Articles from the December 2011 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
Industrial Worker (December 2011)
Whole Foods shut down in Oakland
An article about the shut down of a Whole Foods during Occupy Oakland's 'general strike'.
In the weeks leading up to the Oakland General Strike on Nov. 2, Wobblies across the bay in San Francisco circulated agitational leaflets calling on workers in unorganized shops to “sick out” for the day. The city, under pressure from local labor groups, adopted a sick leave policy in 2006 which entitles most employees to paid days off if they’re sick or caring for a sick family member. We recognized that most workers in San Francisco don’t belong to unions and could probably not pull off an official strike, so we appealed to them to sick out en masse and potentially get paid for withholding their labor. This approach was received with enthusiasm by many workers and it encouraged several to sick out on the day of the general strike.
One particular group of workers we targeted was the low-wage food and retail sector. As it turned out, it was in that sector that we forced the first workplace shutdown during the strike. We approached a group of radical workers in the morning who we heard had called out of work from their food service job to participate in the strike. Their coworkers, whom they had agitated to call out as well, expressed a desire to join the strike but reported to work instead for fear of retaliation from their notoriously abusive management. We were told that if a picket went up at their workplace, the workers would feel more emboldened to walk out.
Wobblies jumped on the opportunity. We coordinated with a contingent of 25-30 militant organizers from a few different radical organizations to march the few blocks from the main rally to Whole Foods, splitting up along the way to avoid being routed by security or police. Our arrival was timed for the beginning of the lunch rush, and we converged inside the store at 11:30 a.m. Massing suddenly inside the doors, we called out the customers and chanted “Let them strike, it’s their right!” Overwhelmed, management conceded and told us they’d shut down and pay the workers the full day’s wage. For our own assurance, we stayed and threw up a lively picket at the entrance while the boss locked the doors, keeping the workers in and customers out. Several bewildered office staff looking for their soup fix were politely told that the place was shut down for the general strike, with some staffers vainly tugging on the locked glass doors anyway.
We asked one of the workers who was bold enough to talk to us through the doors whether they’d prefer us to stay or leave. “Stay” was the answer, and for the next hour or so we held our ground and chanted. The same worker who told us to stay said “You did it! You shut it down!” and gave me a fist bump through the glass door! We received very vocal criticism throughout the shutdown by one worker who screamed insults and attempted to persuade us that none of the other workers supported the shutdown. Shortly after she left, the largely Latino kitchen staff began to dawn smiles and a young female black worker met us at the entrance with her coworker to openly share their enthusiasm and express their appreciation. The display of a Spanish-language strike banner was a decisive component of the shutdown, especially with the kitchen staff. It was clear to us that this shutdown was well-received by the workers.
It was an inspiring start to an extraordinary day of working-class mass action. We hope our recounting here will offer even a minor contribution to those who plan to carry out similar actions, hopefully on a much larger scale.
We want to emphasize that shutting down the flow of production is not in and of itself a revolutionary act. In fact, as we saw in the shutdown of Whole Foods that took place later in the day, without the support of the workers such actions have the likely consequence of alienating and isolating majority sectors of the workingclass, thereby weakening our message and missing the broader aim of overthrowing capitalism.
Much was made of the Whole Foods shutdown in the press, and in the Occupy movement as a whole. During the scheduled Anti-Capitalist March midday, the crowd of several hundred or more snaked their way from downtown Oakland to the nearby Whole Foods, where it was rumored that workers were being threatened with firings if they joined the demonstrations. The Wobbly contingent saw an opportunity to picket the grocery chain and call out the workers in solidarity, shutting down the store by the workers walking out. Instead, as soon as the march arrived several demonstrators started tearing the storefront apart—throwing rocks at the windows, pulling tables and chairs into the street, and so on. This had the effect of scaring and confusing the workers inside who didn’t know what to make of the melee taking place outside. While we understood the rage being expressed by these acts of vandalism, we felt that an important opportunity to engage workers and expose the contradictions of liberal capitalists like Whole Foods was missed. Imagine if the several hundred of us on the march had surrounded the store with a picket line, and some of our number addressed the workers inside to get them to walk out with us. The store would have had to shut down immediately and I have little doubt that a significant chunk of the workers would have gladly joined us. The impact of a successful action like that could have had wide reverberations, emboldening many thousands of workers to engage in similar actions and challenge their bosses.
While it’s important that we stand together as a movement and not allow certain groups to be “thrown under the bus” so that we appear acceptable to the media, it’s also important to be critical of actions in a constructive and comradely spirit. It’s our hope that we can reflect on what took place at the Whole Foods shutdown and draw lessons that will allow our movement to more fully mature to its revolutionary potential.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2011)
Thousands march & shut down port, Oakland
An article by Bruce Valde about the November 2, 2011 Occupy Oakland 'general strike'.
On Wednesday, Nov. 2, we arrived at the intersection of 14th Street and Broadway in downtown Oakland. It was 5:30 a.m. The sound truck was already parked at the corner and the sound system was being set up. The encampment was still pretty quiet and most of the activity centered around the news vans parked along 14th Street. We deployed a pop-up tent and an IWW literature table and banners. I locked my bike to the railing that runs around the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station entrance. It seemed to me that being mobile would be the best way to participate in the afternoon marches. I was right about that.
