USA: the role of Trotskyists in the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters’ strike

From May to August of 1934, Minneapolis was rocked by a strike that would forever change the course of U.S. labour history. This was the strike of Teamsters Local 574, a union led by Trotskyists. Many of the best techniques used by organised labour today find their origins in the Minneapolis Strike, in particular the flying picket. However, the strike's greatest conquest was in laying the foundations for industrial unionism in North America, leading to the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the following years. Above all, the Minneapolis Strike demonstrated the role played by the young forces of American Trotskyism in obtaining gains for workers.

Despite only lasting four months, the events in Minneapolis carry enormous lessons for the labour movement today. When asked about the lessons from the strike, union leader Harry DeBoer gave quite a simple answer, saying, “We couldn’t have done it without a disciplined revolutionary party.”

In Minneapolis, this party took the form of the Communist League of America, to which nearly all of the strike leaders belonged. If it had not been for the League, the Minneapolis Strike would not have occured. Any real understanding of the Minneapolis Strike must begin with an understanding of the League, and with it the origins of American Trotskyism. The aim of this article is to revisit that history, in the hope that a new generation will find inspiration in the Minneapolis Strike and the ideas that made it possible.

The origins of American Trotskyism

The Russian Revolution of 1917 sent shockwaves throughout the globe. For the first time in history, the workers and peasants of a country had succeeded in overthrowing capitalism. This inspired workers in other countries to follow suit. In 1919, the Communist International was formed to unite the revolutionary forces across the globe, which in the USA led to the formation of the Communist Party of America (CPA).

The creation of the CPA was a historic advance for the American working class. Its members understood that, in order to overthrow American capitalism, it would require a revolutionary party like the Russian Bolsheviks. In its early days, the CPA was healthy and teeming with life. It based itself on the best traditions of Bolshevism. Unfortunately, this was not to last.

By the mid-1920s, power in Russia was slowly falling into the hands of a bureaucratic clique around Josef Stalin. This had consequences for the Communist International as a whole. Poor advice from the Comintern led to enormous defeats for the working class in country after country, first in Germany in 1923, then in China in 1925-27, and finally in Britain with the defeat of the British General Strike. Criticism of Comintern policy was suppressed to protect the prestige of its leaders. The most withering criticism was that produced by Leon Trotsky, one of the leaders of the 1917 revolution. In his critique, Trotsky explained how the leaders of the Comintern were abandoning the ideas of Lenin, including in their suppression of party democracy. For this, Trotsky and his supporters were expelled from the Russian party in 1927. The Stalinist bureaucracy soon extended its iron grip on the rest of the Comintern, including the CPA. These actions initiated the slow degeneration of the American party.

In 1928, the Comintern held its Sixth World Congress in Moscow. Two of those in attendance were James P. Cannon, an American delegate, and Maurice Spector, a Canadian delegate. By chance, the two men came upon a translated copy of Trotsky’s critique of the Comintern draft program. The document was never intended to be discussed, nor was it distributed to all the delegates. Cannon and Spector were already skeptical of the policies being advanced by the Comintern. After reading Trotsky’s critique, they were convinced.

JamesCannon Image Yvette EastmanJames Cannon (centre) pictured in 1922 / Image: Yvette Eastman

The two resolved to make Trotsky’s views known to party members. To do this, they smuggled his critique out of the country. Lacking the resources to publish the document, Cannon was forced to pass it around, hand to hand, to members of the CPA. Shortly thereafter, Cannon and Spector were expelled from their respective parties on the charges of “Trotskyism.”

Cannon, however, was not fazed by his expulsion:

“As is known to all active communists, we are not people who only yesterday began to work for revolutionary ideas. The step we have taken is a seriously considered and deliberate one, based on a firm conviction of revolutionary duty” (To the Party Members, Oct. 1928).

It was around Cannon that the young forces of American Trotskyism would be built. The new party he and his supporters formed was the Communist League of America, formally a faction of the Comintern. However, Cannon’s supporters were few and far between at first, numbering only a few dozen.

This was not the first time that the genuine forces of Marxism had been reduced to a rump. A similar situation faced the Marxists after the outbreak of the First World War. Lenin joked at the time that all the internationalists in the world could fit into two stagecoaches. The task ahead, as in 1914, was to rebuild the forces of Marxism which had been blown apart by events. Trotsky's supporters undertook this task, not with pessimism, but with an unerring optimism. American Bolshevism would be rebuilt, but this time on a far higher level. This could only be accomplished through a firm grounding in the ideas of Marxism—the same ideas which had been thrown overboard by the Stalinist leadership.

The need for theory

The period from 1928 until 1933 was one of severe isolation for the American Trotskyists. By the time of their first national conference in 1929, Trotsky's supporters in America numbered no more than 100. Cannon was often dismissed by his political opponents as being a "general without an army." The Communist Party, by comparison, could boast tens of thousands of members, as well as a significant presence in the trade union movement. However, the League could lay claim to that which was most important of all: the correct program of Marxism. For Marxists, a revolutionary party is in the first place ideas, methods and program. The cadres are the mechanism by which these ideas are taken into the working class movement. To do this job effectively requires a careful attention to theory. A revolutionary who hasn’t absorbed the lessons of the past, who doesn’t understand the world he lives in, who has no aims beyond the struggle immediately in front of him, really has nothing new or useful to offer the working class.

In his History of American Trotskyism, Cannon underlines the importance of theory in those early days:

“Our task, our revolutionary duty, was to print the word, to carry on propaganda in the narrowest and most concentrated sense, that is, the publication and distribution of theoretical literature.”

