The lessons of 1934

October 6, 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.

Here, Sharon Smith, author of Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States, explains the factors that shaped the victories--and defeats--for the class struggle in 1934.

THE ACHIEVEMENTS of the U.S. working class during the Great Depression provide a source of inspiration for all those seeking to rebuild the labor movement from the bottom up today. During that tumultuous era, labor successfully used the strike weapon to shift the balance of class forces in favor of workers for the first time in U.S. history.

There is often a false impression, however, that the working class took the offensive immediately after the 1929 stock market crash that signaled the onset of economic crisis. In reality, the class struggle took years to advance after the Depression began.

There were certainly many early strikes and struggles, including unemployed protests and neighborhood fights against evictions. All of these trained many of the activists who later played a key role in building the union movement. But these early struggles took place primarily on a small scale--city by city, or even neighborhood by neighborhood--and were of a temporary character, with a constantly revolving door of participating activists. Perhaps most importantly, many ended in defeat.

ILWU strikers escort a scab off the docks during the 1934 San Francisco general strike
ILWU strikers escort a scab off the docks during the 1934 San Francisco general strike

The level of strikes did not begin to rise significantly until 1933, several years into the depression. Conditions of mass unemployment do not immediately lead to mass resistance. On the contrary, high unemployment can often lead to a sense of helplessness in the first instance--even for those workers who still have jobs but fear that they will be fired and replaced by someone from the growing ranks of the unemployed. Desperation alone does not typically drive workers to struggle. There must be some sense of confidence that it is possible to win--and that sense of confidence most often does not occur until at least some sections of the economy begin to pick up and begin hiring again.

To be sure, the election of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 brought hope to millions of working-class families facing hunger and unemployment. But Roosevelt did not immediately bring the kind of change that would put food on the table for destitute families. On the contrary, Roosevelt conducted a delicate balancing act (with obvious parallels to the early Obama administration): offering sympathetic rhetoric to workers while offering material relief only to big business.

Even the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act's clause 7(a) acknowledging workers' right to unionize was so vaguely worded that it could be--and often was--interpreted by companies as establishing the "rights" of employers to establish company unions in their workplaces.

Turning point

The year 1934 marked the turning point in the class struggle of the Great Depression, when workers finally scored their first significant union victories against the corporate class. There were four key strikes that took place in 1934: the Toledo Auto-Lite strike, the San Francisco General Strike, the Minneapolis Teamsters strike, and also the textile workers' strike up and down the East Coast.

Three of these strikes ended in victory, but one of them, the textile strike, ended in one of the bloodiest defeats in U.S. history. Discussions of the 1934 strikes usually focus only on the victories, but the textile workers' defeat is equally important in understanding the dynamics of class struggle.

The historical reality is that patterns of class struggle do not neatly fit into a phase of defeats followed by a turning point, after which the working-class movement then experiences one success after another until its final victory. Indeed, the textile workers' defeat of 1934 occurred in the autumn, just after the first three previous strikes ended in victory.

What else to read

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.

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.

But the 1934 strike victories gave ever-greater numbers of working-class people the confidence to begin to fight for better working conditions. Every week, newsreels ran in movie theaters across the country with footage of the three strikes as they unfolded. Working-class audiences cheered for the strikers, just as they would cheer for their team in a sports match.

With his reelection campaign looming, Roosevelt at last began to feel real pressure to grant some significant reforms to workers in order to get out the working-class vote in 1936. To this end, in 1935, Roosevelt signed the Wagner Act, finally making it illegal for employers to refuse to negotiate with unions, and established Social Security--i.e., the major reforms that are popularly associated with the New Deal.

A full appreciation of the importance of the 1934 strike victories requires a clear understanding of the context in which they occurred. First, Corporate America typically responded to strikes by unleashing a torrent of violence against them. And if workers began to score their first victories in 1934, this wasn't because U.S. corporations had become any less violent. In the early 1930s, the Ford Motor Company, for example, employed the largest private army in the entire world.[1]

Companies continued to enjoy the full support of their local police departments, which happily and immediately upon a company's request would deputize hundreds of anti-union citizens, handing them a badge and a gun so that they could officially attack striking workers in the name of "law enforcement." Likewise, if it looked as if the strikers might still win, other government agencies could be called upon to send in an endless supply of state troopers, national guard troops and even the U.S. Army, if need be.

