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'Occupy' Strikes Historic Chord With Call for Walkout

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Bancroft Library/ UC Berkeley

Dockworkers march down the Embarcadero in San Francisco in 1934.

Occupy Oakland is calling for a general strike in the city on Wednesday. Such mass walkouts by workers are rare events in American history, but two of the last few were here in the Bay Area -- San Francisco in 1934, and Oakland in 1946. Stamford, Conn., Lancaster, Penn., Rochester, NY, Pittsburgh, Penn., and Houston Texas also experienced general strikes in 1946.

The 1934 general strike followed a walkout by longshore workers, and weeks of clashes between police and strikers. I talked about it's history earlier today with Fred Glass -- who teaches labor history at City College of San Francisco.

Fred Glass: Any general strike needs to have four conditions. You need to have a generalized anger in the working class. A spark that kicks it off, in the case of 1934 it was the murder of Howard Sperry and Nick Bordoise who was a longshoreman and cook involved in the strike. The third thing that you need is someone who is willing to stick their neck out and call for a general strike --it could be embarrassing if you called for one and nobody came. And then the fourth thing you need is the structure to organize it. And so that came out of the labor council as well and out of the unions affiliated with the council.


Cy Musiker: The 1946 strike had more spontaneous strike. Four hundred retail clerks were striking at two department stores in downtown Oakland -- Hastings and Kahn's -- and police working store management, I believe, escorted delivery trucks to the stores and that infuriated a lot of union people in Oakland.

Glass: In 1946, again, there was a wave of strikes across the country following World War II because working people were watching as corporate profits were soaring and their wages, meanwhile, were getting eaten up by high inflation. And the events at Kahn's and Hastings department store fit right into that. The strike touched off the general strike. When the women and their union supporters from other unions were pushed off the picket lines with billy clubs and knocked around some by the Oakland Police Department in order to bring merchandise into those stores to replenish the shelves. And, the general strike ended after three days. The women were still out on the sidewalks.

And despite an agreement from the city manager that there would be no more scabs coming in, protected by police, they did it almost immediately. And the labor movement was confronted with a choice, either they could go out on general strike again, or something else. What they decided to do was convert the street energy into political energy. They elected four out of five open seats to the city council. So now you had these four labor supporters on a previously employer run city council. At that point the Retailer Merchants Association gave up and said OK, we'll come to the bargaining table with you, and they negotiated a contract with the clerks.

Musiker: So how would you compare the call for a general strike by Occupy Oakland? And I note that Occupy participants did not consult with local unions about their cooperation. Many of these unions have no-strike clauses, and that sacrifices some of the muscle and organizing power they might have been able to tap if they'd worked with the unions.

Glass: I think that the Occupy Oakland has a marvelous spirit and it has a great moral authority to it. But their democratic process does not have the kind of legal responsibilities that unions do with their contracts. And just because they've called for a general strike that doesn't obligate the unions to have a general strike. Having said that, though, the labor movement is in support of the day of action.

Musiker: What happens now for the Occupy movement? As a labor historian, what are the opportunities given the fact that it's going to be difficult to maintain these encampments during the winter?

Glass: I think that one of the demands of Occupy Wall Street is that the rich pay their fair share of taxes so that we have the revenues we need in municipal, state and federal governments to take care of the needs of the American people. I suspect that one of the things that's going to happen now is a conversion of the street-heat energy into political energy, where support for the idea of fair taxes on the rich and corporations will translate into movements for that to happen.

Musiker: Labor historian and San Francisco City College Professor, Fred Glass.


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