Latham Square renovation commemorates the 1946 Oakland General Strike

This installment of the California labor history series is excerpted from the newly released book, From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement by California Federation of Teachers Communications Director Fred Glass. Available for purchase via the University of California Press website.

Oakland General Strike pedestal at the renovated Latham Square
Oakland General Strike pedestal at the renovated Latham Square

December of this year will mark the seventieth anniversary of the Oakland General Strike, the last city-wide work stoppage in the United States.

Shutting down the East Bay’s largest city for three days in solidarity with women clerks trying to organize a union in two downtown department stores, Kahn’s and Hastings, the General Strike was a generally peaceful and even festive affair.  Photos of the massive demonstrations in the streets spilling out of Latham Square, between the two department stores on Broadway, show people dancing and roller skating in an event the central labor council called “a work holiday.”

The General Strike failed in its initial goal, but the energy behind it ultimately led to union recognition for the clerks after the unions that had supported the strike joined with the NAACP to form the Oakland Voters League and elected several candidates to the City Council.  Facing a strong pro-labor voice in city politics, the merchants’ association that had opposed the clerks’ organizing campaign finally agreed to recognize Retail Clerks Local 1265 (now UFCW Local 870) in May 1947, one week after the election and six months after the General Strike.

The clerks’ strikes and general strike events centered in Latham Square, which is actually a triangle where Telegraph and Broadway merge a couple blocks from Oakland City Hall.  For the past couple of years the City of Oakland has been working on an expansion and renovation of the square.  It sought public input into the design, holding a series of meetings to encourage discussion and suggestions.  I went to a few of these meetings accompanied by Dave Connolly, president of the Alameda Labor Council.  We urged the City to include recognition of the site-specific history, arguing that the “work holiday” represented an important moment in labor and women’s history of the East Bay, and the several dozen people in attendance from the community and city departments agreed.

Striking Kahn’s Department Store clerks prior to the Oakland General Strike.
Striking Kahn’s Department Store clerks prior to the Oakland General Strike.

With some follow up from Labor Council Executive Secretary-Treasurer Josie Camacho, the idea to include the General Strike was folded into the official plans.  Latham Square reopened last week, and one of the six pedestals at the edge of the square commemorates the events of December 1946.

Read more about the Oakland General Strike in From Mission to Microchip:  A History of the California Labor Movement, by Fred Glass, and published by the University of California Press last month.