Strike

Tomorrow, November 2, will be a general strike in Oakland. The move was approved nearly unanimously by the roughly 1600 people voting at last week’s Occupy Oakland general assembly, held the night after police from Oakland and several surrounding areas attacked nonviolent protesters with tear gas, rubber bullets, beanbags, flashbang grenades, and nightsticks.

The plan is to gather at 9 am in Frank Ogawa Plaza – renamed Oscar Grant Plaza by the folks occupying it – and protest. Different people will surely come focused on protesting different issues, but the major theme is sure to be the outsized influence of corporations and the wealthiest people on society. This may arise from environmental concerns, concerns about the rising unemployment rate, the growing gap between the wealthiest Americans and the rest of us, or about foreclosures. There will surely be protests against crime and against police abuses; if you think there’s no link between income inequality and crime, the inability or unwillingness of police to stop crime, and police brutality (against protesters last week and against minority youth all the time), I would suggest that you take a closer look.

Ultimately, though, it should be remembered that a general strike like this is not aimed at some narrow set of immediate demands. A general strike’s aim, as Michelle Ty writes eloquently at zunguzungu, is not to say that “work will not resume once this or that concession is made; instead, people will show their ‘determination to resume only a wholly transformed work‘. In a characteristically wonderful phrase, Benjamin writes that the general strike ‘not so much causes as consummates.'” (quoting Walter Benjamin).

There’s a compelling case to be made that, at this moment in 21st century America, the problems we face are not modest, not amenable to piecemeal solutions, and that the moment demands comprehensive reform. The forces at play are varied, including bank-friendly bankruptcy reforms, endless wars, unregulated pollution (much of it emitted from sites in low-income communities), illegal foreclosures and foreclosures on mortgages which should never have been offered, unemployment and underemployment that persist for years on end, economic policies which privilege multinational corporations over our fellow citizens and families and neighbors, a drug war which has repeatedly and catastrophically failed and which has left behind a legacy of broken families and unbreakably poverty and a permanent underclass. The causes of these problems are equally varied, but the unavoidable factor tying many of them together is growing power of corporations – their ability to buy influence in elections and the casual assumption that their concerns should take priority in matters of public policy.

These problems are a long time coming, and certainly stretch back to the last general strike in US history, a general strike in Oakland, CA, in December, 1946.

Historian Robert Self describes – in his excellent American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Post-War Oakland – the setting was a post-war nation where price controls have finally been lifted, thousands of GIs are returning to jobs, and labor unions were seeking ways to maintain the advances they had gained during the war and the New Deal. The strike also grew out of the divide between

Oakland’s business and political establishment, in which power and decision making lay in “downtown” institutions while the city’s working-class neighborhoods remained passive wards. “The city of Oakland is not going back to the jungle,” Oakland’s mayor declared after the strike’s declaration … When workers formed picket lines on downtown streets, battling police for control of the sidewalks, and marched downtown during the general strike, they politicized the metropolis, refusing to see it as neutral.

I can’t read that without thinking of Occupy Oakland, which has fought a battle to retain control of a public park in front of Oakland’s City Hall and surrounded by skyscrapers hosting corporate offices, a movement whose battle cries include choruses of “Whose streets? Our streets!”

Tomorrow, November 2, will be a general strike in Oakland. The move was approved nearly unanimously by the roughly 1600 people voting at last week’s Occupy Oakland general assembly, held the night after police from Oakland and several surrounding areas attacked nonviolent protesters with tear gas, rubber bullets, beanbags, flashbang grenades, and nightsticks.

The plan is to gather at 9 am in Frank Ogawa Plaza &emdash; renamed Oscar Grant Plaza by the folks occupying it &emdash; and protest. Different people will surely come focused on protesting different issues, but the major theme is sure to be the outsized influence of corporations and the wealthiest people on society. This may arise from environmental concerns, concerns about the rising unemployment rate, the growing gap between the wealthiest Americans and the rest of us, or about foreclosures. There will surely be protests against crime and against police abuses; if you think there’s no link between income inequality and crime, the inability or unwillingness of police to stop crime, and police brutality (against protesters last week and against minority youth all the time), I would suggest that you take a closer look.

