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in the Rain
It was in the
heart of downtown Oakland, at 7 a.m. on a rainy December day a
Dozens of 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.
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
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 strikers.
It looked 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."
The trucks 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.
Such 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.
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 fight back.
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.
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.
more like this country should be," declared Chadet.
"We were in control, we called the shots."
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.
But that 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.
The strike 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
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.
That was 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 breakers."
It took another
five months, but ultimately the department store employees won the union
rights they had sought.
In that 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.
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 ourselves
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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