1934: Teamsters victory in Minneapolis

By LISA LUINENBURG

This is the third 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, and the second in our May 2014 issue.

We rejoin our brother and sister workers in the Minneapolis trucking industry in July 1934, as they are preparing to go back on strike. When we last left them, they had just concluded a successful strike at the end of May, the second in a series of strikes that would prove the power of the working class and make Minneapolis a union town.

Although the workers had won an important victory against the Citizen’s Alliance, the bosses’ organization that ruled the city by breaking strikes, the employers were already violating the freshly signed contract.

One of the most important battles during the May strike was to gain the right of Local 574, which represented the trucking industry in Minneapolis, to represent not just drivers but also employees who worked inside the warehouses. But soon after the new contract was signed, the employers said that their interpretation of the contract did not cover inside workers—thus excluding thousands of workers who had recently joined the union. The dispute quickly reached the boiling point, and the stage was set for the final battle of the historic strike to take place.

As a third strike became imminent, Local 574 worked to solidify relations with its allies in the movement. The union cemented its alliances with three different farmers’ associations, which allowed small farmers who had a pass from the union to bring their goods into the market to sell to small businesses. The union also organized a union conference on unemployment to discuss ways to increase welfare benefits for workers who were without a job. By the spring of 1934, the unemployed and their dependents made up almost a third of the population of the city—an important layer of the working class. The Minneapolis Central Council of Workers (MCCW) supplied volunteers for unemployed pickets during the strike, who played a central supportive role throughout.

Local 574 also organized a campaign to win support from other unions, culminating in a mass conference of all local unions, called by the AFL. The march to the hall filled 18 city blocks, while 12,000 workers attended the rally, with thousands more waiting outside. The march included two airplanes with “574” painted on their bodies zooming over the crowd.

This massive attendance of workers showed the true strength of the union movement in Minneapolis at that time, and the respect that Local 574 had won from its use of militant tactics in the previous two strikes. Miles Dunne, a central strike leader and member of the Communist League (the name of the U.S. Trotskyist organization at the time), said at the meeting: “… when a social system exists which permits the bosses in Minneapolis to grow fat off the misery, hunger, and degradation of the majority, it’s time that this system changes. The hour has come that the workers … take at the very least a just portion of all the riches that they produce.”

The meeting unanimously approved the demands that Local 574 had the right to represent all its members, that all union members receive an increase in salary, and that the employers sign a written agreement to this effect; they were given the deadline of July 11 to respond. The meeting ended under the call, “Make Minneapolis a Union Town!” which would become the rallying cry of the union in the weeks to come.

The employers, however, refused to increase workers’ salaries or to improve their working conditions, and they refused to recognize the right of the union to represent all of its members. They also launched personal attacks against the union leadership, attempting to split the union through red baiting. Even Danel J. Tobin, the president of the bureaucratic International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), who had been against the militant tactics of Local 574 from the beginning, joined in, claiming that the May strike was in “violation of all its laws.” Tobin called the Dunne brothers “radicals” and “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

On July 16, a mass union meeting voted to put their confidence in the tried and trusted central union leadership—including three of the Dunne brothers (Vincent Ray, Grant, and Miles), Carl Skoglund, Farrell Dobbs, and other members of the Trotskyist Communist League—who had led the previous two strikes. The vote to immediately go on strike was unanimous.

The strikers set up their headquarters in a two-story garage at 215 S. 8th Street in Minneapolis, complete with a commissary, picket dispatchers, and its own hospital. The rank and file had elected a Committee of 100 to lead the strike, with Ray Dunne and Farrell Dobbs elected as representatives who were authorized to meet with the bosses during negotiations.

The strike operated on the principles of democratic centralism; the union representatives were not allowed to make any decisions without first taking them to the rank and file for approval, inspiring internal unity and trust in the leadership, which were essential elements in the ultimate success of the strike. The Organizer, the first daily strike paper ever published by a union in the U.S., was also essential to the success of the strike, keeping workers up to pace with rapidly changing events, and breaking the monopoly of the capitalist press by exposing the tricks of the bosses as they took place.

Local 574 immediately deployed pickets all over Minneapolis, soon controlling all traffic in the city by granting or denying passes for the circulation of trucks on city streets. Governor Floyd B. Olson, a member of the Farmer-Labor Party, attempted to remain neutral by playing both sides of the struggle, but soon agreed to mobilize the National Guard to “maintain law and order.”

Mike Johannes, the chief of police, requested more money for the police force and began to arm them in preparation for the use of violence and repression against the strikers. His budget included money for 400 additional men, $1000 worth of machine guns, 800 rifles with bayonets, 800 steel helmets, and 800 riot clubs. “The police must be trained just like an army to handle riots,” he proclaimed.

