Shutting It All Down: The Power of General Strikes in U.S. History

Erik Loomis

The general strike is not the end of the road but rather one step on the path to taking back our country.

Incred­i­bly threat­en­ing to those in pow­er, they rarely suc­ceed. But they do build solidarity.

Gen­er­al strikes are rare in Amer­i­can social move­ments, because they are dif­fi­cult to coor­di­nate. On the oth­er hand, few actions offer a more direct chal­lenge to those in pow­er. What can today’s pro­test­ers learn from their activist ances­tors to help par­tic­i­pants draw strength? How have gen­er­al strikes affect­ed long-term labor and social movements?

The two major gen­er­al strikes in Amer­i­can his­to­ry are the Seat­tle Gen­er­al Strike of 1919 and the Oak­land Gen­er­al Strike of 1946. In 1919, the work­ers of Seat­tle engaged in a three-day mass action call­ing all city work­ers onto the streets. This was the first city­wide col­lec­tive action in Amer­i­can his­to­ry known as a gen­er­al strike.

The Pacif­ic North­west in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry was a cen­ter of rad­i­cal­ism. Hor­ri­ble work­ing con­di­tions in the tim­ber indus­try, already rad­i­cal­ized immi­grants from Scan­di­navia, activist dock­work­ers and the pop­u­lar­i­ty of the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World among the region’s thou­sands of tran­sient work­ers made Seat­tle a fer­tile cen­ter of rad­i­cal thought that even influ­enced labor orga­ni­za­tions affil­i­at­ed with the tra­di­tion­al­ly mod­er­ate Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Labor (AFL).

The strike began with ship­yard work­ers but was quick­ly joined by work­ers around the city. By Feb­ru­ary 6, over 60,000 work­ers were on the streets where they remained for four days. In an atmos­phere fear­ful of rad­i­cal­ism after the Bol­she­vik Rev­o­lu­tion, con­ser­v­a­tives around the nation declared the strike the first step toward revolution.

Seat­tle may­or Olé Han­son took the lead in crush­ing the strike order­ing the Nation­al Guard to take con­trol of the city’s light com­pa­ny. Fear­ing long-term fall­out, nation­al AFL lead­ers denounced the strike and it quick­ly fell apart. After its defeat, the labor move­ment in Seat­tle fell apart, a vic­tim of both inter­nal fight­ing and the vicious Red Scare that fol­lowed World War I.

The Oak­land gen­er­al strike came out of the mas­sive changes to the Bay Area dur­ing World War II. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of Amer­i­cans moved to San Fran­cis­co, Oak­land, Rich­mond, and oth­er cities to work in wartime indus­tries. The Con­gress of Indus­tri­al Orga­ni­za­tions (CIO) had achieved major suc­cess­es in orga­niz­ing Amer­i­can work­ers dur­ing the late 1930s. Often using com­mu­nist orga­niz­ers, the CIO built on the mil­i­tan­cy of Amer­i­can labor to become a pow­er­ful force in oppo­si­tion to both the more tra­di­tion­al AFL and con­ser­v­a­tive busi­ness interests.

Dur­ing World War II, the AFL and CIO turned their ener­gies toward defeat­ing the fas­cist men­ace of Ger­many and Japan. The admin­is­tra­tion of Franklin Roo­sevelt, want­i­ng to avoid strikes that would under­mine wartime pro­duc­tion, brought both the AFL and CIO into wartime plan­ning. But while con­sumer prices rose dur­ing the war, wages did not. The moti­vat­ed and rad­i­cal­ized work­ers want­ed to strike, but their lead­ers and the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment urged them to work through it.

When the war end­ed how­ev­er, the coun­try was over­tak­en by a wave of strikes. In 1946, 4.5 mil­lion work­ers went on strike through­out the Unit­ed States, the great­est num­ber of strik­ers in one year in Amer­i­can his­to­ry. Wages did not keep up with rapid­ly ris­ing prices and high­er wages were the core demand of almost all the strikers.

The sit­u­a­tion in Oak­land was espe­cial­ly volatile because of the city’s Retail Mer­chants Asso­ci­a­tion, a pow­er­ful and deeply anti-union busi­ness orga­ni­za­tion. These depart­ment stores own­ers employed most­ly women, who they believed would accept low wages. The Depart­ment and Spe­cial­ty Store Employ­ees Union Local 1265 orga­nized work­ers at these down­town stores. Ear­ly in 1946, they won vic­to­ries at small­er stores and decid­ed to take on the biggest retail­ers, Kahn’s and Hast­ings. A month-long strike ensued in the late fall of 1946. Begin­ning mere blocks from Occu­py Oakland’s encamp­ment, this turned into one of the biggest chal­lenges to cor­po­rate Amer­i­ca in the post­war years.

