The Teamster rebellion of 1934

May 20, 2011

The 1920s was a dismal period for most workers in the U.S. A wave of militancy following the First World War had been crushed by state repression. Unionization levels were very low, and the labor movement was dominated by the elitist craft unions of the American Federation of Labor, which preferred backroom deals with the bosses to organizing the mass of workers.

Three strikes in 1934 helped transform the situation. Phil Gasper looks at the Teamster rebellion in Minneapolis.

THE ONSET of the Great Depression at the end of the 1920s led to massive unemployment, with up to a third of the workforce without jobs, and sharp wage cuts for those who had work.

Yet it was the hardship of the Depression that led to a renewal of rank-and-file struggle. When the economy began to pick up in 1933-34, the bitterness of workers in many cities exploded into militant unionization drives. Nowhere were the events more dramatic than in Minneapolis.

At this time, Minneapolis was effectively controlled by a powerful employers' organization called the Citizens' Alliance. The Alliance had a well-paid staff and numerous undercover informers.

But there was also a tradition of industrial militancy in the city going back to the early years of the century. The most dedicated group of activists had been expelled from the Communist Party for refusing to denounce Leon Trotsky, and had established a branch of the Communist League of America (CLA).

In late 1933, the leading members of the CLA--Carl Skoglund and the Dunne brothers, Ray, Grant and Miles--recognized that the time was ripe for a unionization drive. They decided to use Teamsters Local 574 as their vehicle.

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

It had been set up as a "general" local, whose membership consisted of workers who didn't come under the jurisdiction of other locals. The CLA realized that it had the potential to be turned into an industrial union that would recruit all the workers in the trucking industry, regardless of job description.

The local had about 75 members (including the Dunne brothers) who were employed in the local coal yards. It was there that the organizing drive was focused. One of the first recruits was Farrell Dobbs, who was later to write Teamster Rebellion, a brilliant account of this whole period.

IN EARLY February 1934, 574 issued a set of demands that were promptly rejected by the bosses. The union responded by shutting down 65 of the city's 67 coal yards.

Dobbs reports that the strike was "characterized by militant mass picketing from the outset...[and] was both audacious and efficient...Development and use of cruising picket squads was an outstanding example of rank-and-file ingenuity." The employers were caught by surprise and were forced to concede the key union demands.

This was the first successful strike in Minneapolis in decades, and the CLA knew that it could be used to galvanize other workers into activity. To consolidate their victory, the union rank and file set up an organizing committee that could bypass the local's existing bureaucracy.

Organizing squads were sent throughout the city with the goal of organizing all workers in the trucking industry into a single union, regardless of their specific jobs. By April, the local had grown to a membership of 3,000. The CLA also experienced steady growth. Dobbs, for example, joined in March.

On April 30, the union issued a new set of demands, calling for a closed shop, shorter hours, pay increases and higher pay for overtime. Once again, their demands were rejected. Two weeks later, the membership of 574 voted overwhelmingly to strike the entire industry. New members poured in, and the union soon doubled in sized to 6,000.

According to Dobbs, hardly "anywhere...had there been such a well-prepared strike." A strike committee of 75 organized numerous subcommittees to deal with matters of detail. Alliances had been made in advance with organizations of the unemployed and progressive farmers. A women's auxiliary was set up.

The union again used squads of cruising pickets to prevent scab trucks from moving. By the strike's second day, trucking operations in the city had been shut down.

The Citizens' Alliance responded by organizing special deputies to assist the police in strikebreaking activities. On Saturday, May 19, unarmed picketers were viciously attacked by cops, deputies and scabs. Many strikers were hospitalized.

The union prepared carefully for their next encounter with the police. The following Monday, they secretly massed 600 strikers in an AFL hall near the city's market. At 9 a.m., scabs attempted to drive trucks out and were blocked by pickets. The police charged, but were suddenly met by the 600 extra strikers. The cops and the deputies were routed, and more than 30 were sent to the hospital.

The next day, 20,000 people jammed the area to watch the anticipated confrontation. Strikers and their supporters were again victorious, driving back 1,500 police and hundreds of deputies.

The battle was filmed and shown around the country on newsreels. Audiences stood and cheered when they saw strikers clubbing and driving back police.

Dobbs describes the situation in the city at this point as one of "dual power." However, after several days of negotiations, the union agreed to a compromise involving recognition of the local and a pay raise for truck drivers, with other issues to go to arbitration by the local Labor Board.

In the weeks that followed, 574 strengthened its organization and enlarged its membership to 7,000. Skoglund, the Dunne brothers and Dobbs were elected as full-time organizers, paid the average truck driver's wage.

