OAKLAND -- Occupy Oakland protesters debated Thursday evening the practical difficulties of organizing a citywide general strike with the aim of shutting down the city of Oakland on Nov. 2. Speakers urged teachers, students, union members and workers of all stripes to participate in whatever way they could, and said the entire world was watching Oakland. "Oakland is the vanguard and epicenter of the Occupy movement," said Clarence Thomas, a member of the powerful International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union who urged the hundreds of assembled people to support the strike.
Protesters said the aim of the strike was to involve Oakland more aggressively in the global Occupy movement, and to help mobilize millions of Americans to protest against what they see as the excesses of Wall Street, unfair banking regulations and disparities in the nation's health care system.
The call for a strike originated Wednesday evening during a General Assembly which drew at least a thousand people from all walks of life to Oakland's Frank Ogawa Plaza, which protesters had turned into a de-facto camp site before police kicked them out last week. Many people said they felt mobilized to participate after seeing videos and pictures from Tuesday night's violence, when at least 200 riot police from around the Bay Area clashed with protesters, lobbing tear gas, flash-bang grenades and so-called "nonlethal" projectiles to attempt to corral and contain them.
Scott Olsen, a U.S.
Spurred on by Olsen's injury, the actions of the police and the relative absence of Mayor Jean Quan from the debate, the calls for a general strike gained momentum as the week progressed. Oakland last had a general strike over half a century ago, in 1946, when unions shut the city down for 56 hours. Bars were allowed to remain open, but could only serve beer. Jukeboxes were left to play, but had to be placed on public sidewalks so the maximum number of people could enjoy the music. A commonly heard song was "Pistol Packin' Mama, Lay that Pistol Down," a national hit at the time.
Today's protesters say the next step is to involve as many local and national unions, community organizations, churches and student movements in the shortest time possible.
"We're going to have to do a lot of work, but we understand the importance of it," said Josie Camacho, executive secretary and treasurer of the Alameda Labor Council, which has 120 affiliated unions and claims over 100,000 Bay Area members. "This movement has its own momentum," Camacho said, adding that she and others were urging the AFL-CIO to join their ranks.
Some who support the movement have nevertheless expressed concern about the implications of a major strike.
"There are a lot of people in this city who are struggling to hold on to their jobs," said Noweli Alexander, an East Oakland resident and comptroller at a local design company. "I support this strike, but there needs to be more discussion about the economic consequences."
Pastor George Cummings with Imani Community Church in Oakland and a leader with the Oakland Community Organizations, or OCO, a federation of congregations, schools, and allied community organizations, representing more than 40,000 families in Oakland, said the organization had not yet taken a stand on the proposed strike.
However, Cummings continued, "As a leader of OCO, to the extent that the sentiments of the movement attempt to hold the financial institutions accountable, then we would support that," Cummings said.
So far, both a nurses association and an Oakland teachers union have come out strongly in support of the Oakland protest's goals, but have fallen short of giving their full endorsement for a general strike. Some teachers have expressed support for the strike, but said they would not bring students along for reasons of "legal liability."
"However energetic we are about the cause, we also are law-abiding organizations that are very cautious," said Matthew Goldstein, president of the Peralta Federation of Teachers, which represents faculty at the four East Bay schools in the Peralta Community College District. The union planned to discuss the strike with its members and with its parent organization, the California Federation of Teachers, before deciding whether to participate.
"A general strike on the order of the 1946 general strike in Oakland is an ambitious goal, especially in just a few days," Goldstein said. "It requires groundwork to be laid. There is still much to be determined."
"I'll definitely be here," said Max Bell Alper, a member of United Here 2850, a hotel and hospitality workers union, headquartered near Frank Ogawa Plaza.
Alper said his family was hit hard by the recession and housing crisis. Occupy Oakland, he said, was an inspiration. "It looks like we're on course to be the next 1946."