Workers Vanguard No. 940
31 July 2009
Lessons of the 1934 Minneapolis Strikes
The worsening condition of the working class, and the waning strength of the unions, is not the first such crisis faced by the American labor movement. In the early years of the Great Depression, the ranks of the unemployed soared while membership in the AFL craft unions had fallen precipitously. With the partial revival of industry in 1933, workers regained confidence in their ability to fight. A great strike wave erupted, concentrated in the unorganized mass production industries, only to end in a series of bitter defeats. The efforts of the workers were frustrated by the pro-capitalist AFL leaders on the one hand and by brutal government repression on the other.
The breakthrough came in 1934, 75 years ago, when three citywide strikes led by avowed socialists shook America and paved the way for the great class battles in 1936-37 that built the CIO. In Toledo, Ohio, supporters of radical labor organizer A.J. Muste’s American Workers Party were in the forefront of the Auto-Lite strike. On the West Coast, dock workers and seamen, led by Communist Party (CP) supporters and other militants, fought pitched battles with the police in a three-month-long strike that included a four-day general strike in San Francisco. And in Minneapolis, Trotskyist union militants, supporters of the Communist League of America (CLA), organized and led mass strikes in the spring and summer that won union recognition for the Teamsters. Workers seeking to revitalize the labor movement today would do well to learn the lessons of these great struggles of the past.
In Minneapolis, the effective participation of a revolutionary Marxist group in actual strike organization and direction was demonstrated. Every detail of the strikes was meticulously organized in advance, proceeding from the standpoint of class war. No reliance was placed in any government agent or agencies, including Floyd B. Olson, the Farmer-Labor Party governor, and the National Labor Board of Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt. Above all, workers were prepared for the inevitable confrontations with the capitalist state.
For many years, Minneapolis had been a notoriously open shop town ruled by the Citizens Alliance, an organization of anti-union employers. An initial blow was delivered to the bosses in February 1934, when workers paralyzed the coal yards for three days and won union recognition for Teamsters Local 574. The organizers were a group of Trotskyists and their sympathizers who happened to work in the yards: the Dunne brothers (Vincent, Grant and Miles), Carl Skoglund and Farrell Dobbs.
Unlike the craft-minded bureaucrats of the AFL who aspired to build isolated job-holding trusts as a dues base and little more, the Dunne brothers and Skoglund set out to organize every truck driver and every “inside” warehouse worker industry-wide in Minneapolis. On 15 May 1934, after the bosses refused to negotiate with the growing local of 5,000 members, Local 574 went on strike. Only one of the existing union officers at the time, local president Bill Brown, actively supported the strike, which was organized and led through an elected Organizing Committee.
The Citizens Alliance had not anticipated the Trotskyists’ class-struggle tactics. “Flying squads” of pickets, later widely adopted in the great CIO strikes of the late ’30s, were sent rolling about town to intercept scabs. All trucking in the city was halted except union-permitted urgent services. The entire working-class population of the area was called on to support the strike. The unemployed organization, where CLA members had long been active, aligned itself with the union, and a Women’s Auxiliary went into action. On May 20, 35,000 building trades workers initiated a sympathy strike, and even the conservative Central Labor Union felt obliged to vote its support. Other workers, many unorganized, stayed off their jobs and joined the pickets.
The strike was decided on May 22 when a mass mobilization of the union and its supporters sent fleeing virtually the entire city police force, as well as its 2,200 “special deputies,” in what became known as “The Battle of Deputies Run.” With the defeat of this attempt by the bosses’ thugs to run scabs through pickets at the City Market, the companies quickly settled the strike, recognizing the union.
But the bosses would continue to stall and ignore the union, provoking another strike in July, which lasted for five weeks. The employers were given aid in their anti-union crusade by Teamsters president Daniel Tobin, a reactionary craft unionist and Roosevelt supporter who red-baited the strike leadership. Meanwhile, the CLA sent its leaders James P. Cannon and Max Shachtman to Minneapolis to help produce a daily strike newspaper, The Organizer, to combat the lies of the bourgeois press.