And again:

“The great weakness of the American Communist movement in the past, as I have mentioned in previous lectures, was its national-mindedness, not in theory but in practice; its ignorance of international events and unconcern about them; its lack of real instruction and of serious interest in theory. These faults were corrected in our young movement. We educated a group of people who proceeded in all questions from fundamental considerations of theory…”

And once again:

“But it was precisely that period of isolation, hardship, discussion, study and assimilation of theoretical ideas that prepared our young movement for the new time of bloom when the movement was opening up in all directions.”

In Teamster Rebellion, Minneapolis strike leader Farrell Dobbs explains how the Minneapolis Trotskyists took the same serious approach to theory:

“As a first step towards the [Trotskyist movement’s] growth they sought to influence wavering Communist Party members who were disturbed about the Stalinist policies. To meet their new tasks they spent a good deal of time studying the Marxist classics and discussing how to shape their revolutionary course.”

During this time, the American Trotskyists faced internal pressure to abandon their focus on theoretical questions. Instead, certain members insisted on beginning with “mass work,” leaving the question of education for sometime in the future. These same ideas abound in the labour movement today. Just as in Cannon’s time, the insistence on “mass work” before all else reflects a certain impatience on the part of some activists, who attempt to find shortcuts to the masses where none exist.

Cannon made clear where he stood on this question:

“I have already told you about the fight we had in our organization with some impatient people who wanted to begin with mass work, jump over our own heads so to speak, leaving for the future the education of our cadre, the definition of our program and our propagandistic work. That was turning things upside down. We worked out our program, formed our cadre, did our preliminary propagandistic work first. Then, when opportunities arose for activity in the labor movement, we were ready to put our activity to some purpose. We did not engage in activity merely for the sake of activity, which some wit once described as all motion and no direction. We were prepared to enter the mass movement with a clearly defined program and with methods calculated to bring the maximum results from the minimum amount of required activity.”

The League also required a regular newspaper to disseminate its ideas. To that end, the first issue of The Militant was released in November, 1928. The Militant was not just an agitational newspaper, but also a theoretical journal. In its pages were re-published entire books written by Trotsky, including his critique of the Comintern draft program. The importance of Militant was such that its first issue was released the week after the Trotskyists were expelled from the Communist Party. Cannon also didn’t know how they were going to pay for it. Fortunately, these costs would later be routinely covered by the branches in Minneapolis and Chicago.

militant cover Image public domainA 1929 edition of "The Militant" / Image: public domain

Every week, League members would assemble on street corners to sell the latest issue of Militant. With so few members, even Cannon was forced to participate. Doing this allowed the Trotskyists to strike up conversations, spread their ideas, and seek out potential recruits. This was by no means glamorous work. Cannon was honest about this:

“[W]hile capitalism was going up the spout; here were the Trotskyists, with their documents under their arms, demanding that you read books, study, discuss and so on. Nobody wanted to listen to us.”

Dobbs made a similar point when he said that the Trotskyists were “dismissed” by almost everybody at the time. However, this does not change the fact that theoretical education, paper sales, etc., were necessary first steps in the birth of American Trotskyism. This same group that “nobody wanted to listen to” would soon lead one of the greatest strikes in all of American history, precisely because of that unglamorous prior work.

Even today, certain reformist “intellectuals” dismiss Trotskyists as having “little social weight” in the movement. Their demands, say the reformists, are too “abstract” to be understood by workers, who we can only assume are stupid. Instead, they substitute the age-old formula of “mass work,” or some other amorphous term meaning exactly the same thing. The concept of a revolutionary party is particularly upsetting to the reformists; but not nearly as upsetting as that greatest sin of them all: a revolutionary newspaper. For some unique cases, simply asking them to purchase a newspaper elicits the same outrage as if you had just insulted their mother.

Everyone is of course entitled to their own opinion. However, it is fundamentally dishonest to then invoke Trotsky, Cannon or Dobbs to justify this nonsense, as some individuals have attempted to do. The facts speak for themselves: everything that Trotskyists are lambasted for doing today was also advocated by Trotsky, Cannon and Dobbs. You do not have to agree with their approach, but then you are also not a Trotskyist. We, however, are very proud to call ourselves Trotskyists, and to belong to that great tradition which led the Minneapolis Strike.

Turn to mass work

In 1933, things started to change for the League. In that year, a brief economic recovery helped put thousands of Americans back to work for the first time since the start of the Great Depression. This led to an increase in confidence as workers started to regain what they had lost in the past period. In addition to this, one aspect of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” Section 7 (a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act, guaranteed workers the “right to organize,” however limited. This led to an influx of workers into the American Federation of Labour (AFL), which at the time was seen as the only option for getting organized. Soon thereafter, strike activity began to pick up again in the United States. In the spring of 1934, the country was rocked by a militant strike of the Toledo auto workers. After four years of absolute misery, a new period of labour struggles was beginning to open up. American Trotskyism now had an opportunity to prove its mettle in the class struggle.

This required a shift in focus for the League. Cannon writes:

“The time had come to transform our whole activity, to make the turn to mass work. Just as in our first days we had rejected the premature demands that we — with our little handful of people — drop everything and jump into the mass movement, so now, toward the end of 1933, having completed our preliminary work and prepared ourselves, we adopted the slogan: ‘Turn from a propaganda circle to mass work.’”

Revolutionary Marxists hold nothing in common with lifeless, academic “Marxians” who only want to discuss, discuss, discuss, but never act. Theory is a guide to action, and not just something to be fascinated with. However, genuine Marxists also do not plunge themselves into a mass movement before they are prepared to do so. Doing so would be like sending a boat out to sea without a map or compass. The League, to be clear, was only prepared to take that plunge after four years of the most intense theoretical preparation, and even then, only after opportunities were presented to them.

