Lessons from the 1946 Oakland General Strike

The rapid growth of the Democratic Socialists of America in the recent period is an optimistic foil to the Trump era. Within DSA today, many socialists are debating the relationship and proper balance between electoral politics, party building, economic struggle, and activism. The question of helping the working class to become, as Marx says, a class not only “of itself,” but “for itself,” is central to a balanced and proportionate approach to political activity.

Human consciousness is inherently conservative, turning first to established norms and traditions until events force other considerations. Most days under capitalism are not milestone events in history—the outbreak of war, general strikes, and revolutions are not commonplace events. Nonetheless, consciousness can change suddenly, and to win, revolutionary socialists must be prepared to meet the challenges that such changes inevitably bring. With this in mind, there are relevant lessons from the last general strike to take place in the US that socialists can apply to the contemporary debate on perspectives and on establishing a sense of proportion for each distinct area of the working class struggle.

In the leadup to the 1946 general strike in Oakland, California, the world was exiting the most brutal and globalized war in history. Millions of soldiers who had lived through the Great Depression were demobilized and not about to go back to the old status quo after what they had done and seen. The US bosses made a killing throughout the war because wages were frozen and, even as American capital boomed in the postwar period, they remained frozen in many industries. This volatile combination led to the biggest wave of strikes in US history.

Still, the workers’ movement was divided. The CIO, which had split from the AFL in the 1930s, was at loggerheads with the AFL over the question of whether to organize all members of an industry into a single union or to divide the union movement based on particular trades and crafts. Just as sharp was the division between the Communist Party-influenced CIO and the AFL on the question of organizing black workers. While the AFL as a whole did not bar the unionization of black workers, a majority of affiliates and locals did.

In this period, as part of the second “Great Migration,” the black population of Oakland rose from 2.8% of the total to 12.4%. Many black veterans returning from the war remained in Oakland to avoid moving back to the South. This had a dramatic impact on the class balance of forces in a town originated, in part, as a place for the second homes of the San Francisco bourgeoisie.

From the start, the black working class in Oakland faced police terror. Black labor organizers like the brilliant C.L. Dellums, who would later play a pivotal in the formation of the Oakland Voters League, combined their union activism with the civil rights struggle. In doing so, Dellums was already taking the Brotherhood of Sleeping Porters beyond the craft unionism of the AFL.

Locally the political arena was dominated by the Knowland Machine. The Knowland family owned the Oakland Tribune, an anticommunist rag, and dominated the city’s politics. The mayor’s office and a US Senate seat were held by the family. They had most, if not all the local politicians in their back pockets, with workers complaining that decisions were really made at the Oakland Tribune building and not City Hall.

The Retail Merchant’s Association was one of many petty-bourgeois clients in a patronage relationship with the Knowland Machine. It was soon to turn to the Machine for help — triggering events that would ultimately lead to its demise.

The Spark

When a woman worker attempted to unionize the Kahn and Hasting department store, the bosses immediately reacted by firing her. The impetus behind forming a union arose from a $10-a-week pay difference as compared to other retail workers and the indignity with which workers were treated. The city’s union bureaucracy, which did not want to rock the boat, was exposed by its reluctance to organize these workers.

Al Kidder, a recently returned vet, who was a shoe salesman at the store, persisted in organizing the retail clerks, eventually forming a picket line in late October. On December 1, 1946, about 400 mostly women workers went on strike as the Retail Merchants Association refused to recognize the unionization drive of its workers.

By early December, when a streetcar driver refused to cross the retail clerk’s picket line despite the directions of the police, the fuse for the general strike was lit. Police, scabs, and strike-breaking thugs hired by the Retail Merchants Association and Oakland Tribune owner Joseph Knowland attacked the workers’ line. The brutality of the police shocked the workers. The strike spread from retail to transport, to entertainment, and beyond, and a citywide strike committee sprang into existence.

