Striking A Spark

Categories: Open Mic, Reflections

I have submitted the following as an op-ed article to the New York Times:



            Just as Occupy Wall Street and related actions around the nation seemed to be stalling, the Oakland police attacked protesters and critically injured Scott Olsen, a two-tour Iraq veteran.   That has re-ignited the movement, and will, perhaps, be seen as the precipitating event that launches a generation of challenge and confrontation.  It’s happened before, many times, and the one percent never seem to learn.

            During the summer of 1934 West Coast longshore workers were on strike under the leadership of the left-wing Harry Bridges, founder of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).  On July 5 police attacked strikers in San Francisco with guns and tear gas, wounding many and leaving two dead.  Howard Sperry and Nick Bordoise received a huge martyr’s funeral, with thousands marching up Market Street.  That was followed by a general strike, turning the city into a ghost town.  Out of that came a victory for the strikers, a union-controlled hiring hall.  The San Francisco General Strike provided inspiration to workers across the nation and contributed to the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) as a more radical and inclusive alternative to the American Federation of Labor (AFL).  I was privileged to serve as an officer of the ILWU, as business agent and president of Warehouse Union Local 6 in the Bay Area, for many years.

            In December, 1946, Oakland police escorted strikebreakers across picket lines at several downtown department stores after closing off the streets to prevent strikers and supporters from interfering.  This time it was the AFL’s Central Labor Council that called for a general strike, and the city was shut down for several days.  The result was an agreement that police would never again be used to break strikes in Oakland.  To this day the AFL-CIO Central Labor Council of Alameda County, to which I was a delegate from the Peralta Federation of Teachers in the 1990s, ends the Pledge of Allegiance with the word, “someday!”

            In May, 1960, two hundred students from the University of California, Berkeley, crossed the bay to protest hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, a red-hunting vestige of McCarthyism.  Denied access to the San Francisco City Hall hearing room, they protested loudly, but non-violently, singing “The Star Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America” as the police attacked them with fire hoses and nightsticks, driving them down the long marble stairway and arresting 64 students.  The next day 5,000 people showed up to demonstrate their anger and four more – including me – were arrested.  What became known as “The Sixties” was thus launched.

            Now the call is out for a general strike in Oakland to protest the attacks and the wrecking of the Occupy Oakland encampment.  Now a demonstration by hundreds has become demonstrations by thousands.  Whether such a general strike takes place or not, and a general strike requires the cautious melding of many and varied union and community and church concerns, the fact that the Central Labor Council and Longshore Union, along with the Nurses Association and the Carpenters, are in the forefront of calling for such an action gives it credibility.  We are witnessing, I believe, the explosion of a widespread, angry, broad-based, and significant movement to rein in the excesses of Robber Baron capitalism.  The Occupy movement provided the fuel; the Oakland police, like other enforcers of the one percent’s will before them, provided the necessary spark.

Albert Vetere Lannon retired to the Southern Arizona desert in 2001 where he chronicles local news.  He is the author of Fight or Be Slaves: the History of the Oakland-East Bay Labor Movement (University Press of America, 2000).


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