Three Days When Labor Showed Its Power

For those of us who have jobs, Labor Day can mean a day off work to spend with family and friends or maybe overtime. Some unions may organize a barbecue. But how much does this holiday have to do with honoring our contributions to society or celebrating our history?

Today it can seem like we don’t have a lot to celebrate. When we look at the rising costs of living such as housing, food and groceries, our wages have definitely not kept up and many of us are struggling to hang on. On top of this, we see social services like education, public housing and public transportation getting cut back. In the face of this, many people feel powerless today. This is largely because we don’t have a sense of our history of struggles that won the gains that we see getting stripped from us today. One of these struggles was the last general strike in US history, the Oakland general strike of 1946.

At the end of the Second World War, many former soldiers came back home to difficult times. They faced a huge inflation, with a 28 percent increase in food prices while their wages couldn’t keep up. This was despite soaring corporate profits. Workers who fought in the war felt that they had made enough sacrifices. And in 1946, there were 5,000 strikes involving 4,500,000 workers across the US.

At the same time, many of the women who had worked in higher paid jobs in industry during the war were pushed out by the bosses and replaced by men returning from the military. Many of these women could only find low-wage work. This situation is what ignited the Oakland general strike.

There was a union organizing campaign at the Khans and Hastings department stores in downtown Oakland. The mostly women workers were up against not only the bosses of Khans and Hastings but also a network of bosses headed up by the family that ran the Oakland Tribune. The bosses knew that if workers successfully organized at one of their large businesses, it would inspire other workers to do the same.

One of the workers was fired for joining the union. In response, the workers went on strike. Teamster truckers had refused to cross the picket lines which meant that the department stores were running out of merchandise that they needed for the upcoming holiday season. But this did not stop the bosses. They used a non-union delivery company to bring in the merchandise protected by the Oakland Police.

One morning, as police were attempting to break the strike, a streetcar driver and union leader who was driving by learned what was going on. He decided he had to support the strike. He pulled the handle out of the streetcar, which disabled it and stopped all other streetcars behind him. Especially after having supposedly fought for freedom during the war, the sight of police escorting strikebreakers angered many workers. There was an emergency meeting in the street with the other drivers and they decided to support the strike. They left their streetcars in the street, blockading traffic. This made it impossible for people to get to work, creating an improvised work-stoppage throughout the city. The union leaderships knew that they had to respond, so later that day they voted to declare an official strike.

From restaurants to truck deliveries to auto plants, the whole city was shut down. There were 6,000 to 10,000 people picketing the department stores. At the same time there was a festive spirit with jukeboxes playing music in the streets of downtown Oakland. The strikers began to take control of the city by doing things like shutting down grocery stores to ration food. That night, 10,000 workers attended a meeting in the Oakland Auditorium, with another 5,000 listening outside in the rain.

Workers’ explosive upsurge, in Oakland and across the US, put the bosses on notice. They demonstrated their power as well as the potential for the fights of small groups of workers to inspire the broader working class into action. Even though the Oakland general strike was only three days, it had a lasting impact on the workers who participated. Many later campaigned and elected their own candidates for city council.

We have the same power today to shut society down and we have to use it to begin to deal with some of the problems that we face. As we celebrate this Labor Day, it is nice to have a day off. But rather than Labor Day merely signifying the end of summer, we should really gain a sense of the struggles of the past so we can begin to imagine shaping our future.