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This Day in Labor History: May 16, 1934

[ 33 ] May 16, 2012 |

On May 16, 1934, a mere week after longshoremen in San Francisco walked off the job and roiled the west coast, truckers in Minneapolis went on strike in an action that would lead the way for the Teamsters to represent truckers across the nation and help lay the groundwork for the organization of industrial workers across the nation during the 1930s.

In the early 1930s, the Teamsters were already a conservative and often corrupt union, particularly in the upper eschelons of leadership. But the locals were a different story. Because they organized truck drivers, the workplace of teamsters was the road. They saw a lot of worksites and talked to a lot of different people. They developed a strong sense of solidarity with other workers and their struggles. On the local level, this atmosphere could help generate radicalism. Such was the case in Minneapolis where members of the Communist League of America took control of Local 574. By working in the coldest, harshest conditions, they organized the coal drivers in the winter of 1934, forcing employers to cave so that coal could be delivered. This success led truckers to join Local 574 in droves.

Minneapolis was a vociferously anti-union city. Knowing that the employers would absolutely refuse any of their demands, the most important of which was union recognition and the sole right as bargaining agent, as well as the ability to represent workers inside the distribution centers, the communist union organizers prepared for this strike well. They had discussions with local farmers about how not to hurt them with the strike. They rented a large building for strike headquarters and organized a Ladies’ Auxiliary to help feed and support the men on strike through any number of actions that included daily demonstrations.

Local 574 called the strike for May 16, despite opposition from the national leadership, a group that the radical leaders of the local effectively ignored whenever possible. The strike escalated quickly, as police responses were harsh and violent. On May 19, strikers were attempted to stop scab drivers from unloading a truck when the cops started beating them. Injured strikers were dragged back to strike headquarters where more fighting followed that left 2 police officers unconscious on the street. The powerbrokers of Minneapolis responded by expanding the Citizens Alliance. This was a pro-industry quasi-vigilante group that had existed in Minneapolis since 1903, dedicated to creating “industrial peace.” In this case, they did so by serving as armed strikebreakers. Combining with the cops, the forces of order sought to crack heads on May 21, attempting to open the major distribution center for deliveries. Cops attacked strikers who were trying to stop a truck from moving. Hundreds of strikes ran over to help them, cops pulled their weapons, and it’s possible that the only reason large numbers of people didn’t die that day is because the Teamsters drove a truck into the middle of it, splitting the cops into 2 sections and creating a scenario where they’d have to shoot at each other if they were to shoot strikers. The next day, fighting resumed, leading to the deaths of one cop and one leader of the Citizens’ Alliance.

One thing I appreciate about many strikes from this period is the sophisticated understanding of how to gain support for strikes by allowing certain kinds of economic activities to take place. For instance, the Teamsters could have shut down all trade within Minneapolis. But these guys, well-versed in ideas of solidarity, saw that in doing so, they would hurt local farmers. So they allowed local farmers to trade their goods in the city, but directly to stores rather in the big market area targeted by the strike. This helped build support around the region.

At this point, the governor of Minnesota, Floyd Olson, took a leading role in mediating the strike. He mobilized the National Guard but did not call it in because he didn’t want to alienate the labor unions who had voted him into office, Instead, he negotiated an agreement on May 25. But the strike only ended briefly because the employes reneged on much of the agreement by early June, refusing to allow the IBT to organize the distribution center workers. The union ordered its members to not carry weapons of any kind at this point. The cops on the other hand, armed themselves to the teeth.

On July 20, 50 armed police escorted a truck to make a delivery. The strikers, wielding clubs and other homemade weapons, stopped the truck. The police opened fire with buckshot. 2 strikers died and 67 were wounded. On July 26, Governor Olson declared martial law and ordered the markets open for business. Olson called 4000 members of the National Guard and began escorting trucks into the marketplace. On August 1, the National Guard seized the strike headquarters and placed all the leaders into a corral at the state fairgrounds.

But even though the declaration of martial law and the weakened financial strength of the union placed the strike in extreme jeopardy, the Teamsters managed to win. 35,000 members of the building trade unions walked out in solidarity. Public opinion turned harsh against the mayor and police chief of Minneapolis with widespread calls for impeaching both. The strikers stated repeatedly that they would not return to their jobs without an agreement. On August 21, the employers submitted a proposal to a federal mediator that incorporated most of the union’s demands and the strike ended. The strike gave the union great power in the city and destroyed the Citizens Alliance, which disbanded in 1936.

That wasn’t the whole story though. The international hated Local 544 for its communist leadership and radical ways. In March 1935, Teamsters’ President Daniel Tobin expelled Local 544 from the IBT, though he was forced to let them back in a year later. This was all somewhat ironic because it was the actions of Local 544 that did more than any other thing to make the IBT a truly national union and a labor powerhouse. The employers eventually got their revenge against the radicals though. In 1941, 18 leaders of the Socialist Workers’ Party (which the Communist League of America had become), including some members of the strike leadership, were sentenced to federal prison for violating the Smith Act of 1940, the first people prosecuted under its unconstitutional provisions.

