliveries, therefore, often is the key to success. So, as Local 70 Teamsters refused to cross the Kahn’s-Hastings picket lines, the store shelves began to empty as the Christmas season began.
Teamsters’ work lives are cohered, not by their common endeavors with fellow truck drivers so much as by the myriad contacts with workers in all fields of commerce and industry made while delivering and picking up freight. Their identification with other workers therefore extends to the whole economy. Their work experience, their organized strength, their strategic position in the economy, can tend to make them, in periods of heightened labor activity, the missionaries of trade unionism. This was especially true in Oakland, where there was little heavy industry, where transportation played a disproportionately large role in the economy, and where the rank-and-file Teamster had a long tradition of honoring the picket lines of other unions. Local 70 was the most powerful trade union in the East Bay.
But the honoring of picket lines was not without cost or sacrifice to these men. Individual drivers had to stand up to pressure from their employers, and their refusals to handle “hot merchandise” tended to strain relations between these employers and union officials, whose conservatism impelled them to rely on collusive agreements, which sacrificed the interests of poorer paid warehousemen and other “inside workers”. Local 70’s leadership covertly opposed the Kahn’s-Hastings strike, but was prevented from acting on this opposition by its own membership. One Teamster participant recalls that the main cause of the General Strike was the sighting by other Teamsters of one of their brother members helping to carry a newly-purchased sofa out of Kahn’s. The hapless picket-line crosser was drummed out of the union as a result. While this was not, in fact, the most important cause of the General Strike, it is significant that it should be remembered by some as such. The clerks’ strike had been adopted by the Teamsters as their own.13
The picketing was effective. The struck stores were badly hurt. The Merchants’ Association urged the public in full-page ads to patronize Kahn’s and Hastings. In mid-November, the Association tried unsuccessfully to force the Police Department to limit picketing. In late November, women pickets were physically assaulted by strike-breaking employees at Kahn’s. The Labor Journal editorialized: “The battle is on, the slugging by strike breakers has started and it is up to the AFL labor movement to get out … and protect its members.” The editors sounded the now-familiar tocsin:
The open-shop drive is on at Kahn’s and Hastings and the plans are all made and set to repeat the program that followed World War I, the establishment of the open-shop plan throughout industry, so that the working man and woman can again be driven to their knees and organized labor can be smashed. Broadway and Telegraph Avenue between 15th and 16th Streets has become the battleground for the open-shop drive of 1946.
The Police Assault
At about 6:00 a.m. on December 1st, 150 Oakland policemen forcibly removed the pickets from the streets surrounding Kahn’s and Hastings. The police moved in wedge formation down the streets, prodding the slowly retreating pickets and bystanders with their billy clubs. Police cordons were set up, and growing crowds of people formed outside them, jeering the police. About 6:30 a.m., 250 more police marched in platoons out of nearby City Hall and, in the same manner secured a much larger area. “I was black and blue for six months from their clubs”, one picket remembers. “The sidewalks were public property, they belonged to us. They drove us off them. We were American citizens. They treated us like animals. They acted like a bunch of fascists.”15
At about 7:00 a.m., a streetcar stopped at the police line at 17th Street and Broadway. The police ordered the car man to take it through. Al Brown, president of the car men’s union, was standing in the street outside the line. Brown stepped up into the streetcar and joined the driver. “This is a police picket line”, he said, “I’ve never crossed a picket line in my life, and I won’t now.” Removing the control mechanism, Brown and the driver stepped from the car. By noon, four dozen stalled buses and streetcars were lined up from Oakland’s downtown center, effectively typing up traffic. The General Strike had begun.16
Shortly after 7:00 a.m., a convoy of delivery trucks and Berkeley and Oakland police in squad cars and motorcycles came down Telegraph Avenue, crossed the police lines, and made deliveries to Kahn’s and Hastings. At about 10:30 a.m., another convoy delivery was made. The trucks were owned and manned by GI-Veterans Trucking, a professional strike breaking outfit from Los Angeles. By the time of the second delivery, there were several thousand people in the streets outside the police lines. They were dismayed and angry.
The many union officials on the scene felt betrayed by City and Police officials who had warned them in advance of the deliveries but not of the police show of force. They had also been told that they would be allowed to search the strike-breaking truck drivers for weapons. Seventy-five AFL business agents had picketed the stores all night in anticipation of the striker breakers’ arrival. The day before they had been told by the police that they could part their autos around the stores and that these would not be interfered with. In addition, the police had informed them that the deliveries would be coming in from Los Angeles. For the previous day and a half, union scouts had been scouring the highways to the south with no result. It turned out that the merchandise had been in storage in Hink’s Department Store’s Berkeley warehouse for a week.
The Labor Council leaders, who had up till now had a working relationship with the police, had been completely hoodwinked. Their autos had been unceremoniously towed away from around the stores, and their transmissions maliciously ruined by the police towers who had left the autos in gear. The promise to search the scabs for weapons was violated. Bob Ash, Secretary of the Labor Council, had been invited into City Hall just as, unknown to him, the police offensive was about to begin. As he stood in a hallway of the building, he saw squads of police forming. A tough-looking police sergeant was patting his gloved hand with his billy club, and Ash overheard the cop saying, “I’ve been waiting a long time to settle scores with these labor guys.”17
Another participant on the street described what happened next:
They pushed us out to 17th Street, then down to Broadway and Franklin, then to 12th. They set machine guns right in the middle of the square facing Kahn’s. What we didn’t know is that they had stored the merchandise at Hink’s in Berkeley. Then came the parade. Right down Telegraph Avenue. First came Chief Tracy in an open car with Paul St. Sure, head of the United Employers, and Joe Knowland – all bowing to the populace. They were going to put the labor movement in their place. The only thing missing was top hats and a brass band. Then came the trucks; they unloaded and went back for more.
With the police action, all bets were off. For months, unionists had been discussing the threat of union busting, of an open-shop drive, of anti-labor legislation pending in Congress and the State Legislature. The first Republican Congress in fourteen years had just been elected November 5, as middle class opinion, appalled by inflation and the wave of strikes, swung decisively against labor. It now seemed that the employers and the authorities were acting on a mandate to “put labor in its place”. The Labor Journal had equated the employer position in the Kahn’s strike with an open-shop impulse. On November 20, 500 union officials had met under Labor Council auspices to discuss ways of bolstering the clerks’ strike. Many voices were raised from the floor for a general strike at that time. Now, on December 1, it seemed as if the validity of these warnings was plain for all to see. What had begun as a relatively minor organizing drive by a traditionally weak union now had grown into a general revolt, not only against the employers directly responsible for crushing the picket lines, but against the police, the city, and the employers as a whole. People now felt that the social contract implied by the New Deal – that workers’ rights would be guaranteed in a democratic society – had suddenly been called into question.
The Teamsters were especially outraged by the use of strike-breaking truck drivers from Los Angeles. From the traditional citadel of the open shop came professional scabs – who specialized in breaking strikes for the notorious Merchants and Manufacturers of Los Angeles – to invade a union town. The open shop did indeed seem to be coming to Oakland. The Teamsters had made the clerks strike. Now, as hundreds of them poured into the downtown area, it was they, more than any other union, who would make the strike general.
At about noon, the Carmen, having watched the dismantling of the police lines, suspended their impromptu protest and returned their cars and buses to their barns. About 75 union officials retired to the Labor Temple to discuss the situation. It was at this meeting that the necessity of calling a general strike was formally raised. But the momentum for such an action was already uncontainable. Thousands of labor people had filled the streets, with strike-breaking employees trapped inside the struck stores. At the meeting, Jimmy Marshall, President of Local 70, demanded that the assembly vote a general strike, saying that anyone who voted against it was “chicken.”19 He declared that if the meeting failed to vote for a general strike, Local 70 would strike on Monday alone. Others objected that, while a general strike should be called, it should be postponed until Tuesday, to give the unions time to reach and organize their ranks for action. A larger meeting was called for Monday morning, when more union representatives could vote on and plan for a general walkout.
The momentum continued to grow on Monday. Large crowds – at one point growing to 10,000 people – assembled downtown, augmenting the hundreds of Retail Clerks’ pickets around the two stores. Many unionists went to their jobs but did no work once they got there. Hundreds of others, both officials and rank-and-filers, got the word out to the factories, shops and freight terminals. In this task they were unwittingly aided by the daily commercial press, which ran banner headlines announcing the possibility of a general strike. It is not clear what transpired at Monday’s meeting of union officials. But there is some indirect evidence of disagreement over whether it was right to proceed to such drastic action. The proceedings were kept secret, and did not result in a strike call until 10:00 p.m., 12 hours after the meeting had convened. Opposition to the General Strike was raised by the Milk Wagon Drivers’ Local; they were granted clearance to operate. Milk deliveries continued during the strike. There may have been other opposition – both indicated by the length of the meeting and its failure to make adequate plans for the shutdown. Chaos prevailed: there was never any perceptible central direction or coordination in the strike that followed. Its success seems mainly to have relied on initiative from the strikers in the streets, especially from key groups like the carmen and the Teamsters. But, if some Labor Council leaders seem to have been divided on the issue of calling the strike, all bowed before the irresistible pressure from the rank and file. In the words of Einar Mohn, sent in by Teamster boss Dave Beck to try to end the strike, “I couldn’t get anyone to exert any leadership whatsoever … they just let their people go.” We can only speculate, however, about the leadership’s motives. They did not want to do something, something appropriate to the gravity of the challenge laid down to them by the employers. But they were frightened – first by the specter of anarchy, which seemed to grow every minute, and by the possibility of repression and reprisals.20
The "Labor Holiday"
Tuesday morning’s turnout was nearly complete, far exceeding the wildest dreams of the participants. The industrial and residential districts of Oakland, Alameda, San Leandro, and Hayward were silent, the streets empty. “It was amazing,” remembers a witness who was opposed to the strike. “It was like the earth stood still. Everything stopped.”21 Twenty-thousand people came downtown to join the pickets. Some workers joined the strike in organized contingents, marching from their union halls. Roving squads of Teamsters patrolled the streets and highways, bringing most commercial transport to a halt.
