The rebellion in Minneapolis

September 29, 2009

The year 1934 marked a turning point for the working-class struggle during the Great Depression, with three strikes in three cities--Toledo, San Francisco and Minneapolis--that showed workers could fight back and win. Clause 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act, passed in 1933, had granted workers "the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing." But workers had to make the letter of the law a reality through their own battles with employers.

Here, Adam Turl how a wave of strikes that started with coal drivers drew in growing numbers of workers--and provoked bigger and bigger confrontations with big business and the state.

THE HISTORY of the "Minneapolis Teamster Rebellion," as it came to be known, is packed with lessons for workers and trade unionists of any era. Among these lessons are the importance of rank-and-file control of the struggle, the benefits of socialist influence in the labor movement, and the necessity of militantly opposing the bosses--and, if need be, the government--in order to win.

The rebellion began with coal drivers--members of Local 574 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT)--and quickly spread to other drivers in the local trucking industry.

At the time, individual homes and businesses relied on burning coal for heat--and therefore on coal delivery. But as important as their services were, the coal drivers worked without a contract and were at the mercy of their employers. In 1933, fewer than 100 drivers were dues-paying members of Local 574.

The Minneapolis strike was actually three strikes, coming in successive waves, each incorporating greater numbers of workers and provoking bigger and bigger confrontations with the bosses, armed thugs and the state.

Teamsters and police deputies battle in the Minneapolis streets
Teamsters and police deputies battle in the Minneapolis streets

The first wave came in February--eventually involved much of the Minneapolis trucking industry. The second wave, which included warehouse workers, began in May. The decisive battle to win the union--a fight that verged on igniting a general citywide strike--came in July and August.

THE TEAMSTER Rebellion was in many ways the model of a successful strike. As Sidney Lens observed in Labor Wars:

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 any army, and a defiance of what is commonly called "law and order" when law and order was specifically directed at crushing their union.

If the rank and file was the strike's backbone, the IBT national leadership was its Achilles' heel. Before the first walkout, Local 574 sent a letter to IBT President Daniel Tobin, requesting strike authorization. His letter denying that authorization arrived two days after the strike was over. "By that time," recalled Local 574 president Bill Brown, "we'd won and had signed a contract with increased pay."

Tobin denounced the strike leaders as "socialists and communists," and several leaders of the strike were socialists--in particular, a group of Minneapolis Trotskyists led by Karl Skoglund and the Dunne brothers--Vincent, Miles and Grant. They were members of the Communist League. Farrell Dobbs, a coal driver and strike leader, joined the Trotskyists over the course of the strike. Dobbs later wrote the definitive history of the strikes, Teamster Rebellion.

The Communist League members in Minneapolis belonged to a long militant tradition, rooted in the intersection of the city's rapid turn-of-the century industrialization; and immigrant population that had brought socialist traditions from Europe; and its supporters of the Socialist Eugene V. Debs; the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and, later, the American Communist Party.

The small number of Trotskyists was thrown out of the Communist Party in 1928 for opposing the rise of the Stalinist dictatorship in Russia, and in Minneapolis, a majority of branch joined them. These worker socialists had been employed in the industry for years. Their influence helped insure that the strike was a model of democratic rank-and-file control.

What else to read

Farrell Dobbs' brilliant Teamster Rebellion is the classic account of the Minneapolis strike, told by one of its leading participants.

Also see Art Preis' Labor's Giant Step for its focus on Minneapolis. Irving Bernstein's The Turbulent Years, now out of print, but soon to be reissued by Haymarket Books, is a crucial history.

Sharon Smith's Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States offers an invaluable survey of the U.S. labor movement, with a section on 1934 and its importance for future labor struggles.

The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sit-Downs by Sidney Lens provides a history and analysis of the U.S.'s most significant labor struggles, including the 1934 strike in Minneapolis.

The union elected a 75-member strike committee of rank-and-file drivers. The only strike leader who wasn't a rank-and-file worker was Bill Brown, the local president. Every night, workers debated the next steps of their struggle at mass meetings. They distributed a daily strike newspaper, The Organizer, and ran their own hospital and kitchen (feeding 10,000 people a day) in a strike headquarters located in a garage.

"Meticulous planning" for the strike included reaching out to potential allies early on.