Ultimately, though, it should be remembered that a general strike like this is not aimed at some narrow set of immediate demands. A general strike’s aim, as Michelle Ty writes eloquently at zunguzungu, is not to say that “work will not resume once this or that concession is made; instead, people will show their ‘determination to resume only a wholly transformed work‘. In a characteristically wonderful phrase, Benjamin writes that the general strike ‘not so much causes as consummates.'” (quoting Walter Benjamin).

There’s a compelling case to be made that, at this moment in 21st century America, the problems we face are not modest, not amenable to piecemeal solutions, and that the moment demands comprehensive reform. The forces at play are varied, including bank-friendly bankruptcy reforms, endless wars, unregulated pollution (much of it emitted from sites in low-income communities), illegal foreclosures and foreclosures on mortgages which should never have been offered, unemployment and underemployment that persist for years on end, economic policies which privilege multinational corporations over our fellow citizens and families and neighbors, a drug war which has repeatedly and catastrophically failed and which has left behind a legacy of broken families and unbreakably poverty and a permanent underclass. The causes of these problems are equally varied, but the unavoidable factor tying many of them together is growing power of corporations &emdash; their ability to buy influence in elections and the casual assumption that their concerns should take priority in matters of public policy.

These problems are a long time coming, and certainly stretch back to the last general strike in US history, a general strike in Oakland, CA, in December, 1946.

Historian Robert Self describes &emdash; in his excellent American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Post-War Oakland &emdash; the setting was a post-war nation where price controls have finally been lifted, thousands of GIs are returning to jobs, and labor unions were seeking ways to maintain the advances they had gained during the war and the New Deal. There were a record number of strikes in 1946, thanks to the lifting of wartime limits on strikes. The strike also grew out of the divide between:

Oakland’s business and political establishment, in which power and decision making lay in “downtown” institutions while the city’s working-class neighborhoods remained passive wards. “The city of Oakland is not going back to the jungle,” Oakland’s mayor declared after the strike’s declaration… When workers formed picket lines on downtown streets, battling police for control of the sidewalks, and marched downtown during the general strike, they politicized the metropolis, refusing to see it as neutral.

I can’t read that without thinking of Occupy Oakland, which has fought a battle to retain control of a public park in front of Oakland’s City Hall and surrounded by skyscrapers hosting corporate offices, a movement whose battle cries include choruses of “Whose streets? Our streets!”

The Oakland strike rose out of an effort to unionize two major department stores in downtown Oakland. The mostly female employees were organized by two AFL locals, and tried to bargain a new contract with the store managers. The store-owners were centers of the business community, and with the help of the Retail Merchants Association, wanted “to minimize union interference with the property values and profit-generating capacities of downtown real estate.” The store owners refused to negotiate, and the workers went on strike.

That strike lasted 28 days, after which the owners decided to break the strike by bringing in nonunion labor. Self writes:

City officials endorsed the move, and the police chief pledged full protection. Some 250 Oakland police officers were outfitted with tear gas and riot gear and assigned to protect the scabs the following weekend. Outraged at this betrayal and the business-government collusion it symbolized, AFL leaders called for the general strike the following day to protect the integrity of the union movement.

The 55 years since that strike have more than validated those concerns about collusion between corporations and government, and recent Supreme Court rulings breaching barriers to corporate campaign contributions have only deepened the problem.

On December 2, 1946, 54 years and 11 months ago to the day, the Oakland AFL called a general strike. Self writes:

The next morning Oakland streets sat quiet as city buses and streetcars, operated by the unionized Key System, remained parked in the yards. The city’s bustling port, warehouses, and machine shops grew silent as workers from the Fruitvale district and machinists from Elmhurst in East Oakland, railroad porters and day laborers from West Oakland, carpenters and other building tradesmen, and waiters, waitresses, and cooks from downtown hotels and restaurants, AFL unionists all of them, joined in the citywide work stoppage and accompanying mass protests in downtown Oakland. For fifty-four hours, traffic snarled on the Bay Bridge, construction sites remained silent, and the city’s commerce ground to a halt. The city literally stopped.