On “Bloody Friday,” July 20, the cops lured picket trucks into an ambush and opened fire on the strikers, killing two and wounding 67, most of them shot in the back. Within 20 minutes of the massacre, the National Guard rolled into the area. Four days later, some 40,000 union supporters marched in the funeral for Henry Ness, Local 574’s first martyr. In response, the cops promptly arrested Cannon and Shachtman as part of an orchestrated red scare, and Governor Olson declared martial law. In a pre-dawn raid, the National Guard seized the strike headquarters and arrested strike leaders, including Bill Brown and Vincent and Miles Dunne.
These actions by the “friend of labor” governor exposed Olson’s capitalist loyalties for the workers to see. The Teamsters defied Olson’s troops and maintained mobile picketing while organizing protests against the arrests, including another 40,000-strong demo. The union members and leaders were released within a few days. Meanwhile, Local 574 successfully navigated the artifices and tricks practiced by federal mediators, agents of the class enemy, in negotiations. After a war of attrition, on August 22 the bosses gave in to the union’s main demands, including union membership for “inside” workers. Minneapolis became a solid union town.
Sparked by the tremendous gains won in the 1934 strikes, workers in the basic industries were soon flocking to union organizing meetings. With the AFL craft unions refusing to organize the unskilled, workers joined mass industrial unions, frequently under radical leadership. These unions later formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) after breaking away from the ossified AFL.
Despite repeated attempts by the ruling class to split and defeat the militant Teamsters, the Trotskyists remained leading union organizers, helping to build the Teamsters into a powerful, national industrial union. Even James Hoffa, who was sent back to Minneapolis in 1941 as Tobin’s hatchet man against the Trotskyist union leaders, acknowledged that he had earlier learned effective union organizing from the Trotskyists. Having worked under Dobbs, Hoffa said, “I was studying at the knees of a master.” It was not until the early 1940s, during World War II, that the Trotskyists were driven out of the union leadership when Roosevelt, spurred on by Tobin and the Stalinist CP, jailed 18 Trotskyist and Minneapolis Teamster leaders under the Smith Act for their opposition to U.S. imperialism in the war.
The Trotskyists’ success in Minneapolis in 1934 vindicated their general policy of calling on revolutionists to enter the mainstream of the labor movement, as against the ultraleft dogma of building separate “red unions,” voiced by the CP during its 1928-34 “Third Period.” It also pointed to the crucial role of leadership in any class battle. In a 1942 lecture that he gave on Minneapolis, available in The History of American Trotskyism (1944), Cannon observed:
“In Minneapolis we saw the native militancy of the workers fused with a politically conscious leadership. Minneapolis showed how great can be the role of such leadership. It gave great promise for the party founded on correct political principles and fused and united with the mass of American workers. In that combination one can see the power that will conquer the whole world.”
We reprint below two articles from the Militant, the newspaper of the CLA. The first, “Learn from Minneapolis!” (26 May 1934), was written by Cannon after the May strike. The second, “The Strike Triumphant” (25 August 1934), was published at the conclusion of the July-August strike.
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“Learn From Minneapolis!”
(Militant, 26 May 1934)
Today the whole country looks to Minneapolis. Great things are happening there which reflect the influence of a strange new force in the labor movement, an influence widening and extending like a spiral wave. Out of the strike of the transport workers of Minneapolis a new voice speaks and a new method proclaims its challenge.
It was seen first in the strike of the Coal Yard Drivers, which electrified the labor movement of the city a few months ago and firmly established the union after a brief, stormy battle of unprecedented militancy and efficiency. Now we see the same union moving out of this narrow groove and embracing truck drivers in other lines.
Behind this, as was the case with the Coal Drivers, there are months of hard, patient and systematic routine work of organization. Everything is prepared. Then an ultimatum to the bosses. A swift, sudden blow. A mass picket line that sweeps everything before it. The building trades come out in sympathy. The combined forces, riding with a mighty wave of moral support from the whole laboring population of the city, take the offensive and drive all the bosses’ thugs and hirelings to cover in a memorable battle at the City Market.