Local 574 recognized that mass unemployment posed a threat. There were 30,000 jobless workers in Minneapolis, and unless the union reached out to the jobless, they might be used as strikebreakers. Local 574 organized an "unemployed section" of the union to fight for jobs and welfare benefits--and reach out to small farmers in the surrounding area.

The union also formed a women's auxiliary, proposed by Karl Skoglund. "The aim," Dobbs wrote in Teamster Rebellion, "would be to draw in wives, girlfriends, sisters and mothers of union members. Instead of having their morale corroded by financial difficulties they would face during the strike, [Skoglund] pointed out, they should be drawn into the think of battle."

All this paved the way for widespread support and solidarity. Even Minnesota Gov. Floyd B. Olson--a leader of the state's Farmer-Labor Party--supported the strike (at first), declaring, "I am not a liberal... I am a radical." He donated $500 to the strike fund.

In the first battle in February, workers shut down 65 of the city's 67 coal yards through the innovative use of "cruising picket squads." Truckloads of strikers followed scab trucks across the city, setting up pickets wherever they might stop. Initially, they even confiscated scab trucks, as Dobbs wrote:

Whenever they found a truck on the streets, they escorted it back to strike headquarters. Soon, the area around 1900 Chicago Avenue was crowded with a motley assemblage of vehicles loaded with milk, coal, tobacco, tea and coffee, hogs, cattle and diverse other things, including a few loads of hay.

The trucking companies were completely befuddled by this tactic and caved to demands for a union contract and wage increase. The union was recognized by 166 trucking companies under the new labor board system set up by Roosevelt.

Thousands of truckers signed Local 574 union cards. "For the first time in many years, a strike had been won in Minneapolis." Dobbs wrote. "Electrified by their victory, union members throughout the city gained self-confidence, and thousands of unorganized workers lifted their eyes toward the union movement with a new sense of hope."

SENSING THE mood and the moment, the union pressed forward. As Lens observed, "The February foray was the prelude to a larger battle."

Local 574--and Karl Skoglund in particular--had been reaching out to warehouse workers for years. The aim was to create an industrial union uniting drivers and warehouse as a single block. In the wake of the February strike, 3,000 warehouse workers joined Local 574. But the bosses refused to recognize these new union members.

The second wave of the rebellion was set to begin. On May 15, more than 5,000 drivers and warehouse workers struck simultaneously.

Much of the city was paralyzed. Cruising pickets kept virtually every unauthorized truck from even entering the city limits. Only certain union trucks and trucks approved by the strikers (for example, those owned by small farmers) were allowed to operate freely. Workers even targeted (and dismantled) gas stations that allowed scab trucks to refuel.

On May 16, union taxis--after petitioning to join Local 574--joined the strike. Within days, 35,000 building trade workers struck in solidarity, and streetcar workers threatened to walk out. Even the city's relatively conservative Central Labor Council endorsed the strike.

Minneapolis was a tinderbox of workers' grievances and frustration. "The tycoons who ran the Citizens Alliance," wrote Dobbs, "had sown the wind, and they were about to reap the whirlwind."

That "Citizens Alliance" had its origins in the crushing of the city's 1918 streetcar workers strike. The city's business elite decided to use the same body again in an attempt to smash the "headstrong" Teamsters. A right-wing collection of "doctors, lawyers, clerks, salesmen and businessmen" were deputized with police powers.

On May 21, the police and deputies were sent to move goods through the city's central market in order to break the back of the strike. But the union was ready for them.

Local 574 sent small squads of workers to key places in the market (but instructed them not to wear their union pins) to keep an eye on things. The union also organized more than 1,500 additional workers in reserve--ready to move at a moment's notice.

Workers surrounded the police and deputes, "swinging pipes, clubs, bricks, and in one or two cases wielded knives," Dobbs wrote. No scab trucks moved through the market that day. Thirty police, however, were hospitalized. A handful of workers were also injured in the melee.

The most famous battle of the strike came the following day--the slyly named "Battle of Deputies Run." Some 1,500 police and deputies attacked 20,000 strikers in the central market. As Art Preis wrote in Labor's Giant Step:

The pickets charged the deputies first, and noticed that many uniformed cops were tending to hang back...Sensing this mood among the cops, the pickets continued to concentrate mainly on the deputies...Finding themselves mousetrapped, many deputies dropped their clubs and ripped off their badges, trying with little success to seek anonymity in the hostile crowd...

