Street theater links general strike date to todays struggles

OAKLAND, Calif. — For a moment last weekend the leaves of the calendar flipped backward, as Latham Square in the center of downtown became again the site of that great post-World War II demonstration of labor solidarity, the Oakland General Strike of 1946.

On the afternoon of Dec. 7, the square once more filled with picketing workers in 1940s dress, demanding that the once-grand Hastings and Kahn’s department stores sign union contracts.

And as they had done 62 years ago, police and scabs arrived, courtesy of the city’s anti-labor political establishment, to ensure the profitable holiday merchandise reached the stores. Just as before, a Key Line trolley driver refused to take his vehicle across a picket line, helping spark the AFL unions’ decision to join the strike, which was honored by CIO unions.

The “theatrical reenactment” by union members, writers and historians brought together a score of costumed performers and several dozen audience members who took up picket signs and joined the strikers’ chants.

Then the program turned to current struggles.

Truck driver Manuel Rivas told how hard it is as an “independent contractor” and a single father, to earn enough to support his family. He credited the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports and the Teamsters union for a growing awareness of how employee status and organizing rights for the drivers is linked to resolving the port’s serious air quality problems.

Hotel workers fighting for a decent contract, and city workers facing budget-related lockouts, shared their stories, too.

As we talked briefly after the show, director Max Bell Alper, himself a union organizer, said participants in the theater collective feel it’s important to connect current labor struggles with historical events: “When we remember what people did in the past, it helps today’s workers in their struggles.” The group wants to plan more shows in the future.

The group’s “partners in solidarity” include the Alameda Labor Council and California Labor Federation, the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy and other labor and community organizations.

In that long-ago December, over 130,000 union members joined the three-day general strike, sparing only essential services. The square between the two department stores — then the city’s transit hub — was packed with thousands of strike supporters, who sometimes danced in the rain to music from surrounding loudspeakers.

It took five more months before the department store workers won their union rights. But as a result of the strike, four members of a union-supported slate of candidates ousted their anti-labor opposite numbers on the city council.

The East Bay Labor Journal wrote at the time that the strike “forged a solid block 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.”