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1934: Class war in Minneapolis


Almost 80 years ago, the city of Minneapolis was a battlefield in the class war between workers and bosses. Three strikes in 1934 shook the city and American society to their foundations. The feature of these strikes by the Teamster Union Local 574 was that they were led by Trotskyists.

Minneapolis boasted the strongest branch of the Communist League of America (CLA) the American Trotskyist organization. This branch was led by veteran workers leaders like Carl Skoglund and the Dunne Brothers, Vincent Raymond (known as Ray), Miles and Grant – and in the course of the strike recruited young Teamster militants like Farrell Dobbs. In the battles of 1934, the Trotskyists exposed the lie, so often leveled at Trotskyists then and now by the Communist and Social-Democratic parties that they were incapable of winning mass support and leading workers to victory.

The victory of the 1934 Minneapolis strike was of decisive importance for the development of Trotskyism; so too was it for the whole of the American working class. The victory of Local 574 in making Minneapolis a union town inspired other workers to take on the rapacious US bosses.

If the truckers could win against a powerful bosses’ organization like the Minneapolis “Citizens’ Alliance” backed up by the police and National Guard, then other workers could defeat their bosses. Following Minneapolis, the American working class, enthused and inspired by the struggles and tactics of Local 574, made a “giant step for labor.” A wave of mass strikes and factory occupations in 1935 and 1936 gave rise to the new industrial unions grouped in the CIO.

We dedicate respectively this article to Farrell Dobbs, Marvel Scholl, and to the heroes and martyrs of Local 574. We do this in the knowledge that their story is not merely fascinating history but one rich in lessons for the militants struggling against the bosses and their state today.

In 1929, the “Roaring Twenties” in America came to a juddering halt. In that year, the Wall Street Crash which started on of September 23 heralded an oncoming economic and long grinding Depression that wreaked havoc in the lives of millions of American workers. Between 1929 and 1933, unemployment rose from 3.2% to 24.9% as more than 15 million were thrown out of work. In the same period, the average wage in manufacturing industry fell by 2 percent. Poverty and hunger became the norm.

The response of the trade-union leadership to such a massive attack on the working class was “business as usual.” Bureaucrats like William Green, President of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), were a dominated by reactionary narrow craft outlook and had already had purged their organizations of “radicals” in 1926-27. These “labor statesmen,” as they liked to be called, practiced “business-unionism.” They operated the unions as services for the bosses in return for meager reforms. However, during the slump, their services were not so necessary. By 1933, the AFL’s membership had sunk from over 4 million in 1920 to barely over 2 million, as even skilled workers found their lives ravaged by capitalism’s crisis.

But while the unions continued to decline in numbers in the early 1930s, the anger of the working class was demonstrated in a number of ways. Unemployed councils sprouted in every city. Their struggles against eviction and for relief often reached riot proportions. In Chicago, home evictions were suspended because of the direct action of the 45 branches and 22,000 members of these Councils. Such movements were normally brutally suppressed. The Ford Hunger March in Detroit in March 1932 was met with fierce state resistance, and four workers were shot dead by the police.

Non-unionized workmen struck spontaneously against sackings and wage cuts. In one such strike in North Carolina in July 1932, a few hundred hosiery workers walked off the job, and within days 15,000 workers had joined them, closing 100 factories. Such militancy needed to be organized on a permanent footing if workers were to defend themselves and advance. The urgent need for new non-craft based industrial unions and an independent working class political party was clear.

Hostility to the bosses’ parties

Indeed, hostility to the traditional bourgeois parties was evidenced in certain areas. In Minnesota, whose largest city is Minneapolis, the hostility of workers and smaller farmers was evidenced in the 1932 election of Floyd Olson as State Governor on a Farmer-Labor Party (FLP) ticket. But this experience was not repeated on a national scale. The Republican, Herbert Hoover, was the clear-cut candidate of Big Business. And the FLP channeled their efforts into supporting Roosevelt: A Democrat, who offered the vague promise of a New Deal.

