By LISA LUINENBURG
This is the second installment of a series of articles marking the 80th anniversary of the historic Minneapolis Teamster strikes of 1934. The first part appeared in our March 2014 issue.
We return to the story of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamster strikes as the workers are celebrating their recent victory, following the February strike they fought out in the coal yards in the dead of the Minnesota winter. After striking for three days, the workers had won recognition of their union, Local 574, wage increases for most workers, and overtime pay. Although a small victory at best, this success gave the rank-and-file a new confidence in the power of the working class.
The Minneapolis branch of the Communist League, the small Trotskyist organization that was the predecessor of the Socialist Workers Party, had been at the forefront of the strike, leading the drive to unionize the coal industry in Minneapolis. Their success in February had shown them that their tactics and strategy had been borne out by an effective mass movement, and that the working class was also learning valuable lessons through their participation in the struggle. Through their experiences in February, workers were quickly shedding any illusions they might have had in the intentions of the police force, and they had also learned that the Labor Board, far from being a “neutral body,” most often acted on the side of the employers.
The Minneapolis Communist League sought to expand on the recent victory by broadening the struggle to a general union drive among all truck drivers in the city (not just those who worked within the coal industry). This was an important step towards the large-scale industrial unionization that would soon sweep many parts of the country. The intentions of the Local 574 organizing committee, made up of rank-and-file strike leaders, were soon ranged against the plans of the executive committee, a group of small-time union bureaucrats who wanted to recruit new workers to the union simply so they could get more dues.
As February drew to a close and the weather began to warm up, the coal industry had other plans for the newly unionized drivers. As the coal season began to close, the bosses began laying off workers from the most combative shops, thinking that if they could hire a new set of workers when the season picked up again in the fall, they could break the union.
With this new threat on the horizon, union organizers like Farrell Dobbs and Carl Skoglund (who both also belonged to the Communist League) began recruiting new members to the union, this time from broader sections of the trucking industry. As workers in each industry came up with their own set of demands, a mass meeting was organized at the Schubert Theatre for April 15. “Drivers, Organize!” shouted the flyer advertising the meeting. “Monster Mass Meeting … will open the big campaign to organize. Governor Floyd B. Olson Will Speak on ‘The Right to Organize.’”
The union had invited Governor Olson, a member of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, hoping to force him to speak in favor of the union. While Olson didn’t actually show up, he sent his personal secretary with a letter supporting the union. While membership in Local 574 had numbered around 100 a year earlier, by the end of the mass meeting, over 3000 workers had joined the union, voted to strike if the bosses rejected their demands, and elected a strike committee.
At the same time, the Citizens Alliance, an employers’ organization, was building an anti-union campaign in the rest of the city. While they screamed about the “communist threat” that Local 574 presented, the Citizens Alliance recruited the support of the mayor and the police force, and on May 7 they issued a letter rejecting recognition of the union’s closed-shop contracts. The bosses were poised to begin the fight to crush the newly formed union.
Local 574 was simultaneously recruiting its own support among various layers of the working class. In 1934, there were 30,000 unemployed workers in Minneapolis, whom Local 574 directly organized as part of the strike, offering in return to defend their right to receive public assistance. The union also organized the Farmer’s Holiday Association of Minnesota as part of the strike, and set up a women’s auxiliary, led by Marvel Scholl and Clara Dunne, who took over many functions at strike headquarters, including working as cooks, nurses, and secretaries.
The union rented a big garage at 1900 Chicago Avenue, where they set up an efficient strike headquarters that included a commissary that fed 4000-5000 workers a day, a hospital, a garage for mechanics, offices, and sleeping quarters. Thus prepared, the workers voted to strike on May 15.
The next day, as the strike began, the headquarters was a beehive of activity. A committee of 75 met regularly to make decisions, picket dispatchers deployed thousands of fixed and moving pickets around the city as needed, and the rank and file met in a general assembly each night. During this time, union membership increased to almost 6000, and hundreds of university students, women, unemployed, union workers from other industries, and unorganized workers showed up daily to volunteer their services. Within a few days, the strike had shut down trucking operations in the entire city.
