During the Great Depression, working people all over the country stood up for their living standards, fighting anti-union employers, the courts, and the police to assert their rights – and they won!
Today, as we move into the worst economic crisis since that time, it is crucial we learn how workers successfully defended themselves in the past. Joblessness is increasing at an alarming rate, healthcare costs are rising, yet the strength of the labor movement is at an historic low point.
After years of bitter defeats for the labor movement, in 1934 three major strikes – in Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Toledo – changed everything.
Led by socialists who understood the necessity of militant mass action against the bosses and the anti-union laws, these strikes sparked an uprising of the American working class over the next several years, winning many of the benefits working people enjoy to this day.
The conditions of the coal industry in Minneapolis were typical of many industries at the time. In his book, Teamster Rebellion, Farrell Dobbs (a leader of the 1934 Minneapolis strike) describes his own situation: "We were just squeaking by when I was cut to forty-eight hours a week. It was a welcome physical relief since coal heavers had to work like mules, but there was also a two-dollar cut in weekly pay... The thin flesh of mere subsistence was being scraped down to the bare bones of outright poverty... On top of all that, I could expect to be laid off in the spring... And I could be fired at any time without recourse merely at the employer's whim."
These conditions led to massive anger. Workers joined the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in growing numbers, seeking a solution to their difficult circumstances.
Unfortunately, the AFL leadership had abandoned the idea of real struggle. Instead, they tried to win favor with the bosses by siding with them and rigging union structures to maintain their privileged positions. This "business unionism" led to massive defeats.
Workers in Minneapolis not only had the “business unionist” AFL, but also faced the deceptively named Citizens Alliance, an association of employers dominated by the wealthiest local capitalists that specialized in strike-breaking.
The Citizens Alliance had the full support of the police force, local newspapers, and politicians. It declared an "open-shop" policy in the city and issued a decree to all businesses that "no union was needed, in any form, for bargaining with the labor force."
The socialist union activists believed, in contrast with the AFL leaders, that the working class, when mobilized and conscious of itself as a class, is the most powerful force in society. They also recognized that even the most basic benefits for workers have been obtained only through determined struggle against the bosses and their politicians.
In Teamsters Local 574, which represented truck drivers in Minneapolis (and after the strike, warehouse workers and loaders), union activists with the Communist League of America came to the forefront. The League was organized around the ideas of Leon Trotsky and others who rejected the politics of Stalinism in favor of genuine Marxism and workers' democracy.
These organizers mounted an audacious organizing drive around a clear program of demands worked out through extensive discussion with the workers. Instead of limiting themselves to what the employers said they could afford, the Minneapolis Teamsters fought for what the workers needed to achieve a decent standard of living.
Organized around these demands, Local 574 quickly grew from only 75 members in 1933 to over 7,000 only one year later.
The Teamsters International union was ruled by a cynical, corrupt president, Daniel Tobin, who boasted that the Teamsters were "not the rubbish that have come into other organizations." The union didn't want people to join, he added, "if they are going on strike tomorrow."
The socialist activists quickly changed this. Local 574 was transformed from a mountain of red tape and bureaucracy into a highly democratic, fighting organization. All major decisions were made during mass meetings rather than being dictated from above. The membership also elected a strike committee of 100 rank-and-file members to prepare for the struggles ahead.
The Battle Begins
In January of 1934, the first shots of the class war were fired. Local 574 voted to take strike action for a living wage and shorter working hours. Militant mass picketing took place immediately, and all coal transportation in the city was shut down.
The timing was perfect. Minnesota is known for its cold winters, and the public was soon clamoring for a quick settlement because they needed coal to heat their homes. The bosses were forced to settle. They gave in to a few wage-increase demands and officially recognized the union.
Union members throughout the region gained confidence. Unorganized workers now looked toward the union movement with greater hope. A strike had been won in Minneapolis for the first time in years.
But to achieve a decent standard of living, Local 574 needed to organize the entire regional trucking industry, or their bargaining power would be undercut by other workers willing to work more cheaply. Plans were drawn up for an industry-wide organizing drive and a walkout.
The Citizens Alliance prepared to fight tooth and nail against the union. They strengthened their ties with the mayor and police force and organized a massive propaganda campaign in the local papers against the growing "communist plot.”
The old-guard union leaders feared that a walkout would be spoiled by unemployed workers. There were about 30,000 jobless in Minneapolis at the time, almost a third of the population, trying to get by on the meager government unemployment benefits.
The socialists in the union, however, saw those out of work as allies rather than enemies. Local 574 adopted a strategy of organizing an unemployed section of the union, and fought for public relief for needy members. This helped raise the level of class consciousness among the jobless workers, turning them into pickets rather than scabs.