The bare bones of FDR’s New Deal included an increased role for central government in an attempt to foster national-economic recovery. As strikes increased in 1933, undermining the prospect of recovery, one element of the New Deal became the creation of Labor Boards to defuse strikes, enforcing cooling off periods, and compulsory mediation: Symbolically, Section 7a of the National Industrial Recovery Act. granted Labor the right to “organize unions of their own choosing.” This legal provision was a useful propaganda weapon for the union militants. Nevertheless, the provision lacked teeth, and, to make organization a reality, militants had to fight every step of the way against union busting bosses. Minneapolis was a case in point.


Minneapolis was the great market and transport hub of the vast Midwestern grain belt. Thus transport was central to its economy, and workers in this sector held a power economy was typical. It was organized by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) nationally in the iron grip of the odious business-union man, Daniel Tobin. Locally, its membership of less than a thousand was divided into splintered Locals according to the commodity trucked; Local 574, a General Division Local, was used as a clearing house for new members pending sub-division.

In 1933, its membership numbered 70 or so. With the exception of its president, Bill Brown, “a fighter by nature,” its executive was slavishly pro-Tobin: “On balance, there was little more in Local 574 than an IBT charter with which to begin an organizing campaign.” (Dobbs) This was precisely the objective that the Trotskyists set themselves. It was a crucial step in their attempt to root their forces in the working class.

The local CLA leaders, Carl Skoglund and VA Dunne and his brothers, worked in the coal hauling industry. In 1933, they began a drive to organize coal truckers and loaders. Stealthily, they organized a volunteer committee of workers to fight for admission into Local 574 against the local executive. During this struggle, eventually won in 1934, they democratically prepared the demands of the members.

In the thirties, the City was a communication and distribution center, a link between the vast agricultural expanses to the west and the large scale industry coming to dominate the neighboring cities around the Great lakes to the east. Its industry was ruled by the Citizens Alliance (CA), a federation of bosses dominated by the biggest capitalist concerns, which had crushed every strike attempt for 20 years. James Cannon, founder of the CLA, said of Minneapolis: “It was a town of lost strikes, miserably low wages, murderous hours and a weak and ineffectual craft-union movement.” (History of American Trotskyism)

They centered on union recognition, increased wages, shorter hours, premium pay for overtime, improved working conditions, and job protection through a seniority system.

On Sunday February 4th 1934, a mass meeting gave the employers 48 hours to negotiate and elected a strike committee. With Citizen Alliance backing the employers stood firm against the coal truckers’ demands. On Wednesday, the coal yards were struck. And not only had the Trotskyists picked their target well – coal shortages in sub-zero temperatures – but their organization and militancy shocked the employers.

The yards were tied up tight by over 600 pickets. Any coal truck movements were tracked and stopped by the use of cruising picket squads – or what are now called the “flying pickets.” By Friday, the bosses were forced to retreat. A Labor Board mediation resulted in union recognition and improved wages. This short, sharp shock for the “Citizens” and their open-shop policy was also an encouraging prelude to a drive to organize workers in other sectors beyond coal. In line with the union rules Local 574 had contacted head office for endorsement. Typically, the day the strike ended in victory, the strikers received a letter from Tobin: “Strike endorsement…cannot be granted.”

Rank-and-file rule

The organizing committee developed in the coal drive now became an official body by rank-and-file consent. A recruitment drive on industrial rather than craft lines was launched. As in coal, the young militants who spearheaded the drive built up the demands as they recruited. Objections of the official executive were overruled by the rank and file.

By April, the Local was confident enough to make public its growth. A mass meeting at Shubert Theater, packed to overflowing, heard Governor Olson’s message to workers: “to band together for your own protection and welfare.” By now, 3000 had been organized. Carl Skoglund argued the union’s next step and the meeting voted to strike on their demands if the employers failed to meet the union deadline.

