The 1934 Teamsters strike in Minneapolis, led by the Trotskyists of the Communist League of America (the forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party), was a decisive moment in the US labor and socialist movements. During the years preceding the strike, few would have expected the upsurge that took place in 1934. Throughout the 1920s there was not a single recognized union in the basic industries. Workers at companies such as Ford were unorganized, similar to workers in other areas of mass production who were without workplace rights of any kind, atomized and seemingly powerless against the bosses. Despite the heroic past struggles of US workers – from the Knights of Labor, the strikes of 1877, and the Molly Maguires to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the struggle for the eight hour day – the few unions that did exist at the time were small, weak and limited almost exclusively to skilled workers. Workers were organized along purely craft lines and the unions were dominated by a conservative brand of “business unionism.”
During the 1920s the unions belonging to the American Federation of Labor experienced steady growth. But then, like now, this was cut across by the economic crisis. By 1929, the year of the “Great Crash” on Wall Street, the membership of the AFL had been reduced to three million members. The average working day had increased to between 10 and 12 hours and workers were subjected to ruthless increases in the rate and intensity of work. Workers were hired and fired at the employer’s will and overtime pay was non-existent. Between 1929 and 1933 there was a 48.7% decline in overall production, resulting in more than 17 million workers, nearly a quarter of the working population, being thrown into unemployment. Wage cuts also followed, with average wages falling to just half of 1925 levels. By 1933 the membership of unions had fallen even further – to just two million members, reducing the AFL to less than 50% of the size it had been in 1920.
Minneapolis in 1934 was a largely non-unionized city under the control of the Citizen’s Alliance, a viciously anti-union employers’ organization which was pledged to keeping the city an “open shop.” Minneapolis’ economy was based on its being a regional agricultural and transportation hub, with a large number of transportation and warehouse workers. The city’s truck drivers and warehouse workers were almost completely unorganized, poorly paid and severely overworked. Against this backdrop, the Minneapolis branch of the Communist League of America decided in the winter of 1933 to launch a union organizing drive among workers at the city’s coal yards. The CLA’s organizing campaign was led by five workers who by the time the struggle was over, were to become household names to Minneapolis working people: Vince, Grant and Miles Dunn, Carl Skoglund, and Farrell Dobbs.
The Teamsters union, then as today, was the traditional union representing commercial transport workers, and this union was chosen for the organizing drive. General Drivers Local 574 was one of the few locals not set up along strictly controlled craft lines, and represented a small number of coal yard workers, cab drivers and others. The target set for the campaign was to organize every coal yard worker into local 574. The initial organizing campaign had to struggle past every kind of bureaucratic hurdle set up by the Teamsters leadership, from official strike authorizations including mandatory “cooling off” periods, binding and forced arbitrations as required in the union’s bylaws, and a monopoly of power held in the hands of the bureaucratic officialdom. Despite this, the organizing campaign moved forward and more and more coal workers signed up to join local 574. But the coal yard bosses, backed up by the Citizen’s Alliance, refused to recognize the union.
This led to the first strike, which began on February 7, 1934, and closed 65 coal yards. Even before the strike began, to get around the conservative local Teamsters officials, the workers set up an elected strike committee, which also selected picket captains responsible to the elected committee alone (and not to the official leadership). The need to set up an elected and rank and file based committee was vindicated when the union’s national leadership refused to provide strike pay to the workers, since the strike had been launched without the approval of the union’s President.
The strikers recognized from the beginning the need to prevent scab trucks moving coal out of the yards, and developed the tactic of “cruising pickets.” These were mobile pickets, where in addition to targeted picketing of the entrances of key yards by workers on foot, other groups of workers would mount cars and trucks which would follow scab trucks out of the yards (and out of sight of the police) and then force them to dump their cargoes. The cruising pickets would stop the scab trucks and first explain to the scab drivers the reasons for the strike, that it was for higher wages, workplace rights and dignity, and relate how the strike was a fight for all unorganized drivers. By this method the union was actually able to recruit many former scabs into the union! But if the scabs refused to voluntarily dump the coal, it was dumped for them by the pickets.
By using such methods to wage a solid strike that allowed no movement of goods, the coal bosses soon buckled under the pressure and agreed to recognize local 574 as the representative of all coal yard workers. From this first success, local 574 then began another, more ambitious campaign: to organize all truck drivers and warehouse workers in the city. Based on the name it had made for itself among working people through waging a militant, class struggle fight against the coal bosses, the union’s organizing campaign was able to recruit 3,000 workers in just two months’ time. But this was just the beginning of the struggle. Once it seemed that things had gotten back to normal, the bosses refused to recognize the new local, and a second, even more bitter strike became necessary.
In preparation for the second strike, the workers set up a strike headquarters in a large garage, from which cruising pickets were dispatched. Preparing for expected police violence, a hospital was also set up, along with a commissary to serve hot meals to pickets and a repair shop for picket vehicles. During the course of the strike many workers lived out of strike HQ, sleeping on floors or in doorways. The rank and file workers took these initiatives to prepare the strike themselves since the union’s leadership did everything in its power to limit the scope of the strike, insisting on strictly legal picketing and abiding by the injunctions issued by the bosses’ courts. But in the words of Harry DeBoer, a participant of the strike, the Local 574 rank and file “papered the walls with injunctions.”
