The labor review’s fifth decade: a struggle to protect hard-won rights


Taft-Hartley and Minneapolis Star and Tribune oppose labor rights.

In April 1947, the Minneapolis Labor Review marked the newspaper’s 40th anniversary just as Congress was about to amend the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 and impose severe limits on the rights and actions of labor unions. The legislation — known as the Taft-Hartley Act — would be vetoed by President Harry Truman, who dubbed it the “slave-labor bill.” But both houses of Congress over-rode Truman’s veto by June 1947 and Taft-Hartley became law.

“We look ahead to stormy times,” the Labor Review declared in its 40th anniversary editorial April 24, 1947. “It is evident that the United States has entered the fascist zone.”

The newspaper’s 40th anniversary edition ran 12 pages (as a full-sized broadsheet) and contained more than 400 ads, evidence of strong support from the city’s business community. (Normally, the then-weekly Labor Review ran four pages).

Even the Minneapolis Star and Tribune ran a congratulatory ad, despite ongoing criticism from the Labor Review and its editor, Robley D. Cramer.

Cramer, Labor Review editor since 1915, continued to express hopes that the Labor Review might become a daily newspaper. “The vision of the people is being blurred by the misrepresentations of the daily press,” he wrote.

Cramer regularly attacked the Cowles family, the owners of Minneapolis Star and Tribune, labeling them “carpet-baggers from Des Moines” who interfered in city and state politics.

“The daily press is practically as monopolized and controlled as if Hitler had won the war,” the Labor Review lamented March 4, 1948.

For the Labor Review, enactment of Taft-Hartley became “the betrayal of 1947.” Taft-Hartley outlawed many labor movement tactics, prohibiting jurisdictional strikes, sympathy strikes, and secondary boycotts. The bill allowed states to pass “right to work” laws outlawing union-only workplaces (closed shops). The bill also gave the President the power to break strikes.

Taft-Hartley passed because the 1946 elections had given Republicans control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1931. “This is the dictatorship that the Republican Party is attempting to nail down on organized Labor, hundreds of thousands of whose members fought to destroy Hitler and his dictatorship,” the Labor Review charged.

The Labor Review called the Republican majorities in the U.S. House and Senate “a lawless Congress” in passing the “Taft-Hartley Nazi slave act.” The newspaper noted that only one member of Minnesota’s Congressional delegation — northeastern Minnesota DFLer John Blatnik — voted to support Truman’s veto.

Labor on the rebound: 1948

Labor’s outrage at Taft-Hartley helped mobilize union members for the 1948 elections. Supported by Labor, Minneapolis mayor Hubert H. Humphrey ran for U.S. Senate, making repeal of Taft-Hartley a chief campaign issue.

The Labor Review reported Humphrey’s remarks at the Minnesota AFL’s September 1948 convention: “In this election… the American Labor movement is the target and you are on the firing line… This election is the most important of your life.”

Humphrey responded to red-baiting charges of his foes: “I believe in private property. I believe it is so good that everybody should have some of it, not a few all of it.”

“It is time somebody went to Congress who will raise his voice for the underprivileged and oppressed,” said Humphrey, who weeks earlier had electrified the nation with a civil rights speech at the Democratic National Convention.

“Enemies of labor would like to turn the calendars of industry back to the 30s when there was widespread unemployment, low wages, and long hours,” Humphrey warned later in the campaign.

The 1948 campaign also saw two key leaders of the Minneapolis Central Labor Union Council (CLUC) run for office. George P. Phillips, CLUC president, ran for Hennepin County Commissioner. Roy Weir, the CLUC’s financial secretary, ran for Third District U.S. Congress.

The November 1948 election results produced a “political earthquake,” the Labor Review reported. President Truman, the underdog, won re-election. The Democrats regained control of Congress.

Defeating Republican incumbents, DFL and Labor-endorsed Humphrey won election to the U.S. Senate and while DFL and Labor-endorsed Weir won election to the U.S. House.

“This sweeping political victory of the people… is a victory founded in the political work and drive of organized labor,” the Labor Review reported.

CLUC president Phillips, however, lost his race for Hennepin County Commissioner — his second try. (Phillips, a leader of IBEW Local B-160, was in his fourth term as CLUC president. A few months later, he resigned and moved to Texas).