But the workers were about to learn a hard lesson about the true power of the boss class when they are engaged in class struggle. As newspapers distorted the happenings of the strike, and the bosses recruited scabs to drive trucks, the police force entered in action against the strikers. The Citizens Alliance elected a “Committee of Law and Order” and began to recruit special deputies from among the upper classes to augment the police force.
The police soon provoked a run-in with the strikers in the market, where they attacked the workers with clubs. Later that same night, they laid a trap for the workers, luring three pickets made up of men and women, into an alley—where they were brutally beaten. Once strikers were taken to the hospital, they were often held there until the police could come and arrest them, so the need for a hospital at strike headquarters became doubly important.
Although the police’s first few attempts to break the strike had ultimately proved unsuccessful, the workers quickly decided that they had to equip themselves for defense against the brutality of the police. They began to collect baseball bats, 2 by 2 wooden boards, bannisters, hoses filled with lead and sand, and whatever else they could find, and lined their hats with cardboard to make makeshift helmets.
Early Monday morning, May 21, about 600 workers were armed and ready as they waited for the battle in the market to begin, while 900 workers waited in reserve at strike headquarters. At 9 a.m., the police attempted to move a truck, and battle was soon joined. During the course of the battle, most of the special deputies fled the scene, leaving the police to face the strikers alone. After three hours, the workers had met the police blow for blow, and although many were wounded, not a single truck had been moved.
As the battle raged, the women’s auxilliary marched in protest to the sheriff’s office, demanding that Police Chief Johannes be fired, withdrawal of the police forces, and a halt to all interference with the pickets.
The next day, both sides were reinforced by new members. The market was filled with thousands of spectators, over 1500 police and deputies, and hundreds of strikers and other union members, ready for hand-to-hand combat. The ensuing battle, known as the Battle of Deputies Run, would become legendary. Within an hour of the start, the strikers had managed to drive off all the deputies and police force, and were controlling all traffic in the area. During the course of the battle, many people were seriously wounded on both sides, and two special deputies were killed—one a prominent businessman.
After the battle, Governor Olson met with the Central Labor Union and representatives from Local 574 and the Citizens Alliance to negotiate a truce for the next 24 hours. When the bosses tried to move trucks to break the truce, the union threatened to go back on strike. In response, Olson threatened to call out the National Guard. Although a new truce was negotiated, the play of powers had ended in a stalemate, with Olson caught in the middle.
Recognizing the importance of the strike, the central leadership of the Communist League quickly flew in its national secretary, James P. Cannon, from New York to assist the Minneapolis branch in leading the strike through the ensuing negotiations. The militancy and success of the strike had caught national attention, and had given legitimacy to the still small American Trotskyist movement.
When negotiations began, Local 574 did not demand closed shop contracts, only recognition of the union. When the bosses refused to discuss even that, their bankruptcy was exposed to all the workers. Olson, acting as mediator, was once again caught in the middle, but unable to force the hand of either side. Eventually, a settlement was negotiated, which included a recognition of the union signed by 166 employers in the general trucking industry, all strikers restored to their original jobs, no discrimination against union workers, the establishment of a seniority system, and the recognition of the right of Local 574 to negotiate further contracts with the employers.
Significantly, the agreement also included both drivers and inside workers as part of the union. Although the language was vague, Olson assured the union it was the best they could get, and they voted to accept the agreement on May 25. Although the workers knew it was a partial victory at best, it established the union as a recognized bargaining unit and gave them a solid base to work from when negotiating further advances in the future. The workers victoriously returned to their jobs the next day, knowing they had won a hard-fought victory and gained the respect of workers nationwide.
Although more than 7000 workers now belonged to Local 574, by June the new contract was already falling apart. Employers began discriminating against union workers, with over 700 disputes soon filed. Despite efforts by Local 574 to negotiate wage increases, the employers always avoided the issue.
Soon, it became clear that Olson’s word was not to be trusted, as the employers insisted that their interpretation of the contract did not cover inside workers—an opinion that was supported by the Labor Board and that excluded thousands of workers who had joined the union.
Despite their recent success, the union was once again under attack, and began to prepare for another strike, the final chapter in the battle to make Minneapolis a union town.
(to be continued)