Lachlan Marshall tells the story of one of the key strikes that roused the American working class from the initial defeats of the Depression—and of the socialists who led it
The Teamster rebellion of 1934 in Minneapolis, along with other militant struggles that year, helped reawaken the American working class from the demoralisation and defeats of the Depression years.
The 1920s in the US were a period of relative prosperity, but unions faced aggressive anti-union employers. Legal barriers to union organisation also meant that organisers and unionists were constantly harassed. The employers also used physical violence and some union organisers were murdered. At least 40,000 company-paid spies infiltrated all levels of union organisation.
But the response of key union body the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was to preach conservatism. Militant unionists—branded “reds”—were expelled from its ranks. The AFL leadership preferred deals with the bosses to mobilising workers. By 1929 only 9.3 per cent of workers were union members.
Hopes of endless prosperity came crashing down in October 1929. The US economy shrank continuously until 1933. Official unemployment skyrocketed from 1.55 million in 1929 to 12.83 million in 1933—a third of the workforce. There were savage wage cuts across the board.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in March 1933, promising action to tackle unemployment through his New Deal. His National Industrial Recovery Act gave workers the right “to organise and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing”.
Most employers ignored these provisions, and the government did nothing to enforce them. But as the economy recovered workers gained confidence to start unionising their workplaces.
Roosevelt had wanted to reinforce the conservative AFL leaders, but instead they got, “a virtual uprising of workers for union membership”.
The year 1933 saw a strike wave as bitterness from the years of depression combined with the beginning of economic recovery to encourage action. Still, 15 unionists were killed that year.
In 1934 huge strikes shook three major cities—of auto workers in Toledo, dockers in San Francisco and truck drivers in Minneapolis. Central to all three were socialist organisations. In Minneapolis, it was the Trotskyist Communist League of America (CLA), whose members had been expelled from the Communist Party for opposing Stalin.
The Communist League pulled together the lessons of other strikes, including the example of the Women’s Auxiliary from the Progressive Miners union and the importance of organising the unemployed from the Toledo Auto-Lit strike in 1933. Most important was the centrality of the rank-and-file and their control of the strike, an understanding of the role of the AFL and a contempt for the high offices of the state that had been used so often to impose settlements in the bosses’ favour.
Minneapolis had long been a bastion of the open (or non-union) shop. One of the most powerful employers’ associations in the United States, the Citizens’ Alliance, routinely dispatched spies and armed deputies to break strikes.
Carl Skogland, a leading CLA member, described the working conditions before the strike: “In the produce market area it was common practice for drivers and helpers to start work at 2 or 3 a.m. and continue work until 6 p.m. They were low paid and sometimes had to work seven days without any extra pay. If complaints were made they were fired.”
In late 1933 CLA members Carl Skogland and the Dunne brothers Grant, Ray and Mile took over the leadership of Teamster union branch, or “Local” number 574, and began planning to unionise trucking industry workers. Designated as a “general” local, the branch was able to recruit not only drivers but workers across the entire industry, including the warehouses. This helped break down divisions between job types, skill and pay levels.
In Minneapolis the 574 began organising among coal drivers. In February 1934, it presented employers with a list of demands. When the bosses rejected them, 65 of 67 coal yards in the city were shut down.
Rank-and-file involvement was key to the strike’s success. Farrell Dobbs, a 574 activist who wrote an account of the struggle, Teamster Rebellion, outlined the importance of “cruising picket squads”, groups of truckers who travelled from yard to yard enforcing the strike. The picket squads, wrote Dobbs, represented an “outstanding example of rank-and-file ingenuity”.
It was the first successful strike in Minneapolis for decades, and the activists recognised it as an opportunity to broaden and escalate the struggle. The next task was to organise the whole trucking industry in the city.
The CLA created an organising committee to sidestep the sclerotic union bureaucracy. Membership of local 574 surged from 75 before the strike to 3000 by April, and the CLA also grew.
Demands addressing pay, hours and maintaining a closed shop were now put to the trucking bosses but they refused any agreement with the union. On May 12 the 574 voted for an industry-wide strike. Membership doubled to 6000.
