Thursday, May 18, 2023

The Minneapolis General Strike of 1934—Tragedy and Triumph—Part III

Teamsters renewed their strike after the Citizen's Alliance reneged on recognizing representation of warehouse men and other inside workers.  Mass picketing and flying squads both resumed, but without the clubs and weapons used in the May street brawls.  Police responded with tear gas and clubs at first.

After the short-lived truce between Teamster Local 574 and the steadfastly anti-union employers association, the Citizens Alliance, aggressive picketing to prevent the movement of scab trucks resumed in Minneapolis.  There was no immediate repeat of the epic scale confrontations of the Battle of the Market District on May 21 and the Battle of Deputies Run on May 22, but skirmishes between flying squad pickets and police and Citizen Army escorts were fought on the streets. 

City authorities appealed to Farmer Labor Party Governor Floyd B. Olson to call out the National Guard.  Olson was in a tough spot.  He earlier had endorsed the strike which began on May 16, but he was distressed by the violent turn it had taken.  He was actively trying to mediate a settlement and had been instrumental in the one-day truce.  Olson agreed to mobilize the Guard but hold them at the ready at their arsenals.  He hoped that the threat of the Guard would spur the radical Trotskyist leadership of the Teamsters to agree to end the strike.

But it was the Citizen Alliance who blinked first.  The Teamster picket system still effectively shut down the city despite every effort to move trucks.  On May 25 the union and bosses reached an agreement on a contract that included union recognition, reinstatement of all strikers, seniority, and a non-discrimination clause. The membership jubilantly approved the contract overwhelmingly and returned to work.

Unfortunately, a hitch soon developed.  The union believed the settlement coveredinside workers”—warehousemen in addition to drivers and loaders.  The Alliance said it did not.  On July 17, the Teamsters walked out again in defense of the warehouse workers.  This time pickets were instructed to go out unarmed of the clubs and pipe lengths they had used during the end of the May walkout.  This was actually just a return to the original policy at the beginning of the strike before a brutal police and thug attack on a flying picket.  The re-enforced police and Citizen Army, of course, were armed with side arms, shot guns, and tear gas.  Governor Olson once again mobilized but did not deploy the Guard.

So far despite all of the violence, police and the Citizen Army had not used firearms.  The leadership of the Citizens Alliance demanded an end to restraint in a meeting with Chief of Police Mike Johannes.  In turn on July 19 Johannes instructed his officers “We’re going to start moving goods.... Don’t take a beating.... You have shotguns and you know how to use them. When we are finished with this convoy there will be other goods to move.... Now get going and do your duty.”

On secret orders of the Citizen's Alliance, Police Chief Mike Johannes prepared to use firearms for the first time against the strikers. On Friday, July 20 a phone tip lured a flying picket squad truck into an ambush.  Another truck pulled in front of the white truck seen center and police opened fire at close range with shotguns.  Two were killed, more than 50 pickets and 17 bystanders were injured in the explosion of police violence.

The plan was to lure strikers with a decoy truck and attack them.  It worked.  On July 20 officers opened fire on a truckload of flying squad pickets trying to intercept the decoy.  An account described the ambush:

In a matter of seconds two of the pickets lay motionless on the floor of the bullet-riddled truck. Other wounded either fell to the street, or tried to crawl out of the death trap as the shooting continued. From all quarters strikers rushed toward the truck to help them, advancing into the gunfire with the courage of lions. Many were felled by police as they stopped to pick up their injured comrades. By this time the cops had gone berserk. 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.

Striker Henry Ness, and an unemployed worker, John Belor, lay dead.  At least 50 pickets and 17 bystanders were injured in the orgy of police violence which included shot gun blasts at short range doing often hideous damage.  Workers were shot as they tried to retrieve their wounded brothers and the wounded were shot second or even third times as they lay on the ground.  Police pursued the strikers into side streets as they fled.  Most injuries were in the back.  One eyewitness described one man “stepping on his own intestines, bright and bursting in the street, and another holding his severed arm in his right hand.”

The Citizen’s Alliance jubilantly thought they had broken the back of the strike. The Secretary of the Alliance proclaimed:

Nobody likes to see bloodshed, but I tell you after the police had used their guns on July 20 we felt that the strike was breaking. . . . There are very few men who will stand up in a strike when there is a question of they themselves getting killed.

He was flat-out wrong.  The Organizer, the daily newspaper published from the Teamster strike headquarters declared, “You thought you would shoot Local 574 into oblivion. But you only succeeded in making 574 a battle cry on the lips of every self-respecting working man and working woman in Minneapolis.”

That night 15,000 rallied at headquarters and pickets were back on the streets the next morning.  Union leadership confiscated firearms from many who were ready for a shooting war and warned their pickets not to initiate any confrontation that would invite renewed attack.  An expanded city-wide strike of all transportation related workers was called on July 22, but workers in many industries, organized and unorganized, came out in support.  That included 5,000 members of the Minneapolis Central Council of Workers which represented the unemployed now engaged in New Deal public works projects.  More than a dozen of their members had been injured in the ambush.