But the Citizens' Alliance still had plans to break the union. With the backing of the Labor Board, they refused to recognize 574's right to represent workers who were not directly engaged in loading and unloading trucks. The union began preparing for another strike.

The Citizens' Alliance responded with a massive red-baiting propaganda campaign that contrasted "legitimate and American-minded trade unions" with "the terroristic Communist-led Truck Drivers Local 574."

The Alliance gained assistance from an unexpected source--Daniel Tobin, president of the Teamsters. Tobin urged the rank and file to sack the "infamous Dunne brothers" and the other "semi-monsters who are creeping into out midst and ...creating distrust, discontent, bloodshed and rebellion." The bosses were so delighted with Tobin's attack that they republished it as a full-page ad in the local paper.

But on July 16, 574 voted unanimously to strike. Labor support was organized throughout the city. To counter the barrage of ruling-class propaganda, the local began publishing The Organizer, the first daily labor newspaper in the country.

During the May strike, James Cannon, one of the CLA's national leaders, had come to Minneapolis for several days to advise the CLA members. Cannon and the CLA leaders now returned. They played a central role in producing The Organizer.

FOR THE first few days, the strike was relatively quiet as the union avoided being provoked into hasty confrontation. Then, on Friday, July 20, armed police attempted to escort a scab truck from the market. The truck was followed by a group of unarmed strikers in an open truck.

Dobbs reports what happened next:

Without any warning whatever, the cops opened fire on the picket truck, and they shot to kill...By this time the cops had gone berserk. They were shooting in all directions, hitting most of their victims in the back as they tried to escape, and often clubbing the wounded after they fell.

Sixty-seven people, including 13 bystanders, were seriously injured, and two died. After the strike, a special commission concluded that even though they were not threatened, the police took direct aim at the pickets and fired to kill.

Rather than intimidating the workers, however, this brutal incident only strengthened their resolve. Twenty thousand marched in a funeral parade to the strike headquarters.

A few days later, federal mediators proposed that Local 574 should have the right to represent all workers in the trucking industry, provided it could win a post-strike election. The state governor, Floyd Olson, threatened martial law if the proposal was not accepted by both sides.

Realizing that the bosses would reject the deal, the union voted to accept. When the employers refused to go along. Olson declared martial law. Although the governor publicly declared sympathy with the strikers, the National Guard allowed more than half the city's trucks to move without union permission.

With troops effectively acting as strike breakers, Local 574 issued an ultimatum: unless all truck movement was halted, the picketing would resume, despite martial law.

On August 1, Olson responded by sending a military force to occupy the strike headquarters and arrest the strike leaders. He planned to call for the election of new leaders, with whom he could negotiate a settlement. But though some of the leaders were detained, Dobbs and Grant Dunne managed to slip away.

The strike now entered its finest hour, as the rank and file and the second level of leadership showed that they had acquired the fighting capacity and discipline to continue the strike. "Despite everything the military tried to do...the supposedly headless strike was full of life," wrote Dobbs.

In the face of this militancy, Olson backed down, freeing the strike leaders and restoring the strike headquarters to the union. He issued a warning to the bosses: unless a settlement was reach by August 6, all trucking in the city would be stopped.

On the day of the deadline, the union held a mass rally of 40,000 to keep the pressure on Olson and to slow down continued military strikebreaking. But although a few of the trucking firms began to break ranks under the pressure and signed the mediators' proposal, most of the companies stood firm.

The strike had now become a drawn-out war of attrition. As the days went by, there were no serious cracks on the union's side, but money problems were becoming serious, and the old union bureaucracy began a campaign of red-baiting against the strike leadership,

Even some members of the CLA thought the strike should be called off, but Skoglund, Ray Dunne and Dobbs, who were in daily contact with the rank and file, argued that the mood to fight remained strong and the Citizens' Alliance was also weakening under pressure.

After a standoff of two weeks, the strike ended suddenly in victory for the union. Elections were due in November, and President Franklin Roosevelt was counting on the support of Olson's Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota. Roosevelt decided that Olson needed the strike taken off his hands.

A new federal mediator arrived, who took a hard line with the Citizens' Alliance. The lengthy strike had broken its resolve, and the Alliance agreed to union recognition elections and to give preference to strikers in re-employment. The result of the elections was a resounding victory for Local 574 in the biggest and most important truck firms.

The magnificent fight in Minneapolis helped launch the massive growth of industrial unionism in the U.S. over the next four years.

This article originally appeared in the in March 1990 issue of Socialist Worker.

Further Reading

From the archives