Since Occupy Oakland protesters announced they would hold a general strike on November 2, unions from across the city and the state have sent a flurry of endorsements in support of what they are referring to as a “day of action,” rather than a strike. In the final moments before Wednesday’s events, union organizers have been working to encourage members to participate.
After last week’s eviction of Occupy Oakland protesters from two downtown encampments, and the clash with police that followed, the protesters voted to organize a citywide strike in order to economically penalize the world’s wealthy, whom they characterize as “the 1 percent.” Occupy protesters have organized a series of events for Wednesday, including live entertainment throughout the day, a cookout, a march on the banks, and a larger march to the Port of Oakland beginning at 5 pm. Those who cannot take the day off from work are encouraged to join the rally afterward, and those who can neither take the day off from work or participate in the rally are encouraged not to buy anything on Wednesday.
Since last week, the Occupy Oakland group has garnered support from unions and labor leaders across the Bay Area and the country. “We consider what happened to Occupy personnel—being tear-gassed, and beaten with batons—those blows were taken for us,” said Dwight McElroy, the president of the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) Oakland chapter.
In an interview on Monday morning, the 55-year-old East Oakland native said he began his day with a 6:30 am meeting with staff on ways to increase members’ participation on November 2, and had plans to visit different work sites later that evening to encourage more workers to join the protests. “Our members have been encouraged to take any form of lead (action) available to them to be at the solidarity day with Occupy Oakland,” McElroy said. “Some individuals will take a whole day off, some will take a half a day, some will come after work, but every union will be in the house and be present at the plaza.”
Steve Neat, the secretary and one of five lead officers for the Oakland Education Association (OEA)—a union which represents teachers and other school employees —said that although most of its members are supportive of the action, some are hesitant to walk off the job. Instead of demanding its members to leave work, the union has provided them with a “menu of options” for participating on Wednesday. Neat said members have been encouraged to either take a day of leave without pay, or take a personal day for which they do get paid—a condition which the Oakland school district will honor—or take a personal day and donate one day’s pay to Occupy Oakland or some other cause. For many of the elementary schools which have a half day on Wednesday, teachers can walk off the job after the students go home at 1:30 pm, Neat said.
Rebecca Band, the spokesperson for the California Labor Federation, said the umbrella labor organization is backing Occupy Oakland “a hundred percent,” and will be working alongside the Alameda Labor Council (ALC) to provide free food for the protesters. From 4:30 to 8 pm, the ALC will host a cook out in front of City Hall. “All unions are different. We’re encouraging folks to do whatever they deem appropriate for their particular worksite,” she said. “That could be a wide range of actions. Some may just wear a sticker. Others could take more aggressive action.”
But many of the union leaders said they prefer the term “day of action” to the word “strike.” In union parlance, a strike specifically refers to an action taken because of a contractual issue between parties—for example between the union and the city—said McElroy, who has been working for the city of Oakland for 26 years. Union strikes typically take place a workplace level, Band said, and are used to negotiate workplace issues such as settling a contact or resolving problems with wages or health and safety practices.
Unlike a typical union-organized strike, the Occupy Oakland demonstration is neither targeting a specific employer, nor is it being called because of a specific workplace grievance or contractual issue. Rather, it is a more general expression of economic discontent. “The Occupy Oakland strike is a far more complex, nuanced thing,” than an action taken against a single employer, Neat said. “The people involved are trying to bring more people in to convince elected officials that they should be on their side, and also kind of send a warning to the top 1 percent that they’re not going to stand for being taken advantage of.”
Additionally, McElroy said, certain processes must be fulfilled before a union can join a strike, including allowing its membership to vote on whether there should be a strike, something he said that there wasn’t time to do in this case.
But, he added, “Whether or not it’s called a strike or a day of action isn’t as important as standing in solidarity with the principles of what they’re standing up for.” McElroy said he is expecting between 400 and 500 members of his union to be at Frank Ogawa Plaza on Wednesday in time for the 5 pm march. “Our energy right now is not having resources toward a vote—a technical and legal thing. Our emphasis and energy is on mobilizing for solidarity,” he said.
Neat said that the difference between calling for a general strike as opposed to a day of action does matter because workers will face less serious repercussions if they decide not to participate in a day of action than in a strike. In a general strike, “Any OEA member that crossed the line could be called a ‘scab,’ whereas with this action tomorrow that’s not the attitude we’re taking,” Neat said. “If a member wants to go into work all day, educate the children, then leave at the end of the day and join the movement, then that’s OK. That’s kind of the difference.”
Neat added that the OEA is glad to support a broader kind of political action. “It’s not so much about our own personal contract or personal working conditions, but more about a global picture,” he said.
“From our perspective, we sort of have already won,” Band said. “The ultimate goal, I think, of the Occupy Oakland movement is to change the narrative and to get the conversation going about the working poor and the middle class. For so long, the corporate message has been so pervasive.”
Neat agreed. “The OEA hopes that this is the jump-off point of a major broadening and a major strengthening of the Occupy movement,” he said. “The hope is now that this could be the movement when it goes from thousands to tens of thousands; where we really see a mass movement for the 1 percent to pay their fair share.”
You can see Oakland North’s complete coverage of Occupy Oakland here.