The funeral of Teamster striker Henry Ness drew 100,000.

On July 24 100,000 people lined the streets for the funeral procession for Henry Ness.

Shocked at the brutality of the police attack, even many middle class citizens sympathetic to the Citizens Alliance and the repression of the strike began to publicly call for the firing of the Chief of Police and the impeachment of Mayor A. G. Bainbridge.

Defiantly, Chief Johannes inaugurated a new ploy to move produce trucks to the Market District.  He deployed 40 cars each filled with police and scores more officers on foot to escort convoys.  The union allowed them to proceed but shadowed them with their own truckloads of pickets.  The enormous concentration of police manpower meant that only a handful of convoys got through on any given day.  Meanwhile roving pickets intercepted single trucks trying to weave through the city’s neighborhoods in what amounted to a guerilla war of sorts.  Local residents joined in overturning some trucks.  The strike was not greatly weakened by what little trade could move.

On July 26 Farmer Labor Party Governor Floyd B. Olson reluctantly activated National Guard troops he had been holding on stand-by at their armories.  Although he tried to show that they would be used with and "even hand" to control and disarm both sides, Strikers regarded the intervention as a betrayal.

On July 26, Governor Olson felt he could no longer ignore pleas to intervene with troops.  He declared his impartiality and intention to disarm all sides—except of course the police.  More than 4,000 occupied the city, most concentrated in the Market District and downtown area.  Martial law was declared banning both picketing and public assembly of any kind.  Troops began escorting trucks that were issued special permits by authorities, but these permits were supposed to be limited to firms who would break with the Citizen’s Alliance which had reiterated its refusal to “negotiate with communists.”

National Guardsmen displayed and deployed heavy weapons like this water-cooled machine gun and made a show of parading with arms.  Unlike Guard troops deployed in many other strike however, the Minnesota units never opened fire on strikers or assaulted them with bayonets and clubbed rifle butts.

James Cannon and Max Shachtman, the national leadership of the Trotskyist Communist League of America (CLA) to which the local Teamster leadership belonged, were quickly detained and agreed to exile from Minneapolis.  They simply crossed the Mississippi River and set up operations in St. Paul.

Many small firms agreed to Olson’s plan for recognition, but the Citizen’s Alliance remained defiant.  After a few days he began to issue permits to some of their trucks delivering “essential goods.”  In practice in the field permits were soon being issued upon request. 

On July 31 the union answered with some defiance of its own—a rally of more than 25,000 at which Governor Olson and the Guard were roundly denounced.

The next day, August 1 hundreds of troops raided Strike Headquarters and the Central Labor Council Building.  Strike leaders Vincent R. (Ray) Dunne, his brother Miles, local President Bill Brown, Carl Skoglund, and the doctor in charge of the strike dispensary were arrested at gun point and taken to be held at a bullpen along with 68 others.  Even the patients in the clinic were seized and moved to military facilities.

The Guard raided strike headquarters and arrested leaders including Vincent R Dunne, center, and local 574 President Bill Brown, in white cloth cap.

Grant Dunne and Farrell Dobbs eluded capture and secretly met with other members of the Strike Committee of One Hundred.  They decided to continue the strike with decentralized leadership.  After months of struggle many workers were now trained and savvy leaders in their own right.  Workers knew their jobs and what to do.  The strike rolled on unimpeded by the arrest of the leadership.  Nimble pickets picked off scab trucks operating with permits and were gone by the time that troops or police could respond leaving overturned trucks, spilled and spoiled freight, and bruised scabs.

But the arrests did cause widespread outrage.  The still operating strike paper The Organizer appealed for a true official General Strike to which the Central Labor Council was ready to agree.  Although the strike had become virtually general on three occasions no official proclamation had previously been made.

The threat was enough to alarm the wavering Governor Olson, who ordered the release of the strike leaders, the return of strike headquarters, and a restriction on permits.  He even staged a largely symbolic raid on the headquarters of the Citizen’s Alliance.

A looming official declaration of a General Strike forced the release of strike leaders, the return of union headquarters, and coerced Citizen Alliance members to accept a Federal mediation proposal that represented a Teamster victory.  The leaders of Local 574, left to right: Grant Dunne, Bill Brown, Miles Dunne, and Vincent Dunne with Communist League of America lawyer Albert Goldman on the right after their release from the stockade.

Meanwhile the Roosevelt administration stepped up mediation efforts.  On August 21 mediators finally wrung a virtual capitulation from Alliance leader A. W. Strong on most of the union demands, including recognition of representation for warehouse men at more than 25 of the city’s major employers.  Warehouse men at other facilities could opt join the union by a process of supervised recognition elections. 

After overwhelming approval of the settlement by the union, the city broke out in hours of rapturous celebrations.

