75th Anniversary of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamster Strike

by Bill Onasch

Labor’s Turning Point

Too often we mark anniversaries of wars, coups, or assassinations–necessary reminders of past set backs and affirmation of continuing the struggle. I was fortunate to be able to attend celebrations in Minneapolis July 25-26 that marked the 75th anniversary of the 1934 Teamsters strikes in that city–events that were full of joy and inspiration.

Minneapolis was one of a trinity that overlapped with historic strike victories in Toledo and San Francisco as well. John DeGraaf’s superb documentary about the Minneapolis strikes is aptly entitled, Labor’s Turning Point.

For the first few years of the Great Depression, which began in 1929 and lasted until America’s entry in to the Second World War, workers were largely in a state of shock and demoralization. Massive numbers of desperate unemployed meant strikes were rare and usually smashed. The three strikes in 1934 managed to win the sympathy and even active support of the ranks of the unemployed who might have otherwise been recruited as scabs.

Radical Leadership

These actions were all initiated and led by radicals–the followers of AJ Muste’s American Workers Party in Toledo and Communists in San Francisco. In Minneapolis the central leaders were members or sympathizers of the Trotskyist opposition expelled from the Communist Party in 1928. Shortly after the strike victories the Muste forces and the Trotskyists united to form a new party that eventually became known as the Socialist Workers Party.

There were actually three Minneapolis Teamster strikes in 1934. The first was a daring surprise action that closed all but two of 67 coal yards in Minneapolis in frigid February. In those times most homes and businesses depended on coal for heat–the strike was won after only two days.

New Organizing Model

This rare victory led other trucking industry workers to seek out Teamsters 574. On May 15 the union, now claiming 6,000 members, struck all trucking employers demanding union recognition for helpers and inside workers as well as drivers, and a wage increase.

The Minneapolis Tribune, the main mouthpiece for the employer organization Citizens Alliance, sensed early on they were facing a new challenge. The day before the strike they reported,

“If the preparations made by their union for handling it are any indication, the strike of truck drivers in Minneapolis is going to be a far-reaching affair….Even before the official start of the strike…the ‘General Headquarters’ at 1900 Chicago Avenue was operating with all the precision of a military organization.”

Organizational structure is built around projected tasks. The headquarters was the place from where mobile pickets were dispatched; where strikers and families could get a meal; where injured workers could be treated; as well as a meeting hall.

While there were roving skirmishes with scab trucks across the city a major battle was fought in the central market area. The police, and “special deputies” supplied by the Citizens Alliance, were determined to move a truck to demoralize the strikers. It was a great show of force–but the strikers and allies turned out an even stronger one. The contest would become known as “deputies run,”–because that’s precisely what happened in the end as the forces of “law and order” fled for their own safety. All of this was broadcast live on the radio.

After ten days this strike too was settled.

But the deceitful bosses immediately started chiseling on the new deal, excluding the inside workers from the agreement, and Local 574 had to call a third strike on July 16. The strike was again solid when police lured unarmed pickets in to a trap and opened fire. Two workers–John Belor and Harry Ness–were killed and 65 others suffered serious wounds. This became known as Bloody Friday.

More than 100,000 lined the streets for the funereal procession for Harry Ness. Not a cop was in sight as Teamsters directed traffic and maintained order.

The Farmer-Labor Governor, Floyd B Olson, then declared martial law and called out 4,000 National Guard troops. The union headquarters was seized, union leaders were arrested, and an internment camp was set up at the state fairgrounds in neighboring St Paul.

Though scab trucks began to move under Guard permits the potential of insurrection remained a real threat and the Central Labor Council was considering a general strike. On August 21 a federal mediator got the employer’s Citizen Alliance to agree to a settlement that embraced the core demands of the union. The Teamsters had won and the struggle that was to make Minneapolis a union town was launched. They also captured the attention of workers, bosses, and union bureaucrats across the country.