AFL Teamsters set up a picket line on the Eastshore highway at Gilman street to “screen” trucks headed towards Oakland. Those loaded with perishables or livestock were allowed to proceed, with a warning against deliveries to retail outlets. Drivers of trucks bound beyond Oakland were advised to detour around the city. No violence was reported at the “screening” line.
Other groups fanned out into the industrial districts, calling out those workers who were ignorant of, or had not heeded the strike call.22
The planning at Monday’s official meeting had been incomplete and confused. The word of the strike apparently had not been communicated to workers at downtown restaurants, all of which opened early Tuesday despite “rumors” of a general strike. By 8:00 a.m., all the unionized restaurants had been closed down, not by the Culinary Union, but by Teamster pickets.
The rank-and-file strikers wanted to close everything down indiscriminately, despite what we can judge from hindsight to be the tactical superiority of keeping key services running – both to maintain public sympathy, and to meet the needs of the strikers themselves. Life simply could not stop. If the strike was complete, and if it was to continue for any length of time, then the strikers themselves would have to make a provision for and direct the disbursement of essential services. They would, in other words, have to become a parallel government in the making. The milk drivers insisted on working, and, although this may have been tactically right, it was based on their opposition to the strike itself. The problem was dramatized in the process of closing the restaurants. The Teamster picket captain in charge of this task, having begun closing down the small non-union restaurants, began to realize that this might mean starvation for the many single men – many of them strikers – who roomed in the downtown area and relied on these places for all their meals. The project was abandoned. There was never any concerted effort, then, to provide alternative services, or to use the strike to organize non-union shops. One soup kitchen was set up downtown, but this could not have done much to meet the demand. Even the AFL negotiating committee had to send to San Francisco for sandwiches.23
The same problem applied to the closing of grocery stores and the halting of gasoline deliveries, The union food clerks in the chain stores would understandably walk out in sympathy with the department store strikers. But how could the people, including the strikers, who, along with their families, comprised a majority of the population of the working-class districts, continue to exist without food? In 1934, food outlets were kept open by order of the strike committee, which also regulated food transport. In 1946, pharmacies were asked to stay open by the AFL. Small “mom and pop” groceries remained open in most areas, except in West Oakland, where Teamsters closed them. Here again, the absence of strong central foresight, initiative, and militant leadership allowed a chaotic and potentially self-defeating course to prevail. The General Strike could only last as long as dwindling supplies of food held out.24
There also seems to have been huge gaps in official implementation of the shutdown.
Several hundred mail order workers of Montgomery Ward milled uncertainly on East 14th Street before the East Oakland plant. They had made their way to work, but didn’t know whether to go in or not. “Gee”, said one girl disconsolately, “nobody will tell us what to do.”25
The leadership confined itself to negotiations, and was rarely seen on the streets. But the crowds surged and milled around the streets downtown, forming massed human barricades around Kahn’s and Hastings’ entrances when audacious would-be picket line crashers ventured into the area. There was little violence, considering the size of the crowds. The crowds’ handling of potential strike breakers is illustrated by the following incident. Oakland’s two commercial daily newspapers were closed by the strike. Outside the Oakland Tribune, Allan Ward, a sports writer, approached the picket line. A typographical union leader asked Ward where he was going. “I have to go to work”, he replied. He was told to leave. He hesitated. Three big iron workers pickets were standing in a row. The picket closest to Ward picked him up and passed him to the man standing next to him, who in turn passed Ward to the third picket who put him down. Ward hurried away.26
There were some fights, however. During the morning, before the crowds were very large, the police attempted to set up a line in front of Hastings. They were driven off by local 70 men. In the course of the General Strike, about twenty persons who tried to push their way through picket lines received minor injuries. Two were seriously hurt. The San Francisco papers made a great deal of every such incident. Newsmen and photographers taking pictures on the streets were restrained by the pickets. The papers raised a hue and cry over this spontaneous and self-defensive censorship. Some picket-line crashers had their shirts torn from their backs. But, again, there was very little serious violence. The police gave up their attempts to “maintain order”, and the few who remained in the streets seem actually to have sympathized with the strikers and to have refused, by and large, to come to the aid of strike breakers. In sharp contrast to the impression of widespread violence created by the newspapers was a remarkable reduction in crime during the General Strike:
Police captains looked over their records with disbelief. The records said that in all of the City of Oakland – which embraces a population of more than a million people, there had been only 86 arrests in 36 hours. Two of these had been robberies and one involved assault with a deadly weapon. No one had been hurt seriously and no major amount of money had been stolen. Crime, like labor, had taken a decided holiday. The police captains were amazed.27
A holiday mood prevailed downtown. Someone remarked that it was just like “V.J.” day. The streets were already decorated with tinsel wreaths for the Christmas season. The leadership was calling the strike a “Labor Holiday”, perhaps in imitation of the mineworkers’ “Holy Week” strikes during the War. Perhaps “holiday” sounded less ominous – or, less serious, than “General Strike”. The Strike did, in some ways, resemble an ancient carnival in which social hierarchies and roles were turned upside down, and where wild behavior became normal amid general rejoicing. A euphoric sense of solidarity grew up among the people picketing together in the streets. “Strangers met in the middle of the night on the picket line and you would think they’d known each other all their lives”, a Teamster recalls. Many of the people were young. Many were war veterans. Some picketed on roller skates. The crowds often broke into song. To the tune, “My Darling Clementine”, some sang, “I’m a picket, I’m a picket”. Another favorite went, “I love the boss and the boss loves me/That is why I’m so hungar-ee.” Juke boxes were set out on the sidewalks and couples danced to songs like “Pistol Packin’ Mama”, while the music echoed from the walls of office buildings. Some couples demonstrated the latest dance steps like the “Light Fantastic”, while a few blocks away two striking women serenaded the picket lines with guitars.”28
Despite the fears of many in the labor movement that veterans might be used against strikes, as had happened after World War I, many of the most militant strikers were veterans themselves, including many Teamsters and, most conspicuously, many Key System drivers who still wore their service jackets as work uniforms. When “G.I. Trucking” veterans, dressed in khaki fatigues, had broken the picket lines on Sunday morning, labor war veterans had been outraged. Now,
An army recruiting truck cruised around the area. The second lieutenant at the megaphone made some derogatory remark about the pickets. Immediately from the strikers’ ranks came sailors and soldiers wearing overseas ribbons. Led by a tough-looking former top sergeant, they marched in formation down the streets, shouting, “We fought this war overseas, not in a recruiting truck”. Nothing more was heard from the second lieutenant.
This demonstration was the first of numerous spontaneous marches as, during the next two days, hundreds of people would occasionally break away from larger crowds and march around the block. The lieutenant had touched a raw nerve. The veterans had fought and suffered for what they believed to be the defense of democracy. They had returned home to see the employers, the city fathers, and the police deny them their democratic rights. Spontaneously, they reformed their ranks, still marching behind the flag, but challenging the dominant powers in society. 29
A mass strike meeting was held Tuesday night at the Oakland Auditorium. It had been called before the General Strike in order to build support for the clerks. A huge crowd, variously estimated at between 15,000 and 35,000, attended, despite the absence of public transportation and a driving rainstorm. The hall wasn’t big enough to accommodate the crowd, so many thousands stood outside in the rain listening to the speeches over loudspeakers. James Galliano, attorney for the clerks and the Labor Council and a key strike leader, gave a long defense of labor’s action and attacked the employer city policy that had made that action necessary. Calling for moderation, Galliano said that this was “… not a time to incite …” and decried those “… who will call this anarchy and argue there can be no excuse under any circumstances for the action”. He demanded that “G.I. Trucking” be sent out of the Bay Area. Local 1265 President John Philpot summed up labor’s grievances and fears: “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.” The most militant speeches came from Local 70 president, Jimmy Marshall, and Harry Lundeberg (which seems ironic in light of Lundeberg’s role in subsequent days or urging a return to work). Marshall asked, “… if the police are going to protect the scabs, who is going to protect the police?” He vowed that labor would wage a “fight to the finish”. “This”, said Lundeberg of the police action, “is fascism in America”. The Los Angeles strike breakers were “… just the average finks”, he shouted. “… the super finks are the city administration … These finky gazoonies who call themselves city fathers have been taking lessons from Hitler and Stalin. They don’t believe in the kind of unions that are free to strike.” He promised that “… no ships will sail from the East Bay …”, and that the seamen would “sail ships up Broadway” to win the strike. Bob Ash recalls that the people’s response to Lundberg’s speech was so powerful that had anyone suggested it, they would have marched on City Hall and torn it apart “brick by brick.”30
Of course, no one would suggest any such thing. But what could be done to make the most of all this tremendous enthusiasm and militancy? Ash and other speakers called on the audience to come downtown the next day, and predicted that the strike would spread. So far, the employers were still unwilling to concede anything, despite the General Strike. They had offered a vague and gutless “fact-finding” settlement. So, the General Strike must continue.
