After the surprising and relatively easy victory which secured recognition from Minneapolis’s coal yards for little Teamster Local, drivers and warehousemen from other local industries flocked to the union clamoring to join. The Trotskyist led union responded with an intense, but necessarily secretive organizing drive.
They went public on April 15, 1934 at a mass rally attended by 3,000 at a rented theater downtown. In addition to rousing speeches by leaders Vincent R. (Ray) Dunne, his brothers Miles and Grant, and Swedish born Carl Skoglund, the Central Labor Council made up of the city’s conservative AFL craft unions sent messages of Solidarity and Farmer-Labor Party Governor Floyd B. Olson sent a high ranking aide to read a message of support and encouragement—“It is my counsel, if you wish to accept it, that you should follow the sensible course and band together for your own protection and welfare.” Workers in attendance voted overwhelmingly in favor of authorizing a strike if the city’s powerful and rabidly anti-union Citizens Alliance, which represented the employers, did not agree to recognize the union and enter negotiations on a contract.
The Citizen’s Alliance flatly refused any dealings with the Teamsters. After they formally rejected a union proposal, a second mass meeting of May 15 voted for an immediate strike. All over the city drivers and helpers walked off the job in the early hours of May 16.
What would make this strike so different than any other mass strikes in American history was the detailed preparation that had been made before a single worker left the job. First, many of the 100 or so members of the Trotskyist Communist League of America (CLA) who were not members of the Teamsters were rallied to organize support from the city’s unemployed. There were nearly 30,000 of them in a city still deeply wracked by the Great Depression despite the beginning of a modest recovery in the second year of the New Deal. Organizers found their work well received. An organization of the unemployed was founded which pledged support of the Teamsters and any strike. Several large marches of the unemployed served notice on the Citizens Alliance that there would be no mass pool of scabs and strikebreakers. As the strike progressed many unemployed workers joined the pickets, provided support, and even rose to leadership.
Earlier Teamster support of the National Farm Holiday producers' strike paid off as the NFHA reciprocated when the strike was on in Minneapolis and donated tons of food to the strike kitchen. Trucks carrying milk, eggs, and produce from NFHA members were alowed to operate and supply their own Farmers' Market for the duration.
The Teamsters also secured critical support from the National Farm Holiday Association (NFHA) an organization of militant farmers who had declared a strike of their own in 1932 to which many truckers lent active solidarity by refusing to move milk, produce, and grain to buyers in the Twin Cities in protest of collapsed farm prices. The dramatic strike had attracted nation attention—and the fierce resistance of major forces in Citizen Alliance like Pillsbury, General Mills, and the Minnesota Cooperative Creameries Association which marketed butter under the brand name Land O’ Lakes. The NFHA became an enthusiastic backer of the strike, raising thousands of dollars from their members for the strike fund and contributing tons of food to the strike kitchens. In return the Teamsters let trucks belonging to NFHA members enter the city to supply their own Farmer’s Market for the duration of the strike.
Getting women, the wives, mothers, sisters, and sweethearts of strikers was hardly a new idea. Mother Jones had done it in the coal fields, and it was a regular feature of major IWW strikes, including the bitter struggles on the Iron Range in which some of the union leadership had cut their teeth in earlier years. It had been long recognized that when the women were left at home to stew and worry about missing pay packets and listening to hungry children while their husbands risked injury or death on picket lines was a recipe for a strike that falls apart. By enlisting them side-by-side with the strikers they became equally engaged—and often even more militant. The Teamsters organized an active women’s auxiliary.
Not only did the women organize and staff a modern industrial scale kitchen that at the height of the strike served as many as 10,000 strikers and their families in a single day. The also staffed a well-equipped dispensary which after the strike took a violent turn resembled a combat field hospital patching up scores of injured workers a day. They performed clerical and courier duties, organized their own demonstrations and marches, and pressured landlords to forgo evictions. Some women served with the scout pickets who roamed the city looking attempts to run trucks and move goods. Others even volunteered with the flying picket squads that were dispatched from strike headquarters when the scouts reported the need.
Teamster Flying pickets intercept a driver and counsel him.
All of this was made possible because the Teamster leadership rented a huge vacant garage as strike headquarters. It was large enough to easily accommodate up to 1,000 people, most of them assigned to the flying picket squads that worked around the clock. In addition to the kitchen and dispensary, the building accommodated a large machine and repair shop which kept a fleet of 100 trucks and cars of the flying squadrons in repair and eventually housed a daily newspaper that circulated 10,000 copies a day.
Four phone lines were constantly monitored taking calls from the scouts reporting from the many pay phones that were in almost every establishment and in free-standing phone booths on many corners. A call would come in, a courier would run the message to one of the dozens of flying squads waiting, and they would be speeding off in automobile or trucks within minutes. When the strikers discovered the four phone lines were tapped they quickly employed codes that changed daily. The strikers also had a shortwave radio that was able to monitor all police calls.