A “Thumb-nail sketch” of the strike distributed at the anniversary picnic describes some of the “innovative strategies and tactics” used,

“It was the first strike that had a daily strike newspaper, The Organizer, which kept workers informed and told their story. The union employed the tactic of ‘cruising pickets’ in which strikers followed scab trucks, and stopped them from operating. The union organized rallies and mass actions with thousands of workers and supporters mobilized in the streets to stop truck traffic. Marches by strikers and their supporters drew upwards of 100,000 people. Employers tried to use the courts to shut down the strike, but the union, ‘papered the wall with injunctions,’ recalled Harry DeBoer, a strike leader. The union was democratically run and had a Committee of 100, a group of union stewards and activists who were a sounding board for strike leaders. It played an important role in keeping the strike on track.”

In addition, the union had a powerful resource in the Women’s Auxiliary. While the strikers were virtually all male their wives, daughters and girl friends played a vital role in maintaining the commissary that fed strikers and their families, running a make-shift hospital to treat wounded pickets, and even sometimes joining the picket’s battles with cops and scabs.

While the strike shut down the wholesale markets the union encouraged working farmers to come to town and set up temporary farmer markets. The farmers in turn made sure the strikers were well fed.

For an excellent concise history of the strikes by David Riehle click here. For more details of this epic struggle read the book, Teamster Rebellion, by a key strike leader, Farrell Dobbs.

Beyond 1934

Dobbs also wrote three more volumes about the subsequent battles of the Minneapolis Teamsters. In them he details how the local came to the assistance of other Minneapolis workers trying to organize– even when they would wind up in other union’s jurisdictions.

But soon after the strike victories Local 574 had to deal with threats from the Teamsters international leadership then headed by Daniel Tobin. While Tobin appreciated thousands of new dues-payers he didn’t like the militant tactics employed in Minneapolis. He was also then opposed to Local 574’s industrial union approach of bringing in the unskilled inside workers. The Teamsters had historically been reserved for driver-salesmen such as beer, milk, and bakery products. They thought no good could come from allowing mere dock hands in their fraternity. Tobin expelled Local 574.

But the troublesome Local didn’t go away simply because Tobin affixed his gold seal to a piece of paper. They had the solid support of their members and the sympathy of most of the labor movement.

After some intense skirmishes the two sides called a truce. The Local was readmitted to the Teamsters with a new number–now Local 544. Tobin eventually used Dobbs’ exceptional organizing skills to reach out for more members throughout the Midwest. Successful campaigns brought 125,000 new members in to the IBT across an eleven-state region.

Tobin hoped that he could win Dobbs away from the socialist crowd and make him a respectable bureaucrat, perhaps even Tobin’s successor. But Dobbs never budged from his principles. Neither did any other leader of Local 544.

On the contrary, they pushed the envelope and then some. The Local was heavily involved in support of the unemployed–including even a union representing workers in the New Deal WPA. After FDR slashed WPA jobs shortly after being reelected to a second term, the Federal Workers Section of Local 544 conducted a militant strike “against the government.”

When the threat of home grown fascism became palpable Local 544 took the initiative in forming a Union Defense Guard, successfully discouraging any fascist violence.

Many of their policies, which were always debated and voted on by the ranks, led them in to confrontations with not only the employers and the IBT bureaucracy but also the administration in Washington. The biggest came with the union’s upholding of the Debs tradition by opposing the drive to involve America in the Second World War.

Prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor there was overwhelming opposition in the USA to involvement in the wars in Europe and the Pacific. Local 544 gave critical support to a constitutional amendment, advanced by Rep Louis Ludlow (D-CA), that required a referendum on any congressional declaration of war. “Let the people vote on war,” was a slogan advanced by the Minneapolis Teamsters.

First Victims Of War Drive

The Minneapolis leaders, along with the top leadership of the Socialist Workers Party, became the first victims of the Smith Act in 1941. Like Debs, they were imprisoned for opposing war. (Their sentencing after a long trial came the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.) This favor by FDR’s attorney general was the only way for the bosses and Teamsters bureaucrats to finally defeat this exemplary union.

The Dobbs books are widely available but perhaps the most appropriate place for an order would be MayDay Books, a volunteer collective in Minneapolis that helped build the anniversary events.

One Day In July

Five years ago, I attended a highly successful One Day In July event commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the Minneapolis strikes. This year the same format was used with the subtitle “A Street Festival For the Working Class.”

