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Workers Vanguard No. 1050

8 August 2014

1934 Strikes

Class-Struggle Leadership Made the Difference

Then and Now

(Part One)

In 1934, four years into the Great Depression, the victory of three citywide strikes—centered on the Teamsters in Minneapolis, auto parts workers in Toledo and longshoremen in San Francisco—would open the door to a mass upsurge of working-class struggle and the organization of powerful industrial unions. Today, six years after the onset of the biggest economic crisis since the Depression, what remains of organized labor in this country continues to be pummeled in a one-sided class war. While the bosses and their state relentlessly savage the working class and poor, strike action in the U.S. remains at a historic low.

What accounts for the difference between then and now? A crucial factor is that “reds” led the 1934 strikes. In Minneapolis, the Trotskyists of the Communist League of America (CLA) stood at the head of three strikes by workers in the city’s trucking industry that would help turn this Midwest bastion of the “open shop” into a union town. In the process, a tiny, craft-based Teamsters local was transformed into an industrial union of thousands of workers. In Toledo, the left-wing socialists of A.J. Muste’s American Workers Party (AWP) played a key role in a strike against the Electric Auto-Lite Company. This victory set the stage for the later organization of the United Auto Workers union. In San Francisco, supporters of the Stalinist Communist Party (CP) were leaders of an 83-day strike by longshoremen, together with seamen and other maritime and port workers, culminating in a four-day general strike. Out of this struggle, a coastwide, industrial union of longshore workers was forged.

Today, the trade-union bureaucrats who head the AFL-CIO and Change to Win federations argue that such working-class battles are no longer possible—the economic conditions are too dire, the corporations too powerful, the arsenal of strikebreaking laws too vast: the unions will simply be busted and jobs shipped “offshore.” Yet the 1934 strikes took place amid the most devastating capitalist economic crisis in history. Following the October 1929 stock market crash, workers were paralyzed by fear of losing whatever meager livelihood they had and of being cast into the sea of millions who were unemployed, starving and homeless. By 1933, the membership of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) had plummeted to half of what it had been in 1920.

The AFL unions were craft-based, reinforcing workplace divisions that made it easier for the forces of capital to prey on them, and in general represented better-paid, more-skilled workers, while leaving black people and most immigrants out in the cold. The vast majority of workers who labored in the giant auto, steel, rubber and other industries were unorganized and despised by the labor aristocracy that headed the AFL. So loyal were these labor statesmen to the preservation and profitability of American capitalism that in the early days of the Depression they agreed to a “no strike” pledge at the request of the hated Republican Herbert Hoover administration and joined it in opposing any government relief for the unemployed.

But the very conditions that had so devastated and demoralized the workers, setting them one against the other in a fight to survive, would begin to propel them into struggle. In 1933, there was a slight upturn in the economy. The working class had also been given hope, however false, by the 1932 election of Democratic Party president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his promise to provide “a new deal for the American people.” The following year, a strike wave broke out and the workers began to turn en masse to the very AFL unions that had disdained them, demanding organization.

As CLA leader James P. Cannon wrote in an article at the time:

“The workers are on the move. That is what is new, that is what is important in the situation. The trade union is the first and most elementary form of working class organization, for which no substitute has ever been invented. The workers have taken the first steps on the path of class development through that door.… No matter how conservative the unions may be, no matter how reactionary their present leadership, and regardless of what the real purposes of the Roosevelt administration were in giving a certain encouragement and impetus to this trade union revival—in spite of all of this, the movement itself represents an elemental force, a power which, properly influenced at the right time by the class conscious vanguard, can break through all the absolute forms and frustrate all the reactionary schemes.”

—“The AFL, the Strike Wave, and Trade Union Perspectives,” Militant, 14 October 1933

In the 1934 citywide strikes, the rising militancy of the working class would be fused with a leadership equal to the battle. All of these strikes were virtual civil wars pitting the workers against strikebreaking armies of company thugs, cops and National Guard troops. In each case, supposedly “labor friendly” agencies of the capitalist state appealed to the workers to end their strikes with the promise that government mediators would negotiate a “fair agreement.” From within the “house of labor,” the strike leaders had to take on the AFL bureaucrats who did the government’s bidding and had enforced all of the craft, ethnic and racial hostilities that divided the workers and undermined their struggles. What made the difference was that the workers were politically and organizationally armed by leaders who understood that the only possible road to victory lay in mobilizing their power as a class against the capitalist class enemy.