And violence soon broke out in the form of a terrible attack against the strikers, which came to be known as the infamous Bloody Friday. Two federal mediators had recently arrived in Minneapolis, E.H. Dunnigan and the Reverend Francis J. Haas, but the employers weren’t interested in negotiating with the workers. Instead, they laid a trap for the strikers and invited the media to record the spectacle. Their intent was to send a clear message to the strikers—go back to work, or we’ll replace you with scabs. If you fight the scabs, you could lose your lives.

As word spread that a truck was going to be moved, a group of peaceful, unarmed pickets began to amass in the market area of the warehouse district of Minneapolis. A truck was loaded with a few boxes at the Slocum-Bergen loading dock and pulled into the street, guarded by 100 armed cops. When an open truck carrying 10 pickets followed the scab truck into the street, the cops suddenly opened fire on it, shooting to kill. As strikers rushed in to assist the wounded, cops continued shooting at them, in a massacre that earned Police Chief Johannes the nickname “Bloody Mike.”

Meridel Le Sueur, a strike supporter, described the scene as the wounded arrived at strike headquarters in her powerful memoir, “I Was Marching.” “The cars were coming back. The announcer cried, ‘This is murder.’ Cars were coming in. I don’t know how we got to the stairs. Everyone seemed to be converging at a menaced point. I saw below the crowd stirring, uncoiling. I saw them taking men out of cars and putting them on the hospital cots, on the floor. At first I felt frightened, the close black area of the barn, the blood the heavy movement, the sense of myself lost, gone. But I couldn’t have turned away now.

“A woman clung to my hand. I was pressed against the body of another. If you are to understand anything you must understand it in the muscular event, in actions we have not been trained for. Something broke all my surfaces in something that was beyond horror and I was dabbing alcohol on the gaping wounds that buckshot makes, hanging open like crying mouths. Buckshot wounds splay in the body and then swell like a blow. Ness, who died, had thirty-eight slugs in his body, in the chest and in the back. … We have living blood on our skirts.”

In all, 67 workers were shot, mostly in the back as they attempted to run away or to help their fallen comrades. Newspaper reporters recounted immediately after leaving the scene that police had opened fire on the strikers without warning; they later changed their story to say that the shots broke out only after a policeman had been brutally attacked by a striker.

An official investigation ordered by Governor Olson later found that the police had shot to kill the strikers, even though their own physical safety was not at any time endangered, as there were no weapons in the possession of the strikers, who were unprepared for such an attack. Furthermore, the movement of the truck was a direct plant, in which the police did not act impartially, but as a strikebreaking force, hoping to discredit the union in the public’s eyes.

Following the attack, The Organizer declared, “You thought you would shoot Local 574 into oblivion. But you only succeeded in making Local 574 a battle cry on the lips of all self-respecting working men and women in Minneapolis.” That night, 15,000 workers attended a mass meeting. Far from breaking the will of the workers, the attack on Bloody Friday injected new energy into the strike, as thousands of workers chose sides in the battle on class lines, including a large section of the middle class who now supported the strike.

Forty-eight hours later, Henry Ness died from the 38 bullet wounds he had received in the attack, when police shot him in the back as he lay under a car, attempting to escape the gunfire. He left behind his wife and four children. Over 40,000 workers attended his mass funeral, held on July 24.
Albert Goldman, the lawyer representing the strikers, delivered a moving funeral speech, stating, “The life of our murdered brother is representative of the lives of all workers. The social system never gave him an opportunity. At a young age he was forced to work to earn a living and produce profits for his employer.

Along with other workers, he was sent to kill or be killed in the world war. For what? For liberty? No. For the sake of profits and imperialist markets for the bosses. Underline these words! There only exists one path, one fight in which the worker has a true interest. It is the fight of Labor against Capital.”
On Aug. 1, John Belor, an unemployed worker supporting the strike, also died of his wounds. Although his family requested not to hold a mass demonstration, thousands of union members attended his funeral, honoring his sacrifice for the struggle.

After the attack, Governor Olson quickly declared martial law in the city, asking the strikers and employers to approve a settlement known as the Haas-Dunnigan plan, or risk military action. Although the union voted to accept the plan, the employers rejected it. Under the rule of martial law, 4000 soldiers were deployed, all pickets and movement of trucks were prohibited, and the National Guard took charge of issuing permission to operate trucks to companies that agreed to the Hass-Dunnigan plan.

The primary role of the police as agents protecting private property and as a repressive force against threats to the ruling class had now become imminently clear, and the role of martial law and the National Guard was the same. They were gradually breaking the strike as their control over the operation of trucks in the city loosened. Within a few days, 6000 trucks were operating on the streets of Minneapolis, with or without permits.

Despite Olson’s ongoing attempts to appear as a “neutral” force in the conflict, he was ultimately acting on the side of the Citizen’s Alliance. Bill Brown declared in a mass meeting attended by 25,000 workers on July 31, “The Farmer-Laborer government is the best strikebreaking force our union has ever gone up against.”

