This week, local labor activists have organized a series of events to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters’ strikes. These strikes changed the course of history and the lives of tens of thousands of working people. They transformed Minneapolis from one of the country’s most notorious anti-union citadels into a “union town.” The story of this transformation resonates with the challenges faced by working women and men in 2014.
In the late 19th century a vibrant and diverse labor movement surged in Minneapolis. Its native-born and immigrant members encompassed flour millers and barrel makers, railroad engineers, firemen, brakemen, and track workers, garment workers and laundresses, horse and wagon drivers, building trades craftsmen, skilled machinists and shop workers. They were affiliated with the Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor, the railroad brotherhoods, the Teamsters, and the American Railway Union. They participated in the Great Northern Railroad and Pullman strikes of 1894 and the organization of producers’ cooperatives. In the early 20th century, many of them took part in the creation of the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party, and they challenged some of the biggest businessmen in the United States, including James J. Hill, Andrew Carnegie, and Charles Pillsbury.
But bankers, businessmen, and their political representatives launched a powerful counter-offensive to regain control of their workplaces and their city. The core of their strategy to eliminate unions was a double-blacklist (a refusal to hire union members and a refusal to extend loans to employers who bargained with unions). They created a new organization with a slippery rhetorical name – the “Citizens’ Alliance” – not only to implement their strategy but also to spin it as a defense of individual independence. Their effectiveness won them the accolades of the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Civic Federation, Chambers of Commerce, and employers’ organizations across the country. Minneapolis became an icon of non-unionism.
The Citizens’ Alliance’s success was devastating not just for unions but also for working men and women. Over the course of the 1910s and 1920s, workers were disciplined, fired, and blacklisted at the whim of employers. Although productivity rose with the introduction of new modes of work organization and new technologies, wages lagged. Workers struggled to support their families, let alone find economic security. And when workers organized to challenge the Citizens’ Alliance, such as the election of Socialist trade unionist Thomas Van Lear to the mayoralty in 1917, the state provided resources, such as the Public Safety Commission, to limit and roll back their gains. The reign of the Citizens’ Alliance seemed untouchable, despite the establishment of the Farmer Labor Party in 1924, the crash of the national economy in 1929, the election of Floyd B. Olson as governor in 1930, and the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the presidency in 1932.
And then, in the winter of 1934, a small group of experienced, dedicated labor activists began to change the course of history. Several of them had been working in the city’s coal yards, earning miserable wages for handling and delivering the coal that Minneapolitans used to heat their homes, apartments, and businesses. Members of the seventy-five member Teamsters Local 574, they initiated a strike on February 7 which spread within three hours to 65 of the city’s 67 coal yards. They organized “inside” (warehouse and coal yards) and “outside” (drivers and helpers) workers together in an industrial strategy, and they ignored both the New Deal’s weak labor board system and the cautious advice of the Teamsters’ leadership. They relied on cruising pickets, who shut the entire industry in the midst of a cold snap. Two days later, the coal employers offered the union a settlement and the strike ended. An estimated 3,000 trucking and warehouse workers signed up to join Local 574.
In May, Local 574 called a larger strike, all across the city’s market district. Again, they linked inside and outside workers, ignored the weak mechanisms of the government labor board, and relied on cruising pickets. Activists had built an impressive infrastructure – a rented garage as a strike headquarters from which mobile pickets could be dispatched; a soup kitchen and an infirmary, fully staffed by volunteers, many from the newly organized women’s auxiliary; a “committee of 100,” mostly stewards from individual shops and warehouses, to make key decisions for the union; a committee of the unemployed, not only to prevent strike-breaking but also to advocate for those without jobs; a network of farmers to bring food for strikers and their families. They had also secured the support of other unions and the Central Labor Council. The strike, which lasted ten days, revolved around control of the streets. Despite police violence, the roving pickets were effective, and on May 25, employers offered an agreement, which the union accepted.
The ink had hardly dried on the agreement, however, when employers began to violate its terms. Over 700 complaints of discrimination were logged in June and early July. On July 17, Local 574 renewed its strike. This time, there were more than 10,000 participants, while 35,000 other workers engaged in a sympathy strike. The union mobilized its resources, adding a new weapon, a daily strike bulletin (the first ever in the U.S.) which they called The Organizer. Once again, control over the streets was central to the effectiveness of the strike and, once again, there was violence, even the deaths on both sides. 100,000 union members and sympathizers took part in a funeral procession for striker Henry Ness. The dispatch of the National Guard and the arrests and imprisonment of many union leaders could not bring the strike to an end. With pressure exerted by President Roosevelt and his emissaries, the Citizens’ Alliance finally yielded on August 21, and employers were ordered to hold union elections, almost all of which ended in victories for Local 574 and the negotiation of collective bargaining contracts. This broke the more than two decades’ reign of the Citizens’ Alliance.