On Wednesday, the downtown crowds grew at one point to 35,000 people. They seemed as determined as the day before to “fight to the finish”. The ambiguity and chaos surrounding Monday night’s strike call had clearly been put aside by the mandate displayed by Tuesday night’s mass meeting. The big questions on Wednesday were: Would the strike spread? Would the employers and the City come to terms, or instead resort to repressive measures as the Mayor had threatened? Would, for instance, the Governor call out the National Guard, as was now being rumored? Finally, would national and regional AFL leaders find a way to force the strikers back to work before the strike’s objectives had been won?
That the strike would spread had been the subject of persistent rumors and episodic statements by the Labor Council leaders. When negotiations had broken down the previous evening, Ash had told reporters that, indeed, plans were being made to spread the strike. The same message had been repeated at the mass meeting immediately afterwards, and had been greeted by ovations from the audience. The potential for spreading the strike centered on two possibilities: across the Bay to San Francisco, and in Oakland to the CIO unions, which had not joined the strike. There appears to have been considerable sentiment in San Francisco for a sympathy walkout. Some union locals – both AFL and CIO – had sent delegates and pickets to Oakland as early as Monday. The San Mateo Central Labor Council passed a motion to join the General Strike if the San Francisco AFL took the lead. But this possibility was prominently denounced in the press by two San Francisco AFL leaders, who claimed they had no dispute with their employers. The Alameda County CIO was giving rhetorical support to the Strike. And they were honoring AFL picket lines, and called a mass membership meeting for Thursday night to decide to join the walkout if it hadn’t been settled by that time.31
On Tuesday, the Mayor was given emergency powers by the City Council: to take over direct personal command of the police force, the power to requisition supplies, and to call on citizens to man emergency services and organize food distribution. While these powers were never assumed or carried out by the Mayor, the move was seen as a threat of repression. Accompanying these moves were ominous editorials in the San Francisco papers. The News warned that “The leaders who called this silly strike will live to regret it.” The Chronicle made veiled calls for vigilante action to break the Strike, called for legal prosecution of the leaders for “acts of strike violence”, and warned that they “… may be given a large share of the credit for the growing revulsion of a whole Nation. They and their kind are the real instigators of whatever dangerous and extreme reaction that may ensue.”32
But these threats seem to have had little effect. More ominous were rumors that troops would be called out. But this option was on its way to being rejected when a new, conciliatory City Manager, Jack Hassler, was appointed Tuesday. The strikers seemed undaunted by the talk about troops. Wednesday morning an impromptu rally of 5,000 pickets was held in Latham Square, between Kahn’s and City Hall:
Speakers cited reasons for the strike, predicted its spread, and promised a last ditch battle. One commenting on rumors that troops might be asked, received loud cheers as he asserted: “We look to the new City Manager to get the city out of the predicament it got itself into. But, if the city fathers decide it’s time to bring in the militia, we will decide it is time for us, not to lie down, but to dig in and fight.33
Ash says that he called Governor Warren in Florida to ask him about these rumors. Warren assured Ash that the use of troops was not being contemplated. Warren, after all, aspired to the U.S. presidency, and had painstakingly built up an image of a friend of all social classes. He was not eager to destroy his political ambitions by using troops. Hassler was Warren’s man in Oakland.
Perhaps more potent than the threat of armed intervention was that of West Coast Teamster boss Dave Beck of Seattle. Paul St. Sure had called Beck on Tuesday, requesting his help in ending the General Strike. Beck dispatched Einar Mohn, at that time a Teamster International organizer in Los Angeles, to Oakland for this purpose. Mohn and Beck were disturbed because Charlie Real, Secretary-Treasurer of Local 70, had left town, apparently in anticipation of big trouble which he, Real, knew he could not contain. Mohn arrived on Wednesday and found the other Teamster leaders, and those of the Clerks and the Labor Council, unwilling or unable to “take responsibility” or “exert leadership” – in other words, to advocate an immediate end “to a very dangerous situation”. All these leaders told Mohn that Real had sanctioned the General Strike by phone from Washington, D.C., and that they wouldn’t end the Strike without orders from Real. This was also the line being given out to the press. While all this was going on, Real was making contradictory statements to the press and over the radio, alternately seeming to favor the Strike and then denouncing it as “silly”. He denied that he had ever given it his approval:
That isn’t true … They pulled it while I was on my way to Washington. I suppose they’re using my name for effect on the employer group, because I have been close to the employers and have worked these things out peacefully. I went to emphasize that the employers never asked us to deliver merchandise to these stores. If they had, we probably would have worked out an arrangement to make the deliveries.
Simultaneous with Mohn’s appearance on the scene was a flurry of statements from Beck and Dan Tobin, President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Tobin had wired Local 70:
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is bitterly opposed to any general strike for any cause. I am therefore ordering you and all those associated with you who are members of our International Union to return to work as soon as possible … No general strike has ever yet brought success to the labor movement, On the contrary, the only result of the general strike is to persecute and inconvenience the public and seriously injury the thousands of fair employers with whom we have contracts.
Beck was more ideological in his denunciation of the Strike. Ordering the teamsters back to work at midnight Wednesday, Beck called the Strike “… the first move in a revolution that could lead to the overflow of the government”. “I say this damn general strike is nothing but a revolution. It isn’t labor tactics. It’s revolutionary tactics.”35
But Beck seemed to make this order contingent on the willingness of the employers to arbitrate the Kahn’s-Hastings strike. He told the press on Wednesday that he would send the teamsters back to work if the employers “… do not disrupt things by some covert act such as refusing arbitration.” The store owners would have at least to concede to putting the issues before a neutral third party. Real added his voice to this position. The question remained, however, about what was to be arbitrated. The basis stumbling block to settlement that had existed on the two struck stores or on all Retail Merchants’ Association member stores – was now the issue which prevented the establishment of ground rules for arbitration. St. Sure continued to insist that arbitration establish association-wide elections. The Clerks were equally determined that such an election be confined to the employees at Kahn’s and Hastings.
The employers knew that Beck wanted to end the Strike at any cost, despite his ambiguous statements in the press, which seemed to indicate the contrary. They could afford to hold out. But Beck’s presence began to tell in a split in Local 70’s leadership. When reports asked Local 70 officials over the phone about Beck’s order, they said, “Of course, we’ll comply”. But another Teamster official told The Chronicle, “If Beck wants to enforce that order, he’ll have to come down here from Seattle himself – and then I doubt he could do it.” But Marshall, Local 70 President, denied that the local had received the order at all. A Local 70 legend has it that Marshall had been carrying Tobin’s telegram around in his back pocket since receiving it on Tuesday, and that at one point he had told Beck – in a phone conversation in which Beck was pressuring him – to “go fuck yourself”. However, there was growing sentiment in Local 70’s leadership for an end to the strike, although the actual dimensions and alignments of it are unknown to the author. Tobin’s, Beck’s and Mohn’s pressure, combined with the condemnatory statements of Charlie Real – who was still in Washington, D.C., “conferring with Senator Knowland” – were having an effect.36
Mohn and Harry Lundeberg addressed a meeting of AFL business agents and officials at the Labor Temple on Wednesday, “trying to talk some sense into this group, telling them they had to display some leadership … that the general strike was doing nothing but bringing condemnation and that there would be a lot of wreckage to clean up and the sooner we ended it the better.” This was not an official meeting of the Labor Council, and there were crowds milling around outside. Inside there were catcalls, boos, and speeches from the floor in opposition to Mohn’s and Lundeberg’s proposal. But the two men succeeded in fostering “a growing realization that the strike couldn’t continue.”37
Despite Wednesday’s big crowds and their militancy, therefore, momentum was building for an end to the Strike. The militants – those committed to continuing the Strike – were pinning their hopes on CIO intervention, on its making good its threat to join the general walkout. For those anxious to end the Strike, some settlement would have to be reached before the CIO’s Thursday night deadline.
Beck carried his point. Wednesday night, the AFL committee met with Hassler and the employers, who still refused arbitration on any but their own terms. After the employers retired from the meeting about 0”00, the union and Hassler continued to negotiate. At 4:00 a.m., the meeting broke up – the union committee had a promise from Hassler that Oakland police would not be used to break “legal” strikes, and the G.I. Trucking Company would be removed from the Bay Area. Pending a vote of AFL officials, the Strike was over. At this point the employers, “in light of last night’s events”, decided to withdraw from any further discussion of arbitration. The store clerks would not benefit from the settlement.