FDR Was No “Friend of Labor”

The AFL-CIO bureaucracy has long peddled the myth that it was Section 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA) enacted by FDR’s Democratic Party administration in 1933 that led to the organization of industrial unions—inclusive unions that sought to represent all workers in a given industry. This is a convenient lie, used as an alibi for decades by the union misleaders who have sacrificed strikes and the unions themselves on the altar of class collaboration, from legislative lobbying to getting out the vote for the Democrats. In fact, as its name makes clear, the whole purpose of the NRA was the “recovery” of the profitability of American capitalism. Suspending antitrust laws, it established industrial associations for which the employers set production quotas, working conditions, minimum wages and maximum hours. The result was the consolidation of ever more powerful capitalist monopolies grinding out greater profits through the increasingly brutal exploitation of labor.

Section 7(a), which allowed that “all employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively,” was added mainly due to the prodding of John L. Lewis, the dictatorial and sometimes maverick head of the United Mine Workers (UMW) union. While AFL president William Green threw his support behind Section 7(a), he continued to fear any organizing drive that would rupture the “sanctity” of lily-white craft unionism. (Remarking on Green’s intelligence, Lewis once quipped: “Green doesn’t have a head. His neck just grew up and haired over.”)

Thrown in mainly as a sop to labor, Section 7(a) also reflected a growing concern, at least among the more farsighted of America’s capitalist rulers, that the workers were becoming increasingly restive. FDR was certainly the most farsighted among them. Moreover, as a patrician of the landowning elite in the U.S., Roosevelt had fewer reservations about curbing some of the excesses of the industrial and financial magnates of American capitalism—in order to save the system and head off social struggle.

Strike action had already begun to break out earlier in 1933. The millions of unorganized workers who toiled on the assembly lines and in the open hearths were starting to stir with a sense of their numbers and their strategic position as the vital element of U.S. industry. Concerned that the craft-based AFL would not be able to contain the growing antagonism between labor and capital, Section 7(a) was adopted in a bid to keep these workers under the thumb of the government’s loyal labor lieutenants in the AFL bureaucracy.

This seeming concession to labor was designed to lull the workers into the belief that the government would “protect” their interests. To this end, regional labor boards were set up to facilitate government arbitration of any potential conflict. The purpose was to prevent strikes by entangling workers in protracted hearings. The workers who began to pour into the existing AFL unions following the passage of the NRA soon discovered that joining a union was not the same as winning employer recognition or even raising the miserably low wages imposed in every industry by the terms of the NRA.

Throughout the 1933 strike wave, the biggest since the early 1920s, the workers fought with great heroism. But their strikes were betrayed by the AFL tops, who bowed to the dictates of FDR’s labor mediators, or broken by armed strikebreakers deployed by the bosses and the government. An ACLU report at the beginning of 1934 summarized the results of Roosevelt’s “New Deal” for labor: “At no time has there been such widespread violation of workers’ rights by injunctions, troops, private police, deputy sheriffs, labor spies and vigilantes” (New York Times, 11 February 1934; cited in Art Preis, Labor’s Giant Step, 1964).

The resentment of the workers toward the union misleaders grew, while their illusions in FDR began to wane. The brutality of the police and military attacks, and the courage with which the strikers had resisted these offensives, also left its mark on workers’ consciousness. These factors were all important preconditions for the further awakening of labor struggle. The avowed socialists who led workers in the Minneapolis trucking industry, longshoremen in San Francisco and auto parts workers in Toledo to victory in 1934 would light the spark.

The Trotskyists, Stalinists and Musteites

Among the leaders of the Minneapolis Teamsters strikes were Carl Skoglund and Vincent Ray Dunne, both longtime labor militants. As a young lumberjack, harvest hand and itinerant laborer in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, Dunne had fought side by side with the early pioneers of industrial unionism in the Industrial Workers of the World. In his early years, Skoglund had led a strike for union recognition among pulp mill workers in his native Sweden, where he joined the Social Democratic Party. Blacklisted as a radical for his union and other political activities, Skoglund moved to the U.S. and became a leader of the left-wing of the Scandinavian section of the American Socialist Party. Inspired like many leftist radicals in the U.S. by the 1917 Russian Revolution—the first proletarian insurrection to successfully break the chains of capitalist exploitation—Skoglund became a founding member of the Communist Party in 1919 and Dunne joined the next year.