All of this was up and running from the first day of the strike. Regular pickets were maintained at all of the main freight terminals, especially in the critical Market District and forty roads into the city were monitored. The roving scout pickets included many on motorcycles. Employers were stunned at how completely effective the Teamster picketing system worked. Virtually nothing was moving in the city but the trucks of the Farm Holiday Association and already unionized coal and milk delivery.
The first days of the strike were as peaceful as they were effective. Pickets and flying squads were unarmed and instructed to prevent trucks from moving by swarming them with scores of bodies. The Citizen Alliance leaders seemed dazed by how tightly the city was shut down.
But the bosses had made preparations as well. They already employed a small army of spies and the usual plug-uglies who could always be hired to beat on workers. They had a cooperative Police Department which swore many of them in as special police. The bosses set up their own strike headquarters and their own flying squads. As the conflict quickly deepened they sent out a call for a “mass movement of citizens” to oppose the strike and began organizing their citizen army or militia. Merchants, professional men, managers, other “respectable” white collar workers and their sons flocked to the banner. They were well armed and equipped and put under the command of officers and World War I combat veterans, including some who held high positions in their companies and on the Board of the Citizens Alliance.
Seldom was the class war so stark, with the employers not just hiding behind the police and the usual hired thugs but fielding an ideologically driven army of their own kind. With both sides now well organized an explosive confrontation was inevitable. When it came it would change the face of the strike and the conflict.
Early on Saturday, May 19 one of the Alliance spies lured a flying squad made up of both male and female pickets with a false phone report that trucks were trying to unload newsprint at the loading docks of the two daily newspapers. It was a well-planned trap. When the flying pickets arrived on the scene, they were surrounded by a large body of police, special police, and citizen militia and were brutally beaten inflicting several serious injuries. Abruptly the whole character of the strike changed.
At union headquarters strikers spent the weekend making saps, clubs, and cutting lengths of pipe. They were preparing not only to defend themselves, but to go on the offensive. The union learned that the Police and Alliance forces planned to seize the whole Market District on Monday and sweep aside the mass pickets who had blocked most of the warehouse docks. Union leadership planned for a confrontation.
First they quietly moved up to 600 strikers to the Central Labor Council headquarters on Eighth Street, moving them in small groups at night. They avoided detection. Meanwhile at the headquarters garage, the flying squads assembled as a single force augmented by many other militants. As many as 1000 were in the building waiting to attack.
Workers go on the offensive--Teamsters armed with clubs and pipes charged and scattered police.
Early Monday, May 21 as many as 500 Citizen Alliance special police and volunteers attempted to break picket lines at the Market. Reinforcements from Strike Headquarters arrived, and a general club wielding melee broke out. Photographs of the strikers assaulting police and volunteers with clubs shocked the country which had never seen workers physically fighting back before. It was a pitch battle during which the pickets slowly drove their enemies to one side of the Market and then cut the Police off from the Citizen Army. Then on signal the 600 armed strikers poured out of the nearby Central Labor Council building, clearly an overwhelming force.
As the strikers expected, the panicked police began to draw their guns. At that point a truck driven by a hand-picked striker and filled with the toughest, most reliable men barreled out of the union ranks and bore directly down on the police, who had to scatter. The strikers in the back of the truck leapt from the bed and began wailing on the police, who could not now use their pistols for fear of hitting their own men.
Fighting continued most of the day, but was not decisive on either side, although more than 30 police had to be treated for injuries. The workers took casualties, too, which kept the dispensary busy, but not on the same scale.
On May 22, up to 30,000 strikers and supporters swarmed the Market District precipitating the Battle of Deputies Run. At the end of a long day of street battles strikers had complete control of the streets.
Overnight more workers joined the fight. And the Citizen Alliance had 500 more men sworn in as Special Police. The next morning more than 30,000 showed up for a march on the market. The march was peaceful until a merchant tried to move some crates of tomatoes and pickets threw them through his store window. General fighting erupted again. This time, armed with clubs the strikers drove the police and Citizen Army out of the Marked and chased them through the city. By night the police had completely withdrawn from the city streets and strike marshals were directing traffic. Two special police, including a member of the board of directors of the Citizens Alliance, were killed in the fighting.
The riot on May 22 became known as the Battle of Deputies Run. A joint delegation of Teamsters, Central Labor Council, and Building Trades Council leaders offered Chief of Police Mike Johannes a 24 hour truce to allow negotiations to start on the understanding that no trucks would move during negotiations. Governor Olsen and Federal Mediators urged authorities and the Citizen Alliance to take the deal. Reluctantly the Citizen Alliance signed the deal. But Johannes immediately announced that his police would attempt to move trucks as soon as the 24 hours expired. The union responded by ordering a resumption of picketing.
The battle was on again.
Tomorrow—Escalating violence leads to a General Strike.