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Oakland’s Second General Strike

by PETER COLE

On November 2nd workers, students, and others in Oakland, California will join in the first general strike our nation has seen this century.  Partially to protest recent police brutality, really this action dramatic expands the largest social movement this nation has seen for decades, Occupy Wall Street (OWS).  General strikes are so rare in US History they demand defining: a mass strike across an entire city, rather than workers striking a particular employer.  In a shocking parallel, the nation’s last General Strike occurred in 1946 when more than 100,000 workers struck in, yes, Oakland.

In August, OWS burst onto the scene and blossomed into a full-fledged social movement encompassing almost a thousand sites in America and hundreds globally; however, the Oakland general strike represents a significant widening of the OWS movement since it encourages direct action by workers.  As usual in the San Francisco Bay area, members of Local 10 of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) likely will take the lead—this union is among the most progressive organizations in the entire nation, and has been for seventy-five years.

Like other times in modern U.S. History, the SF Bay area quickly moved to the forefront of OWS.  Also echoing the past, the Oakland Police Department has proven to be particularly repressive.  Tragically, last week the OPD fired “non-lethal” weapons at nonviolent protesters, resulting in a two-time Iraq war veteran going to an intensive care unit.

The short explanation for the rising OWS movement is that the national (and global) economic crisis was caused primarily by greedy corporate banks that had to be rescued by the American taxpayers; however, the Wall Street bailout has done little to help the tens of millions of Americans hard-pressed in this Great Recession.  Meanwhile, the gap between the income and wealth of the “1%” continues to expand compared to the rest of us, the “99%.”  Today, for instance, just 400 Americans possess as much wealth as the bottom 150 million. While there are numerous factors that explain such awful and growing disparity, the erosion of union power ranks among the most important.

As private sector unions—the largest and strongest US force for social justice in the 20th century—have been under attack since the 1970s, public sector unions now are among the last bastions of organized progressives in the nation.  Hence, it was not surprising that attacks on public employee unions broke out—predictably funded by corporations, billionaires, right-wing corporate media, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  The tremendous, spontaneous uprising centered in Madison, Wisconsin had marked the high-water mark of liberal activism since the Great Recession’s dawn.  On April 4th, the anniversary of MLK’s assassination, the rank-and-file of ILWU Local 10 defied their bosses, contract, and International leaders to shut down every port in the SF Bay area for 24 hours, though this strike—the only one on April 4th—received little media coverage; my own op-ed was rejected by more than two dozen media outlets.

Leading the SF Bay area labor movement since the 1930s, the ILWU and its Bay area longshore branch, Local 10, has an impressive history of political activism.  Local 10 members: struck ships from fascist countries in the 1930s and again in the 1970s (Chile), refused to unload South African cargo to protest apartheid in the 1960s through the 1980s, and led a shutdown of the entire Pacific coast on May Day in 2008 to protest US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Like today, Local 10 members suffered brutal OPD repression, in 2003, while protesting against the US invasion of Iraq.  While it is quite possible that teachers, carpenters, and other unionists will strike this Wednesday, when the Port of Oakland shuts down, it ripples across the entire global economy.  Transportation remains at the center of the global economy which, ultimately, OWS is challenging.

Just as Egyptian workers striking in construction, tourism, and transport (along the Suez Canal) contributed to the successful revolution there, now that the OWS movement has started spreading to organized labor, momentum builds for greater change.

The Occupy Oakland General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to endorse a General Strike for this Wednesday.   The Alameda County Labor Council (including Oakland) passed a resolution in support of this strike as have area ILWU locals.  Thousands of workers—union and non-union, private and public sector—will walk out on Wednesday.  Students and others will join them.  The old labor slogan, “which side are you on” seems to resonate yet again.

Peter Cole is a Professor of US History at Western Illinois University.  His book, Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia, was published in 2007.  He currently research longshore workers in Oakland, California and Durban, South Africa.

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