By the late 1920s, an ascendant bureaucracy headed by J.V. Stalin had usurped political power from the working class in the Soviet Union and repudiated the revolutionary internationalist program of Bolshevism. The effect on the American CP and other parties of the Communist International (or Comintern), set up under V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky as an organizing center for world revolution, was highly corrosive. In this context, Skoglund, Dunne and two of his brothers, Miles and Grant, were won to the CLA, the fledgling organization of American Trotskyism. Against the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the American CP, the Trotskyists maintained their commitment to the program and principles of Marxism.

Expelled from the CP, small in number and isolated—and with the mass of workers still paralyzed by fear of the ravages of the Great Depression—the Trotskyists understood that the central task at the time was to regroup, rearm politically, win over the most class-conscious workers and others and prepare for the future class battles they knew would come. As Cannon outlined in a 1932 article:

“The Communist workers are not the working class. They are only its conscious section, and at present in America they are a small and numerically insignificant section. The Communist workers alone cannot fight real class battles. Their function is to fight with the workers and in their front ranks. The task of the Communists at the moment is to prepare the workers for the coming struggles. The center of this task is the ‘patient work of explanation’; of agitation and propaganda to win the workers over to a course of struggle.”

—“The Threat of Illegality,” Militant, 19 March 1932

Working as coal drivers for a Minneapolis coal company during the early years of the Depression, Skoglund and the Dunne brothers engaged in the work of “patient explanation” with their coworkers. Over the course of three years, they won a core of workers to the idea of fighting for industrial union organization. Miles Dunne also convinced the president of the tiny Teamsters General Drivers Local 574, Bill Brown, to come on board as part of the voluntary organizing committee the Trotskyists were building. Not your typical AFL official, Brown had good class instincts and was fed up with the no-strike craft unionism enforced by the national leadership of the Teamsters union. Thus was assembled the central cadre of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strikes headed by supporters of the Communist League of America.

The Communist Party in the 1930s was a whole different kettle of fish. Founded under the impact of the Russian Revolution by the best of a generation of socialist and other labor radicals in the U.S., the party had lost its Marxist compass in the late 1920s. It was succumbing to the combined pressures of the then-booming prosperity of U.S. capitalism, which sapped the CP’s earlier revolutionary confidence, and the corrupting influence of the Kremlin Stalinists. This bureaucratic regime was itself the product of the combined weight on Soviet society of failed revolutionary opportunities in the more advanced countries of the capitalist West, particularly Germany, and years of war and privation.

The Kremlin Stalinists did not eradicate the gains of the October Revolution. Just as the trade unions remain working-class organizations despite their bureaucratic leadership, the Soviet Union remained a workers state. At the same time, just as the union misleaders’ collaboration with the bosses has undermined the very existence of organized labor, the rule of the Soviet bureaucracy endangered—and would in the end pave the way for the destruction of—the world’s first workers state.

Renouncing the struggle for working-class revolution in other countries, the Soviet bureaucracy pushed the anti-Marxist notion of building “socialism in one country.” The Communist parties internationally were transformed into little more than outposts for the policies of the Kremlin in its quest to “coexist” with world imperialism. Along the way, there were many gyrations in the political line of Stalin and his followers, both to the right and the left.

In the late 1920s, Stalin adopted a course of ultraleft adventurism in the face of the implacable hostility of the capitalist world and to cut the ground from under Trotsky’s Left Opposition, which fought against the bureaucracy’s betrayals. To justify this turn in policy, the Comintern declared that capitalism was entering a so-called “Third Period” of its existence in which the victory of proletarian revolution was supposedly imminent across the globe, a prognosis at odds with social and political reality. The reformist social-democratic workers parties, as well as trade unions internationally, were denounced as “social fascist.” In the U.S., the CP abandoned the AFL unions to form largely marginal “revolutionary unions.” As a result, the Communists all overwhelmingly found themselves on the sidelines of the labor battles of 1933-34.