Although the CIO had the more rad­i­cal agen­da, it was actu­al­ly the AFL who decid­ed to call for a gen­er­al strike on Decem­ber 2, 1946 in sup­port of the strik­ing depart­ment store work­ers. AFL work­ers around Oak­land walked off their jobs — bus dri­vers, team­sters, sailors, machin­ists, can­nery work­ers, rail­road porters, wait­ers, wait­ress­es, cooks. For over two days, Oak­land shut down. Over 100,000 work­ers par­tic­i­pat­ed in the strike.

The strik­ers con­trolled Oak­land. All busi­ness­es except for phar­ma­cies and food mar­kets shut down. Bars could stay open but could only serve beer and had to put their juke box­es out­side and allow for their free use. Cou­ples lit­er­al­ly danced in the streets. Recent­ly returned war vet­er­ans cre­at­ed squadrons to pre­pare for bat­tle. Union lead­er­ship took a back seat to rank and file actions.

Although it is often spun in Oak­land leg­end that the gen­er­al strike was a suc­cess­ful action, it real­ly wasn’t. A major­i­ty of work­ers want­ed to con­tin­ue strik­ing and CIO unions con­sid­ered join­ing in sup­port, but the strike fell apart because of a sin­gle cor­rupt labor leader. Dave Beck, the head of the Team­sters and Jim­my Hoffa’s men­tor, forced a com­pro­mise when he pulled his pow­er­ful union off the lines and endorsed a mod­er­ate set­tle­ment that accom­plished almost noth­ing and quite lit­er­al­ly did not address the depart­ment store work­ers con­cerns at all. While the still agi­tat­ed work­ers man­aged to elect sev­er­al labor rep­re­sen­ta­tives to the city coun­cil, the entire appa­ra­tus of the city used the gen­er­al strike to attack all labor. The police, the city gov­ern­ment, and the Oak­land Tri­bune com­bined to resist not only the union­iza­tion of the depart­ment stores, but all labor in Oakland.

While Oak­land remained a strong union city after this, the strikes of 1946 around the nation and espe­cial­ly the Oak­land Gen­er­al Strike led to the Taft-Hart­ley Act of 1947. Taft-Hart­ley was an open attack on the labor move­ment, lim­it­ing labor’s abil­i­ty to strike, ban­ning sym­pa­thy strikes (which could make it legal­ly dif­fi­cult for today’s unions to sup­port Occu­py Oakland’s gen­er­al strike), and allow indi­vid­ual states to pass so-called right to work” laws, mean­ing that just because there is a union at your work­place doesn’t mean you have to join it. 

Soon after, the McCarthy era began and rad­i­cal union­ism of any kind became sus­pi­cious, with the CIO kick­ing the com­mu­nist orga­niz­ers and entire com­mu­nist-led unions out of the fed­er­a­tion, turn­ing its back on its rad­i­cal history.

If there is one les­son to take from these gen­er­al strikes, it’s that they are extreme­ly threat­en­ing to those in pow­er. If suc­cess­ful, they show that the 1% have lost the con­trol they so ardent­ly seek. They will react with feroc­i­ty against the orga­niz­ers, lay­ing bare struc­tur­al and legal inequal­i­ties in this nation. Nei­ther strike was suc­cess­ful, but we remem­ber them as moments of incred­i­ble work­er sol­i­dar­i­ty when it seemed mas­sive changes were about to hap­pen. They need to be seen as part of the larg­er strug­gles of work­ing peo­ple to achieve basic rights, decent wages, and safe liv­ing con­di­tions in this country.

Whether a gen­er­al strike suc­ceeds or not is less impor­tant than the pub­lic stand it takes against the exploita­tion of work­ing-class peo­ple. The gen­er­al strike is not the end of the road but rather one step on the path to tak­ing back our country.

Final­ly, I want to encour­age every­one who iden­ti­fies as pro­gres­sive to deeply read labor his­to­ry and the his­to­ry of social move­ments. Know­ing about your ances­tors is great, but the past offers a more direct les­son: under­stand­ing how var­i­ous tac­tics and strate­gies have worked in the past, and how they can work in the present.

Erik Loomis is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Rhode Island.
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