Here begins the story of Minneapolis’ transformation into a “union town.” Some 10,000 truck drivers, helpers, warehouse workers, coal heavers, and other unskilled workers not only won substantial raises, but they also got seniority provisions and a grievance procedure, both of which held a promise of justice in the workplace itself. Their defeat of the Citizens’ Alliance and their success inspired other workers that they, too, could organize and improve their work lives, while their newly bargained wages and benefits pushed employers to raise their offers to their own workers. Rank-and-file teamsters’ participation in the strikes and their continuing participation in the life of the union gave them a new awareness of their class position, in contrast with employers and in solidarity with other workers. Their experiences also fueled their sense of their own capacity and power. They shared their new consciousness with their family members, their neighbors, and other workers. They also embodied it in expressions of solidarity, from support for the women workers in the Strutwear Knitting strike a year later to the building of an interstate network of trucking workers, from Fargo to Omaha. Workers’ activism in Minneapolis was becoming a rising tide which was lifting all boats, to use a later metaphor. Minneapolis had become a “union town.”
This situation persisted for, perhaps, half a century, for two generations. It was normal for workers throughout the local economy to earn a living wage, or more, to enjoy healthcare benefits, vacations, and pensions, to gain access to easier assignments as their seniority grew, to expect a safe workplace, and to be treated respectfully on the job. This was especially true in unionized workplaces, but non-union employers felt pressure to provide similar conditions. It was not a labor paradise; workers still worked hard and often felt they deserved a larger share of the wealth they created. But many were able to buy cars and homes, send their children to college, and expect to enjoy their retirement years.
This changed abruptly in the 1980s and 1990s. Employers closed plants and exported manufacturing jobs abroad. They reorganized work through out-sourcing and sub-contracting. They chipped away at benefits, then wages, then unionization itself. While legislatures and judges weakened workers rights to picket, employers threatened those who still dared to strike with permanent replacement. The unionized cohort of the working class no longer enjoyed economic security, their ability to improve their own conditions was greatly diminished, and, increasingly, their role as trendsetters for all workers faded. By the turn of the 21st century, Minneapolis could no longer be called a “union town.”
But workers’ situations have not simply deteriorated; they have changed. Immigrants play an increased role in the economy and are more vocal, visible, and significant in the labor movement. Similarly, public employees, white collar workers, retail, service, and fast food workers have come to the fore. Like the coal yard workers in 1934 and so many others, these workers want to be paid a living wage, to be treated with respect, and to look forward to an improved life. 2014 is a great time for them to look back at 1934, to learn how a wide range of workers changed the course of history, and to consider how they might change this course themselves. Minneapolis can be a “union town” again.
EVENTS (all are free and open to all)
Thursday, July 17, 6:30PM Panel discussion: “A Fresh Look at the Minneapolis Teamster Strikes After 80 Years.”
The panel will consist of prominent Canadian labor historian Bryan Palmer, author of the new book, Revolutionary Teamsters, and biographer of leading American Trotskyist James Cannon; well-known Minnesota historian Mary Wingerd, who wrote the introduction to a new edition of the classic study of the strikes, American City, by Charles R. Walker; historian William Millikan, author of Union Against Unions, the story of the virulently anti-union Citizens Alliance; and David Thorstad, an associate of V.R. (Ray) Dunne, a central leader of the strikes. This program, at the Minneapolis Central Library, is sponsored by the Friends of the Minneapolis Central Library and Haymarket Press, the publisher of Revolutionary Teamsters.
Friday, July 18, 6:00PM Screening of documentary films which convey key struggles from 1934. AFSCME Local 3800 has long hosted a monthly “Labor Movie Night,” but this time they have shifted their venue to the Bell Museum (10 Church Street S.E. on the University of Minnesota campus) and opened the doors to the wider community. There will be clips not only from the Minneapolis strikes, but also about the West Coast Longshore Workers, the Toledo Autolite workers, and the Southern Textile Workers. There will also be comments from Bryan Palmer and local labor lawyer and author (Reviving the Strike and Strike Back), Joe Burns.
Saturday, July 19, 3:00PM Parade organized by Teamsters Local 120, beginning near the Star Tribune printing plant at 800 N. 1st Street. All are welcome to take part.
Saturday, July 19, 4:00PM Street Festival: “One Day in July.”
Main stage at the corner of 7th Avenue North and 3rd Street North in the Warehouse District. There will be speakers, music, poetry, dance, and more, from 4:00PM to 10:00PM.
Sunday, July 20, Noon to 4:00PM Picnic “Honoring the Descendants” at Wabun Picnic Area in Minnehaha Park.
The event will feature brief speeches, a free picnic lunch, children’s games, and music by Larry Long, the Twin Cities Labor Chorus, and the Madison, Wisconsin, Solidarity Singalong.
For more information, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.