On the West Coast, however, the CP’s district organizer, Sam Darcy, began to reject the ultraleft idiocies of the Third Period. When longshoremen flooded into the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), an AFL affiliate, following the NRA’s passage in 1933, CP supporters and other longshore militants whom Darcy had begun to cohere also joined the union. Known as the Albion Hall group after their meeting place, this circle of maritime workers would become the core leadership of the 1934 longshore strike. Among their number was the strike’s most well-known leader, Harry Bridges.

Although Darcy’s rejection of the Third Period would presage the CP’s coming embrace of the Roosevelt administration, at the time the Stalinists still spoke the language of working-class struggle. A mimeographed newsletter named the Waterfront Worker (WFW) that had been produced since 1932 hammered away at illusions in FDR and his NRA labor mediators. It also took on the craft unionism and class-collaboration of the AFL union tops, whose mutual scabbing deals with the employers had set waterfront and maritime workers against each other, contributing to the repeated defeat of strikes. Through the WFW and their leadership of job actions, the CP supporters politically armed and organized longshoremen for battle with the shipping bosses, the government and their agents in the labor movement.

A.J. Muste’s organization was a different political animal from either the Trotskyists or the Stalinists. A preacher and a pacifist, Muste first became a partisan of working-class struggle in 1919, when he served as a leader of a strike by overwhelmingly immigrant textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts. A director of the Brookwood Labor College in Katonah, New York, Muste in 1929 was a key founder of the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA), whose aim was to pressure the AFL into undertaking “progressive” labor action. Under the impact of the Great Depression, the CPLA moved to the left, reflecting the growing militancy of the workers, and became the core of the American Workers Party, which was founded in 1933.

In the early 1930s, the main work of the CPLA was organizing the unemployed. In Toledo’s Lucas County, its Unemployed League led militant mass actions that won cash relief for jobless workers. The CPLA’s fight to unite the unemployed behind workers’ struggles—as opposed to abandoning the jobless to the bosses, to be recruited as strikebreakers—would be key in turning the tide against the scabs, cops and National Guard troops who were mobilized to smash the Toledo Auto-Lite strike in 1934.

Of the leaderships of the three 1934 citywide strikes, the Trotskyists were the only genuine Marxists. They carried forward the vital task of forging a revolutionary party of the most advanced and class-conscious workers, understanding that only such a party is capable of arming the proletariat with the political consciousness and organization necessary to bury the rule of capitalist exploitation and oppression. As such, the leaders of the Minneapolis Teamsters strikes were the most conscious and farsighted.

Nonetheless, however episodic or transitional, at the time both the Stalinists who led the longshore strike and the Musteites in Toledo were committed to a program of class struggle. Unlike other strikes at the time, the militancy of the workers was not restrained by leaders who promoted the lie of a “partnership” between labor and capital. Instead, the mass strength and solidarity of the workers was organized and politically directed by leaders who rejected any notion that the bosses are “reasonable” or their state “neutral.” Understanding the forces of the class enemy that would be arrayed against any union struggle, the leaders of these strikes were prepared for class war. And it was no easy fight.

The “Battle of Toledo”

Toledo was a small, low-wage city ravaged by unemployment and dominated by parts manufacturers for Detroit’s giant automobile industry. After the passage of the NRA, the AFL tops had begrudgingly chartered temporary cross-trade “federal” unions of assembly line workers. In February, Federal Local 18384 in Toledo struck several parts companies, including Auto-Lite, for a wage increase. Agreeing to submit the dispute to mediation by the local NRA labor board, the AFL bureaucrats called the strike off after six days. Fed up with waiting for the company to negotiate, roughly 500 Auto-Lite workers went on strike again in April.

Slammed with a court injunction that limited pickets even as some 1,800 scabs poured into the plant, the strikers appealed for help to the CPLA’s Lucas County Unemployed League. Two young League leaders sent a letter to the judge announcing that they would continue to bolster the Auto-Lite picket lines in defiance of the injunction. Arrested, tried and forbidden to resume picketing, the League members and strikers who had packed the courtroom walked straight out and got back on the picket lines. By the end of May, the pickets had swelled to more than 10,000 people.