But Beck had not carried all. He couldn’t enforce his order to teamsters to return to work at midnight. Local 70 instructed its members to stay on strike until the settlement could be voted by the AFL business agents Thursday morning. The teamsters would not break ranks and cause a stampede, even if their leaders had bowed to pressure for breaking the Strike. Only one union machinists’ Lodge 284, returned to work before the vote.38
At 10:30 a.m., Thursday, the AFL business agents voted to end the strike. The committee issued a statement: “… 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.39
When news of the settlement reached the thousands of clerks, teamsters, car men and other unionists on the picket line, it was greeted with anger. One teamster told reporters that Beck had “stabbed us in the back”. The clerks felt especially betrayed. They were to be left to fight on alone. For the rest of the day the picket lines remained, hundreds of AFL rank and filers refusing to return to their jobs. Many of these attempted to revive the General Strike by convening meetings of their local unions. But the momentum was gone, and these attempts failed. The General Strike was over.40
But the employers were angered, too. What seemed at first glance to be a promise by Hassler that police would never be used against pickets alarmed St. Sure. Now pressure was applied on Hassler to qualify his agreement: “Newspaper accounts have result ed in considerable confusion as to the terms of settlement of the General Strike. … It is our understanding that Mr. Hassler plans to issue a clarifying statement concerning terms of the General Strike settlement.” Within half an hour, Hassler declared: “It is my duty and my intention to act in accordance with the law, not only in relation to labor disputes but in all other matters. The civil rights of all citizens, both as to their persons and their property, will, to the best of my ability, receive equal and non-partisan consideration and protection during my term of office.”41
The Labor Council leadership had told the workers that Hassler’s appointment signaled victory for the Strike. Five months later, however, with the Kahn’s-Hastings workers still on the picket line, the Labor Journal told a very different story, one that the editors must almost certainly have known all along. Denouncing Hassler as “heir apparent” to the Knowland machine, they claimed that he had been brought in as City Manager during the General Strike because “he was supposed to be all things to all people … (He) was supposed to be able to soften up the labor beef … Hassler came into the picture Thursday (actually, Tuesday – R.B.), after the police had convoyed the trucks into Kahn’s …”, and, at that time, claimed he had nothing to do with the convoy. This was patently false, the Journal said, because Hassler had been present at the meeting Friday, November 29, where the police assault of the following Sunday was planned.42 Why had the AFL committee seemed to place so much faith in Hassler, then?
As the emptiness of the settlement became apparent in subsequent days, then, the AFL leaders would denounced Hassler for his “betrayals”. Said the Labor Journal: “Labor is fed up, at long last, with double-crossing and listening to its friends in public life. The only friend we have is the massed picket line and the General Strike. We’ll use it as often as we can to prevent double-crossing and double-talk. 42 Part of Hassler’s assurances on December 5 had been that the struck stores would close, pending negotiations. But the stores remained open. On Friday, December 6, Hassler announced, “I expect the stores to remain open and I expect to give protection to the stores.” Mass picketing was resumed at noon the same day when an effort was made to bring 25 strike breakers into Kahn’s.
Within minutes, hundreds of pickets and union sympathizers boiled around the store, shouting at the non-union workers. The threat of trouble was dispelled when strike leaders broadcast a call for all pickets to disperse and participate in membership mass meeting at the Labor Temple. After a two-hour session, pickets resumed their patrol before the two stores, but in greatly reduced numbers. Meanwhile, numerous employees had entered Kahn’s while it was unpicketed and a supply of food was brought in.
The local AFL leadership had run up against a seemingly unsolvable problem: how to manage the near-insurrectionary challenge to the establishment that the General Strike had posed within the safe and sane limitations they’d grown accustomed to. Faced with an extremely hostile and aggressive employer community, the conservative search for harmony and collaboration (which these leaders had sought in the past) was no longer workable. Such a policy had made sense to these leaders during the War, when a powerful government mediated between capital and labor, when a spirit of sacrifice dominated the workers, and the expectation of guaranteed profits dampened employer hostility to a much tamed unionism. But now the employers were clearly on the offensive – they aimed to weaken the labor movement. By walking out on their “labor holiday”, the AFL unions were drawing on well-established local tradition. Yet the general strike weapon was a dangerous one. Less militant local unions might break ranks and return to work. Various repressive methods might be employed – troops or vigilante action. The strike could not go on indefinitely. But the employers might be forced to make a settlement if the Strike could hold out a little longer, and if the CIO joined the walkout. How close was labor to winning concessions before Beck’s intervention? Would the employers have remained intransigent if the strike had spread, and had the AFL leaders been more resolute? We will probably never know.
Beck’s intervention was decisive in breaking the strike. But an equally important possibility suggests itself. This intervention may have provided the local AFL leaders the excuse they desperately needed to make a weak settlement and preserve their followings at the same time. It may have given them a means for articulating their own apprehensions about the “anarchy”, while giving them a scapegoat for the Strike’s failure to win its demands.
The Teamster Hierarchy
Beck, more than any other American labor leader, had long experience with general strikes. A formative experience for him was the Seattle General Strike of 1919, against which, as a young Teamster official, he had led a lonely opposition. Beck had also played a key role in 1934, ordering San Francisco teamsters back to work in that general strike. He rightly viewed the general strike as a revolutionary tactic, and opposed its use no matter what the situation. He was a business unionist par excellence, and a professional anti-communist. He sought to build and consolidate his organization by “selling” the conservative Teamsters union to the employers as a “responsible” alternative to militant and/or radical unions. Beck came from an area that had been a center of I.W.W. activity before and after World War I, where the labor movement as a whole was much more radical than in other parts of the country. He led a union, which, because of its strategic position in the economy, could wield enormous power while limiting itself to narrow objectives and appealing to a narrow stratum of the workforce. Beck ruled his union with an iron and corrupt hand. His close relations with employers gave him great power in handing out jobs – a common feature of many craft unions, which controlled hiring through closed-shop contracts and hiring halls. The employers could do business with Beck and other Teamster leaders, according to Clark Kerr, who knew the Seattle area intimately as a War Labor Board administrator. The Teamsters held to their contracts. They insisted on controlling hiring but left the employers with complete discretion in firing. This was a great bargain for the employers, as was the frequent understanding that, while the truck drivers would be union, “inside” people such as warehousemen, would not.44 But the teamster “craft” was not highly skilled in the usual sense. It could not monopolize its labor market simply by organizing all skilled workers as the true craft unions could. Its power, therefore, all too often rested on collusion with employers and strong-arm tactics both in dealing with recalcitrant employers and rebellious workers.
Beck viewed the union as a business, not a cause. He wanted to “Taylorize” the labor movement, apply to it the business methods developed by the corporations and create in the person of the union official a new professional, whose position and power rested n expertise and efficiency, not on the democratic participation of the union members. And Beck treated his union like his own company. He used his profits from the Teamsters to become a millionaire, investing extensively in Seattle real estate and other business ventures. There was no place in this scheme for militant trade unionism, rank and file democracy, or for the kind of labor politics that seeks to pose democratic alternatives for society. (These were threats to leaders like Beck, their relations with employers, their personal power, privileges and wealth, and the system upon which this whole edifice rested.)
The AFL leadership in the East Bay was divided between the men who had emerged in the organizing drives in the 1930s, who tended to be New Deal Democrats, and the conservatives, led by Charlie Real, who, until the General Strike, was the strongest single power in the local labor movement. He was closely allied with the Republican machine in local and state politics, and embodied the traditional craft union mentality of previous eras. Real was now President of the State Federation of Labor, which had swung the AFL behind Earl Warren’s candidacy for reelection as Governor in the 1946 elections. Real, along with Harry Lundeberg, had also supported the notoriously anti-labor William Knowland for U.S. Senator, causing tremendous anger among the more progressive AFL leaders, who regarded Real as a racketeer and a pawn both of the employers and the Knowland machine. The greatest irony of the Oakland General Strike was that, while it was spear-headed by the truck drivers of Local 70, their leadership was tied to the political machine that provoked it.
Real once had been a very militant unionist, who, in 1934, as a result of his role in the taxicab strike of that year, was indicted and tried for the murder of a strike breaker. The trial ended in a hung jury. Real was never retried. Later it was widely rumored that Real had made a deal with Earl Warren, then Alameda County District Attorney, to support the Republican Party and to cross the picket lines of other unions in exchange for having the prosecution of the case dropped. During a Retail Clerk’s strike in 1937, for instance, Real is said to have received $5,000 from the RMA for making a radio broadcast in which he denounced the strike as illegal. He did order Teamsters to cross the picket lines and deliver goods to the strike-bound store.45
This was part of a larger conservative opposition to the organizing efforts of the new unions. The Retail Clerks was an AFL union. But, in the same year, Real similarly ordered Local 70 drivers to break a CIO cannery strike. A rebellion developed within Local 70 over this issue, and the membership voted to honor the CIO picket lines.
