Occupy Oakland’s call for a general strike on 2 November has transformed the political climate in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The occupation’s general assembly voted to call on workers and students to walk out and shut down Oakland after a brutal police attack which sent Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen to the hospital with life-threatening head injuries.
Since then the city has been plastered with thousands of notices for the strike. Dozens of unions are supporting some form of action, and high school students are planning walkouts. Every mainstream newspaper and TV station leads with the story each day.
The Central Labor Council, the local body for all trade unions, has pledged its support. Hundreds of teachers plan to participate.
The slogan "We are the 99 percent" fits perfectly for us here.
Occupy Oakland is a reaction to decades of class polarisation, racist police brutality and the total failure of the Democratic Party to represent the interests of working class people. The global financial crisis has made this worse.
Over the last three years, tens of thousands of Oakland residents have been driven into foreclosure and out of their homes. The official unemployment rate has doubled to 15 percent, and for young people the real figure is nearly 50 percent.
Tuition fees for public colleges have more than doubled. Teachers have suffered wage freezes, increased class sizes, and the closure of many public schools—including five elementary schools this week.
All of this has created a terrible social crisis, making Oakland one of the most violent cities in the country.
Paradoxically, Oakland’s Democratic Party establishment is one of the most liberal in the nation. But the real power in Oakland remains the Chamber of Commerce and the Port Commission, which control Oakland’s massive waterfront and the billions of dollars of merchandise that flow through it.
Through Occupy Oakland a new generation of activists, most with very little experience in the labour movement, is mixing with longer-term radicals in the unions.
This combination led to the call for the general strike, catching off-guard the official union leaders who would never have made such a call.
We expect tens of thousands of workers and students to walk out or to participate in the mass rallies after work. This will lead to large businesses shutting down for the day, either by design or default— because employees walk out, because public transport is closed, or because bosses close for the day for fear of what will happen
Activists are discussing plans to march on the docks to try to shut them down, and the general assembly has voted to picket any workplace where workers request it in order to help them shut it down for the day.
This is crucial because, for instance, while Teamsters are not allowed by law to strike for the day, they do have a clause in their contract which means they can respect picket lines on their delivery routes.
So drivers who come across pickets at government buildings, schools, hospitals or private businesses can refuse to make deliveries.
It is particularly fitting that the general strike call is coming from Oakland.
Oakland was the birthplace of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in 1966. Despite terrible repression, that movement led to significant gains for black workers and students in the Bay Area—although many of those gains have since been reversed.
When the Occupy Oakland camp was established, we renamed the space "Oscar Grant Plaza" after a young African American grocery store worker who in 2009 was handcuffed, forced to the ground and then shot in the back by a white police officer.
The last citywide general strike in the US took place in Oakland in 1946. It was the largest strike wave in our history, when workers erupted after ten years of Depression and six years of war rationing. The spark in Oakland was a police attack on picket lines at department stores that refused to recognise a union led by women.
But, unlike today, 1946 marked the beginning of 25 years of economic prosperity in the US. Today’s action takes place in an economic crisis that shows no signs of relenting, making it even more volatile.
Todd Chretien is an activist in the International Socialist Organization and a member of United Auto Workers Local 2865 in Oakland.