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.
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.
See part 2.