Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Teamsters and Trotskyists—The Minneapolis General Strike of 1934 Part I

After Minneapolis Teamsters stuck city-wide in 1934 police try to move a scab truck using force against unarmed pickets.  Police and Citizen Committee thug violence and mayhem would soon both spread the strike defiantly and cause workers to take up clubs and brick bats to battle it out in the streets.

Note:  The epic story of the events in Minneapolis in 1934 is too much for one entry.  We will cover it in three parts.
Before 1934 Minneapolis, Minnesota was a conservative, anti-labor bastion.  A railroad and river transportation hub for the upper-Midwest bread basket and a significant manufacturing city, the local elites organized in the Citizens Alliance in conjunction—or collusion—with local authorities had long kept the city relatively free of unions except for some traditionally well behaved craft unions, members of the American Federation of Labor (AFL).  All of that began to change dramatically when a successful strike by Teamsters Local 574 closed down sixty-five of the city’s sixty-seven coal yards during the midst of one of the notoriously brutal Minnesota winters earlier that year causing the employers to capitulate and recognize the union in only three days.
Impressed, drivers, warehousemen, and dock workers in other industries flocked to the victorious union setting up a city-wide cartage strike which began on May 16.  Superbly organized, the strike effectively shut down the city with a system of peaceful and unarmed flying squad pickets. 
The character of the strike changed dramatically on May 21 when a mixed flying squad of men and women pickets was lured into to a trap and severely beaten.  That transformed the walkout into a general strike with the support of even the Building Trades and Central Labor Council and workers in all industries, many of them unorganized, downed tools and joined the strike.  Strikers also armed themselves with saps, clubs, and lengths of pipe determined to battle it out with police and special deputies in a “citizens militia” organized by the Citizen Alliance.  Intensely violent confrontations erupted and virtual open class warfare gripped the city for months before a stunning union victory.
A Teamster Local 574 dues button issued during the strike.
At the heart of the strike were the Teamsters, nationally one of the largest unions in the AFL but gripped by the conservative leadership of President Daniel Tobin who opposed most use of the strike.  The union’s members had a reputation for solidarity in respecting the picket lines of other unions’ strikes.  But strict allegiance to craft unionism meant that divers, warehouse men, and dockworkers were divided into small locals by occupation and also by industryice deliverymen, milk drivers, movers, general cartage divers, etc. each in separate locals.  It was a perfect recipe for a weak movement.
In Minneapolis however, Local 574 had a somewhat unusual and loose charter from the international union covering general cartage, which new leadership quickly defined as all traffic that moved by truck or wagon.  In 1933 the local had only about 100 dues paying members and its represented workers at only a handful of employers.  But new leadership changed that.
Vincent R. (Ray) Dunne, his brothers Miles and Grant, and Swedish born Carl Skoglund were all veteran unionists and former members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).  They were conditioned to think of labor struggle as class war and had a commitment to industrial rather than craft unionism.  Elected to leadership in Local 574 they chose immediately to ignore the strictures against strikes by the national leadership and to make the local a union of all workers engaged in transportation, delivery, and support across industries.  When unorganized workers in other industries joined the fight they were readily welcomed in the spirit of the One Big Union in which they had all cut their teeth.

Local Teamster leaders were militant former IWW members, dedicated industrial unionists, and Trotskyist Left Communists 

But all of them were also Communists.  In fact they were leading members of the Party’s Left Opposition which had recently split after the purge of Leon Trotsky and founded the Communist League of America (CLP) which would later become the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SLP).  The prominence of the Trotskyists in the leadership of the strike, which soon included young Farrell Dobbs who had joined as a rank and file coal driver in 1933 and quickly rose to prominence during the strike, has always colored views of the history of the epic struggle in Minnesota.
It would cause many labor historians sympathetic to the role of Communist Party militants in the development of industrial unionism and the Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO) to downplay the Minneapolis General strike in comparison with other important militant strikes in 1934—the West Coast Longshoremen’s Strike let by CP member Harry Bridges and the Toledo Auto Lite Strike led by the independent socialist American Workers Party.  Many AWP members later that year joined with CLP but others switched to the CP giving it some bragging rights in the Toledo struggle.
The Teamsters look on the Minneapolis strike as the pivot point in their history, transforming them to a modern, militant union and eventually leading to their domination not just of local delivery services, but cross-country trucking.  The Trotskyist leadership developed in Minneapolis was key to the spread and success of the union with new locals growing up side by side with SWP chapters.  But by the early ‘40’s Teamster national leadership purged the Trotskyists and most other radicals including Dobbs, who had became young Jimmy Hoffa’s mentor and right-hand man.  After that they rewrote their history of the Minneapolis strike to minimize or erase the Trotskyist leadership. 

Farrell Dobbs was a young rank-and-file driver during the 1934 Minneapolis strike and later rose in Teamster leadership, was purged and a Red, and became the head of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party,  His history is controversial and frankly partisan, but it is the best detailed day to day account of the sturggle and a major American working class classic.

After emerging from prison for violating the Smith Act, which made it illegal to “conspire to advocate the violent overthrow of the United States Government,” Dobbs became a major figure and eventually leader of the SWP.  His histories of the Minneapolis strike and the spread of the union, Teamster Rebellion and Teamster Power tried to build a mythology around the Trotskyist leadership and resulted in a backlash by other labor historians.
Of course, conservative historians have always discounted the significance of the virtual rebellion in Minneapolis or characterized it as evidence of a Communist conspiracy to incite violence and subvert order.  It is in their interest to minimize, if not erase, such a major event from the public memory.
Whatever you think of the Trotskyists, the story of the Teamsters and the Minneapolis general strike is important to working people and replete with valuable lessons.
Tomorrow—we begin to examine all of the events in detail.

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