Here the influence of Dave Beck complicates the picture. In the 1930s, Beck had been intent on organizing Los Angeles. For this he needed the cooperation of Bay Area Teamster locals as a base for organizing the long-haul drivers running between the Bay Area and Southern California. The San Francisco Teamster leaders were indifferent to this project because of their own parochialism and the jealousy towards Beck. Beck turned to Real who became his chief Bay Area ally. When the ILWU began organizing warehousemen, Teamster leaders, including Beck, became alarmed that some of their traditional jurisdiction, which they had made no effort to organize before, would be lost to a union with what they perceived to be a very militant and radical leadership, thereby jeopardizing the Teamsters’ snug relations with the employers (relations which depended on the craft unionists’ ignoring of lower paid workers like the warehousemen, cannery workers, etc.). Beck decided, therefore, to fight this organizing drive, this time with the enthusiastic support of the San Francisco Teamster officials. Real was also enlisted in this effort. For months there was open warfare in the warehouse districts, on the waterfront and in the canneries. When the Local 70 membership rebelled against this policy, the local was placed in trusteeship by the International. Real was named one of the trustees and continued to run the local.46
In his oral history, Joe Chaudet, Typographical Union leader and editor of the Labor Journal at the time of the 1946 General Strike, recalls that Real, after his trial in 1936, “became a different man”. The old, militant Real was replaced by a new, finky Real. The transformation reflected the two contradictory sides of the archetypical Teamster personality: combative, rough, courageous, and strong, but conservative, narrow, and often seeking favorable accommodation with the boss. In part, this derived from the evolution of the drayage industry, with its thousands of small employers, where the line between boss and working teamster was often blurred, and where many teamsters aspired, some with considerable likelihood of success, to achieve the status of employer by going into business for themselves. While the Teamsters in the East Bay, unlike their brothers in San Francisco, were harried, persecuted, and largely unorganized during the bleak open-shop era of the 1920s, a tradition of militancy flourished among them. But conservative militancy was violence-prone, eschewing the mass tactics of the more politically radical elements in the labor movement. Real’s career typified the racketeering tendency in which conservative or apolitical nihilism shaded into criminality, finally making its peace with labor’s enemies.
The General Strike jeopardized Real’s long-standing relationship with the employers because he could no longer control his members. He was forced to bide his time and look for new ground on which to reestablish his authority. Once the Strike was over, Real’s desperate efforts to settle the Kahn’s strike on the employers’ terms (to remove the Knowland machine’s pressure on him to get the Teamsters to cross the picket lines) failed. Real was now isolated and subject to universal condemnation in the labor movement he had dominated only a short time before. Anti-Communism provided him with the leverage he needed to defend his precarious position.
The CIO and the Communist Party
Anti-Communism was the stock in trade of many AFL leaders, and was greatly strengthened and accelerated by the early portents of the Cold War evident in 1946. Already, the national CIO had passed its famous anti-Communist resolution – “We resent and reject the influence of the Communist Party”. A Bay Area cannery jurisdictional battle had been won in 1946 by AFL Teamsters employing a combination of physical coercion, employer collusion, and red-baiting. The great 1946 Maritime Strike had also been marred by Harry Lundeberg’s red-baiting attacks on the CIO unions, and their West Coast leader, Harry Bridges. Bridges was head of the Northern California CIO, the most prominent Communist-Party-oriented labor leader on the West Coast, and the most important labor leader in California. He had been a popular hero in the labor movement since he emerged as the leader of the San Francisco General Strike in 1934. It resulted in a tangible victory for the workers, for a radical minority had exercised decisive and articulate leadership. By 1946, the Communist Party could no longer play such a role. As the labor movement became more militant after the War, the Party continued to cling to its wartime policy of moderation and “national unity”, and was dragged into strikes because it could not otherwise contain them. It had urged the workers to remain in the Democratic Party, pushed for union-employer cooperation, and had become bureaucratically entrenched in the important labor organizations its militants had helped to create. Bridges opposed the Oakland General Strike, and this explains both the CIO’s rhetorical support and practical abstention in it. It may also help to explain why the Strike didn’t stand a chance of spreading across the Bay to San Francisco.47
It is clear that when the Alameda County CIO threatened to join the strike and cut off heat and light to the community, it was bluffing.48 What might have happened had this bluff been called is anyone’s guess. But the rhetorical support for the Strike reflected a dilemma the Communist Party found itself in. On the one hand, the Communist Party was anxious to avoid offending several establishments: among those remnants of New Dealism with which it sought an alliance, and elements in the labor hierarchy – like CIO President Phillip Murray, who, under the impact of the anti-Communist campaign, were beginning to shake off their alliance with the Communists that had been firmly established during the War. On the other hand, the Party had to preserve its credit among the very large body of workers who looked to it for leadership. This often meant adopting militant rhetoric, if not action. In Oakland, the search for alliances focused on the Labor Council leadership, which, in most cases, was ungrateful for the attention.
It is unclear whether the Communist Party really wanted the CIO to join the big strike, but was simply thwarted by Bridges, or whether there was simply strong sentiment for such action in the Party’s rank and file, which the hierarchy accommodated with words while actually opposing action. But there is some evidence that the Communists were split, that their activists (or some of them) were pushing for CIO participation. One CIO local union, Steelworkers Local 1304, did actively participate. The only CIO local of skilled workers, it contained many Communists and other radicals, and had been a thorn in the side of the Bridges leadership. Called the “Steel Machinists”, Local 1304 was the old International Association of Machinists Lodge in the East Bay. It had broken away from the IAM in the 1930s after a bitter strike in which the international union gave its local charter to the strike breakers. In the winter of 1945-1946, Local 1304 and San Francisco IAM Lodge 68 had jointly conducted the machinists’ strike. The CIO leadership and the Communist Party were opposed to this strike, which, however, was being led by Party members in both locals. Some of these men were brought up on charges and expelled from the Party for their role in the strike. Now the President of Local 1304 spoke at the CIO Council urging that it join the General Strike in Oakland, but was voted down.49
The Labor Council leaders have claimed that, the CIO was told by them not to join the General Strike. “Heide (a CIO leader) and his bunch came downtown and we told them to take off. We didn’t want their Communist affiliation to taint the strike. That would have been perfect ammunition for the Tribune and the RMA.” But some of these same leaders opposed the Thursday morning return to work on the basis that the CIO would spread the strike starting that night, forcing the city and the employers to bow to the Strike’s demands.50
But many Communists, at least at the rank-and-file level, do seem to have participated. There was a significant Communist presence in the AFL, including the Office Workers, the Retail Clerks, and the Building Trades. This, plus the fact that the Communist Party later criticized the Bridges leadership failing to involve the CIO, are further indications of internal division. It is difficult to gauge the significance of such veiled and muted criticism, however. A very different impression is gained from an account of the California CIO convention in December, 1946, just after the Strike. One of the delegates, Stan Weir, went to the microphone and asked why the CIO had joined the Strike. He was told: “there was no general strike, because we weren’t in it.”51
The Communist Party’s claim to have been active in the Strike, distributed as a leaflet in the streets of Oakland a few days after the walkout ended, caused the Labor Council a great deal of embarrassment. They were also made uneasy by an editorial in the Los Angeles Times entitled “Commies and John L. Lewis”, in which the Communists were described as “prominent, if not controlled in the Oakland disturbances”, and which cited the fact that the People’s World was the only newspaper allowed ion the streets during the strike, “ … not only urging on the strikes but denouncing by name Charles Real, an AFL union leaders who opposed it.”52
This attempt to link the General Strike with the Communists did not appear in the local press, and it is questionable how seriously most people in the Bay Area took the viewpoint of the L.A. Times on this or any other question. But the AFL leaders were aware of this editorial and were deathly afraid of being tarred with a red brush. Following the issuance of the Communist Party leaflet, the Labor Council denounced it:
The AFL unions repudiate any alleged support or participation the Communist Party claims in the general walkout. Their present boasting of their activities has no foundation in fact or deed, since the AFL unions took steps to eliminate then wherever their unauthorized inflation was discovered.
Their reviling of Teamster officials, particularly Charles Real … is wholly unwarranted.
The Communist Party’s repeated expose of Real was embarrassing to the Council’s strategy of trying to hold Real within bounds while refraining from public criticism of him. But there was a more important aspect to the liberal AFL leadership’s tirades against “Commies”. To most people, including most CP’ers, the Communist Party represented the threat, or the hope, of socialist revolution, of a mass uprising of the working class. The Labor Council leaders had been excoriated by Beck and the daily commercial press of raising, in microcosm, just such a possibility. The parallel was unbearable to these men, who had themselves been terrified by the enormous human explosion they had been momentarily unable to contain.”54 They could not now announce to their members, or probably even to themselves, that the General Strike had been an awful mistake. But by attacking the Communists they could purge themselves of the guilt of having been at the head of an insurrection.
