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Minneapolis, 1934: When Socialists Led A General Strike Of Teamsters

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2024 may go down in history as a turning point for the labor movement in America. There are seismic shifts taking place deep within the working class. During the pandemic, tens of millions of workers rethought their work lives, and quit their jobs for something better. Unions are clawing back from decades of retreat. In 2023, there were 384 strikes involving a half a million workers. Many of these strikes delivered the best contracts in decades, and in some cases, workers dared fight for even more.

The US working class still has a long way to go. The titanic battles of the 1930’s shaped the modern labor movement. In 1933, barely two million workers were organized into unions. By 1949, 25 million workers were union members, and things like “labor law” existed for the first time. 

While strikes are on the rise, we have not yet seen a decisive change in the balance of class power between workers and billionaires. This is why 1934 matters, when three numerically small strikes in Minneapolis, Toledo, and San Francisco showed workers that they could fight back, and taught them how to fight effectively. Of these, the socialist-led strike of Minneapolis delivery drivers and warehouse workers stands out as an exemplary display of conscious class power, and should be studied by any serious revolutionary worker today.

In the beginning of the Great Depression, the labor movement was actually in decline. In June and July 1930, 60 corporations and industries announced wage cuts. The conservative leadership of the AFL did nothing.  The AFL as a whole was losing 7,000 members a week in 1931. By 1933, it was half the size it was in 1920.

Conservative labor leaders refused to fight. The old labor leaders were wedded to craft unionism, the idea that the power of a worker comes from their knowledge and skill over production. They viewed unskilled workers as a threat to their position, nevermind unemployed workers. They failed to recognize that capitalism is constantly looking for ways to deskill and disempower workers, so they can pay less in wages. 

The socialists in Minneapolis had already embraced the ideas of industrial unionism, and were making systematic preparations to unionize coal delivery drivers in Minneapolis. Shoveling and delivering coal was not a skilled job, but it was essential to the economy. For an individual worker to win anything, it would be necessary to mobilize the power of the whole working class behind the strike. The socialists took a systematic approach to building links to the unemployed workers, anti-eviction struggles, and welfare protests. They used their base in the Teamster local to force the local labor council to pass a solidarity resolution in the event of a strike. The local labor leaders in turn were assured by the conservative national Teamster bureaucracy that the socialist revolutionaries would be expelled before any strike actually happened.

The revolutionary backbone of the 1934 Teamster strike was a small group of socialists who were seasoned organizers that were united by a shared set of ideas. They were first united together by their support for the 1917 Russian Revolution, and later were expelled for opposing Stalin. They had worked together for decades by the time they recruited Farrell Dobbs a year before the strike, whose book Teamster Rebellion is a must-read on the historic strike.

Teamster Rebellion(s)

There were actually multiple Teamster strikes in Minneapolis in 1934. The first one was timed during a frigid cold front in February. In a tactic that is still used against essential workers today, the corporate media screamed about the welfare of families in a cynical attempt to win public opinion in favor of the bosses. The Minneapolis Teamsters responded by continuing coal deliveries to working class neighborhoods and small businesses, and dumping scab coal with the unemployment societies to manage distribution. The strike was over in two days. The bosses gave them modest wage gains but refused to recognize the Teamster union local 574.

Then there was the July strike, where history was made. They used the time after the February strike to widen support for the union struggle among workers who were ready to fight. This strike over the summer was much larger. It culminated in a physical test of force, where strikers, unemployed workers, and the wives and partners of workers challenged armed police. Many were hurt and some were killed before the union was eventually won. However, July would not have been possible without the small victory in February, and the small victory in February did not automatically lead to July. What connected these events were the militant leaders of the strike who linked every small victory to the need to constantly raise the confidence and organizational power of the working class, and ultimately the need for a socialist world. 

