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Reflections on the Oakland General Strike

Published Nov 22, 2011 8:04 PM
Photo: Delores Lemon Thomas

When the masses of people are in motion, watch out. They may just be chipping away at the foundations of the old established order, while you ain’t looking!

Take, for example, the Oakland General Strike on Nov. 2 , which was an all-day festival of people taking power into their own hands. First, many thousands surged through downtown, sidewalk-to-sidewalk, and shut down the four major downtown banks (with many trillions of dollars in assets). Then, when the crowd had grown to 30,000-plus, they poured into the Port of Oakland in three giant waves and shut down the entire port, the fifth-busiest in the country. When is the last time something like that happened here in the United States?

WW photo: Terri Kay

Okay, maybe it wasn’t a “traditional” general strike, like 1934 in San Francisco or 1946 in Oakland or like the general strikes today that regularly paralyze Greece, where the labor movement is strong and militant.

But every general strike is different. And in a country where only 7.2 percent of the private-sector work force even belongs to a union — 12 percent including public workers — where organized labor has been on the defensive for the last 30 years, absorbing bruising concessions, two-tier wage scales, runaway shops and now Wisconsin-style union-busting — for us, the Nov. 2 Oakland General Strike was like a breath of fresh air.

The Nov. 2 General Strike not only had pretty good support from the city’s major unions — 350 unionized Oakland teachers reported to the streets that day, not to work! But it brought into the streets thousands of low-wage workers and their families, youth and students, the unemployed and the foreclosed-upon of all races and nationalities, mostly not in unions because there are no longer or not yet any unions there for them — an outpouring of the many faces of today’s suffering U.S. working class — and a sign that this sleeping giant may just be awakening from its slumber.

You could say it was a general strike “of a new type,” reflecting not only the temporarily diminished power of the unions, but also the changed character of the working class in the U.S., and one that is starting to make common cause with oppressed communities, that is beginning to take bold collective action to defy our adversaries in the 1 percent.

The writer is a retired union letter carrier and longtime activist in the Bay Area.