This may help to explain why they were instrumental in engineering a purge of elected officials of Office and Professional Employees Local 29 – accused of being members of the C.P. – in January and March, 1947. Local 29 was undergoing a faction fight in part brought on by reconversion. During the War the local had grown to over 4000 members by organizing clerical workers in the shipyards. By late 1946. with the scaling down and closing of the yards, the local’s membership had dropped to about 700. The purged officials came out of the shipyards and were elected by shipyard clerical workers. But now the local was reduced to its original base in downtown offices, much of it consisting of the office staffs of the AFL local unions. It is not difficult to imagine how nervous many AFL officials must have been at the prospect of their office employees being members of a “Communist-dominated union”. The fight against the alleged Communists was carried out within the local by embittered ex-Communists who were strongly allied with and aided by the Labor Council leadership. The fact that the trials and expulsion came so soon after the General Strike and amid a flurry of red-baiting in the Labor Journal may be pure coincidence. But this was the only AFL local with a strong Communist presence. An unambiguous message had been sent by the AFL leaders to the Communist Party, and to anyone else in the labor movement with “subversive” politics.55
The Kahn’s-Hastings Strike Continues
After the General Strike, the clerks remained on the picket lines for six months. Negotiations resumed in December under the auspices of the Federal Conciliation Service, but remained deadlocked. Teamsters continued to honor the picket lines. In mid-December, the Merchants’ Association obtained a court injunction limiting picketing to five per store entrance. The coal strike had been broken by Federal court injunctions, and the Oakland AFL drew an obvious parallel, echoing John L. Lewis’ words in decrying “government by injunction” as the “first step towards dictatorship”. There were renewed attempts by the Merchants’ Association, the Draymen’s Association, and by Tobin and Beck to get teamsters to cross the picket lines and make deliveries, however.56
Real and Marshall were brought into the AFL negotiation committee in an effort to ensure their cooperation. The Draymen and the Merchants organized when the Labor Journal called a “squeeze play” outside Kahn’s. Individual truck drivers were ordered through the picket lines, while their employers and St. Sure stood on the sidewalk. But the drivers refused. The Draymen, nervous for their equipment, withdrew their cooperation. As Beck’s pressure on Local 70 continued to mount, the Journal declared “that no one outsider is going to come into Alameda County and apply any pressure on any member or union in an effort to create a split in the labor movement.”57 Real was pleading with the Council leaders to settle the Strike on the employers’ terms, because Tobin and Beck were threatening to place Local 70 under trusteeship if the teamsters continued to refuse to make deliveries.
In early January, Joe Casey, a San Francisco Teamster leader, added his voice to those of the Oakland AFL leaders:
… the fight of the Department Store Clerks against the unfair Kahn’s and Hastings stores was a clear-cut case. It had followed all of the procedures laid down by the AFL Unions. The Joint Council of Teamsters had endorsed the strike as had all official bodies of the AFL. By his utterances to the daily press and by his issuing of orders to locals in Alameda County, the Western Vice-President of the Teamsters, Dave Beck, was playing right into the hands of the Retail Merchants’ Association and was in substance inadvertently acting as a strike breaker.
It was simultaneously revealed in the Labor Journal that St. Sure had met with Beck in Santa Barbara during a meeting of the Western Conference of Teamsters.58
In mid-January, Charlie Real, acting in Tobin’s name, brought what amounted to the employer proposal to the Labor Council. A week later, Real gave an ultimatum to the Council leaders: accept this proposal, or Local 70 would pull out of the Labor Council. They refused, but kept Real’s action secret, still hoping to avert an open split. Nonetheless, Jack Reynolds, head of the Building Trades Council, found it necessary to warn publicly both the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and Local 70 officers from attempting deliveries. Another hint of an impending split was made in this Journal editorial:
Every union … is supporting the strike. There have been no rifts in the movement, but you can rest assured that some people are trying to create one so that the solidarity of the AFL in Alameda County may be split asunder. As long as that solidarity is there, the employers know that they are licked to a frazzle and their only hope left is to try and split the movement so they may move in.
… It might be possible that a few labor leaders are so weak that they are willing to take any kind of a settlement in order not to face the issue. These are in such a minority and the labor movement has such solidarity that any action by these few will in no way interfere with the successful prosecution and winning of this strike. Boats may be in the water now, all ready to put out to shore to save their individual skins, and desert the ship of solid unionism. This may happen and if it does every AFL man in the County will know it. …
In early February, Real played his last card, announcing to the press and to the Council a new employer offer, which contained key union demands. Knowing this offer to be contrived by Real, the Council accepted it. But the Merchants’ Association immediately repudiated the offer. His bluff called, Real tried to having conveyed the offer in the first place and announced that Local 70 was withdrawing from the Labor Council.
Now the breach could not be healed and the Council denounced Real for his attempts to “sell out” the clerks by foisting an “open-shop” deal on them:
… such actions on the part of brother Charles W. Real caused confusion and uncertainty in the ranks of labor, and gave aid and comfort to the employers and almost broke the strike. … we condemn the actions of Charles W. Real … as those of a strike breaker and a tool of the employers …
In subsequent weeks, the union committee used the phony offer as a wedge to try to dislodge the employers’ refusal to negotiate – offering it as the basis for settlement. They received no reply. But the union had won at least a propaganda point. Once the “settlement” had been reported in the press, the employers’ repudiation of it and continued refusal to negotiate tended to discredit them in public opinion. In March, the Labor Council called for a boycott of all 27 Merchants’ Association stores, and the Building Trades Council implemented a ban on all RMA store construction work. The strike continued. And so did the teamster rank and file’s refusal to cross picket lines.
Independent Political Action
The continuing stalemate in the store strike was a powerful incentive to the labor movement’s efforts, beginning in the immediate aftermath of the General Strike, to wrest local political power from the employers. The Knowland machine had used the police against the picket lines. The Labor Holiday had failed to insure against this in the future when Hassler’s alleged agreement had evaporated. Within the labor leadership a three-way tug-of-war developed between the Council, the CIO and the Communist Party, and Real and the Teamsters. Labor unity was the chief priority for the first two: they hoped to accomplish what the General Strike had not in this regard, to bring together both labor federations, the CIO and the AFL, in a coalition “to combat anti-labor legislation.” Of necessity this meant that the liberal AFL leaders would have to cooperate with the Communist wing of the CIO leadership, which was pushing hard for joint labor electoral action. Real, whose political and union career depended on the continued power of the Kowland machine, viewed this unified movement as a basic threat. He would use the Communist issue to split the movement further, taking all the Teamster locals, in addition to Local 70, out of the Labor Council in an attempt to destroy that body’s viability and with it the base of its leadership. Real hoped that this would allow him to return to his former dominant position in the local AFL. His plan, thus far, did not succeed. The Labor Council did not collapse. But Real was able to use his power over the Teamsters to mitigate the effects of his isolation. And his red-baiting, in tandem with a furious anti-Communist campaign waged by the Oakland Tribune against the labor city council slate, did succeed in causing most of the Labor Council’s leadership to “back away” from the election campaign. Part of this retreat represented defensive, preemptive, anti-Communist rhetoric in the Labor Journal. Hoping to dissociate themselves from the Communists, the Council leaders added a powerful voice to the anti-Communist crescendo.
The idea of independent electoral action came directly out of the General Strike. Like the Strike itself, this political impulsive was not purely local either in cause or in the focus of its aims. The Strike was a response to what was viewed by labor as a local manifestation of a nation-wide open-shop offensive, of which the use of a Federal injunction in the coal strike was the latest and most blatant instance. In March of 1947, when the Labor Council and the CIO formed the joint Labor Committee to Combat Anti-Labor legislation, this was viewed as a local effort in a national campaign to unite CIO and AFL against the national drive by employers and the 80th Congress, which would produce the Taft-Hartley Act that year.
On April 3, a mass rally of 10,000 unionists was held at the Oakland Auditorium by the Joint Labor Committee. In the rally call the Committee declared:
Over ten years of struggle since the Wagner Act had brought the wages of organized labor to a high peak. But the cost of living, at its highest point in American history, has far outstripped wages.
Repeat of corporation and other business taxes has given Big Business a huge war chest with which to fight labor. The year 1946 brought corporations their mightiest profits in history.
Government injunction and intervention is used to break the Railroad Brotherhood and Mine Workers’ Union strikes. Remember December 1, 1946, when city officials escorted scab trucks through clerks’ picket lines at Kahn’s.
Congress lines up 212 bills to weaken and break labor unions. Big Business calls for crippling curbs on labor’s right to organize and bargain collectively. A trembling Supreme Court rules for law by injunction. Your unions, your wage standards, your jobs, your democratic rights, are at stake.