On May 23, an army of company goons and cops who had been mobilized to escort scabs in and out of the plant let loose with a fusillade of tear gas. The picketers, armed with only bricks and stones, built barricades. Holding their ground, the strikers laid siege to the scabs inside the plant. The police retreated, and 900 National Guardsmen were sent in to provide passage out for the scabs. Firing point blank into the picket lines, the troops killed two workers and wounded 25 more. The six-day “Battle of Toledo” had begun, as the workers fought from rooftops and through alleyways against these troops. By May 31, the company had agreed to release the scabs and shut down production at the plant until strike terms were settled. The demoralized National Guard troops, who had taken many casualties of their own, were also withdrawn.

By that time, all but one of the local AFL unions had voted for a general strike despite the efforts of their leaders to sell union members on turning to Roosevelt for redress. On June 1, 40,000 workers and other strike supporters massed in front of the county courthouse. Three days later, the Auto-Lite bosses capitulated, signing a six-month agreement that included wage increases above the NRA minimum. Most importantly, the union was recognized as the exclusive bargaining agent in the plant, contrary to an earlier ruling by FDR’s Automobile Labor Board mandating proportional representation for company unions in union elections. By the end of the year, 19 more auto plants had been organized in Lucas County.

One of the participants in the Toledo battles was Art Preis, a member of the Unemployed League who went on to become a lifelong member of the Socialist Workers Party, a successor of the CLA. As he described in his book Labor’s Giant Step (1964):

“It was at this stage, when strike after strike was being crushed, that the Toledo Electric Auto-Lite Company struggle blazed forth to illuminate the whole horizon of the American class struggle. The American workers were to be given an unforgettable lesson in how to confront all the agencies of the capitalist government—courts, labor boards and armed troops—and win.”

Among the most enduring lessons from this strike was the role that can be played in workers’ struggles by the unemployed when organized and led by class-struggle militants.

The Minneapolis Teamsters Strikes

Many books have been written documenting the events and leadership of the three 1934 strikes that established an industrial union in the Minneapolis trucking industry. These include Teamster Rebellion (1972) by Farrell Dobbs, a young leader of all three strikes who was won to Trotskyism through his experience in the very first of these battles; American City: A Rank and File History of Minneapolis (1937) by Charles Walker; and most recently, Revolutionary Teamsters (2014) by Bryan Palmer.

In his speech on “The Great Minneapolis Strikes” given some years later, American Trotskyist leader Cannon summed up the central lessons:

“There was no essential difference, in fact I don’t think there was any serious difference at all between the strikers in Minneapolis and the workers involved in a hundred other strikes throughout the land in that period. Nearly all the strikes were fought with the greatest militancy by the workers. The difference was in the leadership and the policy. In practically all the other strikes the militancy of the rank-and-file workers was restrained from the top. The leaders were overawed by the government, the newspapers, the clergy, and one thing or another. They tried to shift the conflict from the streets and the picket lines to the conference chambers. In Minneapolis the militancy of the rank and file was not restrained but organized and directed from the top.…

“The modern labor movement must be politically directed because it is confronted by the government at every turn. Our people were prepared for that since they were political people, inspired by political conceptions. The policy of the class struggle guided our comrades; they couldn’t be deceived and outmaneuvered, as so many strike leaders of that period were, by this mechanism of sabotage and destruction known as the National Labor Board and all its auxiliary setups. They put no reliance whatever in Roosevelt’s Labor Board; they weren’t fooled by any idea that Roosevelt, the liberal ‘friend of labor’ president, was going to help the truck drivers in Minneapolis win a few cents more an hour. They weren’t deluded even by the fact that there was at that time in Minnesota a Farmer-Labor Governor, presumed to be on the side of the workers.

“Our people didn’t believe in anybody or anything but the policy of the class struggle and the ability of the workers to prevail by their mass strength and solidarity.”