The whole country listens to the echoes of the struggle. The exploiters hear them with fear and trepidation. Weaving the net around the automobile workers, with the aid of treacherous labor leaders, they ask themselves in alarm: “If this spirit spreads what will our schemes avail us?”
And the workers in basic industry, vaguely sensing the power of their numbers and strategic position, can hardly help asking themselves: “If we should go the Minneapolis way could anything or anybody stop us?” The striking transport workers are a mighty power in Minneapolis today. But that is only a small fraction of the power of their example for the cheated and betrayed workers in the big industries of the country.
The Message of Minneapolis
The message of Minneapolis is of first rate importance to the American working class. A careful examination of the method from all sides ought to be put as point one on the agenda of the labor movement, especially of its most advanced section. A study of this epic struggle, in its various aspects, can be an aid to their application in other fields, and, by that, a rapid change of the position of the American workers.
There is nothing new, of course, in a fight between strikers and police and gunmen. Every strike of any consequence tells the old, familiar story of the hounding, beating and killing of strikers by the hired thugs of the exploiters, in and out of uniform. What is out of the ordinary in Minneapolis, what is more important in this respect, is that while the Minneapolis strike began with violent assaults on the strikers it didn’t end there.
In pitched battles last Saturday and again on Monday, the strikers fought back and held their own. And on Tuesday they took the offensive, with devastating results. “Business men” volunteering to put the workers in their place and college boys out for a lark—as special deputies—to say nothing of the uniformed cops—handed over their badges and fled in terror before the mass fury of the aroused workers. And many of them carried away unwelcome souvenirs of the engagement. Here was a demonstration that the American workers are willing and able to fight in their own interests. Nothing is more important than this, for, in the last analysis, everything depends on it.
Here was a stern warning to the bosses and their hirelings, and not only those of Minneapolis. Transfer the example and the spirit of the Minneapolis strikers to the steel and automobile workers, for example, with their mass numbers and power. Let the rulers of America tremble at the prospect. They will see it! That is what the message of Minneapolis means first of all.
A second feature of the fight at the City Market which deserves special attention is the fact that it was not the ordinary encounter between individual strikers and individual scabs or thugs. On the contrary—take note—the whole union went into action on the picket line in mass formation; thousands of other union men went with them; they took along the necessary means to protect themselves against the murderous thugs, as they had every right to do. This was an example of mass action which points the way for the future victorious struggles of the American workers.
It is not a strike of the men alone, but of the women also. The Minneapolis Drivers’ Union proceeds on the theory that the women have a vital interest in the struggle, no less than the men, and draws them into action through a special organization. The policy, employed so effectively by the Progressive Miners [a 1932 splinter from the United Mine Workers], is bringing rich results also in Minneapolis. To involve the women in the labor struggle is to double the strength of the workers and to infuse it with a spirit and solidarity it could not otherwise have. This applies not only to a single union and a single strike; it holds good for every phase of the struggle up to its revolutionary conclusion. The grand spectacle of labor solidarity in Minneapolis is what it is because it includes also the solidarity of the working class women.
The Sympathetic Strike
The strike of the transport workers took an enormous leap forward and underwent a transformation when the building-trades unions declared a sympathy strike last Monday. In this action one of the most progressive and significant features of the entire movement is to be seen. When unions begin to call strikes not for immediate gains of their own but for the sake of solidarity with their struggling brothers in other trades, and when this spirit and attitude becomes general and taken for granted as the proper thing, then the paralyzing divisions in the trade union movement will be near an end and trade unionism will begin to mean unity.
The union of the truck drivers and the building trades workers is an inspiring sight. It represents a dynamic idea of incalculable power. Let the example spread, let the idea take hold in other cities and other trades, let the idea of sympathy strike action be combined with militancy and the mass method of the Minneapolis fighters—and American labor will be a head taller and immeasurably stronger.
Those who characterize the A.F. of L. unions as “company unions” and want to build new unions at any price will derive very little consolation from the Minneapolis strike. We have always maintained that the form of a labor organization, while important, is not decisive. Minneapolis provides another confirmation, and a most convincing one, of this conception. Here is the most militant and, in many respects, the most progressively directed labor struggle that has been seen for a long time. Nevertheless it is all conducted within the framework of the A.F. of L.