The rally endorsed five city council candidates run by the Oakland Voters’ League, which the Joint Labor Committee had established as a way of attracting middle class support. The campaign was directed not only against the use of police against labor (it promised “impartial statesmanship in labor relations), but attacked the Knowland machine on a broad range of issues: discriminatory tax evaluations that favored large downtown businesses at the expense of homeowners; the introduction of parking meters by the City, which was viewed by labor as a regressive tax; the decay of public transportation; the absence of an effective program to combat the housing crisis; and the City’s continuing refusal to implement a $15,000,000 bond issue, approved by the voters in 1945, for parks, recreation, and other socially beneficial capital improvements.62
While the union’s membership viewed the campaign as an extension of the labor movement, turning out to the April 3 rally, and voting for its candidates in record numbers, the Labor Council leadership had no clear conception that this was a labor political movement. The candidates were not representative of the trade unions, but were chosen haphazardly from a number of middle-class aspirants who presented themselves for consideration at the offices of the various labor bodies involved.63 The only blue-collar worker among them, Ray Pease, was a locomotive engineer, who, in Ash’s words, “knew more about driving a train than he did about politics”. Neither a leader or even active in his union, Pease would become a major embarrassment to the campaign, and would ultimately go over to the old regime once elected to the City Council.64 The other candidates included Joseph Smith, a labor attorney, chosen as major after the election, Vernon Lantz, a chemist at the University of California, and Scott Weakley, a radio announcer. Lantz and Weakley became the focus of red-baiting smears by the Oakland Tribune during the campaign. The fifth candidate, Glen Goldfarb, had no labor connection whatsoever. He too became an embarrassment when the Tribune reprinted a 1944 story from the People’s World in which Goldfarb had been denounced as an anti-labor martinet for his role in provoking a strike while he was a production supervisor at a Richmond shipyard. He was the only Voters’ League candidate to be defeated, but this was probably not because of the Tribune story, but because of a combination of anti-semitism among some voters and the fact that the ballots had been printed in such a way as to make Goldfarb appear as one of the incumbents.65
But the choice of candidates was not the most important reason for labor’s failure to win a majority in the election. More serious was the fact that after the April 3 rally most of the Labor Council leadership began to abstain from active participation and any real effort to mobilize the AFL membership. The only important exception to this was Jack Reynolds of the Building Trades Council. After the great success of the April 3 rally, Fred Irwin of the Teamster Retail Delivery Drivers’ Local 588, speaking for Charles Real, presented a new ultimatum to the Labor Council: either withdraw completely from the Joint Labor Committee or the Teamsters would quit the Labor Council, taking their members’ per capita dues with them. The Labor Council refused this ultimatum. The Teamster withdrawal did not succeed in collapsing the Labor Council because the Building Trades, up till now a parallel organization, immediately affiliated to replace the Teamsters’ members and resources. But Real’s maneuver had a big impact on AFL policy nonetheless. As Ash later recalled:
The only time when I willingly backed away or was forced to back away (was) when the Council was officially in the … election committee … and Fred Irwin came in and raised all kinds of hell about the Central Labor Council associating themselves with the Commies in the CIO in an election and we had to back away from it.
Not only did the Labor Council leaders draw back from the campaign, but the Joint Labor Committee and the Oakland Voters’ League were not set up as participatory organizations. There were no regular public meetings, no democratic structure, and very little activity on the part of the AFL rank and file. The result was a top-down organization that recruited mainly middle-class volunteers as precinct workers and in which the Communist Party did, in fact, play a disproportionately large role.67
The five candidates did, nonetheless, win large pluralities in the April primary elections. It was only after this victory that Real and other conservative labor leaders, in conjunction with the Tribune, the Post-Enquirer, and the Merchants’ Association, began their smear campaign in earnest. In fact, the Tribune did not mention the Voters’ League campaign at all until after the primary. The Tribune now portrayed that campaign as part of a National Communist strategy in which Oakland had been “picked as a testing ground in an effort to secure Communist control”. It also singled out Jack Reynolds for abuse, saying that the 13 Teamster locals had withdrawn from the Labor Council due to Reynolds’ “domination” of that body and his support for the “left-wing Communist ticket”. “In this connection”, the Tribune continued, “… it may not be amiss to again call attention to the fact that … Jack Reynolds turned states evidence in Chicago in connection with trafficking in black market whiskey”. Reynolds was also branded as a labor racketeer, a charge that was publicly repeated by Real’s ally Charles Mason, The Secretary-Treasurer of the Oakland Electricians’ Local.68
Two days before the May 13 elections, the Tribune printed a front page cartoon showing a Trojan Horse inside the walls of Oakland, with Communists emerging from it beckoning towards City Hall, with swords drawn, as if about to massacre the population. Above the cartoon was a caption, “Beware of Fellow Travelers Bearing Gifts”. Below it was the message, “They then laid siege to the city … and at length, when they had obtained entrance to it, in the interior of a huge wooden horse, which was presented as a gift, succeeded in entering, sacking and burning it.” In the same issue, the Tribune accused Vernon Lantz of belonging to a professional organization at the Radiation Laboratory, “which sought to create labor unrest amongst atomic bomb workers in Berkeley during the war”. Lantz was also accused of having a known Communist on his election petition. Scott Weakley was also smeared as a Communist fellow traveler. Ray Pease was called a wife beater, a child-support delinquent, and a drunkard.
The Labor Journal tried to defend the labor candidates against these attacks by saying that while it was true that the Communist Party supported them, this did not in itself mean that the candidates were Communists or Communist-influenced. “We can’t stop breathing”, said the Journal, because the Communists liked air. But the Journal had itself been attacking the Communists. It seemed ambivalent on the question of persecution. It reported favorably the expulsion of the Local 29 officers, but also opposed banning the Communist Party. “The real job in dealing with Communists is precisely to drive them out in the open. If their stuff is published openly, then every alert union member can know what the party line is and can spot the agents of the Little Red Church as they operate conspiratorially in the union.” This might be interpreted to mean that the Communists should be fought politically, by defeating their policies through democratic means. But this was almost certainly not what the Journal meant. The reality of the Local 29 purge, the fact that the Journal used such highly inflammatory epithets as “fifth columnists” and “un-American” to describe the Communists, and that it reported, again favorably, on efforts to hound and expel Communists in the Contra Costa AFL, all indicate a quite different attitude. The Journal had even repeated the canard about Communist subversion at the Radiation Laboratory.69
The campaign failed to win a majority in the May 13 election. But four out of five candidates won decisive victories in the largest voter turnout in Oakland’s history. Although the aims of the campaign – to put labor in power and begin serious reform in local government – were not achieved, the election was a significant moral victory for labor and the people of Oakland. The voters had convincingly rejected the Knowland machine, police strike breaking, and a city government which was so anti-labor and so biased in favor of intransigent employers that it could provoke a general strike. The vote was also a rejection of the furious red baiting of Real and the Tribune. Cold War ideology and anti-Communist hysteria were not anywhere near as powerful as they would soon become.
The Kahn’s-Hastings strike was ended the day before the Oakland City election. It was a less-than-satisfactory settlement. The union accepted a modified agency shop clause not appreciably different from that originally offered by the employers. Two interpretations of the timing of the settlement suggest themselves: (1) that the settlement was reached as a means of taking the wind out of the sails of the labor campaign in the City election; (2) that the Retail Clerks’ leaders felt the pressure in that the uncertainty of the campaign’s outcome might leave them without any bargaining power whatsoever. The latter seems the most likely. The strike had gone on for over six months. It does seem unlikely that the timing was pure coincidence.70
The Oakland General Strike left important legacies. The workers had shown the employers what they could do, and this unforgettable experience became a restraining hand on business that has lasted to this day. The city election began a process that culminated in the 1958 labor campaign against the Right to Work gubernatorial candidacy of William Knowland. Despite the Labor Council’s local accommodation with the Knowland machine, it became, in some ways, one of the most progressive in the United States, in one of the very few areas that still had a strong central labor body.
But not all the results were so positive. The Teamster split prefigured the expulsion of the Teamsters from the AFL-CIO. Local 70 remained under Real’s control, despite considerable rank and file opposition until he was removed by Beck in 1949. Real was sent to prison for embezzling union funds. But Local 70 did not emerge from Beck’s tutelage until 1957. The store employees finally got a better contract at Kahn’s, but this did not last. Oakland’s department stores are still non-union in 1981. Bitter anti-Communism grew in the Cold War period, and was a powerful and lasting component in the thought and action of the local labor movement until partly laid to rest in the 1960s. It created an atmosphere in which workers feared to question the basic values of society. When radicalism revived, it was the students, not the workers, who dared to challenge the old assumptions.
But there was still an element of opposition feeling in this labor movement. On a cold early morning in December of 1964, a delivery truck approached a student strike picket line in Berkeley. A bewildered and angry driver was somehow persuaded to call his union – Local 70. He returned, climbed into his truck, and drove away.
Transcribed by S.A.F. for INSANE DIALECTICAL POSSE 2008
- 1Don Vial, taped interviews with Bob Ash, C.L. Dellums, George Hunt, Al Applebaum, Paul Heide, George Johns, held at the Shattuck Hotel in Berkeley in 1973. The discussion deals mainly with the impact of the 1934 strike in the East Bay; Paul Montauk interview, February 3, 1981. Mr. Montauk, a socialist and a participant, remembers that disillusionment with the government was very great among labor people in Oakland at the time; Stan Weir, “American Labor on the Defensive: a 1940’s Odyssey”. Radical America, Vol. 9, No. 4-5, p. 163-185.
- 2On the fear of fascism, see Barton J. Bernstein, “The Truman Administration and the Steel Strike of 1946”. Journal of American History, March 1966 (Vol. LII, No. 4), 794-795.