The first opportunity came in 1933 with a strike of hotel workers in New York. This is also where the League was strongest. Their involvement in the strike, as Cannon later recounted, was initiated by pure chance. A number of League members happened to be members of the union, including one B.J. Field. The most important section of the union were the French chefs. As it so happened, B.J. Field was fluent in French, leading to him having an enormous influence over these workers. He soon faced pressure from the chefs to run for secretary of the union. He did so, and was promptly elected.

The League took this opportunity to throw themselves into the strike. Cannon personally spoke at a number of mass meetings at the invitation of the union. The Militant was a particularly useful tool in furthering the aims of the hotel workers. As Cannon explains:

The Militant was carried by our comrades to all meeting and picket lines. So that every worker in the industry on strike saw The Militant every other day popularizing the strike, giving the strikers’ side, exposing the bosses’ lies, and offering some ideas on ways of making the strike successful.”

But involvement in the hotel strike was not without its challenges. Unfortunately, as time went on, Field started to pull away from the League. This often happens with revolutionaries who are suddenly vaulted into official positions. Suddenly, they start to imagine that they are bigger than the party. In time, they start to believe that they alone are the decisive element in the union, or even in the class struggle. The idea of a political program becomes unimportant, and the strike becomes everything. Isolated, these individuals soon succumb to the pressure of those surrounding them: trade union bureaucrats, state negotiators, politicians, etc. This was the case with B.J. Field. Shortly after, Field started to moderate the militancy of his members, before the strike petered out all together.

As Marxists, we always insist on strict party control over those members who are trade union officials. There are two main reasons for this. For one, a revolutionary party is able to raise itself above this or that strike, and view it within the context of the class struggle as a whole. A trade union official, by necessity, becomes consumed in the affairs of his union alone. However, it is difficult to conduct an effective strike without considering a whole host of other factors external to the union: the unemployed, the state, other unions, etc. A revolutionary party helps to broaden the union’s perspective in this respect, thus making victory more likely. Secondly, the party acts as a counterweight to the alien class pressure faced by union officials. As a rule, this pressure is always greater the higher you climb up the ranks. This is doubly important since any act of cowardice or betrayal reflects not only on that union official, but also the party to which they belong.

The actions taken by Field put the League in a difficult position. Either they were to be held accountable for Field’s betrayal, or else remove him from the party. They chose the latter. Cannon recounts these events:

“We put Mr. Field on trial in the middle of the strike. Big as he was, we brought charges against him for violating party policy and party discipline, before the New York organization. We had a full discussion — as I recall, it lasted two Sunday afternoons — to give everybody in the League a chance to speak. The great man Field disdained to appear.”

Shortly thereafter, Field and a number of his supporters were expelled from the party. Such an action would be deemed unthinkable by many on the left today. They view the trade union officials, in particular the “left” ones, with a reverential awe. Many of them refuse to even criticise these bureaucrats, let alone expel them in the middle of a strike! However, this is exactly what the League did.

Some predicted the decision to expel Field would have a damaging effect on the League. Field’s supporters accused the League of “expelling themselves from the trade union mass movement.” In fact, the American Trotskyists emerged enormously strengthened from their decision. According to Cannon, “Many who saw this little political grouping take a stand like that towards an ‘untouchable’ trade union leader at the head of a big strike acquired a healthy respect for the Trotskyists.”

Moreover, the young forces of American Trotskyism had learned a great deal over the course of the hotel strike, including how not to lead a union. The stage was now set for a larger, more decisive campaign for the League; one that could really set roots in the working class. The battleground chosen was Minneapolis.

Organising the coal yards

To prove its worth, the League needed to show it could lead a successful strike and obtain gains for workers. The party decided to open this campaign in the Minneapolis coal yards. In the 1930s, many homes and businesses were heated with coal, which required a network of coal heavers and truck drivers to get the fuel to the consumer. Their choice of location was not an arbitrary one, as Cannon explains:

“We began our real activity in those places where the opportunity was open to us. It is not possible to select such occasions arbitrarily according to whim or preference. One must enter into a mass movement where the door is open. A chain of circumstances made Minneapolis the focal point of our first great endeavors and successes in the trade union field.”

Since the early days, Minneapolis had always been one of the largest and most reliable branches of the League. As mentioned earlier, funds provided by Minneapolis made possible the production of The Militant. The branch’s membership was mainly composed of workers, a large part of whom worked as heavers in the coal yards. Among these were Vincent Raymond Dunne and Carl Skoglund. Both men were battle-hardened militants and experienced Marxists. Dobbs had a deep appreciation of Carl and his understanding of theory:

“One of Carl’s foremost talents was his ability to teach young people the lessons he had learned. A Marxist worker with a high level of intellectual development, he understood the importance of theory and its use as a guide for action.”

The Minneapolis truckers were not an important section of the American working class. However, this was not the only consideration in launching the campaign in Minneapolis. If so, the League would have overlooked the city altogether. Minneapolis was also a notorious open-shop town and, in Cannon’s words, a “tough nut to crack.” In fact, the decision to focus on Minneapolis had little to do with the truckers themselves. The key consideration was the presence of experienced cadres on the ground capable of leading a militant fight.

But before they could lead such a fight, the League first had to enlist the truckers into a union. In the 1930s, most industries in Minneapolis were unorganised. Given the reluctance of the AFL leadership to organise new workers, the League had no option but to do it themselves. At the time, most unions were organised on a craft basis, making it nearly impossible to organise the entire trucking industry into one local. The one exception to this was Teamsters Local 574.