It’s been said but I’ll say it again: the crowd kept doubling in size literally by the minute.
At around 2:00 p.m. marchers started to shape up at the intersection of Telegraph Avenue and Broadway. This is approximately where the 1946 General Strike began. By 2:30 p.m. the march stepped off. The size was impressive and marchers highly energetic. The number of marchers continued to grow as the crowd surged north on Broadway. A lot has already been written how some of the marchers were too aggressive about shutting down banks. Of course the intention was always to shut the 1 percent down, so this was going to be accomplished in various ways depending on one’s orientation. As we were all in the march together and as there were ostensibly no “leaders,” the people took it upon themselves to do what they thought necessary to shut it down.
The marchers next headed toward the lakefront. I could see the street we were marching on was packed with people from curb to curb for four or five blocks.
All of a sudden the arrogant façade of Whole Foods loomed before us like the Titanic. What happened next was interesting and divided the march somewhat along tactical lines. I’m not sure what most of the marchers thought they were going to do when they reached Whole Foods but word had gone out that Whole Foods was going to fire any worker that participated in the strike. Later the company claimed in an email this was false. But at the time, it was a strong motivation to go there, amongst other reasons.
We had heard that Whole Foods was being picketed but I saw no one picketing as the march arrived. As I mentioned, when the march reached the front of the store things got interesting. A large canister of paint was used to write the word “STRIKE” across the front windows. As the painters ran back toward the crowd some of those in the crowd decided these people needed to be tackled and knocked to the ground. Eventually, the scuffle grew to include the painters, the tacklers and the people who broke the painters free and allowed them to run into the crowd for safety.
Any chance of a picket line was lost and the unruly crowd vented their anger further by tossing patio chairs and tables into the street and applying more paint. The march started to move on. At that point, a guy started screaming about outsiders and how the town where he lives should not get messed up like that. My guess is he has never shopped in Whole Foods because he can’t afford it—and as I recall Whole Foods is from Texas.
The Port March
The march formation was less tight now that people turned back toward Oscar Grant Plaza. I checked in with fellow workers at the literature table there. I was informed that a Teamster local was bringing busses to get people to the Port of Oakland in a hurry to make sure all working gates were picketed. Also, a bike bloc was going to form part of initial pickets at the port. I pedaled off to do a little scouting and reached the port in about ten minutes. Before leaving I ran into an organizer for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) who I had met the previous day. He said the UFCW contingent marching to the port were going to a dock separate from the rest and we never saw them later. There are probably thousands of pictures online so I won’t describe the layout of the Port of Oakland, but that particular gate is isolated. I deemed it the “dead-end march.”
The port was crawling with frustrated independent operator truckers waiting for a load. The port was operating at 50 percent capacity most of the day so a lot of truckers were going to leave empty but they had still not given up hope of a load. I rolled up to some drivers: a couple of guys from Iran and three more Chinese guys.
They replied to my inquiry about how they were doing by saying “you protesters are making our lives difficult” and “why didn't you all do this on the morning shift?” We had considered shutting down the port during the dayside shift, but marching during the day and shutting down the port during the nightside shift seemed to be a better choice. It definitely was, in good part because International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 organizers had spent the day curtailing most work before Occupy Oakland arrived around 4:00 p.m. The interesting thing is that while the truckers were complaining about the inconvenience, they ended by saying, “we wish you success,” and “we are with you.”
Next, I looked up and there were 200 bikers occupying the first terminal gate—not just the gate but the entire road. Soon after, four busses loaded with occupiers rolled by heading toward gates further down the way. It was on. Then the march came into view on the bridge over the railway at Adeline Avenue. This was one of two or three large marches that arrived at both ends of the port in the next hour. I will say in closing that in the past the awesome port shutdowns have been different because they closely followed a script: picket the gate, the longshoremen deem it a safety issue, arbitrators rule in their favor, no one goes to work. This was different. I rode from one end of the port to the other at 8:00 p.m. The port was not operating and at each entrance a party was going on. The night was still young.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2011)
On the ground at the Oakland general strike
An account by K.R. about the November 2nd Occupy Oakland 'general strike'.
On Wednesday morning, Nov. 2, I sent a text message to my boss that read “Cough, cough. Capitalism is making me sick. I will be seeking treatment in downtown Oakland today.” He wrote back, “Nice try, you communist.”
On my way to the Millbrae Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station I contacted several friends. I convinced two of them to come to Oakland. One was a student who cut her classes for the day even though she had important assignments due and meetings scheduled. The other was a recentlylaid- off former co-worker.
Coming up the escalator to Oscar Grant Plaza from the 12th Street BART station I heard amplified speeches—I had heard there would be a flatbed trailer, and I was apprehensive that Nov. 2 would devolve into the typical, deathly boring rally from with which we have all had far too many years’ experience. And indeed, the intersection of 14th Street and Broadway had that feel at 9:30 a.m.: A few hundred people either facing or ignoring a stage of blabbering activists. But soon enough, the streets filled with people coming from all directions. Before I knew it there were thousands of us and the sound stage became practically irrelevant.
