General Strikeout: Occupy Oakland represents an end, not a beginning, in the history of the Left
Throughout the day and night of November 2, “Occupy Oakland” mobilized to shut down the fifth-largest port in the United States (briefly), storm downtown banks (until managers locked the doors), and confront police (leading to 80 arrests). The day’s events, which attracted endorsements from the local nurses’, service employees’, and teachers’ unions, stemmed from Occupy Oakland’s call for a “general strike.” But contrary to the media’s flattering and hyperbolic portrayals, last Wednesday’s demonstration was nothing of the kind.
Some historical perspective is in order. The term “general strike” has a specific meaning: it signifies a work stoppage in all unionized industries and temporary suspension of operations in the businesses they serve. This was not the case in Oakland: the event merely drew some residents and a host of union members. Some 200 city employees—about 5 percent of the municipal payroll—declined to show up for work. According to CBS News, about 360 of 2,000 Oakland schoolteachers stayed out of school for the occasion. Some students also declared themselves “on strike.” The crowd in the streets Wednesday grew to an estimated 7,000 people, who closed the entrance to the Port of Oakland on Middle Harbor Road for about two and a half hours. But apart from a few blocks downtown and near the harbor, banks and stores remained open, schools remained in session, and life went on.
Destruction in the city was mainly visited on banks, including a Wells Fargo branch that closed early after occupiers made an afternoon attempt to storm it, and where windows were later broken. A Bank of America branch, a Chase branch, and a Citibank branch were also affected on the street corner amusingly referred to by the Oakland Tribune as “Oakland’s financial district at 20th and Webster Streets.” Occupiers demolished or defaced automatic-teller machines in the area. A Whole Foods Market locked its doors and later had its windows broken by masked “anarchists.” A Men’s Wearhouse store closed for the day and posted a sign in its window professing to “stand with the 99 percent.” Demonstrators smashed the store’s windows anyway.
Undercutting the pretensions of Occupy Oakland’s “general strike” was the response from Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. On Thursday morning, truck drivers faced off with about a dozen protesters who blocked four lanes of traffic with a fence and some dumpsters. The occupiers backed down when Local 10 president Richard Mead “appealed to [demonstrators’] sense of fairness after they were told the dockworkers would not receive their full day’s pay if they couldn’t get to work,” according to the Tribune. If the longshoremen, a powerful and symbolic union constituency on the West Coast, refused to leave their jobs, then whatever happened last week could hardly be characterized as a general strike.