In 1915, Local 574 was chartered by the AFL-affiliated International Brotherhood of Teamsters as a “general” local, meaning it could take in members regardless of craft. At the time, the local had only around 75 members. It was never intended to encompass more than that. If it did, it would be subdivided by craft as in other unions. The League’s aim was to launch an organising drive which, if successful, would flood the union with new members before the AFL leadership could act to divide it. To meet this challenge, they created the “voluntary organising committee,” whereby new workers would be signed up for the union. The threat of being fired forced the League to conduct the union drive inconspicuously. This required creativity. Dobbs explains just one of the tactics they employed:

“Ray Dunne got the employer’s approval of a plan to hold a beer bust for employees only. Pointing out that the bosses held such affairs among themselves, Ray argued that an employee gathering would be a good way build up “company morale.” The employer was so impressed with the plan that he not only okayed it — he paid the hall rent and brought the beer. The affair was a big success that gave the union drive a substantial push forward.”

It was by such inventive methods that Local 574 was built. This was the first time that a Teamsters local was organised along industrial lines. Up until then, doing so was seen as almost impossible. However, with the example set by Local 574, it soon spread across the whole of the United States. Certain individuals have tried to minimise the role played by Trotskyists in U.S. labour history. The facts, however, speak for themselves: it was the Trotskyists who helped lay the foundations for industrial unionism in North America. To ignore this fact is to ignore history.

Marxism and the fight for reforms

As Local 574 grew, the League was required to draw up a list of demands for the impending strike. As mentioned earlier, Minneapolis was a notorious open-shop town, meaning that unions were virtually unrecognised in most industries. Therefore, the central demand they decided on was for union recognition.

It is sometimes said that Marxists have no interest in fighting for reforms. This idea is false to the core. Marxists support every movement that improves the economic or democratic position of the working class. Throughout history, it has often been revolutionaries who stood at the head of these movements, and who led them to victory. Minneapolis is just one example of this. The gaining of reforms through struggle serves to raise the confidence of the working class. In the course of battle, workers also learn important lessons about the nature of capitalism and the state.

However, our approach to these movements is entirely different from that of the reformists. We do not pretend that this or that movement is the be all and end all for the working class. Reforms can be won, but they can also be taken away. So long as the capitalists remain in control over the economy, it is they who make the final decisions, quite often to the detriment of the working class. This can only be resolved through the formation of a workers' government, and the transformation of the economy on socialist lines. It would be the height of dishonesty for a Marxist to hide this fact from the working class. Not only that, but it would be misdirecting them for the battle ahead. Our policy, therefore, is a very simple one: to tell the truth. An honest approach to politics is the most effective one, no matter how inconvenient it may be.

Our goal is not only to win reforms, but also to explain their limits, and to help workers see the world in its totality. The struggle for reforms can be loosely compared to battles in a war. A general who saw these battles as isolated skirmishes would understand very little and be demoted very quickly. Another general, however, who understood how each battle led to the next, would not only develop a more effective strategy, but could motivate his soldiers with the greater aim of winning the war.

We often hear from reformist “intellectuals” the need to put forward “reasonable” demands. Their aim is not to raise the labour movement up, but to sink to the level of its lowest common denominator. Remarkably, some of them even invoke Cannon and Dobbs to justify this approach. But what do the facts say?

At first glance, the demand for union recognition may appear to be just such one of those “reasonable” demands. It was not. In the context of Minneapolis, where unions were virtually unrecognised, and every attempt to unionise was ruthlessly crushed by the employers, the demand for union recognition took on a radical and even revolutionary character.

Farrell Dobbs was well aware of this, saying:

“It would take a class war to achieve these objectives and the outcome depended on the capacity of the Communist League to play a key role in guiding and inspiring the whole movement.”

The trade union bureaucracy

In early February 1934, Local 574 voted to go on strike for union recognition. Unfortunately, Teamsters International President Daniel J. Tobin had no interest in supporting them. A request for financial support was immediately denied. This didn’t matter, since by the time Local 574 received Tobin’s reply, the strike had already concluded. In just two and a half days, Local 574 had won union recognition in the coal yards. This helped to uplift other truckers in Minneapolis, who soon flocked to Local 574. However, the abdication by Tobin made it clear that the union bureaucracy could not be trusted in any future campaign. A correct understanding of the nature of the bureaucracy was therefore vital going forward.

FDRandTobin Image LIFE photo collectionTeamsters President Daniel J. Tobin (far right) pictured next to Franklin D. Roosevelt / Image: LIFE photo collection

In the fifteen or twenty years before 1934, not a single strike of any consequence had been won in Minneapolis, earning it the title of “scabs’ paradise.” This was no coincidence. In that time, the Minneapolis labour movement was almost wholly dominated by the AFL, which in turn was dominated by a conservative, pro-business bureaucracy. Their outlook was summed up by Tobin himself, who once boasted that his members were “not the rubbish that have come into other organizations,” and that he didn’t want people to join “if they are going to strike tomorrow.”

Farrell Dobbs gave his own description of the AFL bureaucracy:

“The AFL officialdom grew into a complacent bureaucracy enjoying high salaries and lavish expense accounts. Living in a lush world of their own, the bureaucrats took a dispassionate view of the labour movement. Oftentimes they sided with the employers against the workers. They were quick to take disciplinary action against dissidents within the unions. Distrusting and fearing the workers, they sought to regiment the rank and file on a dictatorial basis."