In the early morning of Aug. 1, around 1000 National Guard soldiers surrounded strike headquarters, arresting V.R. and Miles Dunne, Bill Brown, and other strike leaders, and holding them in deplorable conditions at an improvised military prison on the state fairgrounds in St. Paul. Grant, Dobbs, and Skoglund managed to escape by a stroke of luck.

Later that day, Olson met with Jack Maloney, Ray Rainbolt, Kelly Postal, Grant Dunne, and Farrell Dobbs. They demanded an immediate release of the strike leaders, the return of strike headquarters, and the withdrawal of soldiers from the streets so pickets could resume their duties without interference. Olson justified the raid by saying the strikers had not had permission to hold their mass meeting, but was unable to respond when they produced their permit. He was forced to return strike headquarters to the workers at 11 p.m. that night.

In an attempt to recuperate from the political damage he had sustained from the raid on strike headquarters, Olson sent a few soldiers to raid the offices of the Citizen’s Alliance a few days later, but to little effect.

As the strike dragged on, the employers tried many tricks to break the strike, including offering a new strike deal with worse conditions and pushing for scab elections, but without avail. Throughout the duration of the strike, Local 574 maintained a line of independent class action and the rank and file proved their loyalty to their leaders, whom they trusted through long experience, despite the continued attacks and attempts at red-baiting.

Daily life ground on for the strikers, and many were becoming demoralized. Many families had had their lights shut off or had been kicked out of their homes as their funds dwindled, and the strike was costing the union $1000 a day to maintain. They knew they would have to find a resolution to the conflict soon, or risk defeat.

In the meantime, a new federal mediator, P.A. Donoghue, had arrived. He soon produced a new proposal, which included the following conditions: (1) a Labor Board election would be held within 10 days to establish collective bargaining rights wherever the union won a majority; (2) gains in representation of inside workers would be made in 22 companies; (3) wages would increase to 50 cents an hour for drivers and 40 cents for helpers, with the ability to negotiate further increases; and (4) all employees would be returned to their jobs without discrimination.

On Aug. 21, a general meeting of the strikers approved the new plan. They knew it was the best they could get at the time, and would give them a solid base from which to continue organizing efforts in the future.
The next step was to prepare for the elections, which took place on Aug. 28. After the votes came in, Local 574 became the representative of 61% of the trucking industry, gaining the right to represent all workers in 62 companies where they had the majority vote, and half the workers in an additional 15 companies where the vote had tied. The union immediately submitted for arbitration a petition for a wage increase to 52 ½ cents an hour for drivers and 42 ½ cents for helpers, which the employers did not dare to refuse. The new wage scale also included inside workers—a resounding victory for the union.

After the strike, the strike leaders were elected as the new leadership of Local 574. A Committee of 100 was elected as union delegates, whose primary job was to make sure that employers were complying with the new contract. The MCCW, which represented unemployed workers, agreed to dissolve into Local 574, who created a special organization for them to continue fighting for their own demands from within the union.

In the meantime, the Minneapolis branch of the Communist League had consolidated an important victory as well, doubling its membership to 100 and gaining important new members and supporters, such as Marvel Scholl and Harry DeBoer, who later remarked on the success of the strike, “We wouldn’t have been able to do it without a disciplined revolutionary party.”

The 1934 Teamster’s strike also had national implications that reached beyond the borders of Minneapolis. This strike, along with the Toledo Auto-Lite strike and the Longshore strike in San Francisco, which also took place in 1934, led to a revitalization of the labor movement at the height of the Great Depression. All three of these strikes were led by radicals against the union bureaucracy and faced significant police repression, but were ultimately successful, showing the massive potential power of the rank and file. They contributed to a huge boost of morale among workers across the country, and opened up the wave of industrial unionization in the 1930s that led to the formation of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO).

The Minneapolis Labor Review remarked of the strike on Aug. 24, “The triumph of this strike represents the largest victory in the annals of the local union movement. … It has changed Minneapolis, so that it is no longer known as a paradise for scabs, but has become a city of hope for all workers.” Indeed, this victory of the truckers’ strike truly opened up all of Minneapolis to become a union town, inspiring many more strikes that looked to Local 574 for guidance as they fought to maintain and improve upon rights for workers across many industries in the city.

This year, 2014, marks the 80th anniversary of the Minneapolis Teamster Strikes. The Remember 1934 Committee—made up of labor activists, descendants of the strikers, and community organizers—is planning a commemoration of this decisive event.

On July 19, a street festival for the working class will be held in the warehouse district of Minneapolis, at the site of Bloody Friday. Teamsters Local 120 will also march to the site, where they will place a funeral wreath to honor the workers who were injured and killed on that terrible day. The activities for the day will include bands, speakers, historical speeches, participatory art, and much more to commemorate the strike and connect people to local labor struggles that are taking place today.

On the following day, July 20, a union and family-friendly picnic will take place at Minnehaha Park, which will include free food, recognition of the descendants of the strikers, speeches, and kids’ games. To find out more information or to support the Remember 1934 committee, visit their Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/Remember1934.