—The History of American Trotskyism, 1944

All three of the strikes by workers in the city’s trucking industry were carefully organized, as the leadership understood that winning even so modest a demand as union recognition would hinge on the balance of forces brought to bear by the contending sides. The first test of strength came with a three-day strike of coal haulers in February. It was strategically planned to hit the companies during sub-zero winter weather when their deliveries, and profits, were highest. Well-orchestrated pickets shut down coal deliveries in the first three hours of the strike. Imbued with a sense of their power as a class, young workers newly won to the union came up with their own innovation, the cruising picket, whereby strikers in a car or truck cruised the streets to stop scab trucks. Such “flying pickets” would become a critical weapon of working-class struggle in the forging of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

Caught off guard, the bosses quickly capitulated, with an agreement to recognize Local 574 as the bargaining agent of the strikers. Workers throughout the city were electrified by this victory, providing a springboard for organizing throughout the trucking industry, including not just drivers but also loading dock, warehouse and other inside workers. The Trotskyists were viewed by the ranks as the real leadership of the local and the voluntary organizing committee was voted official union status. Knowing that the February strike was but an opening skirmish, the CLA supporters began to prepare the workers and their allies for the upcoming battles.

For two decades, a cabal of the city’s wealthiest and most powerful capitalists, known as the Citizen’s Alliance, had been the central force in smashing strikes and keeping unions out. It hired spies and strikebreakers and had the local police force at its command. On the union side, the Trotskyists organized for what they knew would be an all-out war. A city garage was converted into strike headquarters. Arrangements were made for a machine shop to service and repair the trucks and cars deployed as cruising pickets. These vehicles would be dispatched with military precision as strike leaders stayed in contact with picket captains and constantly monitored police radios. Food was served daily at a commissary in the strike headquarters. There was an auditorium for mass meetings. The headquarters also included a field hospital staffed around the clock by doctors and nurses so that injured workers would not have to risk arrest at city hospitals.

Recognizing, as Cannon put it, “that the women have a vital interest in the struggle, no less than the men,” the strikers’ wives were organized in a women’s auxiliary, which became an important part of the strike machinery. The women not only ran many of the operations in strike headquarters but also conducted effective pickets against City Hall and the bourgeois press. Following the example of Toledo, the strike leaders and CLA members appealed to unemployed workers to join the picket lines, while simultaneously organizing for labor to mobilize in defense of the jobless.

All of these measures were taken in a local that was part of one of the most conservative craft unions in the AFL. Teamsters president Daniel Tobin was a bitter and implacable opponent of industrial unionism. But rather than spewing radical rhetoric from outside the AFL, as the Stalinists overwhelmingly did at the time, the Trotskyists had correctly projected that when the workers began to organize they would likely turn to the already established AFL unions. Thus, they were in a position to break the shackles of craft unionism from the inside. As part of the AFL, Local 574 had ready access to other federation affiliates to mobilize solidarity. Inspired by the militancy and determination of the Local 574 strike committee, thousands of workers throughout the city would join the striking workers in action.

The most significant joint action occurred in the early days of the second strike in May. After beating unarmed picketers, including women, to a bloody pulp, the cops and “special deputies” organized by the Citizen’s Alliance made a move to open up the city’s central marketplace to scab trucks. They were met by an army of workers and other strike supporters equipped with baseball bats, clubs and rubber hoses. A two-day battle ensued. At its height, some 20-30,000 stood on Local 574’s side. Scenes of the deputies and then the cops fleeing in terror, in what became known as the “Battle of Deputies Run,” made headline news and were played in newsreels at movie theaters across the country. Audiences of workers cheered; finally, labor was winning one for a change.

In the end, the May strike settlement that was agreed to by the strike leadership and voted up by the membership accorded the union official recognition, not only for the truckers but also for other workers in the industry. Like any other contract agreement, it was a compromise, a truce in the ongoing war between labor and capital. The difference was that the Trotskyists on the Local 574 strike committee knew it. Prepared to continue the fight until victory, they seized on each lull in the struggle to bolster the strength of the pro-union side.

Local 574 was up against not only the forces of the capitalist class enemy but also their agents inside the labor movement in the AFL bureaucracy. Tobin was enraged by the Minneapolis strikes. He first tried to stop the February strike, but his letter forbidding it only arrived after the strike was successfully concluded. Then, he declared that the May strike was a violation of all of the union’s “laws” and issued a red-baiting tirade against the radical “serpents” in the strike leadership. Such rants were grist for the bosses’ strikebreaking propaganda mills, which went into high gear as the union prepared for its third strike.