A broad strike committee, elected from the meeting, then swung into action. Alliances were built with the unemployed and with poor farmers. Crucially, efforts were made to get the blessing, if not the help of the AFL’s local officialdom. This way the strikers hoped to neutralize the likely sabotaging interventions of Tobin. Following the lead of the earlier Progressive Miners’ Strike, a women’s auxiliary was set up.

As in the strike committee, so in the support organizations, it was the Trotskyists who took the initiative. CLA members active in the unemployed movement campaigned for an unemployed section of Local 574. Unemployed leaders were drawn into the union’s picketing plans. Far from being a source of scab-labor, as the Citizen’s Alliance hoped, and the union officials, contemptuous of non-contributors to their fat salaries predicted, the unemployed were drawn into battle alongside the strikers.
Organizing women

Marvell Scholl and Clara Dunne recruited women to the idea of active involvement in the strike: staffing the commissary, the office, nursing, and when the action started, picketing too. Farrel Dobbs described the motives, initial problems, and eventual success of building the women’s auxiliary:

“The aim would be to draw in wives, girlfriends, sisters, and mothers of union members. Instead of having their morale corroded by financial difficulties they would face during the strike, they should be drawn into the thick of battle where they could learn unionism through first-hand participation…The proposal (to form a women’s auxiliary – Ed.) was adopted although not with much enthusiasm. After I got some needling, especially from men who saw in their union activity a way to get an occasional night out, but all this stopped suddenly when the women went into action later on.”

The Citizen’s Alliance would not recognize the union. While they did meet the Labor Board “out of courtesy,” they were in fact making time for their preparations against Local 574. Red-baiting and intimidation was rife. The Mayor and the police chief, Michael Johannes (Bloody Mike as he came to be known), openly lined up with the bosses and declared their support for the union-busting struggle ahead as the new CLA recruit, Farrell Dobbs, discovered when he infiltrated an Alliance meeting.

On May 15th, Local 574 held a mass meeting and voted unanimously to strike in a standing vote. They disregarded in the name of workers’ democracy Tobin and the IBT’s ruling on compulsory ballots for strike action. On May16th, Local 574 went on strike.

Arthur Schlesinger, Professor of History at Harvard, noted: “The city, as they put it locally, was tied up as tight as a bull’s eye in fly time.” (The Coming of the New Deal)Once again, the extent and power of the union’s organization caught the Citizen’s Alliance on the hop. In the weeks preceding the strike, new headquarters were set up in a garage on Chicago Avenue. This housed a maintenance depot for the cruising picket squads. The commissary, with the expert help from the Cooks and the Waiters Union, fed 4-5,000 people daily, the offices, and a hospital.

Army-like operations

An elected strike committee of 75 rank and file union members organized a loudspeaker system to address daily mass meetings. Subcommittees were set up to promote material aid, handle complaints, arrange legal assistance, and under Ray Dunne and Farrell Dobbs, organize picketing. Dobbs describes this organized picketing:

“Cruising squads in autos ware assigned, district by district, on the lookout for scab trucks. A captain was designated for each of these squads…At all times a reserve force…was kept on hand. In situations where large forces were involved, a field commander was appointed…Special cruising squads with handpicked crews, were constantly at the disposal of the picket dispatches… captained by qualified leaders who carried credentials.”

In fact, it was a force operating like an army. But it was an army recruited from and controlled by rank-and-file workers, and it fought for their class interests. These innovations and developments inspired many other workers and union membership quickly doubled to 6,000. Help poured in from hundreds of unemployed volunteers and students. Then the Yellow Cab drivers, encouraged by its militancy, joined Local 574 and struck. “Nothing moved on wheels without the union’s permission.”

By May 18th, the Citizen’s Alliance had recovered from the shock to organize counter-measures. A “citizens’ rally” chose a “law-and-order committee” to emulate 574′s military-style organization and to enlist deputies. The next day, fighting took place, and a number of pickets were badly injured. That same evening, an agent provocateur who had infiltrated the strike HQ dispatched a team of pickets into a trap. The pickets, five of them women, were badly beaten by “police clubs and by saps in the hands of hired thugs.”