Secondly, the 1934 strike victories pre-dated the formation of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO), which was founded the following year. So the unions involved in these strikes were all from the conservative craft union federation, the American Federation of Labor (AFL). And the AFL leadership was as hostile to the idea of organizing unskilled workers as it was to the notion of class struggle. When workers from an AFL union did go out on strike, the federation leaders generally did everything in their power to stop it--and also typically supported court injunctions and troops sent out on behalf of the corporations to attack the strikers from their own unions.[2]

It is also the case that the AFL all but refused to organize Black workers into its unions. In 1924, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) issued an open letter to the AFL requesting the formation of an interracial workers commission against racial discrimination in the unions. The NAACP repeated this request in 1929. In both cases, the AFL did not even bother to respond.[3]

The three 1934 strike victories were led not by crusty and conservative AFL bureaucrats but rather by strike leaders who emerged from below--in each case, radicals dedicated not only to class struggle and class solidarity, but also to rank-and-file democracy. As historian Sidney Lens put it, "One or two leftists among a thousand workers was enough to give the group direction and stimulus, and there were plenty of young leftists around. A new generation, active at first in the battles of the unemployed, and then in he plants, talked openly of revolution as if it were the first order of business on the historical agenda."[4]

The Toledo Auto-Lite strike

The Toledo Auto-Lite strike was the first major strike of 1934, starting on February 23, when workers voted to go out on strike. Unfortunately, their AFL union charter did not allow them the right to vote to go on strike, since they had been placed into one of the AFL's so-called "federated" locals, specially created for unskilled workers, placing them under the firm control of the national union leadership. AFL President William Green, not surprisingly, ordered them all to return to work immediately. They did so, and the company, not surprisingly, continued to refuse to recognize the union.

A couple months later, 4,000 Auto-Lite workers went out on strike, again demanding union recognition. But their strike began on very weak footing. The 4,000 strikers represented less than half of the total workforce at Auto-Lite. Moreover, fully one-third of all Toledo workers were unemployed at the time. Under these conditions, the strike could easily have been doomed, since unemployed workers might have been expected to rush to take the strikers' jobs in desperation.

Instead, the unemployed played a key role in winning this strike, thanks to an ingenious strategy advocated by the radical pacifist A.J. Muste, an organizer from the American Workers Party. Although courts had prohibited solidarity picketing, Muste's Lucas County Unemployed League pledged to bring large numbers of unemployed workers to the picket line.

On the first day, 1,000 unemployed came out; the next day, 4,000; and the following day, 6,000. When the police moved in on the picket line, the picketers fought back. When the National Guard was sent in to help the police, its troops fired on the picketers, killing one and injuring many. But the picketers kept fighting back in a standoff that lasted six days--until the company finally agreed to close down production at the plant and troops were removed on May 31. The following day, 40,000 workers protested against the arrest of 200 strikers, and 98 of the city's 99 unions pledged to call a general strike in sympathy.

The company finally surrendered on June 4, agreeing to recognize the union and to rehire all of the strikers to their old jobs--in a complete victory.

The San Francisco General Strike

By then, more protracted struggles were already well underway in Minneapolis and San Francisco. Like the Toledo strike, the San Francisco longshoremen defied their union leaders when they called a West Coast strike in May. Unbeknownst to union members, their leaders from the International Longshoremen's Association had already secretly negotiated an agreement with the companies when the San Francisco longshoremen voted unanimously to go out on strike.

By May 11, 14,000 longshoremen were on strike from Seattle to San Diego. Their most important demand was a union-controlled hiring hall to replace the system by which company foremen simply picked their favorites, often workers who made payoffs and bribes to supervisors.

From the beginning, the longshoremen held daily mass meetings and round-the-clock pickets at the docks. The San Francisco workers formed a strike committee that elected communist Harry Bridges as its leader. The size and strength of the 1,000 burly longshore pickets certainly helped keep away strikebreakers. As Sidney Lens said, "No sensible person would have tried to cross that picket line without a few squads of police to shepherd them through, and even then, they might not have made it."[5]

But the picketers also personally appealed to the rank-and-file truckers who hauled the cargo away from the dock, who in turn pressured their own leaders from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters to call a sympathy strike. So no cargo got carried away. Likewise, the strikers appealed to the merchant marines from the ships that brought in the cargo, and 25,000 maritime workers up and down the West Coast joined the strike within a week.