Over at marxists.org, there is an excellent repository of primary source material about the strike, which I recommend reading when you have time.

This series has also covered the Triangle Fire of 1911 and the murder of Frank Steunenberg in 1905.

Comments (33)

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  1. greylocks says:

    What always stands out for me in these histories is that people were willing to die for the cause of workers’ rights, and others were willing to kill to keep them from getting them. Clearly, both sides thought there was far more at stake here than better wages and working conditions.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      “Clearly, both sides thought there was far more at stake here than better wages and working conditions.”

      This is absolutely true and it is an important point. So many people today think unions exist just to get fat-cat salaries for working-class people, but that’s never been the point (regardless of whether such salaries exist). Unionization is about dignity and control over one’s own life. Industrialists were willing to kill workers to maintain control over the workforce and workers were willing to die to gain control. Today, employers are certainly willing to kill (as we see in the developing world), but in the US, they’ve moved onto more subtle means.

      • David Kaib says:

        “Unionization is about dignity and control over one’s own life.”

        Organizers will generally tell you that if you want to mobilize people to do something more than check a box, this is the message, not ‘we can get you more money.’

        That people often seem to believe that individuals don’t deserve these things in their working hours but do the rest of the time is one of the more odd things about our political culture.

        • DocAmazing says:

          That people often seem to believe that individuals don’t deserve these things in their working hours but do the rest of the time is one of the more odd things about our political culture.

          That’s “The Ownership Society” in a nutshell. I own your ass as long as I hae you on the clock; you own your ass the rest of the time. (Subject to law enforcement approval, of course.)

          • David Kaib says:

            Very true, but it’s older than that. Feudalism still operated in the employment relationship long after it was dead in politics. Your caveat at the end is important – increasingly, we don’t really get these things anywhere. Neoliberalism is about employer control over you at work and state control over you at all other times.

          • Holden Pattern says:

            This doesn’t adequately address the employer position. Employers want you to be accountable to them for all the rest of the time as well, even though they only pay you for the time you’re formally on the clock.

  2. John Emerson says:

    The Minneapolis truckers’ strike was led by Trotskyists and may be the only successful thing Trotskyists ever did anywhere.

  3. John Emerson says:

    The Trotskyists were the three Dunn brothers, Farrel Dobbs, and a Swede named Skoglund. Not only was the union local in rebellion against the national Teamsters, but the national Trotskists (who were just getting started) didn’t know what was happening until the strike was well under way.

    A fourth Dunn brother was a Communist and spoke in opposition to the strike until the CP figured out that coalition with right-wing Republicans was not a good idea.

    Farmers were authorized to bring in shipments by the Farmer’s Holiday, a militant farmer’s group which used the strike as a recruitment tool.

    Gov. Olson tried to raid the HQ of the anti-strike goon squads too, but someone in the National guard gave them a warning and they ran with their files.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      We need more militant farmers’ groups. One of these days, I’m going to write one of these posts on socialist farmers in Texas in the early 20th century.

      • Linnaeus says:

        I know someone who is writing about radical farmers in the northern US plains and the Canadian prairies. Should be interesting to see what he ends up publishing.

      • DrDick says:

        There were a bunch of agrarian socialists in Oklahoma, as well. It is a big reason why the state constitution is so progressive (if insanely detailed). For instance, the constitution mandates that no insurance company can charge higher rates in Oklahoma than the lowest rates they charge in the country.

        • Murc says:

          You guys have fallen a long way from your roots as a state full of socialist farmers that was founded by proudly illegal immigrants.

      • Bill Murray says:

        as “farmers” fairly heavily consist of corporations, this seems pretty unlikely

  4. John Emerson says:

    North Dakota too.

    The poor farmers gradually got squeezed out, though, and agribiz took over and started pulling in subsidies, so farmers are a long shot politically.

  5. [...] of the major events in American labor history (a total of 26 so far). This week the focus is on Minneapolis in 1934:On May 16, 1934, a mere week after longshoremen in San Francisco walked off the job and roiled the [...]

  6. Melissa says:

    Have you considered adding Canadian events to This Day in Labor History? Upcoming are the On to Ottawa trekkers & the Regina riot (July 1, 1935) and the Beanfait strike and riot (September 29, 1931). It’s also instructive to replace the romance of the Mounties with the standard functions of police.

  7. These posts are fantastic, Erik.

    • Hogan says:

      Yeah. I love the state Top Ten posts, but if it’s a choice between these and those (and it almost certainly is), then I vote for these.

      • Erik Loomis says:

        Yeah, I should get back to the state posts more frequently, but this series has a lot more meaning and it’s hard to justify 1000 word posts more than once or twice a week.

  8. [...] Riot May 9, 1934–Longshoremen strike begins in San Francisco May 16, 1934–Minneapolis Teamsters Strike May 19, 1920–Matewan Massacre May 30, 1937–Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago June 6, [...]

  9. […] moment in American history, I’d choose the spring of 1934. Huge strikes roiled San Francisco, Minneapolis, and […]

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