“Up to now, the workers had gone about their activities barehanded”; but they found that attempts to exercise their right to peacefully picket were being prevented. They tooled up with clubs of all sorts. The Alliance let it be known that they intended to load trucks in the market, and on Monday “two organized and disciplined forces were to face each other, club against club, in a battle fought along military lines.” Thousands of armed picketers prevented the scabs operating, and more than 30 cops and deputies were hospitalized. When, in frustration, the police drew their guns, Bob Bell drove a truck right into the midst of cops, allowing picketers to jump out and prevent shooting in the melee.

“Chief Johannes decided to call it a day,” but only to call up reserves. A repeat of the battle was ordered for the next day. 1,500 cops and deputies entered the fray. Many thought that a victory over the “lower classes” would present no problems at all.
James Cannon wrote that the deputies “came to the market in a sort of gala holiday spirit. One of the special deputies wore his polo hat. He was going to have one hell of a time down there knocking strikers’ heads around like polo balls. The ill-advised sportsman was mistaken; it was no polo game this time.” (History of American Trotskyism)

The pickets were organized; they knew their job, and they were led by seasoned picket captains. They proved the value of creating workers’ self-defense organizations where the mass picket is faced with violent police opposition. In the ensuing battle, the pickets concentrated on the less seasoned deputies. In the “Battle of Deputies Run,” two of the specials were killed in the fighting. The pickets won, and again nothing moved on the streets.

On Monday and Tuesday, when the fighting reached its peak, the Building Trades Council called a sympathy strike. The electrical workers, inspired by 2 CLA members, marched as a body to Local 574′s HQ to put itself at the Teamsters’ disposal. Delegation after delegation from union locals arrived to offer their support.

In these circumstances, a panicky Labor Board quickly prepared a 24 hour truce, suspending truck traffic and closing the market while a settlement was prepared. The “Friend of Labor” Olson mobilized the National Guard but was reluctant to use it, because of union and FLP rank-and-file pressure. Instead, the truce was extended to permit negotiations. Local 574 withdrew pickets pending “union recognition and an acceptable settlement.”

By May 25th, the union’s negotiating team, under complete rank-and-file control via regular mass meetings had reached an agreement which the strike committee could recommend to a mass meeting as a satisfactory compromise. Improved pay and conditions, the reinstatement of all strikers, a seniority system, and, most importantly, union recognition, were all won.

Membership soared to over 7,000; many of them “inside workers”: That is workers other than truckers and loaders but employed as packers and such like in the warehouses or markets. While this agreement was being carried out by the employers and scrutinized by the workers, a new row was brewing over whether the inside-workers were properly covered by the settlement.

To the strikers, the inclusion of inside-workers in the deal was a sticking point. This was an important statement of their commitment to industrial rather than craft-unionism. But the employers, then Governor Olson, and the Labor Board backtracked. In late June, Local 574 held a membership meeting which voted to press for union recognition for all its members and better pay. Preparations for a third strike began.
The “Weekly Organizer”

The CLA national leadership had earlier dispatched James Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism, to the scene. In the light of the new events, it now sent out a team of Cannon, plus two journalists, an attorney, and Hugo Oehler, an experienced organizer of the unemployed.

Apart from offering Local 574 their experience in class combat, and a political understanding of the class struggle second to none, the Trotskyist cadres made one other vital contribution to the strike. They helped launch a union paper, the Weekly Organizer, under the editorial control of union leaders and party journalists. This paper, transformed during the next strike into a daily, was to become a formidable weapon to counter the bosses’ lies.

Alliances with the unemployed, women, and farmers were strengthened, and yet more streamlined organization developed. On July 6th, the Union showed its strength, when 12,000 filled a meeting hall leaving thousands more outside.

