SEVENTY YEARS ago, a general strike movement led by a small Trotskyist
group in the US city of Minneapolis resulted in a victory for the Teamsters
general union and marked a decisive phase in the struggle of US labour.
CHRISTIAN BUNKE explains the importance of this chapter of workers’ history
and the lessons for today’s generation of socialist activists in the unions.
IN 1933, Farrell Dobbs and Marvell Scholl, a young working class couple,
arrived in Minneapolis full of optimism and plans for their future. But after
joining the "great army of the unemployed", they would all too soon find out
about the casualised nature of the labour market in Minneapolis.
Farrell Dobbs entered casual employment as a truck driver for coal
companies and experienced poverty wages, long working hours as well as unsafe
working conditions. Because of the economic crisis at the time, workers’
living conditions were getting worse, rather then better.
As he would describe later in his acclaimed book, Teamster Rebellion, he
found the local labour movement in a bad state. There was no union that would
take in the casual drivers who were driving for coal depots, groceries,
butchers and other local businesses. There existed a nominal local (branch) of
the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), the union responsible for
This was organised along very narrow and elitist craft lines. Daniel J.
Tobin, then president of the union, wrote in the union newspaper that IBT
members were: "not the rubbish that have come into other organisations." He
also said he did not want people to join if "they are going on strike
tomorrow." Tobin and his fellow union officials enjoyed a lavish lifestyle and
extremely high wages. No wonder then, that under such a leadership the IBT
never won any disputes.
However, Farrell got in contact with members of the Trotskyist organisation
at the time, the Communist League. These were also casualised workers, who
were in the process of transforming the local Teamster branch into a genuine
and fighting workers’ organisation.
By forming a voluntary organising committee, the Trotskyists started
recruiting workers from the coalfields into the union. By involving the best
rank-and-file fighters and recruiting successfully to the union, the committee
was soon seen as the real leadership of the local union. The officialdom was
When a mass meeting of drivers in the coal sector, called by the committee,
decided to take strike action for more pay and shorter working hours, the
officials had no choice but to submit. Tobin tried to enforce the official and
very bureaucratic union rules, but he was powerless as the workers took
The strike was carried out swiftly and in a militant manner with a
democratically elected leadership that really represented the will of the
workers. Rank-and-file militants developed new methods of picketing, like
cruising pickets with carloads of picketers ready to intervene wherever
necessary. Although the police tried to break the strike with truncheons and
arrests, the strikers achieved a quick victory.
The employers were completely taken by surprise. IBT local 574 won the
strike, thus electrifying the workers in Minneapolis. It was the first ever
successful strike in this city, thousands of workers were now joining the
However, this was only the beginning. Local 574 now launched a massive
campaign culminating in a city-wide strike involving truck drivers and hitting
pretty much every business. The employers, organised in a body called
"citizens alliance," were fuming.
Unemployed and women’s organisations associated to the union were founded
in order to support the strike. Many unemployed were also casualised workers
and it was important to involve them in the struggle, firstly in order to
prevent them from being used as strike breakers, but also to involve them in
the battle that was fought in their interest as well.
The women’s organisation predominantly organised the strikers’ wives.
Thousands of women were politicised and got active because of the dispute.
As before, the strike leadership was democratically elected and accountable
to the strikers at all times. Regular mass meetings and rallies were held not
only to keep up morale but also to involve members in the decision-making
A newspaper called The Organizer was published on a daily basis to provide
strikers and the local working class with information about the strike. It
played a vital role to counter the misinformation and propaganda the bosses
put out through the various capitalist media. The citizens alliance repeatedly
tried to stop the paper from appearing and even used methods of intimidation
and terrorism in order to achieve this goal, but to no avail.
A massive strike headquarters was built, complete with a hospital and a
kitchen serving hundreds of meals per day. This was possible because of the
support from other trade unions, for example the trade union of kitchen
workers whose members volunteered to run the HQ’s kitchen. This gave a true
glimpse of what would be possible under socialism, when ordinary people are in
charge of running society.
The police immediately attacked the strikers. There were running battles
between armed picketers and the police. At one stage, the military was used
against the strikers and the HQ got raided. On Friday 20 July, one worker was
deliberately shot dead by the police.
Despite all these provocations, the strikers and the picketers remained a
disciplined force at all times. Picketers were only armed after the first
police atrocities and only the most disciplined activists were given arms.
Although the strikers received massive support from other workers and other
trade union branches, the national IBT leadership always tried to sabotage the
struggle. Tobin declared the strike illegal and wrote polemics against the
strike leaders in the national union newspaper.
The Communist Party was also not helpful. It was, by then, a completely
Stalinised organisation with no roots within the working class. Once the
strike took off, its members tried to muscle themselves in by demanding
leadership positions and calling those Trotskyists without whom this strike
would never have happened, "sell outs".
CP members, in contrast, where never involved in actively building the
union. The workers, however, saw through such bullyboy tactics and the CP
never got anywhere.
After a long war of attrition, during which the employers tried everything
in their power to break the union, they finally agreed to compromise in August
1934. Minimum wage rates for drivers and other casual workers were agreed, a
board of arbitration with union representation was set up.
As with most strikes, the end result was a compromise. The minimum wage was
lower then the original union demand. However, it was still a resounding
victory for the working class. Local 574 gained the right to represent casual
workers in all major workplaces in Minneapolis. The union had gained an
unprecedented level of strength.
However, as the The Organizer warned, "the strike ends but the struggle
does not end". Every victory for the working class will only be temporary, as
long as capitalism exists. Every compromise only sets the stage for future
conflict. In Minneapolis, there would be a number of skirmishes between the
union and the employers after the strike.
The Communist League gained hundreds of new members and developed a
powerful base in Minneapolis as a result of the strike. Its members had been
the effective leaders of the union at all stages.
During the strike, workers had been politicised and learned first hand
about the true role of the police and the nature of class society. The most
political workers drew Marxist conclusions and joined what they saw as being
the genuine Marxist organisation.
Local 574 showed in practice that it is possible to organise casualised
workers, to fight and to win better working conditions and higher wages. This
alone makes it worth commemorating this historic battle 70 years ago.
Today, when most trade union officials sit on their hands and enjoy high
wages – while doing little to unionise young workers or to organise struggles
against low pay, long hours and dangerous working conditions – it is more
important then ever to look back at this successful struggle, a powerful proof
that fighting trade unions can win.