Rebellion in Minneapolis

March 20, 2009

"When great events pass into history, they are given the cosmetic treatment," wrote historian Sidney Lens. "Violence, bitterness, deception, illegality, immorality, conflict are scraped away and given the appearance of friendly, orderly progress. But it didn't happen this way between labor and capital in America, and it is well to remember that what was won was won by flouting both institutionalized conformity and one-sided legality."

Lens set the record straight in his book The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sit-Downs, now republished by Haymarket Books. First published in 1973, The Labor Wars draws out the lessons of some of the U.S.'s most explosive working-class struggles.

Lens authored several books on labor and radical movements in the U.S., including The Forging of the American Empire.

Here, we reprint an excerpt from a chapter of The Labor Wars that chronicles some of the crucial union battles of the Great Depression--strikes on the West Coast waterfront strike, at the Auto-Lite plant in Toledo, Ohio, and of Teamsters in Minneapolis in 1934.

THE THREE Minneapolis strikes of 1934 were of the same type as those on the West Coast and in Toledo. They displayed radical leadership's reliance on the rank and file, advance planning as meticulous as that of an army and a defiance of what is commonly called "law and order" when law and order was specifically directed at crushing their union.

In the fall of 1933, emboldened by Section 7(a), Karl Skoglund, a middle-aged Swede, began organizing the drivers of the sixty-seven coal companies in the city. Skoglund, a gentle, red-faced man an inch or two under six feet, had emigrated from the old country at the turn of the century. Before he learned to speak English he laid ties for the Northern Pacific railroad in the Minnesota hinterlands, and after 1914 went to work in lumber camps. Had it not been for an accident he might have continued as a lumberjack indefinitely. But a pine tree crushed one of his feet, and after an operation and a nine-month convalescence in the hospital, the husky immigrant took a job as a mechanic for the Pullman Company in Minneapolis. When the railroad shopmen went on strike in 1922, Skoglund, still single, contributed $1,000 of his savings to the union, and when the strike was lost, refused to go back to work because management insisted he join a company union. Subsequently he became a coal driver, and had been working for the same company for eight years when he began enrolling fellow workers into General Drivers Local Union of the AFL International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

A steady, slow-moving but thorough person, and an effective speaker whose sincerity came forth through a heavy accent, Skoglund had become associated with a small leftist group which had broken away from the Communist Party in late 1928 to follow the precepts of Leon Trotsky. The Minneapolis leaders of that group--variously called the Communist Party (Left Opposition), Communist League of America, then Workers Party--were three brothers, Vincent, Miles, and Grant Dunne, who also worked in the coal industry, though not as drivers. Together with Skoglund and two or three other organizers, they converted the national Teamsters' organization--then with a membership of only 95,000 members--into a formidable movement. To do so they had to engage and defeat the uncommonly powerful Citizens' Alliance, which had made Minneapolis and its twin city, St. Paul, strongholds of the open shop. With eight hundred members from the business community, an efficient staff, and a trained crew of undercover agents, the Alliance had broken every important strike in the city for a generation. Its leaders boasted that they had smashed the trucker stoppage of 1916 at the meager cost of $25,000 and had thereby undercut the threat to Twin City transport for a generation.

By February 1934, Skoglund and a personable driver named Bill Brown, who "for some reason or other" had been appointed an international organizer for the Teamsters, were ready to move against the Alliance. With the Dunne brothers they mapped a detailed plan for a blitzkrieg--the closing of all coal yards by "cruising picket squads." Each picket captain was given specific instructions and a map beforehand, telling him what yard his squadron was to attack. The tactic caught the Citizens' Alliance and the coal companies off guard. Within three hours, sixty-five of the sixty-seven yards were closed tight. Most of the men responded eagerly; a few had to be prodded with a show of force. Taken by surprise the employers signed a union contract fairly quickly and granted the workers a wage increase. Ironically, a letter from Daniel Tobin, national president of the Teamsters, refusing to sanction the strike was received two days after the strike had been won.