Like the strikes, this festival was primarily organized by radicals–socialists and members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW.) But they approached the celebration in a respectful, nonsectarian way and involved a wide range of sponsors. These included: AFSCME Locals 34 and 3800 and United Transportation Union Local 650, in the Twin Cities. Prominent national figures lent their names and resources to the event as well including Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Michael Parenti, and Paul Buhle. Several unions and law firms contributed by purchasing ads in the program book. The festival was included in a resolution by the Minneapolis city council commemorating the anniversary of the strike. And the Teamsters also took out a commemorative ad in the Star-Tribune.

The venue for the free, eight-hour event was the site of the police massacre of unarmed strikers. Most of the program was devoted to performances by musicians/groups spanning the whole musical spectrum: Brother Ali; El Guante; Mic Crenshaw; The Brass Kings; Ellis; 2 Tone Runts; City On The Make; and Best Bitch In Show. Each of these attracted their own followers and over the course of the day about a thousand persons passed through.

There were also numerous literature tables set up by MayDay Books, and various labor, antiwar and environmental movement groups. Food was offered by the Hard Times Café. And a juggler on a unicycle had the best seat in the house.

But there was a more somber note as well as Gladys McKenzie from AFSCME Council 6 conducted a remembrance of those who had fallen under police bullets. That part of the program was concluded by a beautifully restored black 1934 Ford slowly driving out of sight, escorted by a three-piece brass band playing Solidarity Forever.


The following day the anniversary celebrations continued with a picnic in Minnehaha Park. This event was initiated by Gillian and Randy Furst who had helped organize past anniversary observances. Gillian, a retired Honeywell worker, is a veteran activist in Teamsters for a Democratic Union. Randy is a long time journalist with the Minneapolis Star, now Star-Tribune. Both had close relations with the late Harry DeBoer, a 1934 strike leader, wounded at Bloody Friday, and one of the Smith Act prisoners.

The ambitious program at the picnic opened (after hot dogs and beans were consumed) and closed with music. But this was different music from the street festival. Labor troubadour Larry Long, sometimes accompanied by the Twin Cities Labor Chorus, stuck to conventional labor movement songs, suitable for sing-along by the audience.

One invited speaker couldn’t make it. Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, one of the best known republican socialists in occupied Ireland, elected to the London parliament in 1969 when she was barely old enough to vote, had spoken at earlier 1934 anniversary occasions. Although she had visited the USA dozens of times before, in 2003 she was denied entry at O’Hare airport on “national security” grounds and forcibly put on the next plane back to Ireland. Gillian Furst read Bernadette’s solidarity greetings to the picnic.

The speaker’s list at the picnic was extensive though most speaker’s remarks were brief. Scheduled speakers included David Riehle, an engineer on the Union Pacific, Chairman Emeritus of UTU Local 650, and an accomplished labor historian; Peter Rachleff, professor of history at Macalester and author of numerous books and papers including Hard-Pressed in the Heartland : The Hormel Strike and the Future of the Labor Movement, the definitive account of the heroic P-9 strike; Bernie Hesse, UFCW organizer, currently working on a promising campaign at Wal-Mart; Angel Gardner, an IWW organizer working on Starbucks; Richard Berg, an insurgent president of Teamsters Local 743 in Chicago; Armando Robles, president of UE Local 1110 in Chicago and a leader of the successful plant occupation at Republic Windows; Michelle Sommers, president, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005; Tom Dooher, president, Education Minnesota, the body uniting most teachers in the state; Kristin Dooley, long time antiwar and solidarity activist and a hard working volunteer at MayDay Books and Phyllis Walker, president of AFSCME Local 3800 representing clerical workers at the University of Minnesota.

Also included were Linda Leighton and David Sundeen, grandchildren of V.R. Ray Dunne, providing some moving, sometimes amusing, recollections of their relationship with their grandfather.

