IN THE RAIN
It was in the heart of
downtown Oakland, at 7 a.m. on a rainy December day a half-century ago.
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. 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.
Behind 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
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.
The 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 fight back.
Within two 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
More than 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.
In 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.
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.
"It was more like
this country should be," declared Chadet.
"We were in control, we called the shots."
Only 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.
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 terms.
CIO 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.
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.
The 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 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
This unofficial site was created and is
maintained by rank and file ILWU members