The Third International after Lenin

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Minneapolis Teamster rebellion began 80 years ago

The 1930s Minneapolis Teamsters rebellion
Revolutionary class-conscious leadership and the lessons for today’s militants


In the 1930s a sweeping transformation of the U.S. labor movement took place. The unions, which had been on the decline for much of the 1920s and early ’30s, began to swell in size and combativity.

In Minneapolis, only a few small shops were organized at the opening of the ’30s. The officialdom that dominated these unions had a narrow craft outlook and sought to collaborate with the bosses in hopes of securing a few jobs for a handful of privileged skilled and semiskilled laborers.

In the face of the Great Depression---era crisis, these unions increasingly came under attack by the most powerful local capitalists in Minneapolis. The main employers’ organization, the Citizens Alliance, rigorously pursued antiunion policies. 

Revolutionary leadership central
In this context, members of the Communist League of America in Minneapolis took on the challenge of transforming the local union movement. The Communist League leadership carefully drew up a battle plan and decided to set their sights on the coal yards. Given Minnesota’s harsh winters and the severe economic depression, the city depended on small, frequent deliveries of coal for heat, making the coal industry a strategic target to begin the fight. Hundreds of workers in the coal yards were unorganized.

Going up against both the bosses and the conservative local officialdom in Teamsters Local 574, the communists along with other fight-minded unionists formed a voluntary organizing committee in the open-shop coal yards and began to mobilize support for an industry-wide organizing drive. Demands for union recognition were refused by the coal bosses and the workers struck in February 1934.

The leaders of the strike realized that the first task was to win union recognition, which would get the workers’ foot in the door for the next stage. After the moving of coal was shut down for three days, the bosses gave in and recognized the union. Registering the first union victory in Minneapolis in several years, the union had set the stage for a wider and deeper struggle.

After the first victory the organizing committee won official union status and began to open up a broader struggle to strengthen the union along the lines of deepening the class-consciousness of the ranks and strengthening their control over the union. Further organizing efforts continued and culminated in a mid-April mass rally where the membership declared its demands on the general trucking employers and voted to strike if they were not met. A large strike committee was elected to prepare for this next stage of the battle.

As a strike became more imminent, both sides geared up. The Citizens Alliance helped reinforce the cops with private goon squads and special deputies.

Meanwhile, Local 574 was also making necessary preparations. A strike headquarters was set up, fashioned with a commissary to feed the strikers, a hospital to treat unionists wounded in battle, and a repair shop for the vehicles used by cruising picket squads.

On May 16, 1934, the second strike began. After several days in which the union successfully fended off scab operations, the employers stepped up their offensive. Police and hired thugs launched brutal attacks on the pickets, as the bosses attempted to get their trucks going again. Confronted with these violent assaults the workers maintained the pickets, defending themselves with clubs. After two days of fighting, not one truck moved. A truce was called.

Negotiations resulted in a settlement in which the trucking bosses were forced to recognize the union and meet initial demands on wage raises. The settlement terms were accepted by the union membership, ending the 10-day walkout.

However, shortly after the settlement, the employers said they would deal with the union only for drivers, helpers, and platform workers, and not inside workers. Meanwhile, the bosses began to cut wages and fire a number of unionists. Given the new attacks, a July 16 membership meeting decided by unanimous vote to resume the strike against the trucking companies. 

Ruling class lashes out
Taking to the streets with the same militancy as before, the union shut down the trucking industry the day after the vote. Then, after trucks had been halted for four days, police opened fire on a picket line, wounding 65 and killing two. Mass indignation spread throughout the working class in Minneapolis. The strikers continued their struggle with stronger determination to beat the bosses.

A settlement proposal was soon drafted by federal mediators and endorsed by Minnesota governor Floyd Olson. It called for a pay raise just short of union demands and threatened to impose martial law if the settlement was not accepted. The union decided to accept the terms, but the employers rejected it. Martial law was imposed on the city on July 26 and in the following days troops were ordered to seize the strike headquarters and arrest union leaders, including Communist League leaders Vincent Dunne and Miles Dunne.

Despite the presence of troops however, mass support for the union came to the fore and militant picketing exploded upon the city. Other local unions and supporters of labor condemned the move by Olson and mass pressure forced him to release the union leaders and return the headquarters to the union. 

Local 574 wins
A few weeks went by without advance by either side. Soon a new federal mediator issued a settlement proposal, which included representation for inside workers and a decision on wages to be made through arbitration. The proposal was accepted on August 21, ending the strike and opening up the possibility of union representation to the majority of workers in the general trucking industry. Immediate wage raises were agreed upon with automatic increases every year.

The victory of Local 574 opened the door to a broader campaign to organize the Midwest general trucking industry. Over the next few years, the leadership of Local 544 (the new designation for Local 574 in Minneapolis) and other locals in the region spearheaded an effort to carry the successful organizing drive across several states. In March 1938, an 11-state campaign to organize over-the-road truckers was launched and drew tens of thousands into the union.

Over the course of the transformation of the Teamsters union in the Upper Midwest, revolutionary leadership was decisive in helping make the union an instrument that could defend workers’ interests in the political field as well. Local 544 mobilized union defense against fascist attacks, combated FBI frame-ups, and mobilized labor opposition to U.S. imperialism’s entry into World War II.

The steadfast determination and discipline of the ranks was guided by the highest caliber of proletarian leadership. Carl Skoglund and Vincent Dunne were among the veteran members of the Communist League to work in the Minneapolis coal yards and open up the historic struggle. Many of the best militants were recruited to the communist movement. Farrell Dobbs, a central organizer of the over-the-road campaign later on, emerged from the ranks in the 1934 Minneapolis strikes as a union leader. He later became national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party from 1953 to 1972. He authored a four-volume series on the Teamster battles.

The course of conduct followed by communist unionists served as an example for trade union militants throughout the country. The lessons learned from this historic fight, which are documented in Dobbs’s four-volume series, continues to offer guidance to working-class fighters in the class battles unfolding today.

Further reading: 

The 1934 truck drivers strikes that built the industrial union movement in Minneapolis and helped pave the way for the CIO, recounted in four volumes by a central leader of that battle.

Teamster Rebellion
First in the 4-volume set. Traces the development of the class-struggle leadership of the strikes and organizing drives that transformed the Teamsters union in much of the Midwest into a fighting social movement and pointed the road toward independent labor political action. Also available in Spanish and French.

Teamster Power
Second in the 4-volume set. Describes the growth and consolidation of the Teamsters union in Minneapolis and its class-struggle leadership, and the 11-state over-the-road organizing campaign that brought union power for the first time to much of the Midwest. Also available in Spanish.

Teamster Politics
Third in the 4-volume set. Tells how rank-and-file Teamsters led the fight against antiunion frame-ups and assaults by fascist goons; the battle for jobs for all; and efforts to advance independent labor political action.

Teamster Bureaucracy
Last volume in the 4-volume set. Explains how the rank-and-file Teamsters leadership organized to oppose World War II, racism, and government efforts—backed by the international officialdom of the AFL, the CIO, and the Teamsters—to gag class-struggle-minded workers.

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