The scope of the Teamster victory in Minneapolis is hard to overestimate.  Most of the great mass struggle strikes and general strikes had ended in the defeat of the workers or, at best, temporary victories.  But Minneapolis was permanently transformed from a conservative anti-union bastion to one of the most highly unionized cities in the country.  After the settlement workers in many unorganized industries unaffiliated with cartage asked local 574 to represent them.  The local almost stumbled into a One Big Union, on the model of the IWW where many of the leaders had started their labor careers.  Other workers joined the AFL unions of the Central Labor Council and still later organized into new Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) industrial unions.

The prestige of the Teamsters caused truckers from across the upper Midwest to call on them.  The union responded by dispatching some of its best militants, trained and honed by the long battles, including Farrell Dobbs and other tough Trotskyists.  Within a few years they transformed the Teamsters from a collection of local craft unions to a national powerhouse representing much of the increasingly important over-the-road trucking industry.  

And wherever the Teamsters went, so did the Trotskyists, establishing local organizations in dozens of key cities.  Late in 1934 the CLA merged with the majority of the American Workers Party which had led another critical mass strike that year, the Toledo Auto Lite Strike.  The new organization soon was renamed the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and for a time represented a major challenge to the Stalinist Communist Party as a major force on the American Left.  The two parties would clash repeatedly, sometimes to the detriment of union organizing drives and strikes led by one or the other.

Of course, there was blowback, particularly with the conservative leadership of the Teamsters under International President James Tobin.  In 1935 Tobin announced a purge of communists in the union.  The leaders of Local 574 were expelled and the local charter dissolved.  But rank-and-file Teamsters around the country rebelled.  They liked the new militancy and the power and prestige if brought the union whatever the politics of the local leaders.  By the end of the next year Tobin was forced to re-instate the Trotskyists and issue a charter to the renamed Local 544 which represented virtually 100% of the city’s transportation and warehouse industry in addition miscellaneous unrelated industries.  The official policy of the union was transformed from allegiance to local craft unionism to militant industrial unionism.

Dobbs and other Trotskyists were key to the spread of Teamster power—and facilitated the rise of their one-time ally Jimmy Hoffa.  They remained a powerful, driving force in the union until 1941.

Socialist Workers Party leaders, including several Teamsters and key veterans of the 1934 Minneapolis Strike, were convicted and sentenced under the Smith Act during World War II.  The indictments also led to a purge of Trotskyists from the Teamsters.

In 1940 in response to the looming entry of the United States into World War II, the Smith Act or the Alien Registration Act became law.  It set criminal penalties for advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government and required all non-citizen adult residents to register with the government.  Its initial targets were the fascists of the German-American Bund as well as anarchists, and alien communists.  But when Hitler turned on his former partner in carving up Poland Joseph Stalin and attacked the Soviet Union, Russia became a potential—even likely—ally. 

Because of the bitter hatred between the Trotskyists and Stalin loyalists, it was feared that the Teamsters might not support a war effort on behalf of the Soviets.  Indeed, the union, following the SWP line, was opposed to Lend-Lease shipments to the Red regime.  They also let it be known that in event of war the Teamsters would not be bound to any patrioticno-strike scheme.

In 1941 the Trotskyist leadership of the Teamsters was indicted under the Smith Act.  Seizing the moment, the national Teamster leadership gleefully expelled anyone associated with the SWP.  The criminal cases dragged on after the U.S. did enter the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but the men were convicted and after losing appeals began to serve sentences of one year in 1944.  Many, like Dobbs, served their sentences at the Federal prison at Sandstone, Minnesota, where more than 25 years later I would serve a sentence for resisting the draft.

Dobbs emerged from prison to become editor of the SWPs newspaper The Militant and later became both head of the party and its three-time Presidential Candidate.  He also authored a four book history of the Teamsters including Teamster Rebellion and Teamster Power which recounted the Minneapolis strike and the rise of the union under Trotskyist leadership.

Farrell Dobbs went on to become Socialist Workers Party leader, three time Presidential candidate, and the historian of record for the 1934 Teamster strike and its aftermath.

Today, Trotskyism has fractured internationally and nationally into more parties and sects than it is humanly possible to count, although the SWP remains the largest.  But is largely isolated on the left, reviled by those who trace their lineage through the CP as well as by much of what emerged from the New Left.  Their influence is mostly felt through their work in national coalitions which have staged mass anti-war rallies and marches on Washington since the Vietnam War.  Despite this united front-type of activity, their ideology and membership have gained little traction among those drawn into the coalitions.

Whatever your opinion of the SWP or of Trotskyists, however, the brilliant, able, and creative leadership that they provided the Minneapolis Teamsters and the great labor victories that they helped achieve cannot be denied.  

Mildred Johnson, widow of striker Clarence Johnson, at the dedication of the memorial marker finally erected in Minneapolis.

After years of official neglect, a movement in Minneapolis finally led to a memorial to the 1934 strike.  The City Council approved a commemorative resolution and endorsed a plaque at the place where the police ambush killed John Belor and Henry Ness.  It was unveiled and dedicated on July 18, 2015.  Among the speakers at the unveiling was Linda Leighton, a shop steward in Service Employees Local 284 and a member of the Industrial Workers of the World whose grandfather, Vincent R. Dunne, was a strike leader and early member of the IWW.


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