The February foray was the prelude to a larger battle. On its heels, the Dunnes, Skoglund, and Brown began organizing not only truck drivers but inside warehousemen--an innovation for the Teamsters--and quickly enlisted 3,000 new members in Local 574. With the Regional Labor Board acting as go-between the union demanded recognition, in accord with Section 7(a), seniority in layoffs and rehiring, and non-discrimination for union membership. It was a modest proposal, not including the closed shop, but the trucking companies would not agree to it--often absenting themselves from meetings with the Board. A.W. Strong, founder of the Citizens' Alliance, later told author Charles Rumford Walker, that while he could "conceive of dealing with a conservative and responsible labor leader," it was out of the question to negotiate with the headstrong men of Local 574. Thus on Tuesday, May 15, 1934, their demands rebuffed, 5,000 drivers and warehousemen left their jobs to gather around a large garage at 1900 Chicago Avenue, which had been rented by the union for strike headquarters.

For the first three days of the stoppage, the city was paralyzed; and, everything was peaceful. Only drivers of ice wagons, and of beer, milk, and coal companies--already unionized--continued working. Flying squadrons roamed everywhere, closing down operations. "With nearly 3,000 pickets blocking every entrance to the city and massed about the gates of every large fleet owner," reported the Minneapolis Tribune, "they succeeded in halting most of the ordinary trucking movements...In the central market the tie-up was particularly effective. No trucks were allowed to come in with farmers' loads of vegetables...Newspaper deliveries Wednesday were made by police escort." The fleets of automobiles used by the flying squadrons found opposition to the strike only among gas stations, whose owners closed down when they arrived, but then tried to reopen when the squads were gone. After a hundred cars full of pickets demolished a few gas pumps, however, the gas stations too were quiet. Only a few stations for their own use were permitted to operate.

Even more than the San Francisco and Toledo strikes, the Minneapolis stoppage was an amazingly well-organized performance. The garage headquarters, with a great Local 574 banner under its roof top, served as the nerve center of the strike--a refuge where thousands of workers slept and ate, an auditorium for union meetings, a hospital when injured men were brought in. Special worker task forces were assigned to guard against raids, with husky drivers and warehousemen standing watch at every door. Picket captains, dispersed through the city, were instructed to phone in every ten minutes. They sent such messages as the following to headquarters: "Truck attempting to move load of produce from Berman Fruit, under police convoy. Have only ten pickets, send help." Inside headquarters were a few hundred men ready to act in response to a situation such as this one at a moment's notice, on the order of Vincent Dunne or Farrell Dobbs (also a Trotskyite) who acted as dispatchers. When the police began tapping union phones, the pickets were given codes to disguise their messages. And, police short-wave messages were intercepted so that the union officials always knew what their adversaries were planning. A motorcycle squad of five roamed the city day and night, and pickets were always on hand at the forty or fifty roads leading into the city. For the less dramatic tasks, the union called on unemployed groups and a large 574 Women's Auxiliary--to type, mimeograph bulletins, run the kitchen, and occasionally to join the pickets in their battered trucks or jalopies.

Having secured their base among drivers and inside men, the "574" leaders extended outward to gain support in a widening arc, both from other workers and the public at large. In these arenas too they won a surprisingly strong commitment. On the second day of the strike, cab drivers left their taxis. A few days later 35,000 building trades workers, ordinarily a relatively conservative group, joined the strike. Ten thousand streetcar employees expressed sympathy and threatened to link hands with the truckers. Finally the Central Labor Union, not known for its radicalism, endorsed the stoppage. One of the points repeated over and over again by the Dunnes and Skoglund was a warning not to place any faith regarding settlement in government officials, not even in Governor Floyd B. Olson, elected on a Farmer-Labor Party ticket. The strike, they said, must build its own power and spread into working-class constituencies to attain a strength and unity that could not be broken or compromised.

On the other side, the members of the Citizens' Alliance opened an office at the Radisson Hotel to grind out press releases and copy about the strike for full-page ads, as well as to give advice to harassed businessmen. The alliance expected that as food supplies dwindled the public would be sufficiently outraged to mass for a counterattack. Two thousand businessmen gathered at the Radisson Hotel and selected a Committee of Twenty-five, whose job was to enlist doctors, lawyers, clerks, salesmen, and businessmen, for a "Citizens' Army." Like the strikers, the Citizens' Army opened a headquarters and commissary, in preparation for battle. To give the army official sanction its members were designated by the authorities as special police.