Needless to say, the outlook of the AFL bureaucracy was not shared by most American workers. The crash of 1929 had resulted in an enormous decline in living standards. This pushed many Americans into a militant and even revolutionary direction. In an earlier period, this mood found an expression in formations like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Despite its limitations, the IWW was an openly revolutionary organisation and acted as a point of reference for thousands of American workers. From 1910 until the First World War, Minneapolis was home to one of the IWWs most important locals in the Midwest, Local 10. In that time, tens of thousands of workers in Minneapolis were involved in some way with the IWW.

However, in the 1930s, this mood found no such reflection in the conservative AFL bureaucracy. In fact, it was seen by many workers, quite correctly, as an obstacle. Leon Trotsky echoed this idea in The Transitional Program. In that text, he explained that the chief characteristic of the 1930s was the historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.

Dobbs further explained that, “The central object all along will have been to lead an effective struggle against the employers. When incompetent union officials hold formal authority it becomes necessary to fight them at the same time.”

However, this does not mean it is useful to denounce the bureaucracy at every possible occasion. Such infantile behaviour is often found among certain ultra-left sects. In doing so, they transform criticism of the bureaucracy into a holy principle. But in the real world things are not so simple. An effective critique must also take into account the perceptions of workers, many of whom may have illusions in the bureaucracy, in order to determine the appropriate weight of the critique and its direction.

Dobbs understood this well:

“The key to such tactics lay in a contradiction faced by the union bureaucrats. In their fundamental outlook they were oriented toward collaboration with the capitalists, but they were of no value to the ruling class unless they had a base from which to operate in the unions. To maintain such a base they had to deliver something for the workers. In the campaign about to begin, however, they would be put up against leadership responsibilities that they couldn’t meet. Thus the indicated tactic was to aim the workers’ fire straight at the employers and catch the union bureaucrats in the middle. If they didn’t react positively they would stand discredited.”

These last two sentences have been distorted by some on the left to mean “fire straight at the employers, and ignore the union bureaucrats altogether.” They imagine that by demanding modest reforms, they are acting in the best traditions of Farrell Dobbs. “We’re firing at the employers, you see!” However, to repeat Dobbs, the whole point was to put the union bureaucracy “up against leadership responsibilities that they couldn’t meet.” Local 574’s demand of the union bureaucracy was nothing less than to lead a class war against the capitalists in Minneapolis, which is what the strike later evolved into. Of course, the union bureaucracy could never do this, which is why they stood discredited. Today, certain reformists imagine they are following in Dobbs’ footsteps when they propose reforms that the union bureaucracy can easily assimilate. These individuals may have read Teamster Rebellion, but they have clearly not understood it.

Building the union

The strength of Trotskyism had been decisively proven after the success of the coal yards campaign. Shortly after the strike, a mass meeting was held to discuss the need for a revolutionary party. According to Dobbs, “It proved to be one of the biggest gatherings of its kind in the city in years.” In attendance were a number of coal workers, many of whom would soon join the League. The next step was to organise the remaining truckers in Minneapolis, in anticipation of an even larger strike for union recognition.

However, most of those spearheading the drive were not themselves officials in Local 574. Therefore, an organising committee would need to be created for this purpose. This was voted for at a general meeting of Local 574. Among those elected were Dobbs, Skoglund and DeBoer. While not the formal leadership in the union, the Organizing Committee commanded such respect from its members that it was treated as such.

The newly elected committee pushed for a mass meeting to be held in order to advance the union drive. This was resisted by sections of the official union leadership at first. However, the pressure from below soon forced them to accept the proposal. It helped that among the union leadership was Bill Brown, a close supporter of the League who fought on their behalf.

The committee also put pressure on Minnesota Governor Floyd B. Olson to speak at the meeting. Olson belonged to the now defunct Farmer-Labour Party (FLP), which was composed of both workers and farmers. The League had always been critical of the FLP, explaining how it would defect to the capitalists at the critical moment. However, the party still commanded support among many workers, and having Olson speak would put him on record as supporting the campaign. This was useful, if only to expose him at a later point.

The meeting was held on April 15, 1934. The theater it was held in was packed to the brim. After the meeting was over, the membership of Local 574 had climbed to more than 3,000 members. This is compared to only 75 members just a year before. The meeting also voted to strike if the employers didn’t meet the union’s demands, and elected a strike committee to lead it.

The demands of the union were rejected outright by the trucking bosses. Local 574 was accused of engineering a “communist plot.” The demand for union recognition in particular was dismissed as ludicrous. An “Advisory Committee” was soon set up by the employers at a local hotel to coordinate the crushing of the truckers. Things were rapidly heading in the direction of an all-out strike. The response from Tobin was predictably tepid. Despite this, the Organizing Committee did everything it could to get the AFL leadership on record as supporting the strike.

As Cannon notes:

“They began working through the Central Labour Union, by conferences with the labor skates [union bureaucrats — ML] as well as by pressure from below, to put the whole labour movement in Minneapolis on record in support of these newly organized truck drivers; worked tirelessly to involve the officials of the Central Labour Union in the campaign, to have resolutions passed endorsing their demands, to make them take official responsibility.”

Finally, on May 15, 1934, a meeting was called by the leadership of Local 574. The negotiating committee reported the employers’ refusal to accept any of the union’s demands. A standing vote was taken that gave unanimous approval to shut down the city. The Great Minneapolis Strike had begun.