AFL President Green, keeping with longstanding AFL tradition, denounced the strikers as "communists." But Green miscalculated the popular mood. His angry denunciations only helped to gain sympathy for the San Francisco strike. And when union leaders tried to force through an agreement without a union hiring hall, the strikers booed them off the stage.

A wave of police and employer violence soon followed--launched on July 5, a day that became known as "Bloody Thursday"--when the city's entire police force opened fie on a crowd of strikers and supporters. Four workers were killed, and hundreds were wounded. Yet the police violence, which was intended to crush the strike, only encouraged other workers to come out to the picket lines to help fight the police. The San Francisco strike committee decided to call on other unions to go on strike in sympathy, and by July 15, 115 local unions had voted to go out on a general strike in support.

A general strike is the last thing that any AFL leader wanted, of course. But the union leadership did want to regain control over the strike, so the Central Labor Council joined the call for a general strike--with the aim of winding the whole thing down as rapidly as possible. Still, the first day brought 130,000 workers out on strike in San Francisco, in what could only have been a magnificent display of the power of class solidarity.

Unfortunately, once it had effectively seized leadership from the strike committee, the Central Labor Council systematically dismantled the strike. AFL President Green again denounced the strike, and the Central Labor Council on the third day began to wind it down. On the fourth day, the strike committee decided in a very close vote to end the strike. They had won union recognition, but not the union hiring hall that was their key demand. It was a partial victory, but a significant advance in the class struggle nevertheless.

The Minneapolis Teamsters' strike

The Minneapolis Teamsters strike also began in February, but it took place in three waves: a truckers' strike in February; an expanded strike that included warehouse workers in May; and a victorious conclusion in July.

The Teamsters union was then headed by Daniel Tobin, a cantankerous reactionary who denounced the strikers as "radicals and communists" in the Teamsters' magazine. Once again, the strike leaders were radicals, this time Trotskyists: Karl Skoglund and brothers Vincent, Miles and Grant Dunne, while another strike leader, Farrell Dobbs, joined the Trotskyists in the course of the strike. Dobbs went on to write the classic Teamster Rebellion, which has served as a manual for generations of union militants ever since, demonstrating how to conduct a strike democratically in the face of massive police repression--and win through rank-and-file solidarity.

But the Teamsters nationally had only about 95,000 members in 1934, so President Tobin's relentless hostility to the strike played virtually no role in it. In fact, Tobin's letter refusing to give his permission to the Minneapolis local to strike came two days after the first phase of the strike ended in February. As the local president, Bill Brown, told it, "By that time, we'd won and had signed our first contract with increased pay."[6]

In May, the 5,000 truckers from Teamsters Local 574 went out again, and this time, 35,000 building workers and all of the city's taxi workers joined them. Even the Minneapolis Central Labor Council endorsed the strike.

Every step of the way, the strike was run by a 75-member strike committee, made up not of union officials but of rank-and-file workers, which held nightly mass meetings with all striking workers. They put out a daily strike newspaper with a circulation that reached 10,000. The strikers organized their own hospital and their own kitchen that operated out of strike headquarters, which fed up to 10,000 workers every day.

But the Minneapolis strikers' trademark tactic was their version of "flying pickets" in which trucks loaded with picketers roamed the city in search of strikebreakers. The flying pickets phoned into headquarters every ten minutes to report in and to request help if needed, saying for example, "Truck attempting to move load of produce from Berman Fruit, under police convoy. Have only ten pickets, send help."[7]

The strikers' tactics proved nothing short of ingenious. Once they outsmarted the cops by driving trucks full of picketers into their midst, thereby preventing the police from shooting because they might hit other cops, and thereby forcing them to engage in hand-to-hand combat. In another victorious battle, the Minneapolis police arrived on May 22, with 1,500 police and "deputies" who had quickly been sworn in to attack a gathering of 20,000 strikers. The Trotskyist historian Art Preis described the ease with which the strikers got rid of the attackers:

Soon, even the bystanders were getting their licks in support of the strikers. 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...In less than an hour after the battle started, there wasn't a cop to be seen in the market, and pickets were directing traffic.

The strikers named that battle the "Battle of Deputies' Run"--for reasons that should be obvious. On May 25, the employers settled with the strikers.