The Drivers’ Union is a local of one of the most conservative A.F. of L. Internationals, the Teamsters; the building trades, out in sympathy with the drivers, are all A.F. of L. unions; and the Central Labor Union, backing the drivers’ strike and the possible organizing medium of a general strike, is a subordinate unit of the A.F. of L. The local unions of the A.F. of L. provide a wide field for the work of revolutionary militants if they know how to work intelligently. This is especially true when, as in the Minneapolis example, the militants actually initiate the organization and take a leading part in developing it at every stage.
The Bolshevik Militants
Further development of the union, and perhaps even of the present strike, on the path of militancy may bring the local leadership into conflict with the reactionary bureaucracy of the International and also with conservative forces in the Central Labor Union. This will be all the less apt to take the local leaders of the militant union by surprise, since most of them have already gone through the school of that experience. In spite of that, they did not turn their backs on the trade unions and seek to set up new ones artificially.
Even when it came to organizing a large group of workers hitherto outside the labor movement, they selected an A.F. of L. union as the medium. The results of the Minneapolis experience provide some highly important lessons on this tactical question. The miserable role of the Stalinists in the present situation, and their complete isolation from the great mass struggle, is the logical outcome of their policies in general and their trade union policy in particular.
The General Drivers’ Union, as must be the case with every genuine mass organization, has a broad and representative leadership, freely selected by democratic methods. Among the leaders of the union are a number of Bolshevik militants who never concealed or denied their opinions and never changed them at anybody’s order, whether the order came from [AFL head William] Green or from Stalin.
The presence of this nucleus in the mass movement is a feature of the exceptional situation in Minneapolis which, in a sense, affects and colors all the other aspects of it. The most important of all prerequisites for the development of a militant labor movement is the leaven of principled communists. When they enter the labor movement and apply their ideas intelligently they are invincible. The labor movement grows as a result of this fusion and their influence grows with it. In this question, also, Minneapolis is showing the way.
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“The Strike Triumphant”
(Militant, 25 August 1934)
The stirring news of the victory of the Minneapolis strike will give heart and hope to every class conscious and union conscious worker in the United States. It comes as a beacon light on the dark sea of defeats that have engulfed the labor unions in the second strike movement under the NRA [National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933]. The thrilling outcome of the battle will give confidence to the doubting worker that labor need not lose and capitalism can be defeated. It will strengthen the conviction in the minds of every revolutionist that the policies of consistent class struggle are the only method of crowning the struggles of the working class with success.
But the working class has little time to rejoice. Bigger and fiercer battles are ahead. It must forge its weapons and prepare. Let the workers learn and assimilate the lessons of Minneapolis and they will have gained an invaluable addition to the arsenal of class weapons against capital. And Minneapolis is rich in lessons, so rich that if but a part of them are digested the proletariat will take a huge stride forward.
With hardly an exception practically all of the major problems of strike strategy were telescoped in the battle of 574. Lack of space does not permit us to deal with all of them, but to mention them in part: maintaining a picket line to cope with scabs, feeding five thousand strikers and their families, providing relief to the more destitute of the workers, holding high the morale of the strikers for the long weeks of the struggle, answering the lies, the calumnies and the slanders of the boss press and radio, conducting negotiations with the employers and federal arbitrators, gaining the support of workers in other unions, combating the police and the city officials.
These are the customary problems faced by the workers when they rebel for better conditions. But the Minneapolis strike was complicated with other and far more perplexing matters. From the very word go, the strike was faced with a vehement “red” scare of the bosses, kept alive for its entire duration. This was joined in by the International President of the Teamsters, Tobin, who declared the strike illegal at the very outset. Then, to make confusion worse confounded, a farmer-labor governor, having the confidence of the overwhelming majority of the workers, dealt some deadly blows at the strike while pretending friendship. A backward rank-and-file, fighting mad, but steeped in all the prejudices that the bosses had inculcated into them for years, finishes the picture.