Ray Dunne (1889-1970), was an IWW agitator before the Russian Revolution led him to join, along with three brothers, in the founding of the Communist Party. He and his brothers Grant and Miles supported Trotsky against Stalin and were expelled in 1928. (Brother Bill stuck with the CP.) Ray, who worked as a weighmaster in a coal yard, steadily prepared for unionization that led to the first of the three strikes in 1934. He remained part of the core leadership of the union until his incarceration under the Smith Act. Afterwards he played a leading role in the Twin Cities Socialist Workers Party.

Ray was still on the scene when I first moved to Minneapolis in 1965. I soon learned that he spent normal business hours, and a lot of evenings as well, ensconced at a table in the kitchen of the SWP headquarters at 704 Hennepin. I eagerly sought him out.

This was before the publication of the Dobbs books and I was, of course, anxious to hear his stories about better days. Ray was obliging but soon made clear that he expected information exchange to be a two-way street. The value of history for him was as preparation for present and future. He pumped me, and every other young activist who came in his sight, about what was happening in the fledgling movement against the Vietnam war. Those of us in unions were encouraged to fill him in on what was happening in the local labor movement.

Ray never initiated any condescending lectures. He offered opinions and advice only when requested. He got many such requests from me sitting at that table, or enjoying his favorite delicacy–turkey necks–at the 620 Club, or, at a later stage at his modest apartment at Lagoon & Hennepin. He couldn’t inoculate me against making foolish mistakes but the lessons I learned from him prepared me well for the rough and tumble of union and other mass movement work.

A speaker not advertised on the picnic list was a welcome surprise–Pete Winkels, past Business Agent of UFCW Local P-9, one of the most respected leaders of the courageous fight of Hormel workers in Austin, Minnesota in the late Eighties. With occasional interjections of his signature wry humor, Pete told of his family heritage–including an uncle who was part of the remarkable Industrial Union of All Workers, founded in 1933. The IUAW, which focused on shop floor actions, had some success at Hormel, and numerous smaller employers in that part of the state, before the CIO launched the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee in 1937. (Peter Rachleff devotes a chapter to the IUAW in his Hard-Pressed in the Heartland.) Pete’s message of solidarity was well received.

Summing Up

There were undoubtedly many different expectations, and reasons for attendance, among the hundreds that showed up for one or both of the celebrations. The 1934 strikes remain deeply ingrained in the city’s collective memory. When I had occasion to visit the Minneapolis police chief’s office in 1966 he had a photo of Deputies Run on his wall. The police and lineal descendants of the Citizens Alliance certainly will never forget.

Many union officials pay homage to the past struggles for “getting what we have today.” Certainly 1934 paved the way to “middle class” standards the organized sector of the working class enjoyed for decades. The socialist leaders of Local 574/544 didn’t hesitate to point that out early on. Their paper, The Organizer, ran a cartoon of a worker and his family sitting down to carve up a turkey, accompanied by big bowls of vegetables and cooling pies. It was labeled “Minneapolis Communism.”

But “where we’re at today” is looking more and more like the conditions before the 1934 strike wave. Growing unemployment, declining union “density,” wage cuts and loss of benefits. And the mainstream union bureaucracy appears even more lifeless than the AF of L leaders of the 1930s hoping to save their craft union job trusts.

It’s appropriate to cheer our past victories. It’s essential that we learn the lessons from them relevant to today’s class struggle.

Of course, we will not find the exact combination of circumstances today that produced the proud achievements in Minneapolis, Toledo, and San Francisco. Though some will try, we can’t view the books by Dobbs as if they were the Betty Crocker cook book, requiring only following an exact recipe for success.

But I remain convinced that the basic principles and organizational methods advanced by the Minneapolis Teamsters, intelligently applied to today’s situation, remain the only viable path for recovery for the American working class. These include:

• Class consciousness.
• Embracing the diversity of the working class.
• Full debate and vote by the ranks on all major decisions.
• Organizing for worker control of the workplace, not winning a government election.
• Taking our case to the public and building alliances with allies outside the unions.

There’s much more as well but these would be a good start. Continuing the same old, same old, of class collaboration, and following the marching orders issued by the bosses politicians and courts, will condemn our once mighty unions to an agonizing withering away.

I look forward to the next anniversary celebration. But let’s not wait til then to try to apply the lessons of Minneapolis.

August 1, 2009

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