The strike connected the growing black proletariat of the city with the white workers. The whip of counterrevolution, in the form of the Retail Merchants Association, taught a harsh lesson about the class nature of the police to white workers, who were normally not on the receiving end of such attacks, and links grew between white workers and black labor and the civil rights groups. Knowland must have shaken with rage and fear at the growing class unity!

Sold out

Unfortunately, before it could fully capitalize on its momentum, the strike was called off just two days after it started, as the conservative leadership of the AFL capitulated and made a compromise with the bosses. The AFL General Strike committee accepted verbal assurances from the Oakland City manager that the OPD would no longer suppress the workers’ efforts to unionize and would no longer call in scabs and thugs. And so, the general strike was called off, although the retail clerks’ union remained unrecognized. The very next day, the OPD brought in scabs and thugs to break the picket line which the retail workers maintained—breaking the only promise they had made to the AFL.

It was, however, too late to roll the clock back entirely. The strike had shut down Alameda county for three days and the workers treated it as a “work holiday.” There was a festive atmosphere in the streets as strikers moved jukeboxes into the streets and shouted slogans against the Knowland machine. A parade float with a black fist circulated on the streets, featuring the slogan “Take the Power out of the Tower,” referring to the Oakland Tribune building. In his book, One Drop of Blood, Scott Malcomson claims that this was the first time a black fist was used as a political symbol in Oakland, the city where the Black Panthers were formed two decades later.

As for Knowland, subsequent reports show that he couldn’t sleep, as he saw the specter of Communism haunting Oakland. The Oakland Tribune screamed bloody murder, claiming this was the most expensive general strike in history.

Class-independent politics needed

But the strike led to more than just increased working-class confidence. C.L. Dellums played a vital political role, connecting the labor movement and the black struggle to an electoral orientation. As a leader within both organized labor and the NAACP, he helped form the Oakland Voters League in the aftermath of the strike. The OVL was linked to the AFL, the CIO, and the NAACP, and put forward a working class slate for city hall.

The AFL, CIO, and NAACP were pulled by the movement towards organizing the workers politically as a class “for itself.” Taking on the Knowland machine economically led inevitably to the need to take it on politically. In a stunning reversal from previous elections, the OVL won four out of nine seats in city hall. This was shy of a majority but nonetheless dealt a crippling blow to the Knowland machine. The Retail Merchants Association finally gave into the demands of the clerks and never again was the Knowland machine to dominate Oakland politics.

All of this represented a decisive break from the previous divide existing between the AFL and the CIO, between black and white workers, and between communists on the one hand and racist and anti-communist workers on the other. It was was a shining example of what could be done with a class-independent political party uniting all workers against their common enemies.

On a local scale, Oakland ‘46 is an example of the dialectical relationship between electoral politics, party building, economic struggle, and activism. When the working class meets with a dead end in one arena of struggle, it will turn to another, and then another, eventually combining methods in the ultimate struggle: the socialist revolution.

At the same time, the strike and its aftermath also demonstrate the dangers that lurk on both the electoral and union fronts. The union bureaucracy is the most conservative section of the working class, a section that is closely connected to the bosses. Only in the course of struggle can this layer be checked and replaced.

Electoral politics is just one part of an overall strategy for socialists. Our aim is not to let off steam but to challenge the bosses’ right to rule at the workplace and in politics. Militant class struggle across racial lines and shuts down production across the key sectors of the economy was proven effective in action. The Oakland Voters League, like other similar initiatives linked with other strikes, showed the working class the power it has when it organizes for itself politically. Unfortunately, in subsequent decades, after the pressure and memory of the strike subsided, and eventually, the Democratic Party machine filled the vacuum created by the collapse of the conservative Republican Knowland machine to defend the interests of the capitalists.

The postwar boom and the anti-Communist witch hunts that started in the late 1940s was the context for the strengthening of the union bureaucracy and the Democrats in a new form. This is why, along with the need to revive class-struggle trade unionism, which recognizes the irreconcilable differences between the workers and the capitalists, the incomplete task of this inspiring struggle remains the formation of an independent working-class political party, not only in Oakland but nationally.

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