The first march pushed off and circled a few blocks. There were no police visible and we filled the entire street. I had the first burst of the feeling of elation, freedom and solidarity that would stay with me all day. I walked near the Brass Liberation Orchestra, which stopped on Clay Street where a circle of cheering and dancing people formed. We chanted “Occupy! Shut it down! Oakland is the Peoples’ Town!” and “This system is about to die! Hella hella occupy!” These music and dance circles formed many times throughout the day, and I could not help but reflect on the accounts I have heard of similar behavior breaking out during the 1946 Oakland General Strike.
I noticed that many downtown businesses were preemptively shuttered for the day. I know that there were a few triumphant instances of flying pickets shutting banks and other businesses down, but somehow I missed being present at the moments these things happened.
The second march of the day was the 2:00 p.m. Anti-Capitalist March that wound its way through downtown and past a few banks, including Chase and Bank of America (both of which sported fresh facelifts, complete with shattered windows, graffiti, and paint splatters). Word rippled through the crowd that workers at Whole Foods—the “yuppie sweatshop,” as a friend called it—needed support to shut down the store by Lake Merritt, and the march moved toward the store.
As Whole Foods came into view we could see “STRIKE” spray-painted across the plate glass windows. It looked like at least one window had been broken. I lingered here for a while with a few friends. Two passersby voiced their displeasure with the vandalism, and seemed to blame us for either doing it or tacitly condoning it. Neither person was very articulate about their positions but they seemed to echo the typical peace-bully talking points, which I find exasperating and demoralizing, so we split to catch up with the march.
The Anti-Capitalist March returned to 14th Street and Broadway and a friend and I found a place to sit and rest. By this time the Alameda Labor Council had started their grill but we discovered the line was hundreds-long and we abandoned the idea of getting free food. Plans to find an open restaurant for food and bathrooms were dropped when the march to the port began; we had found some other friends and did not want to lose them again. Off we marched up 14th Street toward west Oakland.
A quick pit-stop into a taqueria for a bathroom and maybe some food was a bust—too long a line—but the workers there offered free bottles of ice-cold water. We took some and rejoined the march. From a freeway overpass we heard cars below honking wildly in support and saw traffic slow to a crawl as drivers took in the sight of thousands of people heading toward the port. Families watched from their driveways and cheered us on as we passed. Chants floated in the air: “Let’s go, Oakland! Let’s go!” The neighborhood smiled on the march and residents held up hand-made signs.
The flat geography of downtown and west Oakland made it virtually impossible to get a bead on the size of the march from ground level, but I got my first idea of its size as we rounded the corner of 7th and Adeline. Two blocks ahead I could see the rise of the overpass above the freight tracks. It was packed with people marching. Tractor cabs leaving the port were stranded in the sea of people, unable to move, and as we made our way across the overpass I saw many of the drivers grinning in awe, honking in support and laughing with protesters who hopped up onto the cab ladders to chat.
At the other end of the overpass the ground leveled out again along Middle Harbor Road. People climbed up on top of containers in triumph as we continued on to block all the gates. Each gate drew crowds of many hundreds, who stayed to secure the closure while others continued on to the rest of the gates.
Soon I was marching with four other women and we all had to pee. This stretch of road—train tracks on one side, cyclone fences and sheer walls on the other, and thousands of people all around—proved an inhospitable environment for the task. Eventually we found a low concrete barricade and created a “human shield” for one another. Some guy stopped to pee in solidarity nearby. I don’t think he quite got it that it’s not really the same thing for men to pee in public, but it was a sweet and funny gesture all the same. When we marched on we occasionally overheard other women talking about needing to pee and offered our services as the “Ad-Hoc Girls’ Bathroom Brigade.”
BART trains heading for San Francisco thundered overhead as we walked west. We heard rumors that Occupy San Francisco had shut down the Bay Bridge, but as darkness fell I had seen headlights moving on the bridge so I don’t think that really happened. It was a nice thought, though.
Over time we made our way to 7th and Maritime, where a crowd of hundreds was holding down the westernmost port entrances. It was dark now, and it had been announced that shift-change at the port had been moved from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m., then from 8:00 to 9:00 p.m. I still don’t know if any of that was true. We were all waiting for an announcement that the arbitrator had ruled that conditions for workers were “dangerous” and that the incoming shift would be sent home.
When it was clear that we had succeeded in shutting down the port for the night, even if the official word was still about 20 minutes from arriving, I began the trek to the West Oakland BART station with a couple of friends.
When the tracks up on the elevated platform were free of trains we called “mic check!” across the tracks and we spoke to each other through the peoples’ mic and we cheered our victory. A woman read a message from Scott Olsen, written that evening from his hospital bed—his first public communication since his injury. Trains arrived and we boarded, tired but sleepless like young people in love.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (December 2011)