The creativity of the working class

One of the hallmarks of the Minneapolis Strike was its inventiveness. A common argument against socialism is that workers don’t possess the same creativity as their bourgeois counterparts. This idea is false to the core. If workers don’t appear to be creative in their day-to-day lives, that is only because their imagination is suppressed in the workplace. Instead, workers are forced to perform mindless tasks to create profits for someone else. Only in the course of struggle, freed for a moment from the capitalist drudgery, are these pent-up creative forces truly unleashed on a mass scale. The Minneapolis Strike is proof of this.

The hub of the strike was the headquarters at 1900 Chicago Avenue. From here, all instructions, material aid, and manpower was sent out. Dobbs gives a description of life at HQ:

“Union carpenters and plumbers were installing gas stoves, sinks, and serving counters in the commissary. The Cooks and Waiters Union sent experts on mass cooking and serving to help organize things and train the volunteer help. Working in two twelve-hour shifts, over 100 volunteers served 4000 to 5000 people daily. Sandwiches and coffee were always available and a hot meal was served whenever the commissary resources and the circumstances of the strike permitted. In addition, arrangements were made so that key personnel could sleep in or near the headquarters for the duration.”

A danger existed in sending strikers to hospital. Often they would find police there waiting to arrest them. For this reason, a makeshift hospital was set up in HQ, including a full medical staff with doctors and nurses. Their service was so efficient that, despite the numerous wounds inflicted on strikers, not one serious infection was developed. A legal team was also created to provide support to strikers. General assemblies were held every evening in the building, where workers would be given updates on the strike or listen to different speakers to boost their morale.

Things were just as well-organised outside HQ as they were inside. Dobbs and Ray Dunne were responsible for picket dispatch. In the previous coal yards strike, the workers had invented the tactic of flying pickets. This tactic was finally mastered and applied on a wide scale in the May strike. Picket lines usually occupy a static position outside of a workplace. However, this had limited usefulness for truck drivers, since cargo was constantly on the move. How would they stop a scab driver who was in transit? The solution was a simple one: if cargo was on the move, then so should the pickets.

In order to monitor scab activity, teenagers with motorcycles were enlisted to traverse the city and keep watch. An impromptu intelligence service was also set up. This involved individuals who supported the strike phoning in scab activities regularly to HQ. In the building’s garage were stored a fleet of trucks, ready to be sent out a moment’s notice to stop a scab truck. This tactic allowed Local 574 to be everywhere at once. In the words of Dobbs, “Nothing moved on wheels without the union’s permission.”

DailyOrganizer Image Minnesota Digital LibraryA 1934 edition of "The Organizer" / Image: Minnesota Digital Library

At the heart of everything was The Organizer, Local 574’s regular newspaper. It began at the start of the strike as a weekly. In a short amount of time, it had become a daily with a circulation of more than 10,000. According to Dobbs, “It was the first strike daily ever published by a union in the United States.” As today, the corporate press in Minneapolis had presented a one-sided view of the strike, almost always in favour of the employers. The Organizer was an invaluable tool in refuting such “fake news.” Day by day, articles in The Organizer presented the real facts to workers, drawing lessons from the strike and preparing the strikers for what was to come. Here too the revolutionary party played a role. The chief editors of the paper were Max Shachtman and Herbert Solow, League members who had been flown in to Minneapolis for that purpose. Cannon also contributed articles. The Organizer showed how Marxist theory could be used to understand the dynamics of the strike, as well as setting an appropriate course of action. In this, it was not only a strike bulletin, but also a collective organizer. This proved invaluable to the strikers. As Cannon said, “Without the Organizer the strike would not have been won.”

The role of the state

The question of the state is of vital importance to Marxists. For many reformist “intellectuals,” this question has been altogether overlooked. Instead, they choose to focus exclusively on “bread and butter issues,” and leave the question of the state for sometime in the future. Fortunately, the League was not infected by this same problem. Its members undertook a careful study of the state, which prepared them for when the state bore down on the strike in Minneapolis.

From day one, the employers resorted to naked force to crush the strike. The first major attack occurred on May 19, as a number of strikers were clubbed by police for attempting to halt a scab truck. Later that evening, a police provocateur notified a union meeting that a scab truck under heavy police protection would be delivering a bundle of newspapers. As the strikers arrived, they were ambushed by police and beaten mercilessly. The truck drivers, however, had no interest in being the victims of a one-sided class war. Too many strikes had been defeated this way in the past. Instead, they decided to fight back.

In just a few hours, strike headquarters was transformed into a highly disciplined military command post. The League is what made this possible, as Cannon notes:

“Proceeding from these general concepts, the Minneapolis Trotskyists, in the course of organizing the workers, planned a battle strategy. Something unique was seen in Minneapolis for the first time. That is, a strike that was thoroughly organized beforehand, a strike prepared with the meticulous detail which they used to attribute to the Germany army — down to the last button sewn on the uniform of the last individual soldier.”

Dobbs described the scene in strike headquarters the following day:

“All day Sunday the strikers equipped themselves for battle. Baseball bats appeared; garden hoses were cut into short lengths, lead washers were tamped into the hollow and the ends closed with friction tape to make an improvised sap. Volunteers from the Carpenters’ Union sawed two-by-twos into club lengths. A sympathizer came to the strike headquarters pulling a child’s coaster wagon loaded with bannisters posts taken from the stairway at home, his wife steadying the load. To make improvised helmets, heavy cardboard was stuffed inside the sweatband of hats. A fellow striker would be asked to test it out with a club, and if the result was negative, more cardboard would be added.”

