When I was a child, legendary Minnesota governor Floyd B. Olson was a familiar presence in family stories. I went to Floyd B. Olson Junior High School. My maternal grandfather once attended a Farmer Labor Club meeting with Olson at a neighboring house. It was held underground for fear of spies. My parents regularly pointed out Olson’s statue on Highway 55 at Penn Ave. My father, Vince Faue, spoke of Floyd B. Olson with the same respect and awe that he did Franklin Delano Roosevelt. While I knew much of this growing up, I did not hear Olson’s words on labor’s rights.
The rights which labor was won, labor must fight to protect.
— Floyd B. Olson
Instead, I often heard my Dad wax eloquent (as far as that went) on the subject of unionism in similar tones: “What Labor Has Fought to Win, Labor Must Fight to Keep.”
Those words came dressed up in a clean flannel shirt, as my father headed off to the monthly Saturday union meeting. They came as the moral to many of his stories, and he repeated them later when I was writing a book on labor history.
A union man
Like most of my father’s words, this particular slogan was carefully chosen to sum up his wisdom. My father was a veteran of World War II, a worker since the age of 8 or 10, a union man since he took a job with the Minneapolis school board, and a member of Local 63 of the Public School Employees union (now Local 63 of the Service Employees International Union).
My father identified his union as a central force in his life and made certain that his children knew how much they owed to the union.
Growing up, though, I didn’t know that my father’s words echoed Floyd B. Olson or that they saluted the wisdom of the hard-fought labor battles of the 1930s.
Despite the popular idea that strikes are fun, my father told me repeatedly that no one welcomes a strike. If they were sometimes necessary, he explained, they also brought hardship to working-class people. Walkouts threatened homes and families.
His wisdom was based on the fact that many people believed public employees were not supposed to strike. Yet, Dad honored the picket lines of other unions, as he must have when Minneapolis school teachers struck in 1948 and in 1970.
My Dad and his union brothers knew what labor solidarity meant, not just as sentiment but in real material benefits. Honoring other workers’ rights meant that your own had a better chance of being honored and protected. That was necessary when you yourself went on strike.
Local 63: Proud of their skills
In 1951, my Dad joined the members of Local 63 in a strike against the Minneapolis school board. At that time, my mother wasn’t working. They had little money on hand, due to a new house and mortgage. My Dad’s run-down car took patience and more than money to keep running. It was his only way to work in the early morning hours, and he couldn’t afford a new one. There was his son Jeff to provide for and another child on the way. When my father was asked to strike, however, he did. It was the only way he saw to fulfill his responsibilities as a worker, a union member, and — more important to him — as a father.
A small union, Public School Employees Local 63 formed in 1933, despite public opposition and a rational fear of being fired during the Great Depression. Its claim at the time was that “Janitors Carry School Houses on Their Backs.” Its members were proud of their skills and also of the care they gave not just to their buildings but to the students and teachers who worked there.
The janitor engineers were civil service employees who held boiler licenses, which required both training and continuing education to obtain. For the most part, however, because of their custodial duties, they were considered expendable. While the prejudice of the school board, and some taxpayers, rankled, the fact was that school janitors were underpaid, even by the standards of their occupation.
School Board: Would not bargain
By 1950, school board members anticipated labor trouble. In May of that year, business groups openly advocated cutting public expenditures by reducing public employee salaries. All the school unions sought increases in their pay, especially given wartime and postwar inflation; threatening to cut the salary scale only deepened their sense of urgency. The Superintendent of Schools, however, refused to negotiate.
As Charles Boyer wrote in the Labor Review, “the 1949 non-negotiating policy of the board of education, if continued, can lead only to strife and bickering. If continued it will be necessary to strike or threaten to strike whenever the wages and working conditions becomes the issue.”
In January of 1951, the situation had worsened. Bolstered by conservative opposition, neither Superintendent Putnam nor the school board would come to an agreement with the representatives of Local 63. A Labor Review article noted that, while the Republican school board tried to “prove its loyalty to the labor baiting and labor starving principles of this reactionary party,” it also threatened “the very foundations of industrial freedom” and provoked “bitterness and hostility.”
In the face of the school board’s refusal to consider their demands, the janitor engineers went out on strike. They remained on strike for over a month. When faced with the school board’s efforts to ban the strike, they picketed buildings, entering them only to ensure that the pipes didn’t break in the frigid Minnesota winter. Their care for the buildings was unrewarded. The school board attorney called them “insurrectos” and “gunmen” and compared them to a mob accompanied by violence.
The school janitors’ strike was not the first, nor the last public school strike that Minneapolis experienced. Only three years earlier, school teachers broke with precedent and went on strike for an increase. In the interim, the local school board fought political pressures on the one hand and public school employees on the other.
By January of 1951, it was clear that the school board in Minneapolis wanted to cut the ground from under the school employees. Rather than negotiate with unions, the superintendent of schools hoped to compel employees to sign individual contracts and avoid collective bargaining altogether. He sought to please the interest groups who wanted to not just to make the school system more cost-efficient but also to cut property taxes and the power of local unions.
State courts affirmed right to strike, but legislature then changed the law
With the help of lawyers John Goldie and Sam Sigal, the school janitors’ union won the right to go on strike in the Hennepin County District Court and defeated the Minneapolis School Board’s appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court. Justice John Weeks delivered the District Court’s opinion supporting the broad right of workers to strike in a decision reported January 25, 1951 in the Labor Review. The settlement was reported February 15, 1951, and its implications were debated for years.
For one thing, the actions of the school janitor engineers, and the success of their strike, prompted the Minnesota state legislature to pass a law banning strikes by public employees.
Minnesota was not the only state that enacted no-strike laws for public employees. Facing a wave of strikes in public education and transportation, states passed laws banning strikes by government workers.
The laws made strikes, for the small locals like my Dad’s, even more difficult to contemplate. While new laws in the 1960s once again encouraged the organization of public employees, their right to strike remains a central issue in every negotiation.
What occurs to me now, however, is what immeasurable bravery it takes to walk a picket line when money is owed, children have needs, and jobs are hard to come by. Yet my dad, and other janitor-engineers, struck the Minneapolis school board in the winter of 1951.
Classes came to a halt; the coal-burning furnaces had low-banked fires; the buildings were cold. Despite the odds, the janitor-engineers faced opponents that told the men and women that it was illegal for public employees to strike. And yet, they picketed and struck, for the same reasons other workers strike — for their families, for their dignity, and for justice. Labor had to fight to keep what it had fought to win.
The rights of public employees — janitor engineers, cafeteria workers, teachers and social workers, and even air traffic controllers — to join unions, negotiate contracts, bargain collectively, and to protest their working conditions and pay were and continue to be contested in local, state and federal arenas. Despite these challenges, however, public employee unions have become the leading force in fighting for, attaining, and protecting the rights of workers and their unions today. In that sense, they have kept the legacy of Floyd B. Olson, and of my father and his union brothers and sisters, a living one.
Elizabeth Faue is professor of history at Wayne State University in Detroit. A third-generation unionist, she is the author of two books — Community of Suffering and Struggle: Women, Men and the Labor Movement in Minneapolis, 1915-1945 and Writing the Wrongs: Eva Valesh and the Rise of Labor Journalism. She has been working on a family memoir, on which this article is partly based.