The scene of the battle spread as cops and deputies alike were driven from the market. The deputies were chased back to headquarters, the strikers mopping up along the way. Less than an hour after the battle started, there wasn't a cop to be seen in the market, and pickets were directing traffic.

In response to the workers' victories, the supposedly "radical" governor Olson put 3,700 National Guard troops on standby if needed to "restore order." The only reason they weren't deployed was that a new settlement was reached between the employers and strikers

The bosses agreed to reinstate striking workers, enact a minimum wage and agreed to arbitration for future wage increases. Unfortunately, the issue of union recognition remained murky--and employers quickly started to backtrack, especially on the issue of recognizing the warehouse workers.

THE THIRD wave of the strike came on July 16--and the fight resumed with a vengeance.

The Citizens Alliance and the capitalist newspapers whipped up a red-baiting frenzy, warning the city of an impending and "Bloody Revolution." But it was police who drew blood. On July 20, they opened fire on unarmed pickets, killing two workers and injuring 55. Workers called it "Bloody Friday."

Olson promptly shed the last of his supposed "radicalism." Using "Bloody Friday" as a pretext, he denounced the strike leaders and called in National Guard troops. The guard arrested the entire strike committee, including the Dunne brothers and local President Bill Brown.

The strikers didn't even blink. Workers had prepared for the arrest of their leadership, creating a secondary strike committee in case the first was arrested.

Nearly every union truck and taxi had now joined the strike in protest. Some 40,000 workers attended the funeral of one of the Bloody Friday victims. A similar number protested to demand the release of the jailed strike committee. They were released within days.

For five weeks, the strikers faced down the National Guard--and on August 22, the employers finally blinked. The bosses agreed to recognize all union members, both drivers and warehouse workers.

Just as the February victory of the drivers electrified the Minneapolis labor movement, the Teamster Rebellion of 1934--along with the San Francisco and Toledo strikes--electrified the broader American working class. These fights paved the way for the historic victories to come across all the key industries of the U.S. economy.

THERE ARE, of course, many lessons to be learned from the Teamster Rebellion.

First of all, the militants of Local 574 were willing and able to take the needs of the workers' struggle all the way to their logical conclusion. They didn't just have to fight the bosses--they also had to fight against the government, and at times, the national leadership of their own union.

In Minnesota, the governorship wasn't held by a Democrat or Republican, but by a member of the semi-social democratic Farmer-Labor Party (FLP). While the politicians of the FLP were increasingly typical--seeking to win elections and grown accustomed to the trappings of power--the FLP's roots were among ordinary workers and small farmers. "Because of its base among the workers and farmers," Dobbs wrote, "the Farmer-Labor Party had a dual nature."

Therefore, at the beginning of the strike, Gov. Olson felt the need to support the drivers, but later, he turned on them. The union welcomed Olson's initial support, but didn't hesitate to go up against him when he--and the state government--turned.

Similarly, the union had to deal with the vacillation of the national union bureaucracy between tepid support (at best) and outright opposition to the strike. Local 574 kept their focus on fighting the bosses, and took on national union leaders when they "got in the way."

"Thus, the indicated tactic was to aim the workers' fire straight at the employers and the union bureaucrats in the middle," Dobbs wrote. "If they didn't react positively, they would stand discredited."

The commitment of Local 574 to take the class struggle "all the way" underlines the immense potential of the working class today--a class sinking into the economic abyss, and with an urgent need to organize the rank and file for the battles to come. As Farrell Dobbs described the "calm" before the "storm" of 1934:

Wiseacres of the day spoke pontifically about the "passivity" of the working class, never understanding that the seeming docility of the workers at a given time is a relative thing. If workers are more or less holding their own in daily life and expecting that they can get ahead slowly, they won't tend to radicalize.

Things are different when they are losing ground and the future looks precarious to them. Then a change begins to occur in their attitude, which is not always immediately apparent. The tinder of discontent begins to pile up. Any spark can light it, and once lit, the fire can spread rapidly.

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