This all culminated in the famous “Battle of the Market.” On Sunday evening, cars carrying five or six strikers at a time arrived at an AFL building close to the loading docks. Only two or three strikers would end up leaving. In this way, Local 574 had built up a secret reserve force for the following day. An additional 900 reserves were kept at the strike headquarters. On Monday morning, drivers began to load cargo under the supervision of a few hundred police and thugs. Before long, a picketer was clubbed by police. Now was the time for action. At the call, hundreds of armed strikers moved into formation and unleashed their fury on the police. By the end of the day, not less than thirty cops and deputies were hospitalised. For the first time, an open battle between the police and workers had resulted in a draw. This has led to the “Battle of Market” being referred to by some as the “Battle of Deputies’ Run.”

Over the course of the strike, other methods would be employed to crush the truck drivers. Shortly after the market battle, Governor Olson deployed the state militia to maintain “order,” a decision which was promptly denounced by Local 574. This was not the last time during the strike that he would do so.

Marxists have always said that, in the final analysis, the state is the armed bodies of men in defence of private property. The Minneapolis Strike offers striking proof of this. However, with the help of the League, the truck drivers were not taken by surprise when the mask of capitalist democracy was shed. Quite the opposite: they were ready to tackle it head-on. Theory, as Trotsky once said, is the advantage of foresight over astonishment.

The federal government employed a different tactic, that of mediation. However, this was done for the same purpose: to head off the strike. Most strikes, instead of being defeated in open battle, are usually defeated long before in boardroom negotiations. Here, the bosses and their political lackeys use every ploy imaginable to manipulate the union leaders and convince them to call the whole thing off. However, these clever negotiators had never before gone up against Trotskyists, as Cannon recounts:

“[The mediators] were nothing but the agents of the government in Washington, which in turn is the agent of the employing class as a whole. This was perfectly clear to a Marxist, and we took it as rather an insult for them to assume that we could be taken in by the methods they employed with novices. They tried it though. Apparently they didn’t know any other methods. But they didn’t make an inch of headway before they got down to cases, put pressure on the bosses and made concessions to the union.”

Both the government and employers shifted constantly between war and diplomacy to end the strike. At each stage, they were skillfully outmaneuvered by the League which, having studied history, knew every last trick of the capitalist class. The bosses soon realised this with dismay. In the words of one of them, “I can conceive of dealing with a conservative and responsible labour leader, but certainly not with any of the AF of L leaders in Minneapolis.”

Bloody Friday

Every great strike seems to have its own “Bloody” day. In the 1905 strike in Russia, it was “Bloody Sunday.” In the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, it was “Bloody Saturday.” In the Minneapolis Strike, it was “Bloody Friday.”

Not long after the “Battle of Deputies’ Run,” the police were issued shotguns to be used against picketers. Chief Michael J. Johanes told his police force, “We’re going to be moving goods. Don’t take a beating. You have shotguns and you know how to use them.” The police were rapidly losing control of the situation in Minneapolis and were desperate to control it.

On Friday, July 20, a scab truck pulled out of the Slocum-Bergren loading dock, escorted by more than 100 police in squad cars. As was routine, a picket car holding nine to 10 unarmed picketers chased after it. Then, out of nowhere, cops opened fire on the picket car. Two picketers immediately lay unconscious on the ground. As bystanders rushed to help them, they were shot at as well.

One nurse recounts the horror at strike headquarters as the wounded started to arrive:

“When the first man was carried in, foaming at the mouth, gray as cement, unconscious, someone screamed. In less time that it can be told, 47 men lay unconscious on improvised cots, their bodies riddled with bullet wounds.”

By the end of Bloody Friday, 67 were reported wounded. Two picketers, Henry Ness and John Belor, were killed. After this, public support swung decisively behind the strike. Hundreds of workers from other industries poured into the strike headquarters to offer their support. Fearing an impending raid, police were driven off all the streets surrounding the building. Money started to flow in to Local 574 from other unions. Sections of the middle class began to swing behind the union.

An already planned evening meeting for July 20 was swarmed by 15,000 workers, all of them seething with anger. The call went out for a one-day strike of all transportation unions, which was soon heeded. Laundry workers went out on strike in support of Local 574. Even the unemployed, many of whom were in federal “make-work” projects, voted to go on strike in support of the union. At the funeral for Henry Ness, 20,000 participated in a mass march alongside the hearse, and some 40,000 attended the funeral throughout the day.

FunderalProcession Image Teamster Nation BlogFuneral procession for Henry Ness / Image: Teamster Nation Blog

The anger was captured in Ness’ funeral oration, delivered by one Albert Goldman:

“We must avenge his murder. This we shall do if we struggle to win this strike, if we struggle to throw the exploiters from off our backs and to establish a new social order in which the worker may enjoy the fruits of his toil.”

In such a heated environment, many rash decisions were made. Individual members of Local 574 started to take up arms. At this stage, an armed confrontation with the state would have been a pure adventure. In a head-on battle with the National Guard, the workers had little chance of victory. Such an outcome was only prevented after a direct appeal to disarm was made by Dobbs and Ray Dunne. Just to be safe, the two men also went around to collect the guns.

A similar situation occurred in July of 1917 in Russia. During that month, a number of Bolshevik workers staged an armed demonstration in Petrograd against the government, having grown impatient with the tempo of the revolution. However, the rest of the country had not yet swung decisively behind the Bolshevik program, and an attempt at taking power then would have resulted in a bloody defeat. The Bolshevik leadership therefore urged restraint. Only by doing so were they able to preserve their forces for when the situation later changed in the runup to October. Once more, we see how indispensable a revolutionary party is. Had it not been for the leadership seeing ahead, and knowing when to yell "retreat!" the outcome in Russia would have been very different indeed. So too in Minneapolis.