- 3Barton J. Bernstein, “Walter Reuther and the General Motors Strike of 1945-1946”. Michigan History. Vol. 49, No. 3, September 1965, p. 260-277. Bernstein emphasizes the importance of factional rivalry in Reuther’s initial motivation for taking on G.M., but also that Reuther’s leadership was more farsighted and socially conscious than the traditionalist CIO leadership. See also, East Bay Labor Journal (hereafter abbreviated – EBLJ), September 20, 1946, p. 4 (for local impact of GM-UAW “Open the Books” campaign).
- 4Bernstein, Ibid., p. 271, from New York Times, Dec. 30, 1945.
- 5Labor Herald, Feb. 2, 1946, Oakland Tribune, March 18, 1946, p. 1.
- 6For summary of maritime strike, see San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 1, 1946, “This World” section, pp. 3-4; also Oakland Post Enquirer, Sept. 7, 1946, p. 1, Sept. 12, Sept. 14, Nov. 23.
- 7EBLJ, Apr. 26, May 10, and Aug. 29, 1947, EBLJ, p. 1, for Report to State Federation of Labor by Bob Ash.
- 8Ibid., October 18, 1946.
- 9Ibid., October 18, 1946.
- 10EBLJ, Oct. 25, 1946, Nov. 1.
- 11Ibid., Nov. 1, p. 4.
- 12Al Kidder in “Remembering Oakland’s Big Strike,” Labor Pulse, December 1977; Richard Jay, A Case Study in Retail Unionism: The Retail Clerks in the San Francisco East Bay Area. Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis. Economics, U.C. Berkeley, 1953, pp. 309-317.
- 13Jay, Ibid., p. 330-331; St. Sure Oral History, p. 453; Frankie Moore, Sr. interview, Apr. 14, 1981.
- 14EBLJ, Nov. 29, 1946.
- 15Joe Chaudet interview, Feb. 14, 1981. Accounts of these events are contradictory. Interview heavily relies on the account of James F. Gulliano, EBLJ, Dec. 6, 1946.
- 16The streetcar incident is also given contradictory portrayals. Kidder says that Al Brown was driving the streetcar. However, Vera Stanbauw insists that Brown was a full-time union official and not a Key System employee at the time. Interview, Apr. 15, 1981; Dec. 2, 1946, p. 1; San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 2, p. 1.
- 17Ash interview, Jan. 30, 1981.
- 18Joe Chaudet, “Remembering Oakland’s Big Strike”, Labor Pulse, December 1977.
- 19Bob Ash in “Remembering Oakland’s Big Strike.”
- 20On Monday’s crowds, accounts are again contradictory. The 10,000 figure is from Contra Costa Labor Journal, Dec. 6, 1946, p. 1; on Monday’s meeting, San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 2, 1946, p. 1; Milk Drivers, George Hunt interview, Mar. 2, 1981; Einar Mohn, Oral History, Corinne Gibb, interviewer, March 1970, p. 314. Institute of Industrial Relations, U.C. Berkeley.
- 21Irene Atkinson interview, April 20, 1981.
- 22On crowd size on Tuesday, accounts vary. The 20,000 figure, much larger than most, is from Women’s Wear Daily, Dec. 4, 1946, cited in Phillip J. Wolman, “The Oakland General Strike,” Historical Society of Southern California, 1975; Post Enquirer, Dec. 5, 1946, p. 2; St. Sure’s Oral History, p. 457. No labor source or person interviewed remembers pickets going to East Oakland. The employers’ voluminous itemization of this has been destroyed.
- 23On restaurants: San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 4, p. 7; interview with retired Local 70 official, who preferred to remain anonymous, Mar. 2, 1981.
- 24Bill Horton interview, Apr. 14, 1981. Question: “Why were all the grocery stores, gas stations, etc., shut down?” Answer: “It was a general strike and we weren’t going to let anything run until it was settled.” On West Oakland grocery stores – interview with Frankie Moore, Sr.
- 25San Francisco News, Dec. 3, p. 1. The mail-order workers were members of Teamsters’ Local 853 – interview with Bill Clifford, May 26, 1981.
- 26For invisibility of leadership, Weir, p. 179; Tribune incident, Chaudet interview.
- 27For accounts of strike violence, see all San Francisco and Oakland dailies; police captain’s account – Tribune, Dec. 5, 1946, p. 17.
- 28Interview with Jack Sweeny, Sr., Feb. 27, 1981; Labor Action, Dec. 16, 1946, p. 2; People’s World, Dec. 5, 1946; Weir, p. 178; San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 5, p. 14; San Francisco Call-Bulletin, Dec. 5, back page.
- 29Weir, p. 178; Labor Action, Dec. 16, 1946, p. 2; People’s World, Dec. 5, 1946.
- 30EBLJ, Dec. 6, p. 2; Contra Costa Labor Journal, Dec. 6, 1946, p. 7; Labor Action, Dec. 16, 1946, p. 2; West Coast Sailor, Dec. 13, 1946, p. 2; Weir, p. 180; Bob Ash, “Remembering Oakland’s Big Strike”.
- 3132. San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 4, p. 1, pp. 7-8, and Dec. 5, p. 3; Tribune, Dec. 5, p. 2; San Francisco Call-Bulletin, Dec. 2, p. 2.
- 32San Francisco News, Dec. 3 (page not indicated) ; San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 4, p. 1.
- 33San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 5, p. 2.
- 34Mohn, Oral History, pp. 313-316. Mohn interview, April 28, 1981; Chaudet interview; San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 4, 1946, p. 7.
- 35Post Enquirer, Dec. 5, p. 2; Tribune, Dec. 5, p. 1; S.F. Chronicle, Dec. 5, p. 4.
- 36S.F. Chronicle, Dec. 5, p. 1; Anon. Interview, Feb. 2, 1981. George Hunt, also a witness to this discussion, vehemently denies that Marshall said this, however.
- 37Mohn, Oral History, p. 315; Mohn interview.
- 38S.F. Chronicle, Dec. 6, p. 2; Post Enquirer, Dec. 6, p. 3.
- 40S.F. Call-Bulletin, Dec. 5, p. 1; S.F. Chronicle, Dec. 6, p. 3.
- 42EBLJ, May 9, 1947, p. 1.
- 43EBLJ, Dec. 13, 1946, p. 4; S.F. Chronicle, Dec. 7, p. 3.
- 44Clark Kerr Interview, Apr. 14, 1981.
- 45Joe Chaudet, Oral History, Earl Warren Series, Labor Leaders View the Warren Era, Frank Jones, interviewer, 1973; Pete Marshall interview, Apr. 14, 1981; Vial tapes.
- 46Vial tapes.
- 47Bridges’ opposition cannot be documented. This is based on interviews with two former Party members who wish to remain anonymous.
- 48Ron Weakley interview, Mar. 29, 1981; Bill Clifford interview, Feb. 13, 1981..
- 49Interview with Local 1304 retirees, Bob Dwinelle and Ed Kintz, Mar. 2, 1981, and with Local 1304 member Al Fradodavich, Feb. 13, 1984; Jim Kiernan interview, Feb. 16, 1981. Kiernan says that the C.P. expulsions were massively documented by one of the expelled communists, but that this material was stolen. Also see The Militant, Dec. 14, 1946. On CIO Council – Ron Weakley interview.
- 50Joe Chaudet interview.
- 51Lloyd Lehman, “The Oakland General Strike,” Political Affairs, February 1947, p. 178; Weir; p. 183.
- 52Los Angeles Times, Dec. 6, 1946, Section 2, p. 4.
- 53EBLJ, Dec. 13, 1946, p. 1.
- 54Jay, Retail Clerks, p. 325.
- 55I am grateful to Mr. Richard Berman, who has done extensive research on the Local 29 purge, for much of this information. Also, Bill Clifford interview; EBLJ, Apr. 25, 1947; People’s World, Apr. 28, 1947, p. 6. I am informed by the present officers of Local 29 that a four-volume transcript of the trial of the three officers has disappeared from its archives.
- 56EBLJ, Dec. 20, p. 4.
- 57EBLJ, Dec. 7, p. 1.
- 58EBLJ, Jan. 17, 1947, p. 1.
- 59EBLJ, Jan. 31, 1947, p. 1.
- 60EBLJ, Feb. 14, p. 4.
- 61EBLJ, Feb. 28, 1947, p. 1.
- 62Ibid. Page 4.
- 63Ash interview; Ole Fegerbaugh interview, Mar. 2, 1981.
- 64Ash interview; Chaudet interview; Joseph Smith interview, Feb. 19, 1981.
- 65Tribune, May 11, 1947, p. 4; Wolman, p. 175; Weir, p. 181.
- 66Ash in Don Vial tape.
- 67Interviews with Smith, Fegerbaugh, Montauk, Stan Weir; Labor Action, Apr. 14, 1947, p. 8.
- 68Tribune, May 7, editorial; Ron Weakley interview.
- 69EBLJ, Mar. 28, pp. 3-4; Apr. 1, p. 4; Apr. 15, p. 3; May 9, p. 4.
- 70Tribune, May 10, May 13.