Three successive strikes by Minneapolis truck drivers in 1934 resulted in the defeat of the Citizens Alliance, the dominant employer organization that had broken nearly every major strike in the city since 1916. Their struggle reached such a peak of intensity, mobilization and street battles that it has been described as “virtual civil war.” The strikes also set the stage for the organization of over-the-road drivers throughout an 11-state area, transforming the Teamsters into a million-plus member union in a few years.
The strikes in Minneapolis were notable for their almost unequaled advance preparation, military tactics, and the degree to which they drew union, non-union, and unemployed workers alike into active participation in the struggle.
Veteran union militants Carl Skoglund and V. R. (Ray) Dunne, outlawed from the AFL Trades and Labor Assembly in Minneapolis in 1925 for their radicalism, were the central leaders.
Skoglund, a Swedish immigrant and former lumberjack, was a blacklisted railroad carman who had helped to organize Minneapolis railroad workers during a bitter nation-wide 1922 strike that lasted six months.
Forty-five year old Ray Dunne was a former Wobbly of Irish and Ojibwe ancestry who was working in a coal yard in late 1933 when organizing began to move forward rapidly.
In 1931, Skoglund obtained membership in Minneapolis Teamsters Local 574, a small general drivers’ local of about 150 members. The president, William Brown, was supportive of their perspective for organizing drivers, helpers, and inside workers into an industrial union formation that could break the hold of the Citizens Alliance.
By late 1933, working in Minneapolis coal yards, they had consolidated a volunteer organizing committee, including Grant and Miles Dunne (Ray Dunne’s brothers), Harry DeBoer, and Farrell Dobbs. Dobbs, DeBoer, Lou Miller and Shaun (Jack) Maloney became key leaders and organizers of the over-the-road drivers’ organizing campaign from 1935 to 1940 which followed up the 1934 strike victory.
Strike one: February 7, 1934 The coal yards On February 7, 1934, a strike was called in the coal yards, shutting down 65 of 67 yards in three hours. Under the leadership of Harry DeBoer, an innovative strike tactic was introduced for the first time — cruising picket squads patrolling the streets by automobile. Cold winter demand for coal brought a quick end to the strike two days later, resulting in a limited victory for the union. Local 574’s membership rose to 3,000 by April, as the organization drive continued.
Strike two: May 15, 1934 The general drivers In preparation for a general drivers’ strike, Local 574 got agreement for active support from Minneapolis unemployed organizations and the Farm Holiday Association, allied with the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party. On May 15, Local 574, now 6,000 members strong, voted to strike all trucking employers, demanding union recognition, the right to represent inside workers, and wage increases.
The union deployed cruising picket squads from strike headquarters, a big garage where they also installed a hospital and commissary. A strike committee of 100 was elected, with broad representation from struck firms. A women’s auxiliary was established at the suggestion of Carl Skoglund.
Monday, May 21, a major battle between strikers and police and special deputies took place in the central market area. At a crucial point, 600 pickets, concealed the previous evening in nearby AFL headquarters, emerged and routed the police and deputies in hand-to-hand combat. More than 30 cops went to the hospital. No pickets were arrested.
Tuesday, May 22, the battle began again. About 20,000 strikers, sympathizers, and spectators assembled in the central market area, and a local radio station broadcast live from the site. Again, no trucks were moved. Two special deputies were killed, including C. Arthur Lyman, a leader of the Citizens Alliance. No pickets were arrested.
On May 25, a settlement was reached that met the union’s major objectives, including representation of inside workers.
Strike three: July 16, 1934 Police open fire In the following weeks, the employers failed to honor the agreement. More than 700 cases of discrimination were recorded between May and July. Another strike was called July 16. The union’s newspaper, The Organizer, became the first daily ever published by a striking union.
Trucking was again effectively closed down until Friday, July 20, when police armed with shotguns loaded with deer slugs opened fire at point-blank range on unarmed pickets at the corner of 3rd Street and 6th Avenue North in the Minneapolis warehouse district. Sixty-seven workers were shot. Two died, John Belor and Henry Ness. Harry DeBoer and Jack Maloney were hit by Thompson submachine gun fire, but survived.
Minneapolis Labor Review: 100,000 attend funeral for slain striker The Minneapolis Labor Review reported attendance of 100,000 at Ness’s funeral July 24. Next, the Labor Review wrote, “more than 20,000 marchers stood with bared heads along the streets as the thousands of automobiles passed on the way to Crystal Lake Cemetery.” A public commission, set up later by the governor, reported: “Police took direct aim at the pickets and fired to kill. Physical safety of the police was at no time endangered. No weapons were in possession of the pickets.” National Guard mobilized On July 26, Farmer-Labor governor Floyd B. Olson declared martial law and mobilized 4,000 National Guardsmen, who began issuing operating permits to truck drivers. On August 1, National Guard troops seized strike headquarters and placed arrested union leaders in a stockade at the state fairgrounds in St. Paul.
The next day, the headquarters were restored to the union and the leaders released from the stockade, as the National Guard carried out a token raid on the Citizens Alliance headquarters.
The union appealed to the Central Labor Union Council for a general strike and the governor issued an ultimatum that he would stop all trucks by midnight, August 5, if there was no settlement.
Nevertheless, by August 14 there were thousands of trucks operating under military permits. Although the strike was gravely weakened by martial law and economic pressure, union leaders made it clear that the strike would continue until the trucking employers agreed to recognize the union and negotiate a fair contract.
Federal mediators help settle strike: Truck drivers triumph On August 21, federal mediators won acceptance of their settlement proposal from A. W. Strong, head of the Citizens Alliance. The proposal incorporated the union’s major demands. The settlement was ratified by workers at 166 trucking firms. The back of employer resistance to unionization in Minneapolis was broken.
In March 1935 International president Daniel Tobin expelled Local 574 from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT). However, in August 1936 Tobin was forced to relent and re-charter the local as 544. The leaders of 544 went on to develop the area and conference bargaining that exists today in the IBT.
Local 544 remained under socialist leadership until 1941, when 18 leaders of the union and the Socialist Workers Party were sentenced to federal prison, the first victims of the anti-radical Smith Act, a law eventually found by the United States Supreme Court to be unconstitutional.
In 1998, Local 544 and St. Paul Local 120 merged into a Twin Cities-wide general drivers local under the name of Teamsters Local 120.
St. Paul resident Dave Riehle is a locomotive engineer and former local chairman of United Transportation Union Local 650. Riehle writes and speaks frequently on local labor history and leads labor history tours.
Story above reprinted from the Labor Review, May 24, 2007 .
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