The Labor Review saw the 1948 election results as a mandate for the repeal of Taft-Hartley. The new Democratic majority in Congress, however, couldn’t muster the votes because of the anti-union sentiments of its members from the southern states, whose support for the Democrats also was wavering because of the increasing divisions over civil rights. “Congress reactionaries are stabbing democracy in the heart by failing to repeal the Taft-Hartley Nazi slave act,” the Labor Review protested.

The election of Humphrey and Weir gave the Labor Review new friends in high places. The two regularly inserted Labor Review stories in the Congressional Record, duly noted in the Labor Review.

In 1954, Labor helped win the election of DFLer Orville Freeman as Minnesota’s first non-Republican governor since the defeat of Farmer-Labor governor Benson in 1938. After Freeman’s win, he received space in the Labor Review for a weekly column.

Preserving a legacy

In Freeman and in Humphrey, Labor Review editor Cramer saw echoes of his hero, Floyd B. Olson, Farmer-Labor governor who died in office in 1936. Through the 1950s, Cramer used the pages of the Labor Review to remind readers of Olson’s legacy. Olson’s photo and a tribute ran at least twice a year, in November to celebrate Olson’s birthday (November 13, 1891) and in August to mark the anniversary of his death (August 22, 1936).

Each year, the Labor Review also ran photos of people attending a memorial service for Olson at Highway 55 and Penn, where an Olson statue was erected in 1940 (see page 16). A 1953 photo shows a young Dave Roe participating in the memorial (In 1966, Roe became Minnesota AFL-CIO president).

In 1951, a fundraising effort began to erect an Olson statue on the Minnesota State Capitol grounds. A fundraising dinner September 29, 1951 featured U.S. Vice-President Alben W. Barkley. The other featured speakers included Cramer, representing the AFL, and Robert Hess, president of the Minnesota CIO Council. The Labor Review reported Cramer making the rounds of local union meetings to raise funds.

As the 1950s progressed, death claimed an older generation of long-time labor leaders and the Labor Review mourned their passing with accounts of their achievements and editorial tributes. The newspaper seemed intent on instilling in a new generation the lessons of past struggle and models of leadership.

Rollin F. (Bunny) Bunnell merited special treatment. Bunnell, who died in 1941, had been the longtime Labor Review business manager. His photo and a tribute ran each year — sometimes on the front page. “His death terminated a service of rare value to the trade union cause,” read the page one tribute July 28, 1955. “He lived to see the day come when… the trade union cause was well-established despite all powerful efforts to destroy it.”

The newspaper made a refrain of Floyd B. Olson’s admonition, inscribed on the arch above the stage of the Labor Temple named in his honor: “The Rights Which Labor Has Won, Labor Must Fight To Protect.”

Advocating peace in the Cold War

While the Labor Review honored the past, it continued to engage the issues of the day — at some risk during the height of the Cold War. Editor Cramer, long a peace advocate, spoke out forcefully about the perils of nuclear warfare. “There is but one real protection against the destructiveness and cruelty and barbarism of atomic warfare and that is universal peace and understanding,” he wrote December 28, 1950.

As the Korean war raged, he reminded readers of a contradiction: “While our boys fight and die for democracy abroad, the Taft-Hartley act enslaves workers at home.”

Maintaining rights for unions and for civil liberties, Cramer argued, should not be casualties of the Cold War.

In Cramer’s view, world peace would grow from the advance of social and economic justice in all nations. “It is a time for economic justice,” he wrote, “for it is on economic injustice that Communism feeds and grows.” In “Why the Dove is feared,” an editorial May 19, 1955, he wrote: “When Russia makes more persistent moves to democratize its government and the democracies make more persistent moves to democratize the power of wealth, there will be more confidence that what we hear from the high and mighty is not just the come on talk of word mongers but is really the sweet, soft voice of the dove of peace.”

A new era for Minneapolis

Moving into 1956, the pages of the Labor Review reported a new era for Minneapolis. A new public library in downtown Minneapolis was approved. Metropolitan Stadium began construction in Bloomington. A new concept in retail development — an enclosed shopping center called Southdale — also was under construction. Maps in the Labor Review showed the routes for a proposed system of four-lane divided highways bisecting and ringing the metropolitan area. (Cramer, writing August 30, 1945, long before had urged construction of a subway linking Minneapolis and St. Paul).