The Relationship Between Socialists & The Wider Union

While a lead was given to this strike by socialists, its backbone was a wider layer of radicalized workers who led the strike to victory. Knowing that the bosses would eventually turn to the police for help, and recognizing that even progressive politicians like Governor Olsen were not prepared to break with capitalism, the strike leaders understood the union would need to function even in the event of their arrest. Workers elected a hundred-person strike committee which was the final authority on all questions facing the July strike. These workers came up with ingenious ideas like the “flying pickets” that systematically chased down and disabled scab trucks. 

The socialist leaders of the strike channeled the fighting spirit and ingenuity of the workers into a focused force that could win. The school where this happened was the strike headquarters, an old mechanic’s shop which the union had purchased in advance. It was stocked with food and provisions so strikers could stay on the pickets. It had a telephone system where working class people could report scab trucks, and flying pickets could be deployed, and a makeshift hospital staffed with sympathetic doctors, nurses, and university students. 

Strike leaders also organized a Women’s Auxiliary. Many historians mistakenly frame the Women’s Auxiliary in terms of finding useful roles for women in a majority male workforce, but this is not how its leaders, who were lifelong socialists themselves, saw their role in the strike. The Women’s Auxiliary played a crucial role in helping to mobilize the whole working class into the struggle, and was part of a strategy to focus the broad class anger that existed among unemployed workers and the wider labor movement, also drawing support from small business people, into the city-wide general strike that actually led to victory.

The General Strike

The bosses want total control over the workplace, which is why they oppose unions so much. When workers stop working, the boss can’t make profits off their labor. So any strike quickly becomes a test of power. 

As the socialist-led Teamster strike used solidarity to mobilize the entire weight of the working class into the struggle, the bosses’ Citizens Alliance came to life. From strike headquarters, the workers fought with organization, discipline and clubs. Ten blocks away, at the Minneapolis Club – which still hosts Chamber of Commerce meetings – the bosses mobilized cops, the courts, deputized frat boys, and politicians to break the strike.

There were numerous skirmishes and a few outright battles. On Bloody Friday, the cops set an ambush. Cops armed with shotguns hid inside a scab truck while others stood watch, and reported it to strike headquarters. When the flying pickets arrived to stop the scab truck, the cops opened fire, killing three strikers on the corner of 701 N. Third St. 

This provoked mass outrage among working class people in Minneapolis, culminating in a city-wide general strike. The preparatory work of building solidarity paid off, and even the conservative union leaders were forced to support the action (even though they opposed the socialist-led strike).

The bosses failed to break the mass transportation strike that paralyzed the city. Eventually President Roosevelt intervened to reopen business in Minneapolis. He turned to Minnesota’s independent Farm-Labor Governor Floyd B. Olsen to intervene. Olsen was a capitalist politician who attempted to present himself as a friend of labor. By siding with business and calling in the National Guard to block the effective picketing by striking Teamsters, Olsen lost his authority among the working class. He went as far as ordering the national guard to raid the strike headquarters and arrest the key leaders. 

In the end the power of the strike and the broad support among the working class of Minneapolis prevailed. Teamsters across the city won recognition, they won their key economic demands with higher wages, and they won union representation on the job. This was only possible because of the powerful rank-and-file committees that had carefully been built prior to the strike, ensuring that the workers themselves were in direct control of all aspects of their strike. 

The socialist-led Minneapolis Teamster strike was a model for how strikes focus the energy of the whole working class at the point of attack. More importantly, it opened the door to the unionization of millions of “unskilled” workers that were abandoned by conservative labor leaders. Two other general strikes in 1934 paved the way for millions of workers to join the CIO over the next three years. The Toledo Auto-lite Strike was led by a former pastor active in unemployment organizing, and the San Francisco Waterfront General Strike was led by a member of the Communist Party. These three strikes spearheaded the larger labor struggles in auto-manufacturing, steelmaking, textiles, and mining that took place in the 1930s, and are essential for workers to learn about today as the labor movement is once again on the rise.

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