Women at the time were generally relegated to unpaid housework and economic dependence on men, so the strike severely affected working-class women. The socialist union leaders tapped into the women's skills by setting up a women's auxiliary of the union, which helped their struggle immensely.
The women helped staff strike headquarters, ensured that workers and their families were well fed, and provided necessary first aid in battles with the police. Women also reinforced the picket lines and participated in street fights that later occurred.
Secretaries for the bosses and politicians acted as spies for the union, secretly duplicating letters and memos that often allowed Local 574 to stay one step ahead of the employers.
The women's auxiliary also had a profound effect on the consciousness of the men, many of whom had seen union activity as "a night out with the boys." These sexist attitudes quickly changed when they saw the badly needed support that their wives and girlfriends brought to the movement.
By May 16, 1934, the bosses were still refusing to meet most workers' demands, and a walkout began. Due to the careful planning and preparation, the entire trucking industry came to a halt. Nothing moved without union permission.
The rank-and-file union members developed the ingenious idea of cruising pickets to achieve a total shutdown of trucking in Minneapolis. Strikers were stationed at payphones throughout the city. Whenever a truck was seen driving without a union sign, a cruising squad filled with pickets quickly moved to the spot and blocked the scabs from making their delivery.
Local 574 produced a daily strike newspaper called The Organizer. This was the first daily strike paper in the country, and it helped counteract the corporate newspapers' propaganda and reinforce the consciousness of the city's working class. It revealed the true role of the police, the Democrats and Republicans, and the legal system in defending the bosses' interests.
The frustrated Citizens Alliance used its connections with the capitalist politicians of both parties to issue legal injunctions against the union to stop the strike. These were promptly ignored by the strikers, who realized it was necessary to break the bosses' law to win.
Police and deputies armed with clubs attempted violently to break up picket lines and enforce the injunctions. However, the strikers and their supporters vastly outnumbered them. On more than one occasion, workers armed with sticks were able to defeat the police in the streets.
On July 20, known as "Bloody Friday," the Citizens Alliance lured cruising picket squads into a corner with a scab truck, where over 100 policemen with full riot gear and guns were waiting. Without warning, the cops opened fire. Sixty-seven were wounded and one union member, Henry Ness, was killed.
It became clear to all that naked class warfare was being fought in the streets. Bloody Friday, instead of scaring the workers into submission, angered and further mobilized not only members of Local 574 but also the entire working class of Minneapolis.
Other unions donated money and resources and held solidarity walkouts. Henry Ness's funeral drew over 20,000 into the streets in a solemn procession that turned into a mass protest.
Realizing that the police had been rendered ineffective, the governor called in the National Guard on behalf of the employers. Democratic President Roosevelt, a supposed friend of labor, sent approximately 4,000 troops into Minneapolis.
The National Guard set up a prison camp on the state fair grounds and patrolled the streets armed with machine guns. They arrested the socialist leaders in hopes of cutting off the union's head, but thanks to the involvement and education of the rank-and-file members to rely on their own independent strength, this tactic completely failed. A new leadership was quickly elected, and the strike continued in full force.
After seven weeks of enormous resistance, the employers finally gave in. The demands of the workers were accepted, and Minneapolis was transformed into a union town.
The workers not only won their demands for union recognition and decent wages. (The average union truck driver went from earning 28 cents per hour to 52 cents per hour – an 85% wage increase!) They also established new traditions of solidarity and struggle, which showed the way forward for other workers in Minneapolis and millions around the country who unionized with similar fighting strategies.
Lessons for Today
Today, we are faced with a severe economic crisis and little chance of a quick recovery. Jobs are disappearing at an alarming rate, and those people that are working face cuts in hours and wages and loss of benefits.
Over 47 million workers make under $10 per hour, pushed into poverty by ruthless corporations like Wal-Mart, while the rich are richer than ever before. As billionaire Warren Buffett, one of the three richest people in the world, put it, “There's class warfare, all right, but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning.”
The labor movement is once again weakened, and workers are told to limit their demands to what corporations can afford in “these tough economic times,” if they make demands at all.
Most union leaders buy into this logic, citing the same old “at least we have jobs” mantra. But the experience of 1934 shows that, with a daring, class-conscious leadership fighting for far-reaching demands that promise to transform the lives of working people, workers' collective strength can be mobilized to overcome almost any obstacle.
Once again, where struggles emerge, workers will feel their collective strength. If today's unions, potentially far more powerful than the labor movement of 1934, were to launch a bold struggle to organize the unorganized, to fight for a living wage for all and national healthcare, these "impossible" demands could be achieved.
Like in 1934, even a few local victories can show the way forward. To quote Farrell Dobbs: "The tinder of discontent begins to pile up. Any spark can light it, and once lit, the fire can spread rapidly.”