Today, Occupy Oakland ups the ante in Occupy Wall Street tactics: It has called a general strike for the city of Oakland.
Nobody seriously expects that the general strike will turn into—well, a general strike. The kind of effort required to assure that establishments large and small either close their doors or allow their workers to wander off hasn’t really been attempted, as it was, successfully, across the Bay in 1934, when the San Francisco general strike did come pretty close to shutting the city down—the only time in American history when a general strike actually became general. (More on that below.)
But a number of unions and left-of-center groups have endorsed today’s strike without actually calling upon their members to strike. The Oakland Education Association has urged its members to take a personal leave day to join the rally, or conduct teach-ins on the 1934 strike. A large SEIU local that represents city workers has said it would be a contractual violation for it to call a strike but has also urged members to use a day of comp time to join the action. (The city government has said it will consider that a proper use of city-employee comp time, but it has also cancelled all leaves for the Oakland police, who will be on the other side of the presumably figurative barricades.) The East Bay local of the Carpenters has passed a resolution supporting the strike—whether that means its 3,000 members will walk off their jobs is unclear. And the Longshore local at Oakland’s port also passed a statement of support for the strike but didn’t authorize its own members to walk. However, if enough picketers show up outside the port, the local could deem that a “community picket line” and refuse to cross it, something that’s happened seven times since 1985. The Bay Area locals of that union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), have a history of supporting economic-justice causes through one-day strikes—and their forebears were at the center of the great 1934 strike, too.
The 1934 San Francisco general strike began at the port, where workers had been trying for years to win better pay, safer working conditions, and recognition for a genuine union (the maritime companies sponsored their own do-nothing “unions,” a common practice before the New Deal enacted the National Labor Relations Act). In May, as militant organizers chiefly aligned with the Communist Party worked the docks, strikes broke out in every West Coast port. When the maritime companies brought in strikebreakers to San Francisco, violence broke out on July 5. Mounted police charged demonstrators and in the ensuing melée, shot and killed a striking longshoreman and an out-of-work cook who was volunteering at the strike kitchen. On July 9, a funeral procession for the two strikers stretched nearly two miles down Market Street. Dozens of San Francisco local unions voted to expand the strike from the port to the entire city, and the San Francisco Labor Council voted to call a general strike on July 14. For four days, much of the city shut down—not just big businesses but small establishments, including movie theaters and night clubs. A young SEIU organizer named George Hardy was assigned the task of persuading the city’s barber shops to close, an assignment at which he largely succeeded. (Years later, Hardy, who was president of SEIU during the 1970s, told me his compensation for his organizing was that he received “the barber’s curse”—at which point, he rubbed his hand over his completely bald head to illustrate his point.)
Out of the strike, a union emerged on the West Coast docks, which in 1937 broke away from the more conservative national union to reconstitute itself as the ILWU, the militant union that has won perhaps the best contracts for blue-collar workers in America over the past 50 years.
Two other cities experienced mini-general strikes in 1934—Toledo, a strike organized by the left faction known as Muste-ites, and Minneapolis, a strike that originated among the Teamsters, in which Trotskyists played a leading role. Once the NLRA passed in 1935 and the CIO was formed and began hiring organizers in 1936, this kind of militancy gave way to the industry-specific organizing that swept the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast from 1936 through 1941.
Today’s strike in Oakland will fall well short of the strikes of 1934, which were organized with a longer lead time, which originated in workplace conflicts, and which were led by the kind of disciplined left-wing organizations that no longer exist in any serious way and which are in many ways antithetical to Occupy Wall Street. But the dysfunctionality and moral rot of American capitalism is every bit as apparent today as it was in 1934. With that as a starting point, who knows where today’s strike, and the movement from which it springs, will point us?