Reneging on the May strike settlement, the trucking companies, backed by the Citizen’s Alliance, geared up to crush the union. While the press screamed that the “Communist-led” Teamsters Local 574 was preparing a revolutionary take over of the city, 400 more cops were hired and armed with machine guns and rifles fitted with bayonets. Now over 7,000-strong, Local 574 voted to strike again on July 16.

For the first time in the history of the American labor movement, the workers were guided by their own daily strike newspaper, the Organizer. Countering the confusion and demoralization sown by the red-baiting, union-busting barrage that issued from the bosses’ hired media pens, the Organizer gave workers the real story and prepared them for struggle. This development was, as James P. Cannon put it, a “crowning contribution” of Trotskyism to the Minneapolis strikes. And Cannon, Max Shachtman and other CLA leaders were on site to help put it out, as well as to give their comrades in the strike leadership vital political backup and guidance.

In the opening days of the July strike, the cops opened fire on a truck loaded with union pickets. Over 67 were injured, and two later died—striker Henry Ness and unemployed league member John Belor. The city’s workers erupted in outrage, with some 40,000 people turning out for the funeral for Ness. The cops wisely agreed to stay off the streets that day, as the workers themselves provided security for the silent procession to the cemetery.

Federal mediators had been parachuted in from Washington to negotiate an end to the strike. How these and other mediators who were sent in during the May strike were handled by the strike leadership was decisive. Unlike other strike leaders, the Trotskyists were not taken in by the ruse that the Franklin Delano Roosevelt government and its agents were “friends of labor.” As Marxists, they understood that the capitalist state and all its institutions were not neutral but represented and would enforce the interests of the bosses. While the strike leaders met with the mediators, they didn’t give an inch, refusing the concessionary horse-trading deals made behind the backs of the ranks that doomed so many strikes, then and now.

Local 574 leaders also confronted a slick operator in the person of Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor governor, Floyd B. Olson, who commanded the allegiance of the state’s AFL officials. Especially since the governor was adept at posturing as a radical firebrand who supported the workers’ cause, illusions in Olson were widespread among working people. On the eve of the May strike, he sent a written message to a mass meeting of Local 574 and its supporters urging the workers to “band together for your own protection and welfare.” The Trotskyists wanted to get Olson on record in support of the union’s campaign and used his professed solidarity to win broader support for Local 574’s fight. At the same time, they knew that the Farmer-Labor governor was the executive commander of the capitalist armed forces in Minnesota.

The union leadership had backed Olson off from deploying the National Guard against the May strike, playing on his fear of losing the political support of the labor movement in upcoming elections. But his job as governor of the state was to defend the interests of the bosses. As the July strike unfolded, Olson played his strikebreaking hand.

When the trucking companies rejected a settlement worked out by federal mediators, Olson declared martial law and ordered National Guard troops onto the streets. While the local AFL Labor Council misleaders worried about the potential damage to the governor’s political career, Local 574 rallied thousands of workers behind the call to defy the troops and resume mass pickets. Cannon and Shachtman, who had been arrested by the cops, were among the first turned over to the National Guard. Soon after, the troops invaded strike headquarters, arresting many top strike leaders. Some escaped the dragnet, while other Local 574 members who had been steeled in previous battles took the place of those arrested.

Olson’s aim had been to behead the Trotskyist leadership of the union and force the ranks to elect new leaders who would end the strike. Instead, as Charles Walker wrote in American City: “The strike’s conduct had been such that a thousand lesser leaders had come out of the ranks and the pickets themselves by this time had learned their own jobs. The arrest of the leaders, instead of beheading the movement, infused it, at least temporarily, with a demoniac fury.” As mass picketing again resumed, Olson released the imprisoned union leaders and returned the captured strike headquarters to the union. But he did not pull back the National Guard troops.

After five weeks of hard struggle, the employers’ association finally broke and agreed to a settlement. Local 574 became the bargaining agent for 60 percent of the workforce in the city’s trucking industry. In subsequent years, the Trotskyist union militants would organize the remaining truckers in Minneapolis and then embark on a successful organizing drive throughout the Midwest that laid the basis for forging the Teamsters as one of the most powerful industrial unions in the U.S.



Workers Vanguard No. 1050

WV 1050

8 August 2014


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A System in Its Death Agony


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1934 Strikes

Class-Struggle Leadership Made the Difference

Then and Now

(Part One)