In order to get around the conservative local Teamsters officials, the workers set up an elected strike committee, which also selected picket captains responsible to the elected committee alone (and not to the official leadership). The correctness of this decision was vindicated when the union’s national leadership refused to provide strike pay to the workers, since the strike had begun without the approval of the union’s President.
From beginning, the strikers understood the need to prevent scab trucks moving coal out of the yards, and developed the tactic of mobile “cruising pickets.” In addition to targeted picketing of the entrances of key coal yards by workers on foot, other groups of workers would ride in cars and trucks which would follow scab trucks out of the yards (and out of the sight of police!) and then force them to dump their cargoes. The cruising pickets would stop the scab trucks and first explain to the scab drivers the reasons for the strike: the need for higher wages, for workplace rights and dignity, and relate how the strike was a fight for all un-organized drivers. By this method the union was actually able to recruit many former scabs into the union. But if the scabs refused to voluntarily dump the coal, it was dumped for them by the pickets!
Local 574’s rank and file also did everything possible to build support throughout the labor movement. Under the slogan “Every member an organizer,” workers attended the meetings of other area unions and called for support for the struggle of 574, which was the struggle of all working people. Through interventions such as these, workers were able to get the officials of other unions to put themselves on record as in support of Local 574. Later, this led to solidarity strikes by many of these unions, including a strike of 35,000 building trades workers during the course of 574’s strike in May.
As opposed to the narrow confines of the official leadership’s “business unionism,” local 574’s rank and file worked to draw the entire working class in the area to support the struggle. This was especially true for women and the unemployed. The union worked with the unemployed councils that had sprung up to fight for jobs, insurance and payments for unemployed workers. The early American Communist Party had played a leading role in organizing these councils across the country. Unemployed workers joined the struggle as volunteer pickets and acted as scouts, spotting the movements of police, the bosses’ Citizen’s Alliance thugs and scab trucks. For its part, 574 raised the issue of the supporting the unemployed in the wider labor movement, and beyond that was able to press other unions to take up the fight for public works projects to employ the unemployed with union wages and rights.
Local 574 also formed a Women’s Auxiliary in order to draw workers’ families and working women generally into the struggle and to keep the strike going. At this, time all truck drivers and warehouse workers were men, and generally women were employed in only a few areas of industry such as textiles (there would be a huge strike of women textile workers in the southeast US later in 1934). Women played a key role in the Teamsters strike: from working the telephones dispatching cruising pickets, working in the commissary and hospital set up at strike headquarters, to distributing copies of the strike committee newspaper to participating in the cruising pickets and in the pitched battles with the police and Citizen’s Alliance thugs. The Auxiliary also played an important role in building support for the union and the strike, highlighted by a march of 700 women to the Mayor’s office to demand the withdrawal of deputy police, the “specials.”
The key difference in this strike was that democratic structures for waging the struggle were set up from the very beginning. The specially elected strike committee had executive control over how the strike was conducted, augmented by the “committee of 100” which was a broader body composed of picket captains and strike veterans. Whenever possible, all important decisions were submitted to the committee of 100, and from there to the membership as a whole. This kept the leaders of the strike directly accountable to the rank and file, and later, when key leaders of the strike committee were arrested, allowed the strike to continue. Also, 574 had an elected negotiating committee of two, which was only given the authority to meet with the bosses and the state to propose and receive terms, not to negotiate and reach a deal independently of the membership.
By waging a militant strike using class struggle methods, the union was able to build broad support and the city’s working class was lined up behind the Teamsters. This was despite all of the forces arrayed against the workers by the local capitalists with their press, police, courts, prisons and its Citizen’s Alliance, which was busily deputizing hundreds of petty bosses, office workers & lumpens.
The strike was met with complete hostility by the capitalist press, but the workers found an answer to this as well. For the first time in a US strike the workers created a daily strike newspaper, The Organizer, which explained the union’s struggle and demands, gave reports on the strike’s progress and was distributed widely across the city and region. The bosses recognized the worth of the strike paper by targeting its distributors and printers. Through the paper, the strike committee urged workers to place no faith in the government’s impartiality or that of its arbitrators.
The paper was edited by Max Schachtmann and James Cannon, both national leaders of the Socialist Workers Party.
Unable to break the May strike with injunctions, the bosses tried to break it with clubs instead. “Specials” and police converged on the City Market, with its truck docks and warehouses at the center of the strike, and from May 21st to the 22nd, pitched battles between workers and the police took place. The workers captured the market and won what was called “The Battle of Deputy’s Run.” Not a truck moved in, around or out of the city without the union’s permission. The May strike ended on the 25th, with the union winning recognition, wage increases and also the condition that no participant in the strike would be victimized after returning to work.