Five days later, Local 574 voted for an all-out strike by a standing vote. When the bosses countered about the undemocratic nature of the vote, the strike committee recommended a secret ballot to a mass meeting. The meeting threw out the proposal and re-affirmed its commitment to workers’ democracy by repeating its standing vote. On July 17th, Minneapolis was again brought to a standstill. The strikers elected a strike committee of 100, democratically accountable to them, to run the strike on a day to day basis.

The bosses retaliate

On the other side, the bosses organized too. They attacked the union’s leaders, wrote individual letters to strikers, and then hurled the forces of the police and the National Guard against their enemy within. They were ably helped in their attack by Tobin, who now castigated the earlier strikes as illegal and the Dunne brothers as “serpents in human form.” Tobin’s Red baiting was faithfully regurgitated in the bosses’ press.

The Red baiting was answered firmly and sometimes humorously in the Daily Organizer. In one edition the Organizer published a verbatim “confession” from the Editor:

“Well, to tell the truth, it was all planned out in Constantinople a few months ago. Some of the boys worked a week driving trucks and saved up enough money to take a trip to Europe. They went over to see Trotsky in Constantinople and get instructions for their next move. Trotsky said: ‘Boys, I want to see a revolution in Minneapolis before the snow flies.’ They said ‘OK’ and started to leave.” (Notebook of an Agitator)

The Organizer could afford to laugh; its readership of 10,000, who paid for the paper, and more besides through donations, had nothing to fear from the Trotskyist “Reds.” Their courage and their resolute defense of the workers’ interest had earned them the trust and respect of these readers. The Red baiting showed the bosses and bureaucrats fear of Trotskyism precisely because it was winning mass influence.

Fearing the failure of their Red –baiting, and not fully trusting Governor Olson and the Federal Labor Mediators he brought in to settle the dispute, the employers decided to try and cow the workers into submission. Their lickspittle police chief did their bloody bidding with a vengeance.

On July 20th, “Bloody Friday,” the police ambushed two truckloads of unarmed pickets. Without any provocation, they opened fire. When their revolvers and rifles fell silent, 67 people lay bullet ridden, mainly shot in the back. Two of them, Henry Ness and John Belor, died. Thirty four had a total of 160 pieces of lead removed from them in surgery. The Minneapolis workers fought back with the methods of organized picket-defense and mass mobilization of other workers in solidarity strike action.

City at a standstill

On the evening of July 20th, 15,000 angry workers attended an open air meeting. On Saturday, there were four times as many pickets. The Organizer argued for a one-day strike by all transportation workers on Monday 23rd. That day, too, laundry workers went on strike alongside Local 574 for their own demands linked with those of the Teamsters. On Tuesday, Minneapolis was at a standstill, as 50,000 workers attended the funeral of Henry Ness.

As the police attempted to resume trucking; every operation was flanked by larger numbers of flying pickets. While the strikers had decided not to arm themselves with guns or knives, for tactical reasons, the police didn’t know this, and faced with mass organized cruising pickets, armed with clubs and instructed to “defend themselves”; they found it impossible to crack the strike.

Increasingly desperate federal mediators now proposed a settlement, endorsed by Olson, who threatened martial law if either side rejected it. Another sign of Olson’s get-tough policy was the arrest the same day of Cannon and Max Shactman, one of the CLA journalists. Then to the surprise of the Alliance, the strike committee recommended acceptance. The deal, which included recognition of the inside workers, was a basis to build on. Realizing this, the employers rejected it, and Olson imposed martial law that was, in every respect, used against the strikers not the bosses.

Far from being neutral in the conflict, the state forces actually punished the strikers for the bosses’ rejection. The powerful capitalists who ran the Alliance referred to the mediation as surrender. The strikers responded by warning that on August 1st mass picketing in defiance of the state militia would begin.

At 4 am that morning, Olson moved against the strikers. Their HQ was surrounded, and Ray and Miles Dunne, with Bill Brown, were thrown into the stockade.

