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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,003

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This is the grave of Floyd Olson.

Born in Minneapolis in 1891, Olson grew up in a Norwegian immigrant family. Despite this, his family lived in a mostly Jewish neighborhood and he learned Yiddish and served as a shabbos goy, which is the Jewish equivalent of the Amish getting on buses to go to Walmart, serving functions to allow people to exist in the modern world while not violating their religious duties. Side note here, but if you’ve never witnessed a bus filled with Amish descend on an Ohio Walmart and fill up cart after cart with the worst possible junk food imaginable, you have not seen all American weirdness.

Anyway, Olson graduated from high school in 1909, worked on the Northern Pacific for a year, then started at the University of Minnesota but had to leave soon after. See, he broke university rules by…..wearing a derby hat. Also for refusing to participate in the university’s required ROTC military training, which was common in land grant institutions. So he was a bit rebellious, though I don’t really get the hat thing. So he hit the road. He went west, working on the docks in Washington and joined the Industrial Workers of the World. Like a lot of Wobblies with a bit of education, he read an awful lot during these years and developed a strong commitment to socialism, in idea if not in discipline. He was never really a Socialist, but he was a socialist. In any case, in 1913, he went back to Minnesota, enrolled in law school, and passed the bar in 1915.

As a rising lawyer, Olson became very interested in Progressive politics and was big to try and get Robert LaFollette to run on a third party ticket in 1920. The brush-headed senator didn’t then but did in 1924. Meanwhile, Olson ran for Congress as a Democrat in 1920, but lost. He became a prosecutor, but unlike lots of prosecutors who just want to throw Black people in prison, Olson took on evil. He loved going after corrupt businessmen and there were no shortage of those in Minnesota. He also took on the Minnesota chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and received a lot of death threats from the racists for this. So he got a lot of publicity and a reputation as a man standing up for social justice. He also became a major friend of labor. In 1923, a Minnesota business group called the Minnesota Citizens Alliance tried to blow up the home of a union leader. Nice guys. So Olson prosecuted them, despite them having support from the state’s conservative establishment. This raised his profile among liberals and socialists enough that he won the nomination for the Farmer Labor Party’s governor nomination in 1924. Even though this was a third party campaign, running closely with LaFollette’s national campaign, he almost won, as the Democrat had all of 6 percent of the vote.

Olson decided not to run again in 1926 or 1928. But he did run in 1930, with the Republican brand in the toilet thanks to the Great Depression and he just swept right into the statehouse.

As governor, Olson really was one of the good ones. He was a pro-labor governor in a state with a burgeoning labor movement and the best effort to connect rural and urban reform politics of any state in the nation. He was a good politician who ran ahead of FDR on left-leaning programs, helping to convince national politicians that this sort of thing was politically possible. Of course like any liberal reformer in these years, he had a strong legislature at his back. Together, they pushed though all sorts of great bills. Olson signed into law a graduated state income tax, a state level social security program, an equal pay law for women (which really is amazing for the early 30s), an expansion of the state’s conservation program, and probably most controversial of all, a collective bargaining law.

All of this pretty quickly cleaved off support from Minnesota’s middle classes who found this too scary and started voting Republican again. But he was beloved by workers. So when the Teamsters walked off the job in 1934 in Minneapolis, one of the four iconic strikes of that year that forced the Roosevelt administration to support the National Labor Relations Act the next year, they knew they had an ally in the statehouse. But this put a ton of stress on Olson. First, this was a Trotskyite local and their radicalism rankled even regular allies, not to mention the Teamsters international. Second, the city of Minneapolis declared open warfare on the strikers regardless of what the governor thought and committed crazy acts of violence. Olson wanted to keep order, including having an orderly strike without police and vigilante violence. So Olson didn’t come out full-throated in favor of the workers. But what he did do was work with the Roosevelt administration to bring a negotiated end to the strike. That meant a big win for the workers in the end and the end of the Minnesota Citizens’ Alliance.

1934 had really solidified Olson as a hero of the working class, even if some radicals were mad that he didn’t do enough for the Teamsters. Now, he didn’t get everything he wanted. He was deeply committed to the kind of sewer socialism that socialists had pushed through in Milwaukee. He strongly believed in the government ownership of utilities and other public goods. Moreover, he thought much of the food industry should be socialized as well, including grain elevators and meatpackers, in order to defeat the monopolies. That was a step too far for the majority of a pretty liberal Minnesota legislature.

Olson was ready to go to Washington. Rather than run again in 1936, he chose to run for the Senate against Minnesota’s incumbent Republican Thomas Schall. Then Schall died in a car accident. Olson chose Elmer Benson to replace him on the condition that he would not run in the general.

There was one big problem with Olson’s plan. He had stomach cancer. He had always struggled with ulcers. But these were getting worse. He was diagnosed in December 1935 and was dead in August 1936. He was 44 years old.

It’s hard to overstate what a tragedy this was. Olson in Washington would have been right there with Robert Wagner as the greatest friend to organized labor. After a Republican won the very short remaining term of Schall, a Farmer-Labor guy named Ernest Lundeen took the seat for the full term. Lundeen was pretty good, at least in the short time he was senator before dying in a plane crash (tough era for Minnesota politicians), but Olson would have been a legend, someone better than Hubert Humphrey, better than Walter Mondale, and I have a lot of respect for the career of both those guys. He probably would have been the greatest politician from the state of Minnesota. Why the good ones get taken out while Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney continue to live today (or, say, any number of Dixiecrats in 1936) is just one of those things that makes you believe that there is no god.

Floyd Olson is buried in Lakewood Cemetery, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

If you would like this series to visit other pro-labor governors in American history, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Frank Murphy, who was governor of Michigan during the Flint Sit-Down Strike before FDR tapped him for the Supreme Court, is in Harbor Beach, Michigan and Davis Waite, the extremely rare governor in the Gilded Age who was pro-worker and who refused to use the state militia as a private service of the employers in the 1894 Cripple Creek strike which nearly led to his own lynching, is in Aspen, Colorado. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

And yes, I remain a terrible photographer.

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