‘A state of insurrection’

Governor Olson was rapidly losing control of the situation. Martial law was declared in response to what he called a “state of insurrection.” In a last-ditch attempt, Olson directed the National Guard to take control of strike headquarters and the AFL building, arresting all those inside. Four thousand additional guardsmen were deployed in the city for this reason. Olson’s plan was to arrest the main strike leaders, those belonging to the League, and strike out a separate settlement with a “rank-and-file” committee in the union. However, despite arresting some of the strike leaders, the union held firm against Olson’s attempts to divide it.

The call soon went out for a general strike in response to the military occupation and arrests. One of the headlines of The Organizer read: “Answer Military Tyranny by a General Protest Strike!” Demands were placed on the Minneapolis AFL leadership to lead the strike. This was promptly rejected. Instead they provided cover for Olson, and conspired within Local 574 to replace its leadership in the next election. Other attempts were made by AFL officials to split the union. Inside the local, the executive tried to override the Organizing Committee, insisting it had supreme authority. After their motion was defeated, members of the executive started to spread lies about the strike leaders in the union ranks. All of these despicable actions served to discredit the labour bureaucracy in the eyes of workers; in particular their refusal to lead a general strike. As Dobbs said, this was a responsibility they couldn’t meet. Much of this backlash would feed into the superseding of the AFL by the CIO in the coming years.

However, even the active sabotage of the labour bureaucracy couldn’t hold back what was evolving in Minneapolis. The working class started to feel its power like never before. Nothing moved in Minneapolis without prior approval of the union. The combined forces of the police and the National Guard were no match for them. For the first time, it felt as though as the workers were the masters of the city and not the capitalists.

In Marxist terms, this was a situation of dual power. Similar developments can be seen in almost every great movement of the working class. The old capitalist state was dying on its feet, while alongside it emerged the faint outlines of a future workers’ government. Dobbs understood the implications of this:

“If a comparable situation had existed nationally, what began as a simple trade-union action could have broadened into a sweeping social conflict leading toward a revolutionary confrontation of state power.”

Had there existed a Marxist leadership in every major American city, history could have been very different. Indeed, given the objective conditions, American capitalism could have been overthrown in the 1930s. Unfortunately, the American Trotskyists were far too small to play this role at the time. Nonetheless, the capitalists were still terrified of where the strike of Local 574 could lead. This was the beast they could not slay. At a certain point, they had no option but to concede.

At the request of a federal mediator, the employers finally gave in to the demands of Local 574. Under the new proposal, a collective bargaining election was to be held in ten days. Scabs would not be allowed to vote. In any places where Local 574 won a majority, the bosses would be forced to negotiate with it. In addition to this, Local 574 was given the right to represent “inside workers”, i.e. all those employees in a firm except office workers and salesmen. Minimum wage rates were also established. The proposal was almost unanimously approved at the general membership meeting on Aug. 21. By this point, the membership of Local 574 had climbed to more than 7,000 members. Following the vote, workers broke out into an triumphant chorus of “Solidarity Forever.” The elections resulted in Local 574 becoming the representative for 61 per cent of all employees in the general trucking industry. In almost all of the large companies, workers voted three to one for the union. In a formerly open-shop town like Minneapolis, this was an enormous conquest.

After the strike, Minneapolis was no longer known as a “scabs’ paradise.” It now went by a new name: “a city of hope for those who toil.” This is not just hyperbole. The shot fired by the Local 574 was one heard across the United States. In a few years, industrial unionism would spread across all of North America, having received an enormous push in Minneapolis. Moreover, the union had lit a spark of militant action which would soon erupt into one of the largest strike waves in United States history. It is almost hard to believe that this all started with just a few thousand truck drivers in Minneapolis, and the few dozen Trotskyists who led them. And yet it did.

The hope for the future

Today, the labour movement in North America finds itself in a parlous state. Everywhere you look, the anger of the working class is contained by an out-of-touch labour bureaucracy. In place of militant action, we get moderation. In place of class struggle, we get class collaboration. In place of gains for workers, we get defeat after defeat, sellout after sellout, and the madness never seems to end.

Like never before, the movement needs to draw on the lessons of the Great Minneapolis Strike. The most important of these lessons should not need to be stated, however, we shall repeat it one more time for those who have forgotten. To quote once more Harry DeBoer, "We couldn't have done it without a disciplined revolutionary party." It is hard to disagree with him.

In all the key aspects of the Minneapolis Strike, the decisive role was played by the Communist League of America. The building of Local 574, the demands for which the strike was led, the military discipline with which the strike was defended—all of these things were furnished by a revolutionary party. Today’s "Marxist" intellectuals have produced piles and piles of unintelligible books, given lectures on the need for "capacity," spent their weekends building "networks," knocked on doors, put up posters, circulated petitions, and yes, even written articles about circulating petitions. In short, they have done everything but build a revolutionary party. These individuals, with their experience and knowledge, could be helping to lead a fight against labour bureaucracy. Instead, they have too often acted as its left cover.

To this we can only shrug our shoulders. The future is not with them, but with the next generation of young militants, the future Farrell Dobbses, Harry DeBoers and Carl Skoglunds. This next generation will have no time for the machinations of the labour bureaucrats or for the tomfoolery of the "Marxist" intellectuals. These young militants will transform the entire labour movement from top to bottom. Their unions will be unrecognisable from the ones we have today—lively, democratic, and most important of all, ready to fight. The labour movement will return to the genuine ideas of Marxism, but on a far higher level than in the past. Of this we are absolutely certain. For our part, we are proud to stand on those great traditions of the past, and eager to play a role in the even greater movements of the future.

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