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Dancing in the Rain

It was in the heart of downtown Oakland, at 7am, 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 steet 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 establishment. That included the Oakland City Council, who 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 dispute 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 effective.

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 taxi. The Bay Bridge was jammed as never before.

Construction 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.

“It was more like this country would be,” declared Chadet. “We were in control; we called the shots.”

Only essential services continued uninterrupted. Police remained to 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 protesters 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 Organization 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 Bay 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 felt.” 

(Copyright© 1996, Dick Meister, a veteran labor writer and former City Editor of the Oakland Tribune.)

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