Preparation for the strike was extensive. A 75-strong rank-and-file strike committee was set up, while alliances were forged with unemployed and progressive farmers’ groups. CLA members drove the crucial work among the city’s 30,000 unemployed, preventing them being used as strike-breakers.
Likewise a women’s section was created, which opposed evictions of strikers by landlords for late rent and protested at media offices hostile to the strikers. The union hired a huge warehouse as strike headquarters, complete with a kitchen that served thousands of families, a hospital staffed by volunteer nurses and a doctor and mechanics who serviced a fleet of 450 trucks. Flying pickets stopped scab trucks and by day two of the strike the city’s trucking was paralysed.
The Citizens’ Alliance organised with police to try to break the strike. On May 19 police attacked unarmed pickets, beating strikers unconscious and breaking their legs.
The union responded swiftly, secretly organising 600 strikers in the union hall. When police and Citizens’ Alliance deputies descended on picketers again they were inundated by hundreds of extra strikers, clubs in hand. They quickly dispersed the disoriented police and deputies. After police reinforcements arrived, 900 more strikers descended, driving a truck through the police lines.
On Tuesday May 22, 20,000 flocked to watch the building confrontation. Strikers again prevailed over 1500 police and hundreds more deputies. By nightfall, there were no police to be seen on the streets. Strikers took charge of law and order, directing traffic.
One striker conveyed the electric atmosphere of the now famous “Battle of Deputies Run”:
“Orderly, but almost as if by magic, the hall is emptied. The pickets are deployed by their leaders to surround the police and sluggers. The police raise their riot guns but the workers ignore and rush through them. ‘Chase out the hired sluggers’, is their battle cry. The cowardly sluggers take to their heels and run. The police and strikers use their clubs freely. Many casualties on both sides. The workers have captured the market!”
Dobbs described the resulting situation as a kind of “dual power”—a deadlock. Eventually the union reached a compromise, gaining pay rises and union recognition, with other issues going through arbitration in the local Labor Board. In following weeks Local 574 swelled to 7000 members, with full-time organisers paid the average truck driver’s wage.
But now Citizens’ Alliance was desperate to break the union. With support from the Labor Board, it refused to recognise 574 as representing any workers other than those directly involved in loading and unloading trucks. Citizens’ Alliance ran a red-baiting campaign appealing to “legitimate and American-minded trade unions” against “the terroristic Communist-led Truck Drivers Local 574”. Screaming advertisements denounced the “Trotsky Communists”.
Even the Teamsters union National President, Daniel Tobin, joined in denouncing the Local. This was welcomed with such relish by local employers that they designated a whole page to it in the local paper.
In July the 574 made a unanimous decision to strike. To counter the red-baiting, it published its own paper called The Organiser; circulation went to 10,000 in two days and publication went from weekly to daily during the strike.
The strike began quietly, until July 20, when police began escorting scabs from the market. When a truck full of unarmed strikers followed them, the police opened fire. As Dobbs relates, “They were shooting in all directions, hitting most of their victims in the back as they tried to escape, and often clubbing the wounded after they fell.”
The ambush resulted in two dead, with a commission later finding that the police shot to kill despite being unthreatened.
Federal negotiators were called in to reach a compromise. But when the bosses didn’t comply with the decision, State Governor Floyd Olsen attacked the union by sending in troops who allowed non-union trucks to start work. Olsen even arrested the strike leaders after a mass meeting of 25,000 resolved to resume picketing.
But the picketing intensified and Olsen was forced to back down. Completely worn down by the strikes, the Citizens’ Alliance agreed to union elections for recognition of Local 574 and the re-employment of strikers. The 574 had a convincing win in the elections for the most important and largest truck firms.
The strikers had faced the full force of the state simply for demanding the right to have an effective union. With a politically conscious leadership in the form of the Communist League fused with inspiring rank-and-file mobilisation, they stood up to police, special deputies, the military, the State Governor, and the conservative AFL bureaucracy—and won.
The union victory in Minneapolis, along with the other key strike victories of 1934, set the stage for the famous sit down strikes of 1936, and revealed the potential power of the American working class to challenge even the most ruthless corporate rulers.