The first step in the spiraling confrontation was a series of guerrilla actions by the Alliance. A few truckloads of pickets, for instance, were lured to an alley near the Minneapolis Tribune, encircled by police and armed guards, and thoroughly beaten. Three of the women suffered broken legs and almost everyone was bloodied by clubs and fists. It later turned out that the man who had dispatched the pickets from strike headquarters was a Bums detective, specially insinuated into the union for such provocations. The full-scale engagement between strikers and the Citizens' Army took place on Monday and Tuesday, May 21 and 22, as police and deputies prepared to move perishable goods from the closed central market. Local 574 was ready. It had secreted 600 men in the Central Labor Union office and held another 900 in reserve at the Chicago Avenue garage. Small squads without union buttons--were dispatched to key places in the market.

At the appointed hour, the contingent at the Central Labor Union marched toward the market from one side, four abreast, while the force from headquarters attacked from the other side, completely surrounding the police and 1,000 deputies. Pickets swung pipes, clubs, bricks, and in one or two cases wielded knives. At the peak of fighting a driver with twenty-five pickets all his truck drove headlong into the police to prevent them from using their guns. The winner this first day was unquestionably the union; thirty police were hospitalized, while union casualties were by comparison, one broken collarbone, a few broken ribs, and one cracked skull. Most important of all, no trucks moved.

The next day--called the Battle of Deputies Run--there was less planning, but more men on each side. At least 20,000 people left their jobs and homes to assemble at the market. A minor incident--an effort by a small merchant to move a few crates of tomatoes--precipitated a wholesale outbreak which spilled over into scores of attacks by unionists and sympathizers against the more than 2,000 police forces. By nightfall the deputies had been routed. Arthur Lyman, for sixteen years attorney for the Citizens' Alliance, lay dead, along with one other special deputy, and the number of injured on both sides, never tallied, ran into hundreds. At Governor Olson's urging a truce was called, during which no trucks were to be moved and negotiations were to proceed.

Three days later there was a settlement--but not before both parties had prepared for further hostilities. A strategy committee of the employers met and discussed plans for arresting the strike leaders and mobilizing greater police forces. The union, meanwhile, called a massive demonstration, addressed by top officials of the state, city, and building trades' councils, as well as Lieutenant Governor K. K. Solberg. Governor Olson put 3,700 National Guardsmen on the alert, much to the discomfort of the strike committee. A mood of war hung over the negotiations. Union negotiators, arriving at the hotel where the conference was to take place with four picket cars in front of them and four in back, just in case police tried to serve warrants, found 150 officers waiting for them. They refused to take part in meetings until the uniformed men were withdrawn. The settlement itself hinged on such questions as union recognition for both the truckers and inside workers--in effect making Local 574 an industrial union--and a written contract. What emerged was a modest victory, in which the employers signed their names to an agreement according full reinstatement to formerly held jobs for the strikers, granting a minimum wage and arbitration for future increases and seniority rights. The recognition issue was clouded in ambiguity which the union took to mean--and Olson seconded--recognition of both groups. But the employers took the terms of the settlement to mean exclusion of inside workers. Nonetheless after only eleven days Local 574 had made a solid beginning.

The ambiguity over recognition led to a third strike, in July, and another fierce encounter on "Bloody Friday," July 20, in which fifty-five pickets were shot and two killed. Governor Olson, roundly castigated by the strike committee, now sent in the National Guard, which in turn raided the strike headquarters and arrested the Dunnes, Bill Brown, and one hundred other union leaders. Nonetheless the stoppage continued under a second leadership especially--prepared for just such a contingency. Unionized cab drivers, ice, beer, and gasoline drivers immediately left their vehicles, and though thousands of strikebreakers were found to man other trucks the flying squadrons continued to harry and stop them--guard or no guard. Forty thousand workers carne out to the funeral of one of the victims of Bloody Friday; 40,000 more at another demonstration, after the Dunnes and Brown were arrested. So fierce was the outcry of the workers this time that the jailed men were released in a few days.

After five weeks the employers again conceded defeat, granting recognition of the "inside workers." Despite the use of state militia and a condemnation of the strike leaders by Daniel Tobin as "radicals and Communists," the radicals in fact prevailed. Moreover, they used their victory as a steppingstone to organize over-the-road haulers. Every time an out-of-town truck driver carne to a dock or warehouse, he was forced to show a union card, or turn back with his truck unloaded. In this way the union in Minneapolis, and then in other cities, drew to its fold the key intercity drivers, without whom the present Teamsters' union could not have achieved its position as the largest and most powerful union in the country.

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