IN THE RAIN
It was in
the heart of downtown Oakland, at 7 a.m. on a rainy December day a
strikers, picket signs held high, were gathered outside the Kahn's and
Hastings department stores on Broadway on that wet, chilly morning in
1946. Suddenly, some 200
Oakland and Berkeley police, many in riot gear, swept down the street.
They roughly pushed aside pickets and pedestrians alike as they cleared
the street and the surrounding eight square blocks. They set up machine
guns across from Kahn's while tow trucks moved in to snatch away any cars
parked in the area.
them came an armed guard of 16 motorcycle police and five squad cars. The
lead car carried Oakland Chief Robert Tracy and the strikers' nemeses,
Paul St. Sure, a representative of the employers who fiercely opposed
their demand for union contracts, and Joseph R. Knowland, the virulently
anti-labor newspaper publisher who controlled the local political
establishment. That included
the Oakland City Council, which had demanded that the police move against
like a parade to Joe Chadet, then editor of the East Bay Labor Journal. He
recalled that Tracy, St. Sure and Knowland were "bowing to the
populace. They were going to put the labor movement in its place.
The only thing missing was top hats and a brass band."
came last - trucks carrying merchandise denied the stores during the month
strikers had been picketing. The Teamster Union truckers who normally made
deliveries would not cross the picket lines.
But now that the police had driven off the pickets, in came
non-union strikebreakers with the merchandise - 12 bulging truckloads of
it, just in time for the Christmas shopping rush.
attacks on the attempts of working people to exercise basic constitutional
rights were common enough earlier in the century, during organized labor's
formative years. But this was
1946. Rarely did political and law enforcement officials so
blatantly side with management in its disputes with labor.
reaction was swift and as dramatic as any in the history of American
unions. Labor officials feared that if they didn't forcefully
challenge the attack on the department store employees, other attacks, on
other workers, would follow. All unions were threatened, all unions had to
days, a general strike all but shut down the whole of Alameda County.
It is much less remembered than the celebrated general strike waged
in San Francisco a dozen years earlier, but it was no less effective.
130,000 union members walked off their jobs to protest the anti-union
actions of the police and Oakland's city council, and thousands more
honored their picket lines. Official
support was voiced by community organizations throughout the county.
Oakland, Piedmont, Emeryville, Berkeley, Alameda, San Leandro and Hayward
it was the same. For nearly
three days, beginning December 3, no buses ran, no streetcars, no taxis.
The Bay Bridge was jammed as never before.
projects shut down. The
shipyards were idle. Most gas
stations were closed, most grocery stores, hotels, restaurants and bars,
most movie theaters. Newspapers
ceased publication, even Knowland's Oakland Tribune.
Teamster pickets kept trucks carrying anything but food from
entering the county.
was more like this country should be," declared Chadet.
"We were in control, we called the shots."
essential services continued uninterrupted.
Police remained at work, of course, as did firemen.
Hospitals, pharmacies and schools operated more or less normally.
Gas, electric and telephone service was generally unchanged.
was it. For most of the
county's one million residents, life was far from normal.
Thousands rushed into downtown Oakland to join in massive protests.
At any time during the strike you could find as many as 20,000
protestors crowded together in front of the two struck stores or in
Oakland's Civic Center, defying police, politicians and strikebreakers,
sometimes dancing in the rain to music piped over loudspeakers.
was led by the American Federation of Labor's Central Labor and Building
Trades Councils, but it was threats from the AFL's rival Congress of
Industrial Organizations that prompted a quick settlement on labor's
unions, which had supported the strike by honoring AFL picket lines,
threatened to call their own walkouts that would have cut off gas and
electricity in large parts of Oakland.
not the only reason, but it was a major reason for City Manager John
Hassler to finally agree that Oakland would "not in the future use
the police department to escort or guard professional strike
another five months, but ultimately the department store employees won the
union rights they had sought.
same month, May of 1947, the labor forces got four members of a
union-backed slate of five candidates elected to the city council in place
of anti-labor incumbents backed by Joe Knowland.
general strike of 1946, declared the East Ray Labor Journal, forged
"a solid bloc of militant and fighting labor unionists ... aware for
the first time in many years that only by solidarity and unity can we make
Dick Meister, a freelance columnist in San Francisco, has covered labor issues for four decades as a newspaper and broadcast reporter, editor and commentator. c 2000 Dick Meister
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