To Olson’s surprise, the picketing after his crackdown intensified. The seasoned troops of Local 574, with its hundreds of picket captains, improvised on contingency plans. “Within a few hours over 500 calls for help were reported into military headquarters. Troops responded…usually to find scabs who had been worked over but no pickets.” Further Olson’s attempt to find softer negotiation merely gave him the chance to meet Kelly Postal, Ray Rainbolt – one of the few Trotskyist Native Americans – and Jack Maloney, three picket captains who refused to talk until their leaders were released. Olson retreated, and the strike leaders were freed.

As August wore on, some of the smaller employers were cracking despite Olson’s attempts at military strikebreaking. Back-to-work movements failed. Dobbs describes a war of attrition between militia and pickets well into August.

Eventually, the determined Local and its Trotskyist leadership won the day. AFL bigwigs, Olson, and Citizen-Alliance men all met with Roosevelt. A fresh mediation was launched under Roosevelt’s direct supervision. Olson now agreed the release of all picketers from the stockade prison. The union would be recognized, inside-workers too, wherever it won an election.

On August 21st, the strike committee recommended acceptance to a mass meeting. Local 574 was soon recognized as the bargaining representative in all the major trucking firms and most of the rest. Wages and conditions were improved. And to cap their victory, the workers elected their tried-and-tested representatives in place of its moribund predecessor.

A fighting union

The Trotskyists who led the organizing drive and three strikes were confirmed as Local 574’s leaders. In 6 months, Minneapolis had been transformed from an open-shop citadel into a union town. In that time, the Local had been transformed from a branch of 70 odd members under the control of tame Tobin men, into a fighting union of 7,000 plus, democratically run by its rank and file. More than this, their struggle had been closely watched by millions of workers suffering similar misleadership after a long period of retreat.

Three days before the victory, Cannon writing in an Organizer article, “The Secret of Local 574,” had said of the union:

“The outward form is old fashioned and ‘regular,’ but the inner content is modern and pulsating with new vigorous life. In sense of the word it can be said that Local 574 represents a fusion of the new and the old at the moment when the American labor movement as whole stands before the prospect of great change: to meet the modern needs of the workers.”

Two years later, the CIO was formed in a yet greater act of working-class revolt. The reasons why the Minneapolis strikes won are important guidelines to militants today. The democratic organization of the strikes embodied in regular membership meetings whose decisions were binding ensured that the members were mobilized in the strike and not left at home isolated. The rank and file ran the strikes. This was symbolized in the July/August strike by the election of the Committee of 100. Significantly its key leaders, CLA members, did number a single full-time official in their ranks.

Class struggle

In the struggle to win the strikes, Local 574 recognized the importance of defense and the spread of the strike. Every instance of brutality was answered in kind and used as a means of mobilizing support from other workers. The building of an active women’s auxiliary played a crucial role in this latter endeavor. Their role was organizing welfare plus spreading the strike and winning support for it. In the end the strikers won union recognition.

In an isolated town in vast America, they couldn’t hope to achieve much else. Union recognition itself was a tremendous gain. More than that, however, the influence of the Trotskyists made sure that Minneapolis achieved a more lasting significance. In the leadership of the struggle they showed that trade-unionism, if it was to truly defend the workers’ interests, had to be founded in class struggle not class collaboration. They showed, in the best traditions of revolutionary trade-unionism, what could be achieved when the workers fought the bosses – asserting their own needs and interests above all else.

Class fighters today must develop a similar understanding, an understanding that Cannon expressed well when he wrote in the Organizer:

“Local 574 doesn’t take any stock in the theory that capital and labor are brothers, and that the way for little brother labor to get a few crumbs is to be a good boy and appeal to the good nature of big brother capital. We see the issue between capital and labor as an unceasing struggle between the class of exploited workers and the class of exploiting parasites. It is a war. What decides in this war, as in all others is power. The exploiters are organized to grind us down into the dust. We must organize our class to fight back.”

Originally posted at www.workerspower.net

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