However, from the beginning the employers made it clear that they would not honor the contract and continued to refuse recognition of warehouse workers not directly connected to the trucks. This led to the third and final strike in July. The bosses had been emboldened by the attack of Teamsters President Tobin on local 574’s leadership, whipping up a red scare against them, which was seized on in the capitalist press who called on citizens to “Save Minneapolis from Communism.” The bosses were now preparing not to only to beat the workers, but to literally shoot them back to work.
As the cruising pickets went into action, the police were preparing a massacre. On Bloody Friday, July 20th, police armed with riot guns opened fire on a truck carrying 10 pickets, killing Henry Ness and John Belar and wounding 55 others. Wounded workers streamed into the strike headquarters, where they were treated by volunteer doctors and nurses. 20 minutes after the police massacre the National Guard was on the streets and martial law had been declared. But the workers refused to be intimidated: the union revoked its travel permits, stopping all trucks. Police stayed clear of the area around the strike headquarters. 40,000 people attended Harry Ness’ funeral procession, during which the police were cleared from the streets and workers took over directing traffic.
Soon afterwards, the leadership of the strike committee was arrested by the National Guard. But the strike continued – the arrests were followed by a march of 40,000 more workers demanding the release of the arrested leaders. Finally, on August 22nd the bosses gave in to all of the union’s main demands.
The Minneapolis Teamsters strike was a model of class struggle trade unionism. In subsequent strikes, other workers were to use these same methods in the steel, auto, rubber, textile and other industries, as well as expanding on them with the sit-down strikes in the auto industry, a form of factory occupation. Later, the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) union federation would organize the key sectors of the world’s biggest industrial economy, changing the balance of forces between the working class and the capitalist class in the US, which allowed for higher wages, better benefits, the 40 hour work week, overtime and vacation pay, health and safety inspection of workplaces, and more, all of which pushed up the workers’ standard of living. The 1955 merger of the AFL and the CIO would create the largest union federation in any capitalist country.
It is important to note that the 1934 Teamsters strike was led by Trotskyists, with a key role played by SWP militants like the Dunne brothers, Carl Skoglund and Farrell Dobbs. This raised the authority of the SWP hugely in the unions and it presented an important opportunity for Trotskyism to become a much broader tendency in the US working class. Unfortunately, this opportunity was not fully taken advantage of. Despite winning workers, not by the ones and twos, but by the 10s and 20s, the SWP did not carry out really political work in the unions.
For Marxists, it is necessary to orient to the mass organizations of the working class, which include the unions, because this is where the class will first turn when the class struggle begins to push forward. We always fight shoulder to shoulder with our class, fighting for day to day demands and for class struggle unionism, patiently explaining that the interests of the bosses and the interests of the workers cannot be reconciled, and keeping alive the memory of our traditions of struggle. But at the same time we offer our union brothers and sisters a political explanation of the crisis of capitalism and seek to win workers and the unions to a revolutionary program.
Instead of doing this, the SWP carried out a largely apolitical trade union policy, not going beyond the bounds of class struggle trade unionism. Important as this work is and was, it is not enough. Workers must have a political expression for their needs and aspirations, and this, in the final analysis, requires a the building of a mass, class independent political party based on the unions. A key role of the Marxists in the unions is to patiently explain this to our class. There is an fundamental difference between doing trade union work in the unions and doing revolutionary political work in the trade unions.
The SWP was criticized at the time by Leon Trotsky, who had serious concerns that in their methods there existed symptoms that could lead to opportunism, of trying to find short cuts where none existed. As he put it, “You propose a trade union policy not a Bolshevik policy. Bolshevik policies begin outside the trade unions. The worker is an honest trade unionist but far from Bolshevik politics. The honest militant can develop but it is not identical with being a Bolshevik.” Trotsky’s criticisms were later proved correct, as the SWP continued to adapt itself to sections of the union bureaucracy and ended up losing a whole layer of workers won over in the pitched struggles of the 1930s. Unfortunately, after Trotsky’s death, the SWP lost its course on this and a whole series of other domestic and international questions.
Today, the unions are on the defensive. Just 12.4 percent of US workers are unionized, companies like GM are laying of tens of thousands of union workers and the story is the same elsewhere. Similar to the period leading up to the Teamsters strikes, the unions are dominated by a conservative bureaucracy tied hand and foot to Big Business, unable to fight for even basic reforms like the EFCA. They’ve done nothing serious to answer the attacks of the employers and the government for decades. In fact, they play key role in maintaining class peace by subordinating the workers’ interests to the bosses and keeping them tied to the Democratic Party. But, as the experience of the Minneapolis Teamsters strike proved 75 years ago, the unions can be transformed, practically overnight when the workers begin looking towards the unions for an answer to their problems, and especially if there are dedicated militants in the unions who can win them to class struggle methods.
While for the time being the working class largely has its head down under the weight of the recession, as many are worried about just having a job and a roof overhead, when the class begins to feel more secure in its position it can and will strike back with a vengeance. This is why a key task of the US working class is the struggle to transform the unions into real organs of class struggle and to break with the political parties of the bosses.