At the start of the strike, Minnesota Gov. Floyd B. Olson, from the Farmer-Labor Party, declared his support, proclaiming, "I am not a liberal--I am a radical!"[8] The governor even pledged $500 to support the strike. But as the months dragged on, Olson became increasingly impatient with the intransigence of the strikers.

On July 16, the strike resumed in full force after the employers reneged on their agreement. City police carried out a murderous attack on the strikers on July 20, killing two and injuring more than 55 in a day known as "Bloody Friday"--all the while blaming the strikers for the violence. At that point, the once "radical" Gov. Olsen sent in 3,700 National Guard troops, who raided union headquarters and arrested all the strike leaders. Eventually, the number of troops was almost as high as the number of strikers.

But all taxis and ice, beer and gasoline drivers responded by joining the strike. The authorities were forced to release the strike leaders when a protest of 40,000 angry workers demanded it. The employers finally caved in on August 22, granting the union's main demands. The radical and communists so despised by Daniel Tobin had just won the Teamsters union its first major victory of the 1930s.

Lessons of the Textile Strike

Just over a week later, the textile strike began, when a meeting of delegates from the United Textile Workers of America called a strike for union recognition. The workers formed flying pickets, traveling from one mill town to the next, calling workers out of the mills to join the strike. With almost 400,000 workers out on strike up and down the East Coast, the textile strike looked promising at first. Yet three weeks later, it went down in a crushing defeat.

The textile workers were defeated in 1934 not because they were any less courageous than other strikers that year. On the contrary, the New York Times noted, "The growing mass character of the picketing operations is rapidly assuming the appearance of military efficiency and precision and is something entirely new in the history of American labor struggles."[9] And those who assume women tend to take a backseat in labor struggles should also note that the Times added, "Women were taking an increasingly active part in picketing...apparently prepared to stop at nothing to obtain their objectives."[10]

The National Guard was called in to occupy states throughout New England, routinely firing with machine guns into groups of strikers. In Gastonia, N.C., National Guardsmen, as always joined by deputized armed strikebreakers, were ordered to "shoot to kill" unarmed strikers, which they did. In Burlington, N.C., troops bayoneted five picketers, all of them wearing buttons that said, "peaceful picket."[11] Rhode Island's Democratic governor declared a state of insurrection at what he called a "communist uprising."[12]

The strikers had tremendous support among other workers in every locality. In Hazleton, Pa., for example, 25,000 workers went on a general strike in sympathy on September 11. But once again, AFL leaders joined business interests in denouncing the strikers. Rhode Island union leader Frank Gorman blamed the violence on communists and refused to sanction the flying pickets. After three weeks, the union leadership declared the strike a "victory" and workers were sent back into the mills, with nothing gained.

It is certainly possible that the level of violence and repression directed at the textile workers was impossible to overcome. But the lessons of this defeat shed light on why the other three 1934 strikes were so successful.

Most importantly, the textile strikers were not able to seize democratic control of their strike, thereby allowing their union leaders instead to determine the strike strategy--in their case, the AFL, which betrayed the strikers.

It is worth mentioning however, that even the defeat of the textile strike succeeded in further radicalizing the labor movement. Even Gorman, who had betrayed the Rhode Island strikers, became radicalized in the strike's aftermath. As he said later, "Many of us did not understand what we do now. We know now that we are naïve to depend on the forces of the government to protect us."[13] Gorman went on to dedicate himself to fighting for the formation of a labor party independent of the two capitalist parties.

The lessons of this defeat as well as the victories of 1934 should be obvious for all of us today seeking to rebuild a fighting labor movement in the worst recession since the Great Depression.


1. Stephen H. Norwood, Strikebreaking and Intimidation: Mercenaries and Masculinity in Twentieth Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 3-4.

2. See Sharon Smith, Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006), 102-152 for an overview of the class struggle during the Depression era.

3. Daniel Guérin, 100 Years of Labor in the USA (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1979), 152.

4. Sidney Lens, Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sitdowns (New York: Doubleday, 1973), 262.

5. Lens, 250.

6. Art Preis, Labor's Giant Step (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972), 25.

7. Jeremy Brecher, Strike! (Boston: South End Press, 1972) 162. Lens, 268.

8. Brecher, 166.

9. Ibid, 172.

10. Ibid.

11. Lens, 262.

12. Brecher, 174-75.

13. Eric Leif Davin, "Defeat of the Labor Party Idea," in We Are All Leaders: The Alternative Unionism of the Early 1930s (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996), 126-29.

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