80 years ago: Minneapolis Teamsters strike

By LISA LUINENBURG

The year was 1934. It was a cold February in Minnesota, as many Februaries in Minnesota are cold. The temperature had dropped below zero, and people were scrambling for coal to heat their homes and businesses. But no coal was to be had. Teamsters Local 574, along with other workers in the Minneapolis coal yards, had gone on strike. Sixty-five out of 67 coal yards were closed within three hours of the strike, and no coal was being moved anywhere in the city. After three days, the bosses agreed to negotiate, and after a vote on collective bargaining in mid-February, the union won the right to recognition along with small wage increases for most workers.

But this was just the beginning of what was to become one of the most important sequences of strikes to take place in the United States during the Great Depression. They were the strikes that “made Minneapolis a union town,” eventually opening up many industries to successful union organization.

The entire working class was radicalizing during this time, as low wages and long hours ground them down into a life of poverty, and strikes were on the rise. The difference in Minneapolis was that Local 574 was led by a small layer of Trotskyist socialists, who used their revolutionary experience to lead the strike to victory.

Before the Teamsters strike in 1934, Minneapolis already had a long and storied history of radical workers’ organizations and militant strikes. In Minneapolis, the working class was made up of a mixture of U.S.-born workers, and immigrants from countries like Norway, Sweden, Germany, Finland, and Russia. The shifting Minnesota workforce mainly worked in booming industries such as logging, mining, milling, and on the railroads.

These workers made up the majority of the militant Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Minneapolis; in the 1910s IWW Local 10 was one of the largest in the Midwest, and the fact that many Wobblies and socialists also belonged to the American Federation of Labor (AFL) had a big influence on the workers’ movement in Minneapolis. Many railroad workers were socialists, following leaders such as Eugene Debs. When Debs ran for president in 1912, he carried four counties in the U.S., three of which were in Minnesota, and dominated politically by railroad workers.

Many of the immigrant workers who made Minnesota their home were already Socialists when they came to the United States, and many already had significant union experience in their home countries. In fact, Debs’s Socialist Party had so many immigrant members that it was organized into separate language federations. These factors combined to result in a large militant and socialist influence in the labor movement in Minneapolis, making the time ripe for a strike like the one that happened in 1934.

V.R. (Ray) Dunne and Carl Skoglund (known by his friends and comrades as “Skogie”) were prime examples of this type of worker in Minneapolis. Dunne, who grew up near Little Falls, Minn., traveled around the country, working as a logger or field laborer, and gaining strike experience before finally settling in Minneapolis and getting a job as a driver for an express service and later in the coal yards. Skoglund, originally from Sweden, immigrated to the U.S. in 1911, after being blacklisted for his involvement in strikes and socialism, and unable to find a job in his home country. After working as a lumberjack in Northern Minnesota and injuring his foot, he moved to Minneapolis and got a job in the railroad industry, joining the Socialist Party and becoming a leader in the Scandinavian Socialist Federation of the SP.

Dunne and Skoglund were founders of the Communist Party in 1919. Both were also elected as delegates to the Minneapolis Trades and Labor Assembly (AFL), and were expelled from the AFL in 1925 during a witch hunt in the unions for “reds.” Both men were also expelled from the Communist Party in 1928 for supporting James P. Cannon and Trotsky’s International Left Opposition against Stalin, and went on to form the Communist League of America (Left Opposition)—the Trotskyist organization that would later become the Socialist Workers Party.

In the early 1930s, the Communist League decided to start a unionizing drive within the coal industry in Minneapolis, through Local 574. This was planned in order to reach the ever-growing layer of workers who were radicalizing during the Great Depression and organize them into joining the union and taking action against the boss class. Both Carl Skoglund and V.R. Dunne were working in the coal yards at the time, and they were soon joined by other comrades from the party, including Dunne’s brothers Grant and Miles, and a young coal-yard worker named Farrell Dobbs.

Working conditions in 1934 were harsh. According to William Millikan in his book “A Union Against Unions: The Minneapolis Citizens Alliance and Its Fight Against Organized Labor,” between 1929 and 1933, 25% of factories in Minneapolis went out of business, and in 1932 the unemployment rate in Minnesota was 23.4% (just under the national average). During this time, the wages of workers in Minneapolis fell by 27%, and almost half of the workforce saw their working hours cut below 40 per week.

To put this into perspective, Farrell Dobbs described the working conditions in the coal industry in 1934 in his classic account of the strike, “Teamster Rebellion.” According to Dobbs, drivers at this time made between $10-$18 a week for 54-90 hours of work; many worked from 3 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week. Farrell himself was barely making ends meet for his family on $18 a week for 60 hours of work. When his hours were suddenly cut to 48 (with a $2 cut in pay), it made the difference between subsistence and poverty.

That’s when Dobbs decided to join the union. He says, “If workers in their daily lives are more or less able to keep afloat and expect to be able to gradually move ahead, they will not tend to radicalize. It’s different when they are losing ground and the future seems precarious. Then there begins a change in their attitudes, something which is not always immediately apparent. Any spark can light the fire, and once lit, that fire can rapidly expand.”

And that fire was ready to explode late in 1933, when the organizing drive began in earnest. At this time, Teamsters Local 574 was an “open shop” union. “Open shop” was defined in the employers’ propaganda as a workplace where the workers could elect to be union or non-union. In reality, “open shop” meant no union at all. Union supporters could and were summarily fired. Local 574, chartered as a “General Drivers” local, had a small number of members (somewhere between 75-150) and were organized in one coal yard only. They had AFL jurisdiction in the industry, but the AFL was notorious for practicing “business unionism.” Their goal was to gain acceptance in government and boss circles by practicing class collaboration, and they operated through a high level of bureaucracy, with cushy salaried jobs for the union officials on top of the ladder.