Any other leadership than the one in Minneapolis would have foundered on the rocks of this stupendous problem. This is not because of the personal qualities or the integrity of the men, although that contributed heavily, but rather because the tactics they pursued were Marxian from beginning to end. They were thoroughly fused with the workers in the ranks. They carried on their work in the trade union not with the purpose of some sensational stunt. Building on organization, leading it to victory and helping the workers learn from their own experiences in the class struggle—that was their aim.
Previous issues of the Militant have commented on the military-efficient organization of the strike apparatus. But it does not hurt to repeat some of them, for it was on this very thing that success was founded. To enumerate: the picket line on wheels ready to move at a moment’s notice, in contact at every step with strike headquarters—the commissary serving five thousand strikers daily on the solid assumption that an army travels on its belly—the Ladies Auxiliary giving the women a direct interest in the struggle, making them an encouragement and an aid instead of a drag on the strikers—the mobilization of the unemployed for support—and finally the daily strike bulletin, which we can safely say is one of the greatest contributions to strike strategy in recent times. Here was a paper that inspired the strikers, answered the lies of the boss press day in, day out, fanned their flagging enthusiasm, warned them of traps set by the bosses and arbitrators, showed the class lines of the struggle and performed a thousand and one other services. This was the unshakeable foundation of the strike.
Yet all of this would have been wrecked by the “red” scare had the union leaders not been prepared to meet it. In Frisco the cry of “Communist” tore a deep hole into the strike front. In Minneapolis it was a complete dud. The leaders faced the issue squarely. They did not rush into print denying the accusations. Nor did they shout their opinions to the wide world. They explained to the men that this was part of a plot of the bosses to evade the issues, sow confusion and division in the ranks and thus smash the strike. The results are known. The red-scare fell on deaf ears.
Quite as important, if not more so, was the role of Governor Olson. With a cunning play of demagogy and harmless attacks on the employers he established himself as the “friend” of the strikers. So much so, that when he called the troops onto the streets and declared martial law, opinion was general among the drivers that it was done in their interest. Pickets began to rely on Olson’s soldiers. Knowing the class nature of the state, the leaders saw how fatal such an attitude would be for the strike. They were quick to act. The Organizer, at the risk of incurring the displeasure of the union men, pointed out the real purpose of the troops—to break the strike. But they did not confine themselves to denunciation. Only experience would teach the strikers. A test of the right of picketing was decided upon. And then by raiding the strike headquarters, imprisoning the leaders and the best pickets, Olson taught the strikers more about Olson than all the editorials in the world could have done. A different opinion of the Governor of Minnesota and the purpose of the state now pervades not a few members of 574.
The unions saw to it that the struggle against Olson be further pushed by exerting the severest pressure on Olson’s men, the conservative leaders of the Central Labor Union. The biggest barrier to Olson’s game was the support of the drivers by the entire Minneapolis labor movement. By adroit and skillful tactics the leaders of 574 forced the heads of the C.L.U. to give their assistance to the drivers and not to condemn them. When the union called upon the officials to declare a general strike in answer to the raid on the headquarters, they resisted but they were on the carpet. They brought pressure to bear on Olson and he released the strike leaders and restored the hall. While the officials of the C.L.U. and the Minnesota State Federation of Labor were successful in preventing a general strike, their answer was a living demonstration to the workers of Minneapolis of the stuff these “leaders” are made. A general strike is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end. And the conservatives at the head of the Minneapolis labor movement deprived 574 of this powerful means. The rank and file will draw the proper conclusions!
In the gratifying conclusion of the battle there lie the features that distinguish the Minneapolis strike from all others in recent times. For the first time in years militants, indigenous to the industry, have entered an A.F. of L. union; converted it from a craft to an industrial union; built it up patiently and quietly; prepared carefully and struck at the proper moment; combined organization with militancy and political wisdom, and emerged from a five week’s strike against insuperable odds with victory in their laps. And on top of all this, what is almost unprecedented in such strikes—not only is the union intact but the leadership is still in the hands of the genuine militants.
The example of the Minneapolis leadership will be an inspiration everywhere!
It can and will be repeated!