I don’t know if the same will happen tomorrow. I doubt the bridge will close, and strike planners have made clear that no one should feel obliged to take a day off if they can’t afford to, or if they think that staying at work is the best way to help society. But there are plans to march to the port in the evening, blocking the gates so the night shift can’t go in. The goal isn’t to protest the port workers, who have been supportive of Occupy Oakland and of the strike. But their contracts state that they cannot strike &emdash; they gave away that right in order to maintain salaries and benefits through tough times &emdash; so the only way they can be part of our protest is if we block their entry, and give them an excuse to join us.

The Port Authority has written a letter to the strikers, speaking in sympathetic terms, reminding us that they are facing the same challenges we’ll be protesting:

It is our privilege, indeed our right in this country, to peacefully assemble and freely express our grievances to government. And it is our responsibility as Oaklanders to ensure that our city is a safe and peaceful place to live and work. Oakland has a long, honorable, and innovative tradition of social justice action. So it is understandable that the citizens of Oakland want to show solidarity with the worldwide movement for economic and social justice. It is also imperative that any and all expressions of protest be effective without being violent. Every individual on all sides of this event must take personal responsibility to ensure peace. Each one of us at the Port is committed to a peaceful and safe march for all involved.

• We have over $1.4 billion in debt and annual debt service payments of over $100 million a year for the foreseeable future, constraining the jobs we can create and investments we can make.

• Economic conditions at the Port have forced us to reduce our workforce by 40% over the last seven years.

• Air passenger volume is down over 30% since 2008.

• We are operating at just over 50% capacity at our seaport, while there is increasing competition from alternative shipping gateways around the country and the world.

Despite these challenges, Port activity generates over 73,000 jobs in the region, and every day we work to create more jobs.

• From our maintenance staff, to our custodial workers, our truckers, to office workers and dock workers, the Port is where the 99% work.

• It is essential for the economic development of the City and region that the perception and reality of Oakland is stability, safety, and inclusion.

I doubt anyone protesting outside the docks will disagree. The debt that crushes them and keeps them from being able to hire more workers is the same crushing debt that forces families from their homes, that forces families to choose between food and medicine, and that forces students to kowtow to corporations for jobs instead of spending their youth fighting for their principles. The same economic pressures that have forced them to cut back jobs have driven many of the Occupy Oakland protesters to the streets. Nationwide, over a million and a half people have been unemployed for over 99 weeks, but with 16.5% of the workforce unemployed or underemployed, there are no new jobs for them to take even as their unemployment benefits expire. We feel the Port’s pain, and we hope they feel ours. We especially hope that by shutting the port for a few hours, we can make the richest people and companies feel that same pain.

Shutting off their goods for a few hours is hardly equivalent to the massive financial crisis, the foreclosures, the layoffs, the outsourcings, downsizings, the school closures in our neighborhoods, or the medical coverage denied to us and our neighbors for years, but it’s a step.

As Michelle Ty (and Walter Benjamin) said, the goal is not to extract some concession from the Port, or from the corporate offices that look down on Oscar Grant Plaza and its protesters. The goal is a wholesale transformation of the way corporations interact with society. That won’t happen tomorrow. But tomorrow is not an end to these protests.

The last general strike in Oakland ended after 2 and a half days, when the police agreed to remain neutral in future strikes, and the Teamsters agreed to make deliveries to the department stores, and no deal was made at all on behalf of the striking store employees, who didn’t get a contract for 5 months. But at the next round of union elections, the local Teamster union leaders were all replaced. And in the next city council election, 4 of 5 open seats were won by candidates backed by a reinvigorated AFL.

But the next year also brought the Taft-Hartley act &emdash; dubbed the “slave labor act” by unions &emdash; which severely curtailed the right of workers to strike, including outlawing general strikes, political strikes, and wildcat strikes (in which workers spontaneously strike without union authorization). The act also gave new powers to management, new powers to crush unions which they used assiduously, eroding union membership over the years until organized labor didn’t have the power to fight back.

And that’s why we’re striking. Because it’s time that America’s workers, and those who are trying to get themselves and this country back to work, organized and took back our rights from the corporations that have been stealing them. And finally we’ll know what the editor of the East Bay Labor Journal meant when he said of the 1946 strike, “It was more like this country should be. We were in control, we called the shots.”

Comments

  1. #1 Sven Türpe
    November 2, 2011

    Revolution envy. You’ll get over it.

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