Local 574, chartered in 1923, had failed in earlier attempts to organize successful union drives. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters at this time was generally only open to truck drivers, usually driver-salesmen in occupations like milkman, ice delivery, and so on, called “cash wagon” drivers by the workers. Members were subdivided into local trade unions that were separated based on jobs and governed by the Teamsters Joint Council. AFL union bureaucrats like Daniel J. Tobin, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), were afraid of successful union drives because a large influx of new workers could easily get out of hand before they were able to control it from the top down.

Not surprisingly, Minneapolis Local 574 immediately ran into opposition from Tobin when they attempted to start their union drive in 1933. However, a rank-and-file committee was formed with the crucial support of Local President Bill Brown to advocate for inclusion of other workers, and after the local agreed to allow it, they launched a general organizing drive.

After recruiting many new workers to the campaign, they came up with platform of demands to present to the bosses, which included: recognition of the union, an increase salaries and a decrease in hours worked per week, a right to overtime pay, and better working conditions. Although Section 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 gave workers the “right to unionize,” the Minneapolis coal industry employers refused to negotiate with the workers.

But the workers in this situation were up against much more than simply the regular industry bosses. They also had to fight against the Citizens Alliance, a kind of bosses’ organization, a “union against unions.” Inspired by a 1917 Teamsters strike that was broken, the Citizens Alliance was dominated by a wide range of rich and powerful capitalists in Minneapolis (including the Daytons) as well as about 800 small businesses. They counted on support from the police force and the city council, and they had even infiltrated many unions.

The Citizens Alliance existed to break strikes. David Parry, the president of the National Association of Manufacturers, called for a national open-shop drive in 1903. Parry said, “I believe we should endeavor to strike at the root of the matter, and that is to be found in the wide spread socialistic sentiment among certain classes of people.” He later admitted that this was “a war between the owners of American industry and the working class.”

After coal workers’ demands were rejected by the bosses, Cliff Hall, 574’s business agent, initially blocked the vote to strike. After union leaders organized a second meeting with more rank and file who were present, a strike was declared on Feb. 7, 1934. But many workers never forgot the betrayal of the union bureaucracy and were reticent towards the official union leadership afterwards. The Communist League leaders used this to show workers the bankruptcy of the union hierarchy and to show the power of the rank and file.

This power was soon evident in the well-organized and strategic strike. Within three hours of the strike being declared, workers had closed 65 of the 67 coal yards in the city; all 67 were closed by the end of the first day. One of the innovative tactics developed and used by the Minneapolis strikers was the “cruising picket.” In this strategy, strike leaders used vehicles owned by workers to distribute pickets where they were needed around the city, thus maximizing the forces they had to stop scab trucks as they attempted to move goods around the city. Picket Captain Harry DeBoer and his cruising picket squads soon became known as “hell on wheels.”

Despite early clashes with the police, the workers held firm, and under growing pressure from the public, who were clamoring for coal to heat their homes during a sub-zero cold snap, the industry agreed to negotiate after only three days on strike.

The bosses agreed to recognize the right of the union to represent its workers in negotiations, but this depended on the outcome of a collective bargaining vote. If the union won the vote, the bosses would negotiate a salary increase. This meant that the strikers would have to go back to work without a guarantee of salary increase or other demands. Although Miles Dunne wanted to continue the strike, Business Agent Cliff Hall convinced the majority of workers to accept the deal.

After preparing for the vote on collective bargaining in mid-February, Local 574 won by a landslide. As Miles had predicted, the bosses then refused to negotiate with the union except through the Labor Board. The negotiations resulted in a new wage scale that gave small raises to most workers and time and a half after 48 hours of work. Despite its limitations, this was an important victory—it meant recognition for the union, which opened up Local 574 to even more workers, and gave it a stronger rank-and-file base than ever. And for the first time in 20 years, the workers had won a strike, building their confidence.

But the victory wouldn’t last long. Because work in the coal yards was seasonal, the bosses figured the wage increases would only last a few months, and then they could purge the ranks of strikers and reds in the next wave of hiring in the fall. But the union wasn’t about to give up without a struggle. The stage was being set for the drama that was to unfold on the streets of Minneapolis in the months to come.

To be continued…

*****

“To observe the 80th anniversary of the 1934 Teamsters strikes, organizers are beginning to plan a street festival for Saturday, July 19, and a picnic for Sunday, July 20,” The Minneapolis Labor Review reports in its January issue. “We are looking for men and women who are descendants of the people who took part in the strikes of 1934 in Minneapolis and who heard stories,” said Linda Leighton, 65, who is a granddaughter of key strike leader Vincent “Ray” Dunne. Leighton is a member of SEIU Local 284 and union steward. Leighton told about showing a film about the strike, “Labor’s Turning Point,” at one of her local union meetings, the article said. “People broke into spontaneous applause,” she said. “The strike continues to inspire workers.”

The commemorative project has obtained broad support from the state labor movement, including the four central labor union bodies and the two largest Teamster groups, Locals 120 and 320. Local 120 is the successor to General Drivers Locals 574 and 544, which led the strikes and capitalized on the momentum of the victory to “Make Minneapolis A Union Town.” Monthly planning meetings have been held since early January. More information is available on Facebook page “Remember 1934.” — DAVID JONES

Photo: Minneapolis Teamsters Local 574 Women’s Auxiliary serves food to strikers in 1934.