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Anniversary of the 1934 Minneapolis strikes
Revolutionary US Teamsters
Alan Jones and Ty Moore, Socialist Alternative, USA
This year marks the 80th anniversary of one of the greatest labour revolts in US history, the strikes of the Minneapolis Teamsters. Led by socialists, this historic strike opened an era of unprecedented revolt of the US working class. Over the course of the following decade, the labour movement would establish itself as a powerful institution in American society and utterly transform the lives of millions of workers for generations to follow.
After a decade of defeats and setbacks in the 1920s and early 1930s, workers' power and unionisation rates were at a low point. Organised labour was dominated by the conservative craft unionism of the American Federation of Labour (AFL). The bad situation was made worse by the Great Depression, causing mass unemployment and a dramatic decline in wages.
By 1933, the pent-up anger of workers exploded into militant unionisation drives across the country. But nearly all ended in defeats, with conservative union leaders incapable of defending workers against violent police repression and fierce attacks by the employers and their hired guns.
In stark contrast, the victory of the Minneapolis Teamsters strike in 1934 showed that combative class struggle methods and mass, democratic 'industrial unionism' could defeat big business and its allies in government.
The fierce class confrontations that unfolded in Minneapolis brought one of three major strike victories in 1934, all led by socialists.
Alongside the Minneapolis truckers, the Toledo auto-parts workers and the longshoremen in San Francisco proved that workers, using the mass strike as their weapon, could fight and win.
These three strike victories opened the floodgates, which led to the emergence of the powerful Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO) in 1937.
The events of 1934 are by no means the only historical moment when the genuine ideas of Marxism were demonstrated to be the most effective guide for workers' movements to win victories.
The most committed and respected workers in Teamsters Local (branch) 574 - those who led the strikes - were principled socialists and veterans of the class struggle. They had been expelled from the Communist Party in 1928 - forming the Communist League of America (CLA) - for refusing to denounce co-leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky.
It was not simply a matter of countering the timidity and conservatism of the union bureaucrats with a revolutionary spirit and firm principles. These traits were combined with clear perspectives, an understanding of the strategy and tactics of the class struggle, and how to link the immediate demands of workers to a wider challenge to capitalism and the dictatorship of big business.
Early in 1934, the small Teamsters Local 574 - numbering no more than 120 members - struck against the Minneapolis coal yards. Led by a small core of socialists, the union caught the employers by surprise. The union quickly won formal recognition.
However, the trucking bosses, along with the Citizens Alliance - the powerful business association that effectively ran Minneapolis - had long been hell-bent on crushing union activity. They took pride in maintaining Minneapolis as one of the most notoriously anti-union cities in the country.
Failing to win a contract, after selective strike actions in April, Teamsters Local 574 called a mass meeting on 12 May to take a strike vote against the entire industry.
Local 574 adopted an 'industrial union' approach, admitting as members thousands of truck drivers, helpers, yard workers and workers from various trades. By May 1934 the ranks of Local 574 had grown to over 3,000 members.
The mass meeting on 12 May voted to strike around demands for a 40-hour working week, overtime pay, wage increases, and a closed shop so that all workers in the industry would be represented by the union.
The mass strike began on 16 May, affecting just about every business in Minneapolis, from department stores to factories to groceries and bakeries. Not a truck could move without union permission.
The key tactic employed by the workers to shut down the city was the 'flying squads', mobile pickets stationed throughout the city and dispatched through strike headquarters by telephone whenever a scab truck was spotted. Pickets guarded the major roads, stopping all non-union trucks.
At union headquarters 10,000 people could be fed in a single day by a crew of 120, and there was a hospital with two doctors and three nurses.
The real power for running the strike was the rank-and-file elected strike committee of 100 truck drivers, which met regularly to take all key decisions. They reported to nightly mass meetings. This approach of democratic unionism and mass participation, virtually unheard of today, formed the backbone of union power in Minneapolis.
Another feature of the strike was the extraordinary role of the Women's Auxiliary.
The initial resistance of many union members in an entirely male workforce was overcome by the "explicit, conscious and successful creation of an organised contingent of working class women supporting the male trucking industry workforce" (The Minneapolis Truckers' Strikes of 1934, by Bryan D Palmer).
The Citizens Alliance responded to the success of the union by calling for a "mass movement of citizens" to break the strike. They began enrolling special deputies to join the police in preparations to violently suppress the strike and break up the picket lines.
The famous "Battle of the Deputies Run" ended in a rout of the Citizens Alliance. This epic confrontation between workers, police, and the well-off deputies was recorded in films and pictures. Audiences across the country erupted in cheers and applause as they saw strikers standing firm and routing their well-heeled opponents.
The response of the Citizens Alliance was a huge red-baiting campaign against the "terroristic Communist-led" Truck Drivers' Local 574. After several days of negotiations, the union agreed to a compromise to temporarily end the strike. They won recognition for Local 574 and pay raises for truck drivers while the other issues were to go to arbitration by the local Labour Board.
However, when the employers refused to end their open shop policy, denying the union's right to represent all workers in the industry, Local 574 began preparations for another strike.
When the third strike commenced on 16 July, Local 574 started publishing The Organizer, with a circulation of 10,000. Edited by James Cannon, the central figure in the Communist League of America, The Organizer countered the propaganda and lies of the trucking bosses and the Citizens Alliance, as well as explaining the union's strategy to workers across Minneapolis.
On 20 July, armed police opened fire on strikers in an attempt to break the strike by terror, injuring 67 people. Two strikers died of their injuries. The leaders of the Citizens Alliance were certain that the strike would be broken. However, the police brutality strengthened the solidarity, determination, and resolve of the workers.
With the continuing upheaval threatening to engulf the entire city, Farmer-Labour Governor Floyd Olson declared martial law, calling in National Guard troops to act as strike breakers. At a mass meeting, the workers decided to resume picketing in defiance of the governor. Olson ordered the arrest of the top strike leaders and shut down the strike headquarters.
Pressed by President Roosevelt, who feared the labour revolt in Minneapolis would spread, Olson backed down, called off the troops, released the strike leaders, and returned the strike headquarters.
The strike ended on 21 August, with a mediated agreement that amounted to a huge victory for the union. Most significantly, Local 574 won the right to represent all workers, breaking the employers' hardened adherence to the open shop.
With the bosses' Citizens Alliance defeated, workers in other industries gained the confidence to organise, transforming Minneapolis from a 'company town' to a 'union town'.
Across the Midwest and around the country, workers inspired by Minneapolis got themselves organised. In the following years, under the socialist leadership of Local 574, much of the interstate trucking industry was organised.
The Minneapolis Teamsters of 1934 serve, then and now, as a model for how a strong, rank-and-file controlled union with socialist leadership can gain mass public support and win decisive victories.
- Full version of this article can be read on www.socialistalternative.org
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(247 pages softback)
The classic account of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamster's successful strike movement, written by Teamster's Local leader and Trotskyist Farrell Dobbs.
Dobbs' compendium books Teamster Politics, Teamster Bureaucracy and Teamster Power £14 each + postage. Special offer on all four books, phone - 020 8988 8777 - for details.
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